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Crime and Punishment

My son is one of the most determined first graders at school and he has the certificate to prove it. As proud as I am of his award, I do wish his determination didn't so often exhibit itself in ways that seem designed to drive me to drink.

Recently he decided he could not leave for school until he found a particular book he wanted to read in the car. Everything ground to a halt while we unsuccessfully searched for the book. Our normal departure time came and went, and he insisted that he couldn't leave until we found it. I cajoled and promised to find it while he was at school. He ignored me and kept looking. I threatened dire consequences if he didn't get in the car. He cried and kept looking. At the school, the tardy bell rang, and I announced firmly that enough was enough and it was time to go. Drew ran under his desk and hid. I cried and threatened some more. Finally I picked him up and carried him to the car.

At the school, he refused to get out. I carried him out of the car. He struggled with me and tried to get back in. I blocked the car door and cried, repeating that he had to go to school now. A helpful parent got the assistant principal and she convinced him to go to class. I spent the rest of the day feeling ashamed of myself, resentful of my son, and wondering how in the world I could have prevented the fiasco.

I'm still wondering. And I'm also wondering what I'm going to do when he gets too big for me to pick up and put where I want him. He's already big enough that this is the option of last resort, but it is still an option, at least until the next growth spurt. I suppose the hope is that by the time your child gets too heavy to carry, she's old enough to respond to reason, rewards or negative consequences. But what do you do when none of that works?

My husband is fond of reminding me that children aren't less intelligent than adults, they're just less educated. This is never clearer to me than when I'm engaged in behavior modification. I'm firmly committed to teaching my children to behave like civilized human beings, but I'm still searching for the right method of enforcing appropriate behavior. It frequently seems like whatever steps they take towards maturity and manners are done in spite of all my work, not because of it. I find myself wondering if my attempts at discipline only serve to make me feel like I'm doing something while I wait for the child to outgrow this developmental stage and abandon the deplorable behavior on her own.

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When my brother and I misbehaved, my parents resorted to physical punishment. In those dark ages known as "the seventies," the experts encouraged parents to assert their authority by spanking their children, and most kids were familiar with the swing of the paddle or the belt. Since then, Drs. Sears and Brazelton have declared corporal punishment verboten and instead urge parents to use positive forms of discipline like time outs and natural consequences. I'm doing my best to avoid spanking my children - I can't quite stomach the hypocrisy of "stop hitting your sister right now or you'll get a spanking" - but I have to admit that positive discipline hasn't been particularly effective with my children.

Time outs only seem to escalate the situation. My children's favorite form of protest over being confined to their rooms is to systematically throw every item in the room on the floor. I have the option of sticking to my guns and keeping them in their rooms until they clean everything up, or giving in so that I don't feel like an abusive parent for locking my children up for hours. Also, time outs seem to be best for redirecting a child and giving him time to calm down. I've seen little evidence that they teach different, more desirable behavior.

The experts are beginning to recognize that time outs aren't a panacea. The "hot new thing" in discipline is natural consequences - the idea that most undesirable behaviors have disagreeable results, which, if you allow your child to experience them, will teach her that she shouldn't engage in that behavior. This is a fine idea in theory, but it rests on several questionable assumptions: that misbehavior necessarily results in negative consequences, that your child understands that the unpleasant outcome resulted from her choice, that she will remember the consequence next time she considers a similar choice, and that she cares as much about the consequence as you do.

A surprisingly large number of the things that make me crazy don't necessarily have negative consequences for my children. Being late for school bothers me much more than it does my son. Running out in the street doesn't always result in being hit by a car (and if it did, it seems like it would be a rather costly lesson).

The obvious answer is to create a negative consequence and insure that your child suffers it. But how do you arrive at an appropriate artificial consequence? Spanking and time outs have already been ruled out. Limiting privileges or grounding only works if you can find something the child wants more than he wants to misbehave. And believe me, that can be incredibly difficult, especially when you're dealing with determined children. In the heat of the moment, my children are perfectly willing to exchange a week's worth of television privileges for the satisfaction of beating the bejeezus out of one another.

So I'm left with the feeling that my discipline techniques are, at best, inconsistent, and the fear that my children are growing up to be uncontrollable little brats. And yet, miraculously, their behavior is gradually improving, and they generally get good reports from school. Some socialization must be sinking in, although how it's being conveyed to them is a mystery to me. It's enough to make me question all my assumptions about crime and punishment.
About the Author:

Melissa Lipscomb lives in Austin with her children Drew, Franny, Alec and husband Adam. Some days she feels like she's figuring out, and others she's just waiting for the other shoe to drop. Send feedback for Melissa to disturbance@austinmama.com and visit her blog


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