15 June, 2006

Father's Day: Disciplining children

OK. This post is opinion-based advice. I wrote it yesterday, but did not hit "Post" until today. There is no science, no scripture, and no rigorous double blind trial to back it up. If it is of some benefit to the reader I'm tickled, but I offer no guarantees of any nature, nor condemnation for those who disagree. I can certify that I am still happy with the way my kids turned out, even after one turned from the Lord immediately following the divorce, and the other has not truly turned toward Him. They are great kids to be around. So, this seems to have worked for me.


I sat in a restaurant the other day, with my whole divorced family, and one other family who are friends of my ex. The other family were sweethearts, and being a young couple, they had a 4 year old child. The young man was precocious and charming, and at age 4, quite capable. He had gigantic brown eyes, a cherub's face, and an inquisitive nature. He was a natural delight to be around.

The parents were both quite pleasant as well. I enjoy them both, and enjoyed them that day. When we left the restaurant, though, that little boy was the subject of conversation for a minute between my son and I. I turned our chat quickly to the parents. The boy was fine, but the parents were in need of some verbal kaopectate. Here was the restaurant conversation. We all recognize it:

Quit banging the table. Don't spin your chair like that, it bangs the table. The chair is bothering everyone, son, so don't swing like that. Let's get a chair that doesn't spin. There, isn't that better? You're doing so good! No, you won't like your father's margarita. No, you won't like it. Just put your finger in and see whether you like it. Don't you put your fingers in my drink! Here try it. Don't let him try it! Take a sip. See you don't like it do you. Quick, get your sippy cup and get a drink. Food will be here in a minute. Yes, I know you're hungry. Food will be here in a minute. Take a bite of your hamburger. Let me cut it up. Let me put on ketchup. Take a bite. Yes, it's just how you like it. Yes, you can eat a french fry. Don't just suck the ketchup with your finger. You have to eat the french fries too. There's ketchup on your hamburger. Don't you want your hamburger? If you don't eat your dinner, you won't get any cake. If you don't eat your french fries you won't get any cake. If you don't eat a french fry, you won't get any cake. Yes, that french fry will be enough. You did so good! You ate your french fry. You get to have some cake! ....

I will let you insert the mental pictures and tones as appropriate.

That doesn't bother me. Really. It's been years since I have heard the sounds of children, and I enjoyed watching the show. Sure, I tired of it by the beginning of the second hour, but I tire of watching tennis sometimes too. It's their kid, and their business. If it were my kid I would be a shame laden mess, but it wasn't. All three of them were sweet natured and fun. (I did get anxious when the poor little boy began running laps around the 12 tables closest to us. It was not fair of them to force the other patrons of the restaurant to appreciate their little darling. I made sure we left a 40% tip.)

Some young parents don't want their kids to act like that. If I am ever asked I will give this answer, so I am going to practice it first here in blogland.

The cure is simple, and all you need to remember is one statement.

Don't work to make your children to obey you. Work to make them pay attention to you.

If they are paying true attention to you, the rest will take care of itself. By concentrating on obedience, we make the wrong things our focus.

1) You pay attention to people who surprise you. So will your children.
If they know everything you are going to do and say, they don't really pay attention to you. They are just marking you to make sure you are staying close to expected behavior. Everything this boy's parents said did go in one ear, but it was not really relevant to his desires, so it went right out the other. Instead, he obsessed with his boredom. I think he was really hungry, but he even forgot to eat. Nothing they said or did surprised him, so he just kept playing his self-destructive game.

2) You pay attention to people who say things that matter. So will your children.
I do not advocate punishment, per se. I advocate the natural consequences of decisions. "Oh, if you are not feeling well enough to finish your dinner, then you must need some extra rest. Are you sure you cannot finish dinner? Yes? OK. I will save it for your breakfast, and you can go to bed now. What? You changed your mind? Hmmm. No, you said you were sure. Let's go brush your teeth, and I'll read you a bedtime story." Done this way, Daddy does not have to get angry, so it's a lightweight event that the child will remember for a long, long time. It's a natural consequence of the child's own decision. The cool thing is that I don't need to lecture anyone about how important it is to finish dinner. And I probably won't have to send the child to bed a second time (but if I do it's hardly unpleasant.)

(BTW: The natural consequence of some behaviors is spanking, but those behaviors are rebellious, not simply selfish. Spanking happened, but not terribly often.)

3) You need to have a chance at success. So do your children.
Give them a fair chance! The little buggers still cannot tie their shoes. Acting right in public is much harder for them than tying shoes. Don't ask them to succeed in public situations without real training. Setting the child, and yourself, up for failure is not wise and not profitable.

