Post No.: 0385
A child’s self-discipline is formed early in life and continues into adulthood. Neither a ‘softly-softly’ nor a ‘stern and threatening’ approach tends to work to get a child to resist temptation in the short-term. However, a ‘stern and threatening’ approach can be a worse strategy overall for the long-term because it is associated with something that must be truly tempting and desirous, like a ‘forbidden fruit’ i.e. the (crude and childlike, but these are children!) assumption is that no one would make quite a fuss about stopping us having or doing something if that something weren’t so desirable.
It’s therefore worse to use stern threats in the long-term because it could make a child desire and do what you don’t want him/her to do even more! A relatively moderate wording and tone produces far more obedience in the long-term. Use positive language to motivate rather than shouting, yelling, smacking or threats, otherwise they’ll never intrinsically learn to adopt the desirable behaviour or attitude. In general, a supportive and encouraging vocal tone is more persuasive than a strong vocal tone, especially from mothers apparently; whereas a strong vocal tone is more likely to cause defiance from adolescents. This is one contributing reason why simply and bluntly banning teenage smoking and fast driving frequently backfires in the long-term, especially if the child-parent relationship is already adversarial because a parent relies on deploying punishments for undesired behaviours rather than rewards for desired behaviours.
All else being equal, banning or restricting desirable things tends to make people want those things even more (this is related to ‘scarcity value’). For example, 24-hour drinking laws actually mean people won’t end up feeling like they need to binge within the short period they’re allowed to be served alcohol. Hence we must consider things like this. People tend to react if they feel restricted. It is believed that adolescent kawaii culture in Japan was a reaction to the rigid culture in that country after WWII. And when black people were enslaved and repressed in Brazil historically, a reaction was the development of capoeira as an expression of the desire for freedom. People will find ways to express themselves with acts of defiance. Woof!
This is not to say we should therefore allow things like teenage smoking and fast driving. Towards adolescents, we should generally avoid threats and arguably also avoid pointing out the terrible consequences of an action – just calmly state that you don’t want them to do something then leave it there. If they insist on knowing why then try to get them to first identify some possible reasons themselves. When people come up with answers themselves, they’ll more likely trust, believe and follow those answers. Their peers are highly influential too, although one cannot control other people’s children.
Force, banning, punishments or even mere nagging can have the opposite effect in the long-term – once the threat of force is removed, the behaviour can revert and sometimes even backfire to an extreme. For instance, if your children don’t particularly like apples or oranges but are forced to eat lots of them all of the time, then when they grow older and can decide for themselves what to eat, they might be put off voluntarily eating those fruits because they’re associated with being virtually tortured with them. If you want someone to like something over time, they must find that thing associated with pleasant and rewarding experiences. The best way to learn something is when it’s joyful, otherwise it can produce the opposite result in the long term. Parenting shouldn’t be about short-term gains with long-term losses. If it can’t be about short-term gains with long-term rewards then it should be about short-term pains with long-term rewards.
There are cleverer ways to encourage your children to do things rather than by using force or punishments; at least as a first or second resort. If they’re a bit too sedentary, you can, for instance, easily make physical activities fun – tidying up can be a game. You can at least convey a positive tone and body language rather than a stern or punitive tone to get your children to do things. And you don’t always need to use extrinsic rewards or punishments – you can have a laugh together doing the desirable thing, give cuddles and praise efforts, even when the going gets tough and they want to give in.
Because someone behaving undesirably could potentially kill them or us, we’re probably more inclined to take nice behaviours for granted rather than reward them, while we’ll readily remember to punish all bad behaviours we spot, or at least approve of someone else punishing them for the greater good of the group’s harmony and survival. We’re more sensitive to avoiding a pain before seeking a pleasure. Therefore our instinct is to punish undesired behaviours more than reward desired behaviours.
But this goes against the overall scientific findings, which shows us that, in contexts like at home or at work at least, it’s overall more effective to reward desired behaviours than punish undesired behaviours. (Understand that a specie’s evolution doesn’t need to reach ‘the best’ strategy – just a ‘good enough’ strategy – for that species to survive. Or we must note that extinctions are highly common natural events too if a species fails to do ‘good enough’ i.e. nature evidently doesn’t and won’t guarantee any specie’s survival. When some people think ‘members of that species aren’t going to all do anything so short-sighted because that’d eventually cause their own extinction, and natural selection won’t allow this because it’ll naturally self-correct this in time to save them’ – well if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. A specie’s extinction can be nature’s self-correction itself. But I digress…) The point is that scientific research can sometimes show us even better ways than what our instincts tell us.
