By Bill Cosby and Dr. Alvin Poussaint
January 01, 2006
Children require structure and predictable rules. Above all, they require attention. Back in the day, parents bothered their children when they came home from school. Some parents may not have known how to do long division. They may not have known how to write or how to construct a business letter. But they knew how to prod their children because they wanted them to be something.
Parents back then might have said, "Well, what did you do today in geometry?" They may have thought isosceles was a guy from the Bible and that a hypotenuse was a big ugly animal in Africa, but they knew their kids. They would make us go upstairs, get the book, bring it down, sit with them, and go over it. And even if they didn't understand, they'd pretend to. They pretended to because they knew kids needed an education. That need hasn't changed.
Share your experience.
A wise parent or caregiver shares her wisdom. She tells children about useful social skills as well as about the need to be responsible and orderly. A child who is disciplined will be more obedient and also more organized as a student. He'll do better in school and in life. Of course he will!
Educate your children.
Good discipline is key to supporting the learning and education that our children need. Kids do better academically and are less likely to drop out if they take more responsibility for their school success. Self-disciplined people are more likely to succeed at whatever they do.
Distinguish discipline from punishment.
This is not just a word game. Discipline and punishment really are different things. Discipline may include punishment but aims for a much higher goal. Discipline includes other ways to shape a child's behavior for the long term, not just for the short term. The aim of good discipline is to teach children self-control and the difference between right and wrong, which becomes part of their inner character.
Behave the way you want your children to behave.
Children learn discipline in ways that parents need to be aware of. For instance, children will learn right and wrong by watching what their parents do. If parents lie, the kids will. If parents use racial slurs, so will the kids. If parents use violence at home, the kids will use it in the streets—the same with alcohol and drug abuse and cigarettes. This stuff starts early. We know a kid whose first words were "lousy bum," and he used them—echoing his old man—to address an Eagles wide receiver who dropped the ball in the end zone.
You parents and caregivers who don't want the kids to do these things, don't do them yourselves. That's the first step. If you have other bad habits, like being sloppy or late, don't expect the kids to be neat or on time. You can say, "Do what I say, not what I do," all you want, but when you turn your head, the kids will do what you do. Actions speak louder than words. Whatever behaviors and attitudes you want for the children, you'd better model them in your life. Tone down your language. As a parent or caregiver you should consider the language you use within the four walls of your home. Curb the yelling and the angry tone. For instance, imagine yourself at dinner. Listen to yourself say, "Pass the bread." Then ask yourself, How am I saying it? Do I should like a parent who cares? Or do I sound like a prison guard? Your kids can tell the difference.
Listen to your children. Think about sitting down with the children in your charge and asking them—with a smile and a relaxed expression—the very simple question, "What makes you happy?" They'll be glad to answer that. And ask, "What makes you sad?" Don't even get into anger. Just ask, "What makes you sad?" And then you can deal with it from there. Try that every day, just talking to the children.
Reward good behavior. The best kind of reward is praise. If a child usually makes a mess at the table, praise her when she doesn't make a mess. And make sure she helps to clean up the mess she does make. In this way, you are helping to reinforce the behaviors in your child that you want to continue.
Make the punishment fit the crime. Penalties help, but they should not be excessive and should be linked with the misbehavior that you are attempting to modify. For instance, if your kid is not getting enough sleep because she is staying up too late, the penalty could be an earlier bedtime. The reward could be a compliment when she wakes up refreshed in the morning and looking like a million bucks.
Set limits wisely. Children need limits set by parents or caregivers, often to protect them. You can't let your kid run out into the street where he might get smacked by a car. You restrain him and say very firmly, "No, no—dangerous. You can get hit by a car!" There is no need to spank. You took the time to explain, and you were firm. With repetition, the child will get the message and learn not to run into the street.
Setting limits also involves setting rules that children are expected to follow. Tell them that dirty clothes go in the hamper, garbage goes in the trash, food goes nowhere near the bedroom, and adults are to be respected, not talked back to. Let older children set their own rules. To a point, of course, it's helpful to let older children help set the rules. This is particularly true for teenagers. Kids can even help determine what the penalty should be when they break a rule, such as curfew. You have the final say, but at the same time it helps children to participate in setting household rules.
Be consistent. Children need to know what you expect from them by the limits you set. And you must be consistent. If there is no TV on school nights, there is no TV on school nights. Period. Stick to these rules no matter how loudly kids whine. If you let them change your mind by throwing a fit, they have won a victory that is not good for them or for you. In fact, you will have validated the outburst by giving in. Sometimes adults cave in because they feel the children won't love them if they don't. But, in the long term, children will love and respect adults more if they are consistent. And remember, consistency doesn't mean being rigid when you realize circumstances have changed.
State the rules positively. Parents and caregivers should put a positive spin on rules. For instance, "Please put dirty clothes in the hamper," works better than, "Don't throw your dirty clothes on the floor." "Treat family with respect" is more useful than, "Don't smack your little sister." Too many "Thou Shalt Nots" encourages some children to defy authority or express anger. Even with the positive tone, you still have to be firm and consistent.
Give children choices. You can also discipline children by giving them choices. Do they want to take a bath before or after dinner? When the kids choose the time, they have made a commitment to take a bath, which is what counts. Do they want to wear the black pants or the green pants to church? They get the choice, but you have just told them they are not wearing jeans.
Likewise, you can let them choose from a variety of foods as long as the choices are all good ones. Children who are given choices feel respected. They are also learning independence, which becomes especially important during adolescence. Children who are allowed to make small choices at young ages are better prepared to deal with the larger choices when not so young.
With proper discipline at home, kids behave well when they are away from home and out of sight of their parents or caregivers. Disciplined kids are less likely to disrupt the classroom or bully and intimidate other kids. Your self-disciplined child is someone you can count on to take responsibility for what he does and is less likely to do what others want him to. Disciplined children know the difference between right and wrong and are less likely to go wrong, and today there are a whole lot of ways to get there—illicit drug and alcohol abuse, premature sexuality, violence. You name it, someone is doing it. But it doesn't have to be your kid.