Todd (age 16) was caught cheating on a test at school.
Anna (age 12) forwarded a text message to her whole class referring to a friend as a “fatty”.
Patrick (age 14) lied about his whereabouts, so he could go to an unsupervised all-night party.
At this point, are you making any assumptions about which child needs the most significant disciplinary intervention to learn from his or her mistake? The Latin root of discipline is “discere”, which means “to teach or to learn”. Punishment, or imposing a penalty beyond the negative consequences that may naturally occur from the mishap, can be a component of a parent’s decision, but not necessarily.
The parent’s goal when deciding disciplinary actions should be the child learning from mistakes. The art and science of this ambitious agenda involves parental judgment about how to best accomplish this objective.
When parents ask psychologists about disciplinary matters, one of our most common refrains is, “It depends”. It may sound dodgy, but deciding on effective discipline requires considering many factors, like age, circumstances of infractions, behavioral history, temperament, and parenting values. Judgment calls are needed to comb through the details and focus on “how can my child learn and grow from this experience?”
Todd is an excellent student who has never had any history of getting into trouble (unless a snarky attitude about chores counts). As he walked up to the teacher to turn his test in, he leaned over to look at a friend’s answers. He accepted his “F” with grace, knowing that looking at his friend’s test was a stupid impulse, but he took full responsibility for his action. He told his parents over and over how stupid and thoughtless he was, while crying with remorse. They had a meaningful discussion about impulses, cheating trends in high school and college, and his reputation at school. On his own, Todd decided to write a letter of apology to his teacher and classmate.
Does Todd need to be grounded? What purpose would this serve? Does Todd need any more parental intervention to learn from his action? If Todd had shown different responses to his wrongdoing and the “F” the teacher imposed, the parents may have decided that he “needed” more, or a different, discipline. They judged it adequate. They witnessed Todd’s reflection about his grade slump and transgression for weeks, if not months. If they had piled on more consequences, they may have interfered with the natural process of guilt and shame that were doing the business of teaching Todd a valuable lesson.
Anna is a very active, sensation-seeking girl who loves to be the center of attention. She revels in stirring things up and being the “queen bee” of her girl hive, whether it involves edgy dressing, talking or parading. Although her parents regret having given her a cell phone, Anna considers it her lifeline. They admit to being “frightened” at the thought of taking her phone away, for fear of the meltdown that would ensue. Anna wept and promised “never to misuse her phone privileges again”. Her parents want to believe that, especially since her desperation was sincere and intense.
Since Anna is not our child, and Anna’s emotions are not activating our emotional systems and distorting our thinking, our judgment call is easy, right? Yank that phone! Anna’s zeal for the wild side needs some better direction. Smart phones in the hands of children that love the buzz (and occasional sting) of thousands of text messages are dumb phones, if not bad phones.
Anna’s parents can get a stripped down, limited phone option for Anna (and their convenience), but kids like Anna need to find their excitement elsewhere—in the real and safe world, not in the virtual one. How about theatre, lacrosse or a youth service group? These are better “consequences” for Anna than grounding her or lecturing her about kindness and empathy, Activities which promote cooperation and teamwork among motivated pre-teens can “teach” social skills in effective ways.
What about Patrick who lied to get to the party house? Patrick’s caper is classic—he and his best buddy got permission to spend the night at each other’s house and then went to another boy’s unsupervised home for a large party, complete with kegs, older kids and drinking games. Patrick was dismissive of his parents’ concerns when they confronted him with the truth, maintaining that “every teenager does this stuff sometime!”
Patrick is at the age and stage in which he needs to slow down and contemplate the gravity of his actions. He scoffed at his parents’ concern about his lying, the risks of drinking, and the serious problems that can occur at such a party. Instead of lecturing him about all these valid points, they choose the “art of the de-brief” approach (thoroughly outlined in our book Getting to Calm).
Since Patrick abused his social freedom, grounding is an appropriate and natural consequence to impose. But why stop there if the rule violations are serious and the goal is learning? Patrick’s parents tell him his punishment will depend on the degree to which he can articulate his wrongdoings and the real or potential harms of his actions. He can take some time to write out his analysis so that he can do the best job possible, maybe even doing some research online about juvenile justice and the morbidity/mortality of youth drinking. Based on the merits of his presentation, his parents will decide on a small, medium or large set of consequences.
Patrick’s wishful thinking—that his parents will view a (statistically) typical event as a reason to go light on discipline—is common. It is natural for parents to want to turn up the volume and inform kids in detail about how bad things could have turned out when they minimize risks and dangers, but emotional lectures are more likely to reduce personal reflection than increase awareness. And long periods of social restriction are more likely to corrode family relationships than encourage wise conduct for the long haul.
Let’s say Patrick does a good job of deconstructing the night’s twists and turns and understanding the risks he took and perils that could have occurred. His parents may consider house arrest, then a short leash and then some spot checks on agreed-upon whereabouts for as long as they feel necessary. Will Patrick try it again? Maybe, but probably not for awhile, and in the meantime perhaps he’ll think twice or three times before he thinks it’s no big deal to lie, do the forbidden and risk losing his social privileges for a risky lark.
A crucial ingredient in effective discipline is the parent’s credibility or moral authority. If children lack respect for their parents, they don’t care about earning their approval or disapproval. If the parent is hypocritical, constantly nagging or shrieking, the child develops tone deafness for moral lessons. They spend more time resenting the parent’s disciplinary choices than contemplating the error of their ways. Children internalize lessons learned because those doing the teaching and the lessons seem worthy of respect. The huge majority of kids dread their parents’ disapproval. That doesn’t mean they avoid stupid moves on a regular basis, but it does mean they care about our judgments—so the key is to use that power wisely when it comes to discipline.
Research on authoritative parenting (reviewed in post 9/25/10) and firm boundaries (reviewed in post 9/7/10) emphasizes the link between discipline and the development of emotional, social and academic. But there is no recipe for what might be the ideal secret sauce for your child to learn from the big mistake she made today. It’s easy to hand out advice like, “pick your battles”, “accept that children will make mistakes”, “first, get to calm” and “don’t over-react or under-react”, but in the end, deciding on what you hope will be effective discipline for your child’s learning comes down to your parental judgment.
J is for Judgment Calls in Discipline
By Laura Kastner, Ph.D.