05/09/2021
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​How should I discipline an uncooperative child?

Q: Our young son is disobedient and talks back. He won’t do his homework and refuses to clean his room. When we try to discuss these issues with him in a calm, mature way, we usually end up getting angry and yelling at him. What are we doing wrong?

A: You’re not alone. Many parents try to use words and reasons to convince their children to behave. They think of children as miniature adults who can respond to rational argument in a logical way. The problem with this method is that it usually doesn’t work and generally leads to failure and frustration. That’s because words and reasons don’t shape a child’s behavior. Consequences shape a child’s behavior.

A consequence is something that happens as a result of a particular behavior. Consequences can be both positive and negative. You can use positive consequences to increase a positive behavior and negative consequences to decrease a negative behavior.

By way of example, let’s consider your son’s apparent difficulties with homework. When he comes home in the afternoon, you might say to him, “I need you to finish your homework by 5:00 p.m. If you finish by 5:00, I’ll let you have an extra half hour of TV time tonight.” TV time is a simple positive consequence that doesn’t cost a parent anything.

What if he doesn’t follow through? What if 7:00 p.m. rolls around and he hasn’t even looked at his homework? That’s the time to apply negative consequences. In this case, a negative consequence — which, by the way, should be spelled out clearly in advance — might be that your son doesn’t get any TV time that night.

In order to work, consequences need to be immediate. Children have brief attention spans and short memories, and they need all the help they can get connecting the dots. This means that consequences can’t wait until tomorrow. They need to take effect right now. You can increase their immediacy by using tokens or a point system. Award points or tokens for good behavior, and take them away for bad behavior.

Consequences also need to be consistent. You have to follow through even when you’re tired and don’t feel like it, and you need to be willing to do so every time your authority is challenged. Otherwise, your child will quickly learn that you don’t mean what you say.

Finally, a consequence should be powerful. If it doesn’t mean anything to your child, it won’t have any effect. If your son isn’t particularly interested in an extra half-hour of TV time, you’ll have to come up with something else that really hits him where he lives — skateboarding privileges, perhaps, or maybe the chance to spend a weekend fishing with dad.

It should be obvious that the motivating power of specific consequences will change as a child grows older; for instance, a seven-year-old girl may take a keen interest in a new doll, but when she reaches the pre-teen years her thoughts may begin to run in a different direction.

This article was published with permission from Focus on the Family Malaysia.

If you liked this article and would like to go deeper, we have some helpful resources at family.org.my.

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