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122 APRIL 2009
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Consistency: Myth vs. Reality

John Stein

Every so often, I see an article or a presentation in which some professional talks about the importance of being consistent with discipline and offers strategies for doing so. Don’t hit children, they advise. Hitting children is all about power and control. It is demeaning and humiliating to children. And it teaches children to become violent.

Instead, find something children like and take it away. A favorite toy, an activity, a “privilege”. (Many things that we consider to be privileges for children we consider to be rights for ourselves). As if taking something from children is not about power and control. As if it is not demeaning and humiliating to have someone take away something children do not want to forfeit. At least, taking things away does not teach children to become violent. Or does it? Do children surrender these things freely? Or is some threat of force required? And what does it teach children about the property and rights of others when adults do not respect the property and rights of children?

They advise us to tell children in advance what the consequence will be, then follow through. The message is clear: providing consequences is necessary. Moreover, it is sufficient – that’s all that responsible adults have to do to teach children to behave.

They talk about discipline and consequences instead of punishment. Punishment sounds so primitive. “Consequences” sounds modern and scientific – behavioral scientists talk about consequences and behavior. Nevertheless, the “consequences” are nothing more than good old fashioned punishment.

It all sounds very sensible. It appeals to our common sense. We all know that children will change their behavior when they know that it will lead to unpleasant consequences.

The problem is that being consistent with discipline is a myth. It is quite simply not possible to be consistent with discipline, no matter how hard we try. Trying to be consistent with discipline may very likely result in reinforcement procedures instead of punishment procedures for the very behaviors about which we are most concerned. Each time children are successful in avoiding detection and punishment (Oops! I meant “consequences"), it serves as a powerful reinforcement for their mischievous behavior.

For consequences to have an effect on behavior, those consequences must be dependent on the behavior. The consequences imposed by adults are dependent on adults. They cannot occur without the adults who impose them. When adults don’t know about the behavior, they can’t impose the consequence. And children know this.

When children get caught and punished, we like to think we are punishing them for their behavior. In reality, from a behavioral science perspective, the behavior that led to their getting caught is the behavior most likely to become associated with the punishment. The behavior associated with getting caught is the behavior most likely to change. They weren’t careful enough, vigilant enough, clever enough. They didn’t plan carefully enough. They forgot something or overlooked something...

Consider such behaviors as shoplifting, theft, smoking, drinking, experimenting with drugs, or sex. Or doing anything else that is forbidden, no matter how trivial or serious. Consider speeding on the highway in your own car. Or even parking illegally for a few minutes.

There are two goals for these behaviors. The first has to do with the objective of the behavior; the second has to do with getting away with it. Sometimes, the success at getting away with it is more reinforcing than the actual result of the behavior.

So what is the alternative? Being inconsistent with punishment? (Ooops. I meant “discipline.”) Sounds ridiculous. But is it? When we tell children in advance what the consequences will be (i.e., what their punishment will be), we are in effect communicating that we expect them to make decisions based on what we will do to them. If they don’t know what we will do to them, how will they make decisions?

Quite simply, they will have to think about something else. Suppose we teach them what to think about? Suppose we teach them about the real consequences of their behavior? The consequences we are most concerned about. The consequences that result directly from their behavior instead of the adults who impose them. Those having to do with their health, their safety, their well-being, their future, their moral development, the rights and safety of others. And their self-respect.

What are the consequences of shoplifting if you don’t get caught? Obviously, you get something you want. A candy bar, a pack of cigarettes, a toy, clothing...but there are also consequences for the store owner who paid for the item and now can’t sell it. Or for the clerk who might have to pay for items missing on her shift. Or for other customers who have to pay more for everything they buy in order to cover the cost of shoplifting so the store can make a profit and stay in business. If people took whatever they wanted, who would bother making anything, or growing food? Our society is based on the rights of ownership. Taking something without paying for it is taking unfair advantage of other people. No one likes people who take unfair advantage of others. Is that the kind of person you want to be?

Do we want children to think primarily about the consequences they will get? Or would we rather they think about the consequences they cause?

I have never known a child who was not concerned about fairness on some level. They all seem ready to agree that they want to be treated fairly. And few, if any, will say that they want to take unfair advantage of others, to treat other people unfairly. I have been more amazed with the children who were affected by this approach than with those who were not. Especially when we had this discussion in a group.

We may not stop them from shoplifting, but if we do a good job in helping them to understand the real consequences of their behavior, we may take some of the pleasure out of it. It’s not clever – it’s unfair. We may teach a little empathy. We may prompt some feelings of remorse or guilt instead of relieving them with punishment.

How about speeding? It’s dangerous. It can place the driver and others in jeopardy. We may not stop new drivers from speeding with this discussion, but we at least teach them to think about the consequences. Perhaps if they do decide to speed, they will do so more carefully, more responsibly, when there is no traffic.

The fact is, when adults try to get children to behave because of the consequences that they arrange, those consequences that depend on the adults, they are distracting children from the other consequences of their behavior, the ones that occur even when they don’t get caught. The ones that depend solely on their behavior and not on adults. The consequences that make the behavior wrong in the first place.

So can we talk more about being consistent with expectations and what we teach children and strategies for doing so and less about being consistent with discipline?

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