Discipline is a tricky business for most, if not all, parents. Being responsible for and raising a child is demanding enough to confuse parents and at times deem them clueless. We sat down with Psychologist Dr. Bonnie Settlage for more insight about common issues and tips on parenting.
What do you think are factors that could affect the correct course of discipline?
I think the greatest influence on the child is their primary caregiver, who they’re spending most of their time with. If that’s not their parents then obviously it’s whom they are spending their times with. Even so, we still learn things from all around us; from the relationships we have and the world that we’re in. Children might pick things up from school and grandparents. They’re also smart enough to learn to be a certain way with their grandparents and another way with their parents and I think that’s just a natural part of learning and how to navigate the world.
How would parents fight that? What should they do to make sure discipline is met?
First of all, it’s important to understand that that’s going to happen, it’s natural and parents should not to be too concerned. The grandparents aren’t going to ruin their child or something like that. To a certain extent you have to expect that they’ll learn things from other people. Besides that, what you want as a parent is that you want your child to adopt the values and the behaviors that you think are important, healthy and right. The best way for that to happen is if the child learns to understand why it’s important or what the purpose is behind these rules or behind these forbidden behaviors or behaviors that are encouraged. That way, you’ll ensure that even if your child is not with you they’re following the rules you want them to follow. If they have the sense in them that this is how things should be and they know why because it’s for this specific reason, they’re more likely then to almost consistently follow whatever discipline the parent puts forward. Ideally, if something makes sense to the kid, then they don’t need to have mom or dad there threatening to punish them if they don’t do it. There’s quite a bit of research to support that, depending on how kids are disciplined, it’ll determine to what extent they internalize the values. So if a child is really harshly disciplined for misbehaving, what tends to happen is that the child will not misbehave when they’re around the parent because they’re afraid of being punished so they won’t do it but it hasn’t been internalized. Thus, if they’re somewhere else, they don’t care about the actual rule; they just care about not getting caught. Whereas if the child has received a mild punishment right after the misbehavior they did, and the parent explains why, the kid gets to understand what’s behind it and they think about it and they’re not coerced into behaving a certain way. It feels more like a choice the child is making. That type of parenting style also seems to predict the best outcome in terms of children having high self-esteem, feeling happy and secure, higher achievement in school, being more concerned about others, compared to a parenting style where parents are extremely punitive and are not very understanding, or don’t offer much warmth. Those children tend to be more fearful, have lower self-esteem, tend to do worse, often have aggressive relationships themselves. Parents should go to extremes though, the ideal balance is to have structure and predictability but also warmth and using a disciplining style that doesn’t instill fear in the child.
What should parents do when children imitate other children, by spitting, for example?
With something like spitting for example, if you have a little boy and he goes and he learns spitting at school and all his friends are spitting and mom comes along and tells him not to spit because it’s unsanitary, for example, he probably doesn’t care about her reasons. We remember, as kids, we pick things up from our friends. In terms of changing an undesirable behavior, the recommendation is first of all to look if there’s any sort of factors that are reinforcing the behavior like, if dad giggles every time he spits, for example. Also, for a lot of negative behaviors, even the scolding is reinforcing because it’s a type of attention that maybe the kid wants. Ignoring the behavior altogether, would be the first reaction because that basically takes away all the possible reinforcers and then eventually the behavior should extinguish. This is classical behavioral psychology, which does seem to work a lot of the time. It that doesn’t work then punishment might be the second option. Punishment is only punishment if it actually works though, if it actually decreases the behavior. If it’s given and it doesn’t decrease the behavior that it’s not a punishment. The most effective punishments are ones that are done immediately after the behavior, not like the next day or week and that are sort of mild, not really extreme punishments.
What do you think of the chain or cycle of screaming?
Absolutely, it’s always dynamic. When mom and dad are fighting, that raises the anxiety or anger in the child and so they start acting out. Maybe even they start acting out because they realize that the parents would then stop fighting with each other and focus on the child. That might not work though and because the child is acting out, it might create more stress in the parent so they fight more. That’s why it’s often really strongly encouraged that you do not argue or have marital fights in front of your kids, it’s really damaging to the children. If a child is witnessing violence between their parents, that’s enough to have the child removed from the home, even if the child has never been touched or hurt, only witnessing it. There’s so much evidence about how damaging it is to the child that it is now considered a form of child abuse.