I’m trying to improve my son’s behavior. People have recommended taking away something he likes. I’ve punished him by taking away his toys and video games, but nothing seems to work.
The purpose of punishment (or, as we are required to call it in education, “consequences”) is to make it more uncomfortable for children to do things the wrong way than the right way. Over time, they learn that bad behavior has bad repercussions, and they stick to the preferred path.
It’s true that punishing kids quite often comes in the form of removing something they like. You mentioned toys and video games. Cell phones, TV time, and sports are others. If they’re old enough, there’s always the car or money. “Grounding” also falls under this category.
Note: Just because your child tells you he doesn’t care about losing any of these privileges doesn’t mean it’s true. We all have this thing called “pride” that can preclude us from admitting defeat, even when we’re clearly licked. When students are sent to in-school suspension they invariably return to tell the class how much fun they had. But when I offer to send them back, they quickly clam up.
The point is that punishment can take time to work. Your son may not care about losing his video games for a day, but what about a week? Or two weeks? Or a month? In many cases, ineffectiveness is not a matter of the consequence being too light, but being too brief.
Assuming you’ve taken things away for a suitable period of time and none of it has worked, then it’s time to add something. Losing a privilege is uncomfortable, but so is taking on a burden. For many parents, this is the favored method.
It can entail administering a chore. The chore, of course, has to be arduous. Consider tasks that require lots of scrubbing, lifting, or carrying. It shouldn’t be something even a little fun, like painting the porch. For my kids, it was raking and bagging leaves (and my house has a half-dozen oak trees — which, if you know, you know).
The 21st century has done parents no favors in applying such consequences. Mowing the lawn is hardly punishment when you can do it sitting down. Robots vacuum our floors. Machines wash our dishes. We use leaf blowers, power washers, washing machines, and clothes dryers to rid ourselves of manual labor, leaving little for our kids to do anymore besides make their beds and put away their soft, sweet-smelling laundry. What an age to be a kid, huh?
Still, there are lots of tasks available if you look for them. Got weeds? Your child can remove them manually. Other manual jobs include washing the windows, scrubbing the bathrooms, washing baseboards, cleaning the grill or oven, and ironing clothes.
If you absolutely have nothing that will do the trick, then consider having your kid visit the neighbors to volunteer their services (but give the neighbors a heads-up about what’s happening first). Kids will really hate that because it involves socializing with adults — kryptonite to those raised in the digital age. It might also teach them something about helping others.
I don’t want to get into a big thing because some people find this controversial, but for pre-teens, many parents use spanking. I neither condemn nor condone the practice, but I can say from experience (on the receiving end, mostly), it’s effective if administered properly.
Once you decide on the consequence, be sure to stick with it because consistency is key in disciplining kids. You can’t do things haphazardly or on impulse. Consequences have to be measured out coolly and responsibly.
Now, when your kid finally gets it right, don’t forget to administer the most delightful consequence of all: praise. Punishing him when he’s bad will teach him that bad actions have bad consequences, but praising him when he’s good will help him understand how nice it can feel to do things right.
That feeling is a privilege none of us should want to lose.
Jody Stallings has been an award-winning teacher in Charleston since 1992 and is director of the Charleston Teacher Alliance. To submit a question, order his books, or follow him on social media, please visit JodyStallings.com.
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