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Living with Children: One discipline problem at a time

| Monday, April 15, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

One of the reasons — it's probably in the top three reasons, in fact — that parents fail at solving discipline problems is they try to solve too many at once. In so doing, they scatter their disciplinary energy too thinly and end up solving none. The only thing they accomplish is getting more frustrated and more convinced that there is something about their child that renders discipline ineffective — a gene perhaps, inherited from the father (who else?), that causes a biochemical imbalance.

If a corporation manufactures 10 products that are all losing money, its managers do not try to rehabilitate all 10 products at once. Instead, they focus their marketing energy and dollars on one. They are fairly certain that the renewed success of that one item will have a positive effect on the other nine. And they're right! Shortly after bingobangos begin showing a profit, whatchamas and humperdoos begin operating in the black, as well. Pretty soon, all 10 products are doing well. Mind you, if management had tried to jump-start all 10 at once, the corporation would have gone bankrupt.

And so it is when dealing with discipline problems. No matter how many there are, pick one — it doesn't really matter which one — and deal with it in a very organized way. When you have solved that one problem, you will almost surely notice that one or two other problems have spontaneously vanished. I call it “disciplinary math.” If you start with 10 discipline problems — tantrums, disobedience, disrespect, teasing the dog, leaving clothes all over the house and so on — and you solve one, you are likely to find that you only have seven problems left. Solve one of those and you have only four left. Four problems minus one is one and that goes the way of the other nine as soon as your child sees you focusing on it. During this process, which may take several months from start to finish (time well spent), just muddle through the problems you haven't yet targeted. Their day will come.

I once consulted with a couple whose early-elementary-age son was giving them fits. In addition to speaking disrespectfully, ignoring instructions and interrupting conversations, he was not getting ready for school on time in the morning. The parents took turns haranguing, hectoring and hassling until he was finally ready to leave the house. Because their day almost always got off on the wrong foot, they were eager to solve that problem. Instead, I helped them develop an organized approach to the disrespectful statements that flew out of his mouth whenever things didn't go his way.

A few weeks later, the parents told me that the disrespect had all but completely stopped. Oh, and by the way, their son was getting ready to leave for school in the morning without being harangued and so on. And other problems were showing improvement as well!

“Disciplinary math” may defy the rules of arithmetic, but it works!

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents' questions on his website at www.rosemond.com.

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