Authoritative Discipline in Five Easy Steps

Four-year old Noah wants the teddy bear that his sister Lauren is playing with.   He asks her, “Can I have the Teddy?”  When Lauren says, “I’m not done yet!” Noah grabs the bear from his sister.   Lauren begins to cry.

Eight-year-old Elizabeth is done playing with her trains.  She leaves her trains in the living room and goes into the kitchen for a snack.  Her mother asks her to pick up her toys and put them away.  Elizabeth says, “In a minute!   I’m hungry”.   Twenty minutes later, Elizabeth’s mom finds the toys right where Elizabeth left them: in the middle of the living room.

Eleven year-old Sadie won’t do her math homework.    When asked whether she has any math homework, she denies it.   “Ms. Denny didn’t give us any today.”   “I did my homework in school.”   “We didn’t have math today.”  But when you check her backpack, you find her math homework.   And so, in addition to not doing her homework, Sadie is lying.

These are everyday problems that most parents face at one time or another.   Quite frankly, how we respond to any single problem on any single day is not going to make or break a child’s development.   All parents are going to lose their temper from time to time.  All parents are going to “give in” to their children’s unreasonable requests at one time or another.   Don’t beat yourself up for that!  Instead, realize that it is the way we respond to children over time that matters – it’s the pattern that counts.

Authoritative have high expectations for the children while simultaneously being sensitive and responsive to their children’s interests and needs.   How does this translate into effective discipline?  Most of the time, everyday misbehaviors can be handled in five easy step.  These steps are described and illustrated in the figure that accompanies this article.

Step 1.  Identify (and stop) the unwanted behavior.  This is the obvious first step.  Identify the unwanted behavior and call the child’s attention to it.  It is not effective simply to tell the child to “stop”.  Although it may be very clear to you, it is often not clear to the child what the unwanted behavior is.  So, rather than simply, “Stop that”, say, “Don’t grab the teddy bear!  Give it back right now!”  “I see that you have not yet cleaned picked up the toys from the living room”.  “You said that you have no math homework, but here is the math homework that your teacher sent home.”

Step 2.  Acknowledge the child’s legitimate interests.   All people act on the basis of their interests.   Any person’s behavior is a way of advancing their interests – their goals, motives, desires, and so forth.  As long as our behavior works for us – it continues to advance our interests – we will continue to behave in the same way.  However, when our behavior stops working for us – when it no longer leads to its intended outcome – we will be motivated to change our behavior.

There are several reasons why it is important to identify and acknowledge the interests that motivate a child’s behavior.   First, if we want to modify children’s behavior, we have to identify the legitimate interests that motivate that behavior.  Then we can teach the child alternative and more appropriate ways of advancing his or her interests.   Most often, children’s behavior is motivated by interests that some degree of legitimacy.  For example, a child who grabs a teddy bear is motivated by the desire to play with the teddy bear.    In this example, there is nothing wrong with wanting the teddy bear; there is only something wrong with grabbing it as a way to obtain it!    The child who leaves her toys in the middle of the living room is motivated by a desire to avoid the displeasure of putting effort into picking up the toys.  That is certainly an understandable motive.   The child will have to learn to deal with her displeasure, we can certainly understand why she would not want to pick up her toys.  A child who avoids and lies about her math homework is, mostly likely, afraid of facing something important.  Perhaps she experiences the math as too difficult, is ashamed of her inability to perform, or is having difficulty with her math teacher.

The second reason why it is important to acknowledge the interests that motivate misbehavior has to do with its role in building the parent-child relationship.    We all want to be understood.   One of the most painful experiences we have is the feeling of not being heard and not being understood.   This is one of the reasons why children will give excuses for bad behavior – “yeah, but she wouldn’t give me the teddy bear!”  To acknowledge the child’s interests communicates that you understand the child’s (legitimate) interests, and that you are on the side of advancing his or her legitimate interests.   A child who learns that you care about his or her interests will learn to trust you.    A child who learns that you care about his or her interests will be motivated to listen to what you have to say.

Thus, after identifying the problem behavior, it is important for parents to acknowledge their child’s legitimate interests: “I know you want to play with the teddy bear…”; “It’s never pleasant to have to pick up after yourself…”; or “Sometimes, we encounter things that are really hard for us, and we try to avoid them…”.   But then, of course, there’s a “but…”

3.  State and explain the rule that the child violated.  The third step is to identify the rule that the child has violated, and to explain the reasons for the rule.   This is the point at which the parent gets to advance his or her interests, standards, values and rules.

