Many modern dads are not comfortable with the disciplinarian role their fathers and grandfathers performed. So how do dads deal with bad behaviour?
The 10-year-old daughter of Ohio resident Matt Cox certainly learned a ‘life lesson’ (as he put it) when she was caught bullying a classmate. As a punishment, the little girl was made to walk 8km to school in the cold, with dad following behind in his car.
Embarrassing for her, certainly. And proportionate to the crime? Perhaps. Though Mr Cox may have gone way beyond proportionate justice by posting the video of this walk of shame on social media. Does any ten-year-old deserve public shaming?
Mr Cox said: “I know a lot of you parents are not going to agree with this and that’s alright. I am doing what I feel is right to teach my daughter a lesson and to stop her from bullying.”
The minefield of discipline
Whatever your views on this particular punishment, the episode reopened the somewhat vexed topic of how dads discipline children. Many of us are confused about how best to stop our children behaving in a way that we consider antisocial or uncooperative. It’s fair to say that this was not a problem our fathers’ or grandfathers’ generations ever seemed to struggle with.
In fact, the phrase “wait till your father gets home” was (if popular culture is to be believed) the most effective threat any harassed housewife had at her disposal back in the day. In the past dads were seen as the ultimate enforcers of family discipline, nightmarish figures whose return from work was dreaded by any child who had dared to put so much as a toe out of line.
Dads don’t discipline like they used to
If this were ever true, it certainly isn’t now. One study from the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that dads were more likely than mums to let kids get away with bad behaviour.
“Mothers were more likely to ensure their child complied with an instruction or request, or to follow through with a punishment after a warning had been given,” the authors wrote.
And it’s fair to say that discipline is an issue many dads have trouble coming to terms with. Father-of-two Andy says:
“I admit that I am terrible at disciplining the kids. I would never hit my children, and even shouting seems like bullying. I shouted at my daughter once when she was about five and she looked terrified of me. I felt awful, and I haven’t done it since.”
In a way, Andy’s guilt and confusion is a good thing. It’s far easier to harshly punish a child you don’t know very well. The modern dad’s dilemma around punishment is testament to how much closer we are to our children, and how much more involved we are in every aspect of their lives, than previous generations of fathers.
At the same time, children do require discipline from time to time. Letting bad behaviour pass unpunished is simply storing up problems for the future. So what should dads do?
I shouted at my daughter once when she was about five and she looked terrified of me
Spanking doesn’t work
For all the confusion surrounding discipline, on one point the available research seems clear. Hitting your children is likely to be counterproductive, and may even be harmful in the long run. Research has found that children who are spanked frequently have lower IQs, are more aggressive, and are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than those who are not.
“Moderate to heavy spanking [twice a week or more] predicts later mental and physical health and academic problems,” parenting researcher Alan Kazdin has said. “Spanking doesn’t change a child’s behavior, and even if it did, there are so many hazards to it that it’s still not an appropriate method of discipline.”
So what does work? Simon, a father of three, says his most potent weapon is the threat to remove screen time. “Seriously, that works with mine every time. Tell them if they don’t stop hitting each other or griping about tidying their filthy rooms, they will lose screen time for the day. But if they fail to cooperate you have to go through with it.”
Many experts agree that following through on a threatened punishment is essential. If you say they will lose screen time, they have to lose screen time, even if that makes your life harder in the short term.
And if you threaten them with no pudding, they can’t get pudding, however much they beg, cajole and scream
That might be the secret of effective punishment. Make it proportionate, and then stick to it, however hard it makes things for you. Here are more tips from experts:
- Set a good example. If you sulk, shut down when things become difficult or shout, your child will follow your lead.
- Be consistent. If you tell your child that if they do this, then this will happen, you have to go through with the then bit.
- Look to the source. What fuels your child’s poor behaviour? Try and understand more and tackle the problem at its source.
- Stay calm. Discipline should be as much about teaching your child about good behaviour as it is punishing them for bad behaviour. The latter might give short-term gain (he/she stops doing what they shouldn’t be doing) but long-term pain (they start doing it again an hour, day or week later).
- Explain. Talk to your child about what they did and why it is wrong. After all, they’re kids, they might not know. Taking away screen time (or whatever it might be) is meaningless and potentially counterproductive if your child doesn’t really understand why they’re being punished.
- Don’t wait. Consequences must come hot on the heels of poor behaviour if the link between the two is to be fully understood.
- Make consequences age appropriate. You know your child best, but threatening a teenager with an ice cream ban is unlikely to work. Don’t humiliate older kids with little kid punishments.