These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)
"I explain the same things over and over again, John," said the beleaguered mother of a 7-year-old boy, "but he just keeps right on taking things that don't belong to him."
"What is it, exactly, that you are explaining?" I asked.
"Well," she said, "I tell him that it's wrong, and it hurts people, and I point out to him that he doesn't like it when people take things that belong to him." It was obvious to me why this little fellow kept-let's call it for what it is-stealing from other people. When he stole, nothing happened. Oh, his mother talked and talked and talked some more (what I call "yada-yada discipline"), but nothing of consequence ever happened to him. Moreover, his very well-intentioned mother may have thought she was telling him not to steal, but she really wasn't. She was asking him not to steal, trying to persuade him not to steal, and pleading with him not to steal. She was doing everything but telling him.
Discipline consists of 3 C's: communication, consequences, and consistency. Believe it or not, the most important of these is communication (most people think it's consistency). Effective discipline is largely - I'd say 80 percent-a matter of how you talk. Not just your words, mind you, but your tone of voice, your body language, the look on your face. Parents who talk properly to their children-who communicate their expectations and instructions in a compelling manner-will seldom need to invoke consequences. Likewise, the failure to speak such that one's commands are impressed upon one's child promotes disobedience and results, inevitably, in an overabundance of parental frustration.
For examples of compelling communication, go to the Bible, where God always communicates in no uncertain terms. In Exodus, for example, the Lord makes it perfectly clear that He is not asking us, his children, not to steal, murder, bear false witness, covet our neighbor's possessions, etc. He's telling us, period. And in no case is a commandment from the Lord accompanied by a long-winded explanation. He says, simply, "Do this, don't do that." As one might expect, the Lord's manner of communicating to us, his children, is a perfect parenting model; to wit, it is clear, concise, concrete, and for those reasons, it is commanding.
Take, for example, "Thou shalt not steal." Is there any doubt concerning what God means? Of course not! He's being as clear as clear can be. And He says what He has to say in four short words. And He does not explain or give examples. Just, "Don't." In that regard, most parents don't realize that the more one explains oneself, the more it appears to the child as if the parent is not issuing a command (telling him what to do/not do), but rather trying to persuade him to cooperate.
Read the following out loud: "It sure would be nice if we could get these toys picked up. It would be bad if someone stepped on one or tripped over one and hurt himself. So how about being a good boy and picking them up, okay?"
The child in question is unlikely to pick up the toys, but the problem does not lie with him. It lies with the parent. Instead of telling, commandingly, the parent is explaining, pleading, and generally wishing for obedience. Unfortunately, children do not grant their parents' wishes. They will do what they are told only if they are told. The general rule, furthermore, when giving instructions is this: The fewer the words, the greater the effect.
Now, read this out loud: "I want these toys picked up right now. I'll be back in three minutes to see that it's done." Envision the parent turning and walking away. Granted, there's no guarantee the child will do as he's been told, but the likelihood has been increased significantly, simply because the parent spoke properly and acted like he/she is in complete command and control.
"So John," a reader is asking. "What should the parent do if she comes back in three minutes and the toys aren't picked up?"
Good question; one that I'll take up in a future column. In the meantime, practice talking to your children like you really mean what you are saying. Who knows? Maybe you won't even need to read my next installment.