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How to Punish Without Punishing Yourself

Use Punishments That Are Realistic
Select punishments that fit the crime. Use reality consequences. A child who makes a mess cleans the mess. A child who pees in the refrigerator should clean the refrigerator. A child who carelessly breaks something should fix it or work to pay for it. A child who comes home late should not go out the next day. A child who does not put his dirty clothes in the laundry basket does his own wash. Children who can operate CD players, VCRs, and computers can operate a washing machine. These examples illustrate consequences that are relevant to the misbehavior. They have more meaning to your child. They help teach a lesson.

Some children can be trusted to choose their punishment. This helps them learn more quickly. It shows them that you want to be fair, and it encourages them to be mature and responsible:

"Your behavior has been very good until this incident. I am going to trust you to choose your own punishment for this misbehavior. I know you will be fair and just. Let me know what you decide."

Bigger Does Not Mean Better
Mild punishments are usually more productive than harsh punishments. Keep things in perspective. Don't bring out a cannon to get your children to hang up the towels. Punishments that are short and sweet teach better lessons. Large punishments often create feelings of anger or revenge. When your child feels angry, little learning takes place. When your child believes that you have been unjust in your use of punishment, your child often retaliates or argues. This can start a negative cycle. You punish, your child becomes angry and retaliates by misbehaving again, maybe worse than before. You punish again, perhaps a little more severely, just to make your point. Your child becomes more angry and retaliates by misbehaving again. I have worked with families where the parents were punishing their children for things that happened months ago.

Using Restriction Constructively
Restriction is a useful punishment for children and adolescents. Being grounded is a type of restriction. Restriction means loss of one or more privileges for a specific length of time. You will have to determine what the privilege should be. Some examples are loss of TV time, going to bed early, being restricted from seeing friends, no telephone, no video games, no toys, and so on. Choose a restriction that is easy to enforce and that impacts the offender and no one else.

Restricting children for misbehavior is a popular form of punishment. Unfortunately, few parents use restriction effectively. Most parents begin with a period of time that is too long. As adults, we forget that a week or two can be forever to a child. Long periods of restriction are often the result of an argument, hurt feelings, or anger, and they can backfire, causing your child to feel persecuted or picked on. This can turn into feelings of revenge, and a cycle of retaliation begins.

There is a built-in problem with restriction. Many children who become grounded or restricted feel there is no hope. Without hope, there is little reason to behave: "Why behave? I can't go out for a week anyway." Then the child decides that everyone else should be just as miserable.

There is a workable solution to this problem. If you decide to restrict your child, choose an even number of days. Choose four, six, eight, or twelve days, depending on the seriousness of the offense and the age of your child. Twelve days is usually the maximum effective period-anything longer, and you run the risk of retaliation. Next, explain that each good day will result in one day taken off the end of the restriction period. Let's assume that you have restricted your child for six days, Wednesday through Monday. If your child has a good day on Wednesday, then drop Monday. If Thursday is a good day, then drop Sunday. If things go well on Friday, then drop Saturday. Friday is the last day of restriction. You may want to draw a chart or calendar so your child can cross off days and see his progress.

This technique works extremely well. It lets your child know that you want to be fair, even though you mean business. It also lets your child know that you expect proper behavior even while he is restricted. Being restricted is not a license to be uncooperative. Most of all, this approach gives your child a strong incentive to behave immediately-no sitting around the house being miserable for a week.

The success of this strategy depends on how well you define a good day. Then stick to what you say. It helps a great deal to write down what you require.

Be sure that a good day is truly a good day. Do not drop a day unless it is deserved. If you drop days too easily, you will be defeating the purpose of this approach. Your child can be restricted and still earn other activities. For example, your child could be restricted from the telephone and still be earning a contract for a new CD. I have worked with preschool teachers who have modified this technique. They use minute restrictions. When a child misuses a toy, the child is restricted from the toy for ten minutes. If the child behaves, he can earn the toy back in five minutes.



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From How to Behave So Your Children Will, Too!. Copyright Sal Severe, 2000. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

If you'd like to buy this book, click here or on the book cover. Get a 15% discount with the coupon code FENPARENT.


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