So, how do you surprise your child, say things that matter to him, and give him a chance to succeed?

Script the training of hard lessons.

It probably won't be too hard to train this precocious little cherub with the bad eating habits. It might be a little more difficult to train the parents. This boy has been taught a lot of unprofitable lessons already, and it's the parents who have been doing the teaching. That's OK. We can overcome that. They can script a situation in which he will succeed, and another in which he will fail.

Our restaurant example is straightforward. The real-world effect of unruly behavior is that wonderful conversations are interrupted, and dinner is not enjoyable. The consequence for causing these bad things should be along the same lines.

First, script a situation in which the child will succeed. Cook his favorite dinner at home, make sure the TV and other distractions are off, and that it's just the three of them at home. Give him a small portion of dinner, and explain that this is a "talking dinner", but that everyone has to take turns. Talk about things that interest him. If he makes it through dinner, then it's time for a talking dessert. If he succeeds at that, then some praise is in order. Overly much praise is a bad thing if they want polite dinners to be a normal thing. They should definitely point out that they saw him succeed, and that they are happy for him, but not gush about it.

Should he fail, then the parents did not set up a careful enough first experience. But, that's OK. The consequence is simple. No more talking. No more favorite dinner. No dessert. The scenario was set up at home, so there's no pressure from the public gaze to worry about. He doesn't have to go to bed, or be in trouble. He simply must excuse himself from the table, and find something else to do.

This will come as a very unpleasant surprise to this child. This has never happened to him before. If there is a lot of talking and explaining before or after the event, then all the work is wasted. The point here is not about eating dinner politely, nor to explain a deep lesson about public meal-sharing to the child. The point is to unsettle him. The point is to show - not tell - that a single instruction given once matters and cannot be ignored.

Most of the time, when a child fails the parents want to pretend that he is "about to fail", and try to coach him through it. This is a mistake. Coach a tiny bit ahead of time, then let the child perform and experience the consequences of his performance. Should he succeed, acknowledge that success. Should he fail, do not lecture. Just quietly, happily enforce the consequences of his decision. Try again tomorrow, and briefly coach again if necessary.

When he has proven that he can succeed, then they must give him the opportunity to fail. The parents should invite some friends over. Talk about things that interest them, and not him. Make the food a little less exciting. He will fail, and they should remind him that he knows how to do this, because he did it the last time and correct him.

If the parents succeed at giving clear instructions, not repeating them, and allowing consequences to happen kindly but immediately, they will notice something truly gratifying. Their child is paying attention to them. The point is not to be harsh or strict, but to say things that matter and to be a little bit surprising. The child will pay attention, or risk missing important matters.

It's easy to be overwhelmed by parenting. It's easy to be pushed beyond our capabilities. It helps, once in a while, to take control of the situation and to work to a known objective, to act instead of react. Have fun!


Milly said...

Good read sir.

I was in a Hideaway Pizza with two high school friends. I am the only one of us that had children, they married and decided not to have them. One doesn’t actually care for them and the other felt her husband needs to grow up first. My daughter was about the age of four. She was so tolerant of the three of us reminiscing about old times, we were there for several hours. She did get up and move around, I made sure she stayed by us. I cleaned up after her and wasn’t going to allow her to trash the place. The manager gave me a thank you for taking care of my child in such a nice way and talked about how good she was. He also gave us a discount.

I hate spanking children I can honestly say I haven’t swatted my daughter this month. It’s much easier and better to try to resolve the issue calmly with words.

I think as parents we anxious in public we think that everyone is judging us. We’re just thinking thank God that ones not mine. . . Or been there done that.

Nicole said...

Thank you for your insights! You said: Should he succeed, acknowledge that success. Should he fail, do not lecture. Just quietly, happily enforce the consequences of his decision. I think it all boils down to that right there, whatever the circumstances are. Your post has already helped me to tweak some of my thinking towards our three year-old. Thanks! This was a missing piece of the puzzle for me. :)

codepoke said...

Thanks, Milly and Nicole.

I am relieved to hear that this was a good read, and a little helpful. I was oddly nervous about posting it. It's a little more personal than I'm used to writing. Parenting is one of the most intimate things we ever do in life.

Lord bless us all!

(And anyone with comforting words to a man struggling with a pair of late teens is welcome to add to this discussion any way possible!)

Milly said...

Hey! I’m looking to you for advice.

