For the past 2+ years my husband and I have been on the unspoken yet all-consuming expedition to find a discipline technique that actually works with the now-8 kids and teens the Lord has placed in our household.
One technique that we used to implement quite frequently (too frequently) with our kids was that of writing lines. If Gleny got up in the morning and forgot to make her bed, she’d receive a firm scold along with the consequence of writing 50 or 100 times: “I will make my bed each morning without being asked.”
Our kids would dutifully finish the written consequence – although frequently with gritted teeth and after hours of procrastination, sitting there idly with the paper and pencil as they slowly (oh, so slowly!) wrote out one letter after another, filling up one or two or three pages with their empty declarations of change.
The only thing was, writing lines never worked. If Gleny (or whoever) had to write such-and-such number of lines declaring that she would make her bed each morning without being asked, guess what? The next morning as I would pop my head into her room to see how she had learned from her consequence, her bed still wasn’t made! In such a situation (which used to happen all the time) I would probably then storm over to wherever she was and chew her butt, assigning 100 more lines for her to write with the same pointless declaration she had made yesterday.
All to (almost) no avail.
As you can imagine, our lives quickly became consumed with such useless discipline, and literally several of our kids each day would have at least one written consequence, almost always enacting zero behavioral changes. Instead of being joyfully occupied with the task of parenting, we became the consequence-managers of our kids, which made just about everyone quite miserable.
Everything changed last May when my husband and I were at a conference for missionaries and other laborers who work with children, and we heard a red-headed middle-aged American woman speak who’s been working with Honduran children and teens for about 20 years. The topic of her speech was something along the lines of how to discipline effectively. I thought wearily: I’ve got to hear this.
She passed to the front of the small auditorium, very bubbly in her personality, and, among other advice that I have since forgotten, she introduced a disciplinary technique that she personally has used and seen effective over the years: the (hysterical) art of repetition. I don’t know if this is actually what it’s called (it’s probably not), but, in essence, that is what it is.
She began telling us that many children where she works had become accustomed to barging into her office without knocking. Her solution: each time a child or teen did so, she would greet them with a big smile and remind them that they need to knock and wait for her to respond before entering. Then she would say, “Go ahead and try it.” The child or teen would then leave the office that they had just barged into, go back outside, close the door, knock, wait for her response, and then enter. As they did this, she would smile even bigger and say, “Hey! That was great! I want to see you do that again,” and would send them back outside to do the whole knock-wait-enter process again. After a few times of repeating this habit-forming process, both the child/teen and her were cracking up, and rather than an empty scold or some consequence that has nothing to do with the infraction (such as writing lines), this disciplinary technique actually enforced the desired action, thus creating a sense of muscle memory and habit.
This advice that we heard last May has revolutionized our parenting, our kids’ reactions to correction, and – most importantly – has actually led them into habit transformation, leading us all out of the futile cycle of other disciplinary techniques we had previously used that produced no real change.
Here’s an example of this from our household: 12-year-old Jackeline is notorious for leaving things thrown about or starting a project and not finishing it (as in, not putting everything away afterward), so several months ago I decided to put the new technique into practice with her. I entered her bedroom one afternoon to see how she was coming along organizationally, and – not to my surprise – I found her dirty pajama pants thrown on the floor. Without the least bit of anger flowing through my veins I went, found her in the kitchen washing dishes with 11-year-old Gleny, and said, “Hey! Come with me, and I’m gonna show you something.”
Her eyes traced me suspiciously as she followed me to her room, where – with my eyes opened too-wide and my eyebrows raised-up just about as high as they would go – I said in a ridiculously slow tone, over-annunciating each syllable: “Dir-ty pants…go…in the ham-per.” My head was slowly – almost like a strange cartoon character – nodding up and down as my really-wide-open eyes were drilling her, my index fingers and thumbs carefully holding up the dirty pants in front of me as I demonstrated the 2-yard journey they had to take to the hamper.
She laughed at my antics, grabbed the pants from my careful fingers, threw them in the hamper and, in one motion, began heading for the door. I said in a sing-song tone, “Uh-oh! That’s too easy. You will put on the dirty pants over the shorts you’re wearing, lay down in your bed as if you’re going to sleep (because they’re the pajama pants she had worn to bed), get back up, take off the pajamas, put them in the hamper and walk out your door. Twenty times. Thank you!”
She looked at me with a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding stare as I read her thoughts perfectly: I don’t have time for this. I just promised never to leave my pants thrown on the floor again, okay?