However, some research does suggest that force can sometimes have a lasting positive effect if clearly explained as for the peoples’ own good and done in the right way. If guided by an empirical/evidence-based approach rather than by personal biases or beliefs, and if done with careful judgement, empathy, compassion, balance and most of all by rewarding desired behaviours too – so carrots as well as sticks, ‘soft love’ as well as ‘tough love’, but mainly carrots and ‘soft love’ – force can positively change a person’s lifestyle for life. Force is often employed for the long-term benefit of the recipient(s), even though they could not see or trust in the benefits for themselves at the time. But lifestyles, and wider cultures, can be the hardest things to change – it’s tantamount to changing one’s personal, or group, identity.
Is a child old enough to understand and does he/she understand the rules beforehand? Does he/she understand the consequences if the rules are breached and will those consequences occur if those rules are breached? This all sounds patently obvious but too many times we see parents apply retroactive rules and expect their children to have been psychic or ‘should’ve known’ (but we must remember that they are still children), which would be like if the state put you in jail before passing a law that specified that what you did was illegal! To be punished with a retroactive rule would be wholly unjust on, and quite frustrating for, the child. And too many times parents have also said that a punishment would happen if their child did/failed to do something but then they didn’t follow through with those punishments, which would be like if law enforcement was just full of continuous empty threats that never realise. Both retroactive rules and empty threats/promises reduce your credibility and authority and maybe the child won’t therefore listen to you when it comes to a dangerous situation.
So no surprises – tell them beforehand what behaviour is desired from them and what the consequences will be if they don’t follow this; then carry out these consequences as previously described if they breach those rules. If they do something undesirable that you never told them before was undesirable then let them off this time and tell them for next time.
Also, when two parents (or any other two caregivers) are giving mixed messages to a child, the child will rationally go to the person who gives him/her the most for the least (i.e. the easier, more compliant adult), which will undermine the efforts of the more firm parent and the integrity of the parent team. Sometimes, what then happens is that the firm parent becomes more and more firm in order to try to compensate for the easy parent, which may then cause the easy parent to be more and more easy to try to compensate for the firm parent’s approach! Thus the parents polarise even more. Parents must therefore discuss parenting strategies together beforehand (preferably even before having a child), and then play the same team strategy when raising a child, and keep in communication during play, as it were. Avoid giving mixed messages to your children.
Each parent must also be consistent with their own actions, as well as with each other. Inconsistent parents are a major reason why children are confused and therefore cannot learn to behave as desired, and through the frustration of their confusion they can lash out. Learning cannot occur with inconsistent feedback – it’s like trying to learn how to best play the lottery when different sets of numbers keep coming up each time you play(!) And empty threats are indeed empty because the child receives the benefits of misbehaving without the costs or consequences. The long-term effect of this might be that the child feels that all fuzzy threats are empty, including those from teachers or concerning the law.
Try not to reward undesirable behaviours in any way – attention is also a kind of reward too. Just tell the child once that their behaviour was unacceptable (as the child should’ve been forewarned about) and then carry out the consequences (as the child should’ve been forewarned about too). Don’t engage in a tirade i.e. don’t pay too much attention to the undesired behaviour. You also don’t want to set a bad example by going into tirades – when a child goes into a tirade, you’ll know where they got that behaviour from! This is all admittedly far easier said than done when during the heat of the moment and when one is facing a constantly misbehaving child. It just takes this kind of education and then practice.
Be aware not to punish desirable behaviours too – for example, nagging when your child is in the middle of doing, or long after your child has done, something you asked him/her to do by responding with, “You don’t do that enough” or “I wished you had done that earlier”; or punishing your child after he/she confesses to something and when being honest. This is demotivating, disincentivising and may gradually condition them to not want to do that desirable behaviour again.
And rules and consequences aren’t just for undesirable behaviours – they should actually be used more for desirable behaviours, such as a tidy room means a collectable token or star. Tell them about the good consequences of doing a specific desirable thing, then follow through with those good consequences if they uphold their end of the bargain. Try to praise good efforts over good outcomes too (see Post No.: 0196).
If there has been an argument then wait until you’ve all calmed down first before explaining what happened with your child, the expectations that were not met and the future consequences if those expectations aren’t met again in the future. And try to end every dispute on a positive and loving note and mood!