Rules, Routines and Discipline.

Dear Parents,

For the past two weeks I have written about punishment and corporal (physical punishment). The question arose: If punishment is ineffective in the long run, then what works? The answer: routines, rules, and discipline.

Routines are sets of behaviors parents teach their child so the child does what is expected of him. Parents are able to use routines for such things as getting ready for bedtime at night and getting ready for school in the morning. A routine can be imposed on any regular event, such as going to the store, the park, and even getting into and out of the car safely. Chores actually get done when they are put into routines. Routines have a clear beginning and a clear end with specific steps in between. Routines work well when they are carefully taught over time and consistently enforced.

Rules are boundaries for good behavior. Before a parent makes a rule, he needs to know that the rule is appropriate for the age and ability of his child. For example, one would not make a rule that a 3-year-old sit at the dinner table for 45 minutes. Rules need to be enforceable. A parent cannot give a 4-year-old rules to follow at school or with the babysitter unless the adults in those locations agree to the same rules. It is good to know, though, that children are able to follow different sets of rules in different places or with different people without getting confused. Effective rules are general. For example, if the intent is that a child should not jump on furniture, the rule of “no jumping on the bed,” is too specific because it applies only to the one bed and nothing else (remember children are literal). The rule “no jumping on furniture” is more useful because it applies at home, friends’ houses, and public places such as restaurants. Just like routines, rules must be taught consistently enforced.

The enforcement of routines and rules needs to fit the child. Many children respond to ‘The Look,’ or to the question “What is the rule here?” or “What should you be doing?” They respond by getting on as required. If they don’t, then discipline happens. First, though, a parent needs to ask if the rule or routine was clearly understood and reasonable in the situation. Second, a parent needs to question if something going on had a negative effect on the child’s behavior. For example, a child with an ear ache may feel too poorly to stick to routine, yet she doesn’t know how to express that she doesn’t feel well. A child at a birthday party with ten other children running wild may get carried away by the environment mixed with the sugar buzz.  That isn’t to say you should let a child run amok, but a caution to temper your response to the situation.

As the adult, you have the responsibility to respond to unwanted behaviors evenly, consistently and appropriately. Never discipline out of anger or when you are overwrought. Always take time to calm yourself down. Your child can sit and wait until you are ready. Finally, we are ready to delve deeper into discipline. We will continue this conversation in next week’s article.


Evelyn Satterlee, M.Ed.

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