My son came home from the mission trip with a half an octave lower voice. He has been more respectful. He also said that he knows he’s privileged. I hope that lasts.

As for your teens, I hope they aren’t like I was. I had no curfew. I came home many mornings to hear dad's alarm going off. Prayers :-} lots of prayers

codepoke said...

I came home many mornings to hear dad's alarm going off.

So did I, but I was always out in the woods alone - no alcohol or anything. A puritan has a really hard time getting in trouble. :-)

Milly said...

We drank and my parents knew it. My mom would say if you make a mess you have to clean it up. We had lots of places to toss up living in the woods. My brother stashed alcohol as he drove back to our house, my uncle picked it up the next morning. He should have just put it on the table. My parents would have scolded him and dumped it.

Andreia said...

I liked this post.

I agree with Milly that sometimes parents feel the heat of others watching and perform poorly. I used to feel that pressure and when I did,it was guaranteed that nothing I did would work. Now, with four, Ive thrown it all to the wind and life is easier : )

Seriously, your point is well made. The hard part of parenting is taking it for exactly what it is: training. And training takes unmeasurable amounts of time and attention. I see many unexperienced parents that expect immediate obedience out of children.

They will readily admit it takes years to become a Lance Armstrong or to craft the skill of a Yo Yo Ma, but they dont realize that it takes time to train a child. When asked by my younger mom friends, I always recommend that they read some operant conditioning books that I read in college. (Its not too popular a thought)

I like your ideas on getting the child to pay attention. Simple things like crouching down so you can see a toddler eye-level is a huge trick that works.

I also find that there is nothing like an outsider to change the mood of a disruptive child. I make it a habit to look for moms having a tough time in public. I usually have crayons or toys or even the cure-all du jour candy (hush now, it works!) hidden in my purse and with permission of mom will try to help. I spent a recent flight to LA walking someone else's baby.

I hope it doesn't sound self-congratulatory. I am mentioning it only to remind that we can all help loosen the burden in little moments like these. I will never forget being particularly overwhelmed one day and having a woman lift it for me. She looked like an angel with her white hair.

Anyway, thanks for posting this. I like the personal!

Milly said...

You're right we should help each other. I have a friend at church who feels very overwhelmed at times as a young mother with a job. When she walks in with her children she can relax everyone takes over. My daughter and I loved distracting a child on a flight. It was so cool the parents had just picked her up, they had faced a long trip home and everyone was exhausted. The new mom wasn’t sure how to handle a toddler. She was ready to boil the plane. I was glad she didn’t see her eating the lost snack off the floor. Her husband was relieved that she hadn’t seen it also.

It takes a village to raise a child.
An African proverb

Andreia said...

Get ready Milly.
You are likely to be flamed for that one.

Milly said...

I ain't afraid! Read my site.

I hope you meant the it takes a Village part and it so does. Hillary was right in repeating the quote. Then again you and I are of some of the same views on women and family.

codepoke said...

Thanks Andreia,

And very cool that you step in and help needy, young mothers. We all need a little bit of that! (You're sure right about the "personal" though. When I started writing this, I had no idea how tough it would be!)

As for the Village quote, I will jump on that too. I lived in intentional community until my kids were 10, and it was wonderful. Having 10 parents was a very, very cool thing for all the kids.

Andreia said...

Im dying to know what it was like living in "intentional community."
I mean how did the day-to-day operate? Ooops, Im sorry for being nosy.

codepoke said...

I was there for 10 years. The first year was glorious. The second was great. The next 6 were really, really hard but good. The last two were awful.

In that first year, nobody ever ate alone. You carried your dinner over to someone else's house if that was what it took. It was just too fun to be with each other. There were always babies around to be played with or ignored. We only had one TV between us, so we would borrow the TV and VCR from whoever had it that night. There was a shortage of wives ... no, just kidding about that one.

In year 3 we had settled back quite a bit. We argued about tithing that year, so there was a lot of tension. In every house you knew what everyone was thinking. There were toddlers then, and more babies. We were at each others' homes a lot less often, but the single brothers were almost always around to come share a meal with anyone who would offer. I was lucky, in that my wife loved cooking for them. It was a lot of fun having them over two and three times a week.

We tried to meet every day at 6:00 am that year for silent prayer. Those meetings dwindled from 15 people (out of 25 or so) to 10 then 5 then finally just 3. I always went, but I slept a LOT during them. Then came the exhortations to really do what we had come together to do. Things went back up to 10 then 5 again, then back to 3.

