Arrow-right Camera


The Message Is Paramount With Discipline

Her 8-year-old daughter, the mother told me with great concern, had recently thrown a tantrum over not getting her way about something, the child eventually becoming so carried away she seemed truly unable to stop.

Dad favored a stern approach. He wanted to send his daughter to her room for the remainder of the day and take away a privilege or two to let her know that such behavior would not be tolerated. Mom, on the other hand, favored an understanding approach. She wanted to hold her daughter on her lap and help her calm down. She had no intention of giving in to the tantrum, but felt confinement and punishment were unnecessary. Dad thought his wife’s approach would “reward” the tantrum.

In the end, Mom prevailed, but she had almost immediately started second-guessing herself. “What should we have done?” she asked, worried that she had been too soft.

I told her that neither approach, in fact, was more “psychologically correct” than the other. Both sent the same basic message: “You don’t get your way by throwing tantrums.” The overarching problem was the recurring parental conflict over discipline styles. (Note: Not over whether discipline is needed, but rather how best to convey it.)

The older I get, the more convinced I become that such conflicts reflect personality differences that are relatively immutable. If that’s true - and most research into personality “types” supports it - it’s unrealistic to expect that one of the parties to these conflicts can eventually be persuaded to overhaul their discipline style.

My experience, both professional and personal, is that as long as there is agreement between parents as to (a) the necessity of discipline and (b) the message to be conveyed, then either parent’s disciplinary approach will “work.” One approach will accomplish something the other will not, and vice versa. Said differently, neither is perfect, but either is fine.

The problem, then, becomes that of resolving the conflict over discipline styles from one situation to the next. It should go without saying that the more quickly parents are able to resolve any single conflict, the better.

The best way I’ve found to achieve this borrows an idea from pro basketball: If two opposing players are struggling over possession of the ball, the matter is decided by the “possession arrow” which “points,” from case to case, at one team, then the other, and so on.

Similarly, two parents whose personalities lend to different discipline styles can simply decide in advance who is going to make the call the next time there’s a difference of opinion concerning some disciplinary matter, and take turns making the call from that point on.

Using the example above, the next time the daughter throws a tantrum (or misbehaves in some other manner), the “possession arrow” would point to Dad. The parents would discuss the problem, setting forth their ideas for dealing with it, but Dad would make the final decision, upon which the “possession arrow” would point to Mom. And so on.

This all but eliminates the conflict over discipline and at the same time makes it likely that the parents will, over time, develop greater respect for each other’s disciplinary methods. Finally, their daughter receives the benefits of both styles, delivered up in fairly equal measure. And two heads, after all, are always better than one.


Tags: column