How to discipline children remains controversial, even in the 21st century. A few months ago an airline attendant reportedly took a 13-month-old baby from her mother after she was observed slapping the child’s face. A storm of protest followed, fueled by those who asserted indignantly that parents are free to discipline as they see fit and by others who insisted that adults must take responsible action when they observe children being mistreated.
More recently, a mother seeking favorable reflection on herself, described her harsh demands for “perfection” from her children, in a book in which she claimed to speak for a whole culture of “tiger mothers.” She summarily dismissed less demanding and controlling parents as lazy and proclaimed that “the solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish, and shame the child.” Surprisingly, these anecdotes and claims of one parent have generated heated and polarizing debate, one side extolling intense and strict demands on children and the other side repulsed by the belittling and demeaning methods propounded to meet those goals.
Responses to both the airplane incident and the new book reflect a distressingly misdirected focus on which is better: strict, demanding, punitive parenting or lax, laissez faire, child-placating parenting. In arguing the extremes, the discussion misses the most meaningful point: parents have constructive and effective alternatives and need not choose between leaving immature children to their own instincts and devices, on the one hand, and harsh, heavy-handed, and punitive reactions, on the other.
Fortunately, we have a rich body of knowledge supporting a positive and effective approach to encouraging the best in children, one that enhances their capacities to deal with their world as well as their sense of self-worth. The approach is based firmly upon the rigorously-demonstrated power of the Principle of Positive Reinforcement. Acting proactively, it is entirely possible for parents to provide guidance and direction to children learning to take responsibility for their own behavior, and to do so in a loving, carefully planned and managed manner that supports true success for all concerned. How much better it is for parents to learn suitable alternatives to teaching children appropriate behavior, to strengthen innate striving for mastery that is so characteristic of children, and to guide their maturation into capable, strong, and compassionate individuals.
Much of my professional life has been devoted to just that goal: helping parents help their children to assume age-appropriate responsibility for their own behavior. Over decades of facilitating classes for over a thousand parents, I learned a great deal about what is acceptable to parents and about what is effective, and I refined my approach accordingly. Parents attending the classes frequently suggested that I write a book to provide the course content in a concise and comprehensive form. In 2008 I attempted to fulfill those suggestions, in the form of Discipline Without Anger: A Parent’s Guide to Teaching Children Responsible Behavior. This book met with modest success but readers suggested revisions intended to make the content more readily accessible for busy parents. How to Raise Disciplined and Happy Children: Mastering the Power of Positive Reinforcement is a result of efforts to make the best possible use of those suggestions. The new book is shorter by a good bit and is organized in a tighter format for easier use.
I am grateful to Carol E. Smith, M. S., Child and Family Therapist and Parent Educator, for her feedback and suggestions. I am profoundly grateful to Geraldine Kennedy, author and independent publisher, for the countless hours she spent revising and editing the manuscript; her probing questions and insightful comments provoked me to refinements I had never before considered. My older brother (a retired college English teacher), Lee, once again willingly provided careful reading and editing to improve the text, and his long-standing warm support has sustained me through many discouraging moments in the rewriting process. Our son, Dan, invested his considerable artistic talent and understanding of graphics design to produce the perfect cover for this book, as well as the game board shown in the appendix. Finally, Julie, my wife and a superb speech and language therapist with amazing insight into children and how to elicit the best from them, has continued to provide unstinting support and encouragement and cogent suggestions about ways to enhance the final revision. Anyone who gains from reading this book owes each of these people a special thanks.