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Disciplining Your Child February 26, 2007

Posted by edukfun in add, adhd, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, children, discipline, education, parenting, underachieve, video games.

Warning: Parents of overactive children may not like this article.

What can you do when your child is hyper, overactive, aggressive or just plain driving you up the wall?

The biggest problem with disciplining children is that the parents, teachers and authority figures must practice discipline, too. If the home environment is loud, chaotic, and inconsistent, the children will respond to that environment by becoming hyperactive or by becoming quiet and sullen.

Many families are missing consistent structure, and parents could use some lessons in behavioral psychology along the lines of classical and operant conditioning. I promise to keep the information entertaining and useful.

Any time you lose your cool, and your kids can tell, they “win” and you are reinforcing the behavior

Classic conditioning is a common culprit. The idea is that any behavior that is reinforced will show up with more and more frequency. Any time you lose your cool, and your kids can tell, they “win” and you are reinforcing the behavior. Likewise, any behavior that you ignore, you are pushing towards extinction.

So, you come home and your kids have drawn with crayon all over the fireplace (yes, that was my sister and me). Normal reaction: flip out, yell and scream and punish like crazy. So the kids think to themselves (unconsciously), “Well this certainly got mom & dad’s attention. I’ll remember that (and use it to punish them when I’m angry).”

Alternatively, you come home and your kids have put away their coats and shoes for the first time since Moby Dick was a minnow. What does dad say? “Wow, you put away your shoes for a change. It’s a miracle. I think I’m having a heart attack.” So instead of getting a reward/reinforcement for doing what you wanted, they get sarcasm or backhanded compliments. The kid thinks, “Well that wasn’t worth the effort. I’ll never do that again.”

Failing to reinforce a behavior you want to see happen leads to its extinction

Finally, you come home and nothing special is going on at all. The kids got B’s on their quizzes, did their homework and didn’t burn the house down. Normal reaction: say nothing. But failing to reinforce a behavior you want to see happen leads to its extinction.

What should you do when your child misbehaves?

The short-term answer is to use some basic psychology.

When the child misbehaves, you dispassionately enforce the rules and consequences (if you are thinking, “Yeah but what are those?” Then read the long-term answer 10 times). Don’t get excited, don’t yell and scream. Be consistent. Even the most stubborn, intractable, horrible, psychotic child does not try to walk through walls; they understand that walking into the wall will always have the same result (“thunk!”). You want to be like the wall, consistent.

“You got an ‘F’? I’m really proud of you because I saw how hard you studied last night, so I know you did your best.”

When the child does something unusually good, make a big deal out of it. Praise is free. Be specific. Don’t say, “Great Job!” Try, “Great job finishing all your homework.” “I love that you guys put away your shoes. Thank you.” “You got an ‘F’? I’m really proud of you because I saw how hard you studied last night, so I know you did your best. When we get your test back, let’s go over it and see what we can do to help you do better next time.” Be sure to read about the power and danger of praise here.

When the child is quietly good, which happens often, don’t take it for granted. You have to reinforce the behaviors you want to see, especially in a troubled child. On what Harry Chapin would call an “any old kind of day” your kid does fifty things right. Pick one and compliment them on it. “I like the way your room looks. Thanks for putting away your toys.” Don’t go crazy here. Notice I didn’t say buy the kid an X-Box 360. What you don’t want to do is replace their internal motivation with reward-seeking motivation. You just want to periodically reinforce the behavior. You are letting them know that you do see what they do right, and you appreciate them for doing it.

You may be saying, “That sounds great for a normal child. But you don’t know my kid. He’s a terror and this will never work on him.”

That may be true. It may also be an excuse for inconsistent parenting or from a genuine psychological disorder (you’ll have to see an expert for that). I can’t tell from here. I can tell you that if the situation is terrible, it wasn’t always that way. It has gotten worse, and it has done so for a reason.

Here is the long-term answer: you have to have a plan.