But, being the wonderfully obedient daughter that she is, she only hesitated about 2.68 seconds before retrieving the pants out of the hamper and beginning the process.
I waited a few yards away in the living room as I heard her constant movement – putting the pants on, laying down, getting up, taking them off, putting them in the hamper, and then leaving the room only to enter again. It only took about a minute or two before she was laughing hysterically and a bit out of breath. Every time I would see her lovely face burst through the teal-colored curtain to her bedroom as she entered the living room, finishing a round, she would verbally say the count until she finally got up to 20 and finished the discipline. She did it all like a champ, I thanked her, and she returned to the kitchen to continue washing the dishes with Gleny.
Just because I was having too much fun, I decided to follow her to the kitchen. There she stood at the sink with Gleny, their backs to me, as I made my presence known, much to her surprise: “Hey, Jackeline?”
She turned around to face me, searching my face expectantly. I said in a really convincing tone: “Um…you left your pajama pants tossed on the floor.”
Her eyes grew wide and her jaw literally dropped as a devastated stillness overtook her. Her thoughts: Wha – How? I just –
Me: “Just kidding! Hey, thanks for washing the dishes.”
She let out a long, relieved sigh-laugh and eyed me as if we were already forming the beginnings of some fabulous inside joke.
My thought (and probably hers!): This is so much better than writing lines!
And, the best part: Although we have had to repeat this process with her a few times since, her behavior and habits really are changing to such an extent that she is not leaving her things haphazardly tossed about to the degree that she used to. She’s becoming suspiciously well-organized!
Other examples of this are: 8-year-old Jason used to always leave his school uniform bunched up on his dresser or floor instead of hung on the hanger as we had asked, so two consecutive nights as I was preparing dinner I had him in the kitchen with me, carefully hanging and then un-hanging his school uniform multiple times, forming the habit. Literally ever since then – and that was weeks ago – every afternoon as I peer into his room, I see his school uniform perfectly hung up! No more scolding or nagging, no long, drawn-out consequences, just habit-forming repetition!
A couple months ago we were all in-and-out of our little office building getting school supplies ready for the new school year (the Honduran school year begins in February), and every time one of our kids would enter, they would slam the door unintentionally, producing a heavy metal-on-metal bang that nearly shook my brain loose. Every time they slammed the door (which was more than a few times), I would look disapprovingly at the person who did it, who, in turn, would look at me with an I’m-so-sorry expression, and I would remind them: “Please be more careful with the door.”
Well, this produced zero result as, time and again as we were all entering and exiting the front door, carrying supplies to and fro, the door kept getting slammed by the same culprits. Then the idea occurred to me: the (hysterical) art of repetition. Not 10 seconds later another big slam shook the office building, and I looked at the culprit who started to do their traditional innocent shoulder-shrug I’m-so-sorry routine as they continued on their way, and I said in a very bouncy tone, “Hey! To help you learn how to handle this door better, go ahead and open it, enter, and close it carefully – without making a single noise – 15 times.”
Our kids had already been introduced to this form of discipline (which is actually positive habit-formation more than discipline), so the culprit – who I believe was Gleny – rolled her eyes good-naturedly and set about opening the door, entering, closing it slowly and silently, and then exiting to do the whole process again. She did it perfectly (even laughing as she did so), so I thanked her and allowed her to pass. A minute or two later 7-year-old Gaby came crashing through the door, so I assigned her the same task. Shortly thereafter, Jackeline.
Then, about half an hour later, the miracle: Gaby, who had gone through the open-close-exit discipline and had stayed inside the office since having finished, suddenly needed to go outside for something. I had already completely forgotten about the whole slamming-door problem because we had already gone quite some time without another episode, but as little Gaby got up to leave, she said to no one in particular: “Gotta close it carefully,” and she opened the door, closed it very, very slowly without so much as a squeak of its hinges, and then was on her way. I looked on, jaw hanging slightly open at what I had just witnessed: she learned!
So, a few weeks ago my husband Darwin and I were out at breakfast with Jackeline as the thought occurred to me to ask her – now that she’s largely on the other side of many of the initial behavioral issues that used to characterize her during her first year with us – what disciplinary techniques that we’ve used with her had actually helped her to develop, mature, and form better habits.
She laughed from across the small wooden table where the three of us sat and said, “I don’t want to tell you, because then you’ll keep giving me that discipline…”
I laughed with her and waited for her response. Finally, she announced: “…What has helped me the most is when you make me repeat actions [to form positive habits]…”