Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Discipline Gradient

I recently finished reading Susan Thierman's The Discipline Gradient after I heard it was used in a local parenting class.  Being the father of two young children, I don't feel it is possible to know too much about how to be a good parent, and I am glad to have read this book.

Thierman acknowledges that every child is different and no single discipline approach will work all the time.  She makes frequent reference to different forms of discipline that have been described by child psycholgists and places them on a gradient beginning with those that rely on prevention and communication, moving on to behavior management.  Time outs, aka "boring interludes", are higher up on the discipline gradient and included among other behavior management tools.  (It sounds simple, but there really is a right and wrong way to use time outs effectively.)  Positive reinforcement is emphasized, with intrinsic reinforcement and self-discipline being the goal.

I found interesting the observation that praise should be specific, which echoes what I have long known about the importance of the feeling of self-efficacy.  From page 162 of the book:
On a more subtle level, specific praise admires the task, not the child.  Admiring the task helps the child feel confident about his abilities.  Admiring the child can build expectations that may hinder the child later... praising the task gives children feelings of accomplishment which, in turn, raise their self-esteem.  With positive self-esteem, the child feels even more confident and willing to try more new things.  
One of the best things parents can help their children learn are decision making skills.  Thierman writes: "What we can do is look toward the future and plan to encourage our children, to help them gain confidence and the skills of decision-making, problem-solving, and self-discipline."  Teach self-discipline, not obedience (218). 

Thierman's book is full of good advice to the new or experienced parent - parents should try to spend at least one hour a week alone with their child to build strong relationships, use active listening skills and I messages, and explain consequences in advance.  Always anticipate potential problems.  Parents are advised not to reward children for stopping negative behaviors, but for doing positive behaviors.  And Thierman is careful to distinguish between discipline and punishment.  Discipline aims to teach internal controls; punishment aims to control behavior.  And punishment is often accompanied by anger.  She reminds us that "every child, no matter how difficult his behavior, has positive characteristics."  Two chapters at the end of the book make a very strong case for never reacting in anger to a child.

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