This is a very important step.  Hundreds of studies on child development support the idea that the only long-term process that leads to long term change in behavior is the internalization of rules.   Long-term behavior change occurs when children take parental rules, internalize them, and make them their own.  This is a process that itself takes long periods of time.  One of the most important things that parents can do to foster rule internalization is to explain the basis of the rules that parents are attempting to enforce.  Like adults, when children understand the reasons for a rule, they are more likely to accept the rule and follow it.   The best way to explain a rule is to focus on the effects of the unwanted behavior both for the child him or herself and for other people.  Here are some examples:

“We never grab!  Grabbing tells your sister that you don’t care that is playing with the teddy bear.  When you grab, you hurt her feelings.  How would you feel if she grabbed the toy from you when you were playing with it?  If you just grab toys from people, no one is going to want to play with you.”

“When you leave your toys in the middle of the room, then someone else has to clean them up for you.  That someone is often me.  You know how you feel when you have to clean up toys?  Well I feel the same way!  Do you really want make me do your work for you?   What do you think other people think of you when you just leave your things around the house?

“My dear, when lie to me about your homework, so many bad things can happen.  First, if you lie – whatever the reason – that means I can’t help you.  If you are having problems with math, they are not going to go away!  You will need help to get through them.   I’m here to help, but I can’t help if you don’t tell me.  Worse, when you lie, that tells me that I can’t trust what you say.  And when that happens…”

4.  Provide personally meaningful consequences, if needed.   The fourth step is to arrange for personally meaningful consequences for a child’s misbehavior, if necessary.    A personally meaningful consequence is not a punishment, a time out, or anything like that.   Punishments are not personally meaningful consequences.  Punishment is based on the simple (and flawed) idea that people will stop doing something if it becomes associated with something unpleasant.    Studies have shown that punishment is simply not an effective long-term deterrent of unwanted behavior.  It works only in the present, when the punisher is giving the punishment.  After the punishment is over, the unwanted behavior tends to return.

A personally meaningful consequence is something different.  A personally meaningful consequence is one that is directly relevant to the child’s immediate and long-term interests.  Remember, as long as our behavior advances our interests, we will be motivated to continue to behave in the same way.  When our behavior does not advance our interests, we are motivated to change it.  So, a personally meaningful consequence is one that stops the child’s behavior from advancing his or her interests.

For example, a child grabs a toy from his sister.  When the parent takes the toy away from him, he will learn that grabbing doesn’t work.    A child avoids picking up her toys by saying that she will clean up her toys after she has her snack.  If the parent says, “you get no snack until you pick up your toys”, the child will learn that her delaying strategy will fail.  If a child lies in order to get out of doing homework, requiring that the lie be followed up with the homework (and perhaps even more) will show that lies (at least when one gets caught) don’t work.

Arranging for personally-meaningful consequences for a child’s behavior goes a long way toward motivating a child to modify his or her behavior.   However, all by itself, personally meaningful consequences are insufficient.   They basically say:  If you grabbing, delaying or lying are not going to pay off for you.  These behaviors will not advance your interests.  While these are important messages, they don’t communicate the most important message.   Although they teach children what will not advance his or her interests, they do not teach alternative behaviors that will advance their interests.

5.  Teach alternative behaviors that show the child how to advance his or her interests appropriately. Effective discipline teaches children to respect the limits you place on their behavior.   However, in order for a disciplinary strategy to produce long-term results, it should not only teach children what not to do, it must also teach children what they can and should do.   However, people act on the basis of their interests.  Unless children internalize parental rules or otherwise see it in their interest to follow those rules, they are unlikely to conform to those rules.

If children behave on the basis of their interests, they also misbehave on the basis of their interests.  One powerful way to modify children’s misbehaviors is to teach them alternative and appropriate ways to advance their interests.   A child who grabs a toy from his sister is already motivated by his interest to play with the toy.   As a result, he is already motivated to learn an alternative, appropriate and more effective way to obtain the toy.   He is thus ready to be shown that asking politely and waiting one’s turn will likely be more effective than simply grabbing the toy.

A child who attempts to avoid an unwanted task by saying she will do it after her snack is playing on her parent’s sympathies.   She has two interests in this situation: To avoid picking up her toys and to have her snack.  In this case, the parent can use one of her child’s interests in the service the other.  If you want your snack, you are going to have to pick up your toys first.   If you don’t want to pick up your toys, you are not going to be able to play in the living room.

A child who lies in an attempt to avoid her difficult homework must not only be shown that lying will not help her solve that problem; she must also be shown an alternative behavior that will solve her problem.    This can be done in several ways.  Once the lie is exposed and the homework is found, the parents can work with the child to help her perform the homework successfully and to cope with the anxiety and fear that she experiences when confronting her work.   By helping the child to articulate her fear about homework to her parents, her parents can teach her that asking for help is a better solution to her problem than avoiding her homework through lying.