Discipline – step by step

By Dr James Dobson – Focus on the Family

Six broad guidelines that 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 behaviour before he is held responsible for those rules. If you haven’t defined it – don’t enforce it!

Second: When defiantly challenged, respond with confident decisiveness. Once a child understands what is expected, he should then be held accountable for behaving accordingly. That sounds easy, but most children will assault the authority of their elders and challenge their right to lead. In a moment of rebellion, a little child will consider his parents’ instructions and defiantly choose to disobey. When nose‑to‑nose confrontation occurs between generations, it is extremely important for the adult to win decisively and confidently. The child has made it clear that he’s looking for a fight, and his parents would be wise not to disappoint him! 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 behaviour that is not willfully defiant. When he forgets to feed the dog or make his bed – remember that these behaviours 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 two and seven (or older) may want to be loved and reassured. By all means, open your arms and let her come! Hold her close and tell her of your love. Rock her gently and let her know, again, why she was punished and how she can avoid the trouble next time. This moment of communication builds love, fidelity, and family unity.

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 one year of age. These impossible demands put the child in an unresolvable 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 characterised by genuine love and affection is likely to be a healthy one, even though some parental mistakes and errors are inevitable.

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