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The discipline of discipline

April 3, 2009 - Betsy Bethel
Tedd Tripp, former teacher, principal and author of "Shepherding Your Child's Heart," tells about a 5-year-old girl with an overwhelming need to be in charge. In her kindergarten class, she would dictate what games would be played at recess and, if there were two teams, she would pick the members for both.

At the end of one day, she decreed that tomorrow all the girls should wear skirts. Woe to the little girl who showed up in trousers, Tripp said. The teacher allowed this behavior, which most likely was an extension of how the youngster was permitted to act at home.

This is the second time this week I have heard discussion involving children being given too much control. Addressing the 2009 Leadership Wheeling class, U.S. Magistrate Jim Siburt discussed a scenario he has seen time and again in his courtroom.

To paraphrase, he said a kid misbehaves at home, and nothing is done; he misbehaves at school, and nothing happens; he breaks the law, and he's given a slap on the wrist; he breaks his probation terms, and he goes to jail but gets out early because the jail is full. Next, he ends up in federal court. His option is to plead guilty or proceed to a jury trial.

He then makes a "perfectly rational decision," Siburt says. He chooses to go to trial, because nothing bad has ever happened to him before, so why should this be any different? He goes to trial, is found guilty, and is sentenced to 15-20 years in federal prison. He cries to the judge that his attorney never told him he could get 15-20 years, and the attorney produces the letter sent to the defendant outlining exactly what would happen if he were found guilty by a jury. The man is stunned that he's not going to "get away with it."

Ruminating on this, and having a strong-willed little girl of my own, I can see that we are in big trouble if our society doesn't put a clamp down at home. I'm all for building self-esteem and giving children choices (to an extent). I'm NOT talking about unleashing on our children's hind quarters. But we need to make it a priority to figure out a discipline plan that works. An undisciplined, unruly child most likely does not think highly of himself, does not respect others and continuously makes poor choices.

I struggle with this issue constantly. I have read some books and asked my elders and some respected peers for advice. I do not have all the answers, but I learn more every day. It's a work in progress! If there's one thing I've learned so far, it's that disciplining a child requires discipline by the parent. In other words, I must be disciplined enough to carry out the process with my child. It is my No. 1 job to teach her right from wrong.

I have found it might be funny at first when a 2-year-old barks orders at you. And it's great to give your toddler choices between Cheerios or Rice Krispies, or the pink T-shirt or yellow T-shirt. But if your child is given the illusion she's always in charge, she might turn into a power-hungry kindergartner ... or a federal prisoner.

A little illustration from my own life. One day when Emma was disobeying me, I told her, "I'm in charge. You're NOT in charge." I started saying that quite a bit. After a time out in her room a few days ago, when I hadn't used those words, she patted herself on the chest and declared, "Not in charge." I was impressed. But then a few days later, she was angry with me and shouted, "I'M the charge, Mommy! I'VE got the charge on!" Instead of taking her proclamation seriously and reiterating that no, in fact, Mommy is still in charge, I laughed. It was so cute how she said it! While laughter broke the intensity of the moment, I did a disservice to Emma by allowing her to "get away" with shouting at me and being willful.

So, I have sooooo much to learn. But, in an effort to giving you something remotely helpful, here are some "get-started-today" tips.

1. Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no.

2. Don't make empty threats. (I don't mean that if you threaten to beat your child if he doesn't stop crying you should go through with your plan. I mean, don't say it in the first place!)

3. Seek advice from friends and family whose children are well behaved.


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