Honey, I spanked the kids: Discipline mistakes parents make

Mar 25, 2010 at 4:55 p.m. ET

Your 8-year-old is yelling about something, and you've already told her to stop three times. The tantrum continues -- and now she's dumped her jacket on the floor to boot.

"Stop screaming," you repeat, enunciating carefully. "And pick up your jacket." And still, defiance greets you in the form of refusal. The dance continues for another round, and you snap. Before you know what's happened, you've smacked your child's hand. She stares at you, shocked, then bursts into tears. And you're left wondering how you got to this moment.

Dr. Michele Borba, author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries has a few insights.

One of the most common discipline mistakes, she says, is "targeting too many different behaviors so there is no behavior change." In other words, when you target too many behaviors, you won't get the results you're hoping for. So, for example, decide which matters more: stopping the tantrums, or hanging up the jacket. Work on one at a time, and eventually you'll cure both. But try to solve both at once, and you'll only get nowhere fast.

Another mistake parents make, says Dr. Borba, is "not teaching a 'replacer' behavior. If you want your child to stop that tantrum -- or yelling, or biting -- then what behavior do you want him to do instead? Don't assume the child knows, teach him the new way."

So, for example, teach your child that it's fine to say, "I'm feeling really angry right now and I need to yell." Then give her a safe place to let go of her anger -- a pillow to punch, a basement to yell in, or whatever she needs.

Work on changing your own behavior, too, advises Dr. Borba. Too often, parents overlook a child's positive efforts and focus on the negative. "You will be more successful at changing a child's behavior if you reinforce what the child did right instead of what he did wrong," she says.

It's important to remember that change takes time. "Don't expect overnight success!" says Dr. Borba. "Changing a habit generally takes a minimum of 21 days, so track the behavior you're trying to change on a calendar for at least 21 days." Then you can evaluate where you are and what you still need to work on. Chances are, you'll see significant improvement.

The key, says Dr. Borba, is to remember that "the whole aim of discipline is to teach your child to act right without you someday. Kids will misbehave," she reminds parents. "Our goal is to show them a different way." Look at discipline as an opportunity to teach, rather than to punish. You and your child will both reap the benefits.


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