I GREW UP in a family whose parents believed that the Bible verse, “Train a child up in the way he should go…” was their green light to use whatever means to ensure my sister and I never departed from their teaching. My father could shatter glass with a stare and remove his belt in under three seconds. My mother wouldn’t hesitate to send either of us in search of our own ‘switch’ if we needed a lesson in right and wrong. They abided by the general notion that fear and threats of regular whopping’s did children good.
Last month the story surfaced of a 9-year-old Minnesota boy who left his parents home in Minneapolis, took a train to the airport, navigated through security, and hopped a plane to Vegas. He was eventually discovered upon landing in Sin City and was sent home to be ‘dealt with’. Shortly after the boy’s weekend getaway his father told reporters, “I don’t have an angel, OK. I have a 9-year-old,” he said. “To me, he’s got a behavioral problem.”
Preceding his airline mischief the boy had also stolen a delivery van and was returned by the police. The father asked the officer to come in his house to watch him discipline his son. “I said, ‘Please, sir, can you go up with me and watch me whip his butt?’” he told reporters. The officer said, ‘If I see you hit your son, we’re going to have to lock you up.’”
“What can I do?” the shaken father asked. “If I whip my son, I get locked up. If I let him keep doing what he is doing, I get into trouble. Someone please, please help me.”
The story and this father’s pleas drew national attention and revived the debate on how far parents should go in disciplining children, especially difficult ones. A CNN article asked professionals what should be done with this unruly progeny. Carl Pickhardt a Texas psychologist said, “A lot of times, parents go straight to the punishment and they bypass the most important step, which is communication. You’ve got to sit down and you’ve got to have a good talking to with this kid to, in this case, help them hear about why (sneaking on a plane) wasn’t safe, why it was against the law and how other people were harmed, and then you take a look at the consequences. Out of control is not a problem, that’s a reality,” said Pickhardt. “What adolescence does is it disillusions parents.”
Instead of punishment, psychologists say it’s the communication of these consequences that is most important.
If research is correct, my children should grow up to be convicts. They’ve lived their entire lives in a broken home and sociologists tell us that kids from divorce do worse in school, shoot up malls, and have babies in their teens. My kids are among those believed to struggle with authority, shoplift, smoke pot, and sneak out after midnight; kids who think that mommy and daddy’s divorce is a perfect reason to steal a car.
Considering this, I’ve always been hyper sensitive about my children’s behavior. And since my rules may not be mom’s rules, I lean towards a ‘tough love’ style of parenting with the hope that fear and threats of regular whopping’s will remind them to act right regardless of where they’re at. Yet even so inclined to bend them over my knee, I haven’t spanked, grounded, or seriously punished either of my kids in over seven years. I haven’t needed to and I think the credit for that rests in an ageless parenting principle found nowhere in this CNN article.
Parents must set boundaries, employing the ‘if/then’ theory of human motivation. ‘If you do this, then that will happen.’ It’s something we’re all familiar with; our legal system is built upon it. Yet this method only works when the boundaries and consequences are clearly communicated then carried out when those lines are crossed. Imagine the chaos on our highways if State Troopers never issued tickets but only gave a good ‘talking to’ about the safety hazards of speeding and how it can harm others?
In all my years of parenting there is no other single method – not time outs, spankings, groundings, anything – that is more effective in changing a child’s behavior than to parent from the back side of the consequences. In other words to be a parent who doesn’t shy away from carrying out what they promised would happen if the behavior continued; someone who has the boldness to follow-through on those consequences when boundaries are crossed. As parents we have a choice, we can parent on the front side of the consequences by issuing empty threats and making hollow gestures our children will grow to ignore, or we can parent from the back side and teach our children a healthy respect for the fact that actions have consequences.
Last week a divorced father in NYC was deemed unfit by a psychiatrist after he refused to let his soon eat at McDonald’s on one of their visitation nights. The father planned to take his 4-year-old to their usual restaurant but the boy had a meltdown demanding McDonald’s. So the father gave his son an ultimatum: dinner anywhere other than McDonald’s — or no dinner.
“The child, stubborn as a mule, chose the ‘no dinner’ option,” said the disgruntled dad. The psychiatrist filed a report with the court saying the father was “wholly incapable of taking care of his son” and should be denied visitation because of the burger fiasco.
This story is the perfect illustration of where many parents come up short and soon find themselves with an uncontrollable, disrespectful, problem child. Most parents have little hesitation in establishing consequences for bad behavior; where we fail – and often fail miserably – is in the follow-through. In our normal day-to-day, disillusioned parents quickly communicate the consequences yet rarely ask themselves, ‘Am I really prepared to do this, if little Johnny takes the ‘no dinner’ option’? Instead we hope threats will be sufficient to change behavior – it rarely works.
If we aren’t wholly committed to parent from the backside of the consequences when our kid demands McDonald’s then we had better think long and hard before offering up a knee-jerk reaction of no dinner as the punishment Because the more we move, or better yet erase, the boundary lines the more we foster a child who not only questions and sidesteps our authority, they will grow to have disrespect and contempt for anyone’s authority.
This NYC father did the right thing, he communicated the consequences and when his son continued his behavior this dad made good on his promise. That moment, as trivial as it might seem to many, sent the boy a clear message that ‘daddy means what he says’ and will think twice before testing dad’s authority again. Because this I’ve learned after eleven years of being a father, the more I parent from the backside of consequence today the less I will need to tomorrow.
On one final note, not to be undone by dad, mom immediately took the boy to McDonald’s.