We met probably 3 times a week. There was song practice, then a random meeting and usually a Saturday night meeting. Probably every 3 months we had a big meeting in which everyone shared something they had harvested from the Lord over that quarter. They were planned in a big way.

Every Saturday morning we had brothers' meetings where all the decisions were made. The sisters were not allowed in those, but they had the right to veto anything we decided. The guy that started our church (he did not live with us nor attend our meetings) claimed to be egalitarian, but he had a funny way of showing it. Sister were DEFINITELY a big part of every meeting, though. They taught as much as anyone.

Mostly, it was "always on". It was draining for everyone. We never really did work that problem out. Eventually more problems crept in than we could cure.

I bailed when leader seemed to me to have gone too far in matters of practical life and church practice. It was a very, very hard ride. I loved it, but it was ultra hard on my wife. I don't think it had to be, but the way we did it it sure was. It was a major contributing factor in our divorce.

I know that's kind of a small taste. I hope it's enough. :-)

Milly said...

I typed it in on the net and found several. It looks almost like a commune only yuppy style.

As I was reading your explanation I thought “I’d be so tired of people” I like people and love visiting. I think I’d be very tired. If I lived in that situation I might get talked about a bit “ sure she has a migraine. . . again”

Several members of my family live very close to each other. We Sold our lot, yes too much family. I do think that it's cool that they take care of each other

Andreia said...

Wow! Wow! Just shut me off if my questions are too personal.

More, more. I wanna know more. Did you share finances as well as wives? (hee-hee) Did you have an evangelistic function or were you more self-contained? What decisions did the brothers make? Were they just spiritual or did they include day to day stuff?

AHH...you gotta blog about this.

Milly said...

ellen posted something mentioning polygamy. Could you see you and I with Codepoke? That’s most likely going to give him nightmares for a very long time. He’d have to find a good place to hide, somewhere dark and quiet. Hey can you cook well? The cool part is you would be able to send someone to the store and actually get what you want. Pimentos not olives with pimentos. Can I be the stay at home mom. I’ll watch the kids while you go to school. {{{{Codepoke is now shaking}}}

Andreia said...

You are such a troublemaker! The only way Im a polygamist is if Codepoke has a stash of billions like his buddy Bill Gates. Then, Im in!

Andreia said...

You are such a troublemaker! The only way I become a polygamist is if Codepoke has a stash of billions like his buddy Bill Gates. Then, Im in!

Milly said...

The money goes without saying. I was just laughing at the thought of him playing tennis all night to avoid women in the house. Trouble maker or someone who shakes up life? That’s right I’d poke the elephant on his way to the rainbow. ;-}

codepoke said...

Alright, alright, I know I started that, but my heart cannot take too much of it. :-) My sense of humor - or what passes for it with me - is now stuffed safely back under its heavy rock.

Did you share finances as well as .... [Humor expunged :-D]

No. We shared very, very little except time and the Lord. We helped each other when the opportunity arose, but we were separate families living near to each other.

Did you have an evangelistic function or were you more self-contained?
We failed at a LOT of things. One of those things was that we were awfully self-centered. We tried to reach out to people across the world who agreed with us, but to very few others.

What decisions did the brothers make? Were they just spiritual or did they include day to day stuff?
Day-to-day spiritual stuff, but we did not make decisions about each others' lives. That was always off-limits.

AHH...you gotta blog about this.
I would if I still agreed with it. I will happily talk about it like this, but I really have moved past it. Since I don't agree any more, I don't think it's fair to attack it now. I have to respect the people who are still living that life.

One of these days, I will get back to talking a little more practically about the things I dream about. I've got to get back to my leadership series at some point, though. It's just been a crazy week.

Andreia said...

Okay I promise to quit asking questions. I was born with a crazy curiosity and the anonymity of this forum makes it so easy to ask things that I might not in public. Thanks for sharing though!

Milly said...

Milly promises to TRY to be a good girl. :-}

codepoke said...


There's really no such thing as too many, or too personal questions with me. I adore it when people are hungry to know - and when it's about me, well come on!

codepoke said...


Don't think of it as being good, but as being sensitive to your weaker brother. ;-)

Milly said...

Sorry to frighten you. ;-}
Really pimentos. What would you have brought home?

Silly Milly

codepoke said...

I don't know what I would have brought home. I made my wife pretty livid with some of my little mistakes, distractions, and outright ignorances.

Milly said...

I just laughed. I can't find stuff he sends me to the store for at times. Honestly do we need 20 different kinds of calk? Then again I have about 20 or so tubes of lipstick. {They come with purchase I’m not completely crazy}