Some children may be ok with minimal parenting. Others need a great deal of structure. As parents, you have your own comfort levels, which your children are probably walking all over. At a minimum, you need some kind of plan that is appropriate for your child’s age and ability level; one that is written down, signed, and followed consistently.

Here is an example. Darren is 12 years old, an only child, and overactive. He plays online video games like World of Warcraft until 2 or 3 in the morning and is sleeping at school. He doesn’t do his homework consistently, but tests well and so his grades are C’s and B’s with an occasional D or A. He isn’t interested in sports or friends, only in video games and friends who play video games. Any time the parents try to make him do his homework he lies, cheats, steals, screams until the give up. There are shouting matches on both sides about one a week. When progress reports come out Darren is grounded but always manages to hack the family computer and the grounding never really works.

Does it matter that he plays video games? Yes—if it makes him stay up too late, inactive, and antisocial

The parents have to decide, on their own, what they really care about. Does it matter that he plays video games? Yes—if it makes him stay up too late, inactive, and antisocial. Mom don’t care if he plays video games as long as the grades are good, he does some kind of physical activity and he has friends. This is the kind of agreement they might make:

  1. The computer/X-Box/whatever is off-limits each school day until homework is completed. If the homework is done with 75% accuracy then the kid is free to play games or do whatever until bedtime. Failure to comply results in the computer being locked away for two days, one week, whatever. Spell out the consequences, and then dispassionately enforce them as needed. Be consistent like the wall.
  2. The computer is off limits at 11PM (or whenever bedtime is) every night before a school night and by 1AM on weekend nights. If the child has impulse-control issues or cannot be trusted, then the physical tower (or laptop or console) is removed promptly by the parent and placed under lock and key. Don’t leave it up to temptation. Failure to comply results in the computer being locked away for two days, one week, whatever.
  3. Darren must choose one activity like karate, racquetball, tennis or something and stick with it. Family involvement is the best. Maybe Saturday afternoons from 11-4PM is outdoor time, or karate time or whatever. The parents must monitor this. The consequences for skipping this time are that the X-Box 360 is locked away until Darren does 500 pushups or runs/walks/jogs 5 miles. Parents must enforce and monitor this.
  4. Once a week Darren gets $20 and chauffer service so that he and a friend(s) (or girl) can go to the mall, movies, beach, park, zoo, whatever, as long as it is social and outside of the home gaming realm. No consequences for skipping this, but parents should monitor if they are concerned that he is isolated.

This can be tweaked to match your family’s situation. The main idea is to have everything spelled out in advance and dispassionately enforce the rules. If rules are totally alien to your family, there will be a challenging adjustment period. In making your family plan, remember:

  • Focus only on what is really important. Don’t get nitpicky.
  • Keep it simple for everyone to be successful.
  • Accept that your child is his or her own person, and leave room for that.
  • Give children some control and choice.
  • Post the SIGNED agreement on the fridge, bathroom mirror, every bedroom door.
  • Remember that you are bound by the agreement, too. If it spells out a reward for a behavior, you can’t take it away for some other reason.

Good Luck!
Allen Dobkin



1. ninah - March 20, 2007

I’m so happy that you posted this article on the site. We were doing parenting groups using “The Nurtured Heart Approach” by Howie Glasser, and what you write is very consistent with his approach. He says that we are our kids’ ultimate toy, and when we give huge emotional reactions to the negative behavior, our children get hooked on those reactions. It’s very much like being hooked on junk food. It’s immeditately gratifying for the child to see parents go ballistic, but in the long term it’s negative for both of them.

He also says that high energy kids are like a Ferrari and require more intense parenting, such as paying attention to any behavior that you like (and doing it frequently) and giving appropriate consequences for out of line behavior. It requires less for a Ferrari to get going, so you have to be more on top of it that if you were driving a Volkswagon. However in this case the Volkswagon child also benefits from Ferrari parenting.

I look forward to your future blogs.
Ninah Kessler

2. Best Home - August 17, 2007

This is very nice and informative post. I have bookmarked your site in order to find out your post in the future.

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