Dear Dr T.,
My Moishy is driving me crazy! He’s eight and cute and full of life – but he doesn’t listen to a word I say.
It goes like this:
“Moishy, get ready for bed.” [X3]
“Moishy, get ready for bed!” [really loud voice]
“Moishy, get ready for bed or you won’t get Shabbos party this week. [no response]
“Moishy, get ready for bed!!!!! [Lock the door from outside so he can’t come out.]
Then the bargaining starts.
“Please, I’ll get into bed, but open the door. I don’t like to be alone in room with door closed….’’
[tears and protests]
After lots of back and forth, somehow, he gets to sleep.
As unpleasant as this is, the worst part is that Moishy obviously isn’t learning anything – because just about every night, we repeat this same scene. I don’t know about Moishy, but I feel sick about this. Especially because it always ends with Moishy crying.
Bedtime is typically one of the most contentious times of the day, but, I have a feeling that you are asking me more than just how to put Moishy to bed. Your question is a much larger one- how can I discipline effectively and avoid the disobedience and tears?
As noted in previous columns, discipline – or chinuch-means to teach. The fact that Moishy isn’t learning anything means that you have yet to manage to institute discipline. In order to be effective, healthy discipline needs four basic components:
-is long term
-is considerate of child’s dignity and respect.
Let’s look at this more closely.
The point of discipline is not to punish or control, lecture or give consequences; it is simply to teach. How a parent achieves this teaching is open for discussion, but where there is no learning – there has been no discipline. So, for example, a parent concerned with table manners can model appropriate behavior, buy play dishes and have tea parties, or reward the use of a knife and fork, thereby reinforcing the behavior. The parent may even decide to do all three. At the end of the day, we do what works so that our child learns – without too much cost to our child.
The salient point of discipline is that it is long term, not short term. It is our mandate to teach our children appropriate behavior that they will practice throughout their lifetime. So, when we yell or threaten and get instant compliance- though we may have succeeded in the short run, we have failed, because all we have done is scare our children into behaving this one time, in our presence. We can intimidate our child into using a knife this once, or maybe even a few times. But when we are not around, our child will likely feel free to do as he chooses. Success means that the child internalizes the behavior and practices it – even when no one is looking.
Effective discipline is also relational – which means that is works in the context of the relationship. It preserves the relationship and maintains the precious bond between us and our children. As has been noted in this column and over and over again in the many speeches and printed material so prevalent in our world today, our relationship with our children is our insurance policy. Children who feel close to their parents and identify with them are more likely to follow in their footsteps. Children who feel criticized and demeaned often just want ‘out.’
What this means for us parents is that our discipline must support the parent-child relationship, not damage or destroy it. The child must feel that the parent is on his side and for his own best interest, wants to teach him the rules of the road. In no way should discipline come across as harsh and punitive, revengeful or out of control.
Which brings us to the fourth principle -that discipline must be predicated on respect and the dignity of the child. Teaching is respectful, shouting is not. Harsh punishment is degrading, but a natural consequence is not. Having a consistent structure in the home that accounts for the needs of our children is a respectful way to teach behavior. [Being armed with consequences for the occasional misstep helps the parent feel armed and makes the child – not his parent - responsible for the fallout from his behavior.]
Let’s apply our four criteria to your situation with Moishy. Your constant power struggle with him over bedtime indicates that you’ve yet to teach him to get ready for bed. Your yelling does help in the short run, but, as you yourself admit, not in long run. You’re getting fed up and locking Moishy in the room definitely impacts on his dignity as evidenced by the fact that he is reduced to begging and crying. I think it’s safe to conclude that neither of you feels good about the other after a night of power struggling.
But let’s try this instead. Choose a calm moment and talk to Moishy about the bedtime routine- shower, teeth brushing, special time, and shma. Then, at night, support this learning by motoring Moishy through the steps, encouraging all the while. After a few nights, Moishy will probably know the routine, but may still be reluctant to follow through. Teaching for the long hall takes persistence – yours. You may have to repeat the steps – the discussions, encouragement, and motoring through. Now is a good time to add some positive reinforcement as well. Talk to Moishy about what he would really like and prepare plenty of short term and long- term reinforcements. Do not think of this as spoiling your child, but rather as teaching while maintaining and enhancing your relationship and the dignity of your child.
While discipline is generally a parent's greatest challenge, with proper preparation, consistency, and determination, we can help our children become their very best selves.