Philosophically, I recognize the need to take charge of my children, but I'd like more specifics. Give me a step-by-step approach to discipline that will help me do the job correctly.
Let me outline six broad guidelines that I think you'll be able to apply. These principles represent the essence of my philosophy of discipline.
First: Define the boundaries before they are enforced. The most important step in any disciplinary procedure is to establish reasonable expectations and boundaries in advance.
The child should know what is and what is not acceptable behavior before he is held responsible for those rules. This precondition will eliminate the sense of injustice that a youngster feels when he is punished for his accidents, mistakes and blunders. If you haven't defined it, don't enforce it.
Second: When you are defiantly challenged, respond with confident decisiveness. Once a child understands what is expected, she should then be held accountable for behaving accordingly.
That sounds easy, but as we have seen, most children will assault the authority of their elders and challenge their right to lead. In a moment of rebellion, a child will consider her parents' instructions and defiantly chose to disobey. Like a military general before a battle, she will calculate the potential risk, marshal her forces and attack the enemy with guns blazing.
Nothing is more destructive to parental leadership than for a mother or father to disintegrate during that struggle. When the parent consistently loses those battles, resorting to tears and screaming and other evidence of frustration, some dramatic changes take place in the way they are "seen" by their children. Instead of being secure and confident leaders, they become spineless jellyfish who are unworthy of respect or allegiance.
Third: Distinguish between willful defiance and childish irresponsibility. A child should not be punished for behavior that is not willfully defiant. When he forgets to feed the dog or make his bed or take out the trash when he leaves your tennis racket outside in the rain or loses his bicycle remember that these behaviors are typical of childhood. It is the mechanism by which an immature mind is protected from adult anxieties and pressures.
Be gentle as you teach him to do better. If he fails to respond to your patient instruction, it then becomes appropriate to administer some well-deserved consequences (he may have to work to pay for the item he abused or be deprived of its use, etc.). Just remember that childish irresponsibility is very different from willful defiance, and should be handled more patiently.
Fourth: Reassure and teach as soon as the confrontation is over. After a time of conflict during which the parent has demonstrated his or her right to lead (particularly if it resulted in tears for the child), the youngster between 2 and 7 (or older) may want to be loved and reassured.
Fifth: Avoid impossible demands. Be absolutely sure that your child is capable of delivering what you require. Never punish him for wetting the bed involuntarily or for not becoming potty-trained by 1 year of age, or for doing poorly in school when he is incapable of academic success.
These impossible demands put the child in an irresolvable conflict: There is no way out. That condition brings inevitable damage to human emotional apparatus.
Sixth: Let love be your guide. A relationship that is characterized by genuine love and affection is likely to be a healthy one, even though some parental mistakes and errors are inevitable.
Dobson is president of the nonprofit organization Focus on the Family, P.O. Box 444, Colorado Springs, Colo. 80903; or www.family.org.