Empowering Discipline Technique

by Sahari
(Howey in the Hills, FL)

Talking, lecturing, grounding not working?? Try this simple approach -- it's a dynamic concept that empowers even while it disciplines.

Friends of mine have three children: Susan (female, 14), Trevor (male, 13), and Lucy (female, 10). Recently forced to single parent for a period of 3 years, the mother (Hanna) found herself tested beyond what she felt were her limits.

Although Trevor has a wonderful heart, his 'rev' runs higher than most and as a result, he is pretty self-centered and not naturally sensitive to the feelings of others. Highly intelligent, easily bored, and naturally pushy, he presents a challenge to everyone. Hanna would talk, lecture and ground him, to no avail. His sisters' response was to align themselves with their mother's attempts to make Trevor behave, identifying themselves as 'good' and Trevor as 'bad.' It didn't take many years to create a self-perpetuating cycle of family dynamic that branded him as the Family Problem, with Trevor proving the brand. This dynamic manifested in the girls feeling superior to Trevor which in turn fueled his lack of self esteem, as well as creating an environment in which the girls sought empowerment by calling attention to their "goodness" by bringing any and all Trevor complaints to Hanna for resolution as opposed to working them out amongst themselves. Hanna was overloaded, the children were mis-identifying themselves, and not learning to resolve problems on their own. A pretty tangled mess.

Trevor's acting-out events began to increase in frequency and seriousness in his father's absence, culminating in his decision to take his sister's MP3 player, replacing all her music with his own selections. Hanna didn't know what else to do but ground him for 2 months which included no socializing, music, computer or TV usage.

To compound things, Hanna and the children live in a very small apartment. Trevor's 2-month grounding effectively put a hyper-active boy in everybody's way with nothing for him to do except whip the existing dysfunction to fever pitch levels.

One day, while I sat meditating on their situation, God showed me a simple little idea. I discussed the idea with Hanna and she agreed to try it out. She was desperate and probably would have agreed to anything, but this simple approach has turned out to be miraculous in the scope of it's effect. Here's how it went:

Hanna asked her children to make a list of their favorite things. What they like to do, what privileges they enjoy, their favorite possessions. This was done, with an eye toward what could be taken away from them (for example, Trevor originally listed playing with his sisters but we felt that this is not something that should be 'taken away' from him).

Once they completed this list, Hanna then asked them to put the items in the order of their preference. In other words, if they could only have one thing, which one would they pick; if they could have a second thing, which one would they add, etc., until they were arranged as such.

After this was accomplished, it was time to have a discussion about ground rules. Hanna kept her announcements simple: If they don't complete their assigned chores, if they misbehave in school to the extent that a teacher reports it to Hanna, if they choose to misbehave at home (more thoughts about what constitutes 'misbehaving' further on), they will loose everything on their list (a condition we refer to as 'Busted Back to Zero'). From there, each day that they complete without an incident entitles them to get back one item from the list the following day. And here's the twist: the list is used upside down! The first thing they get back is the last thing on their list, and the last thing they get back is the first thing on their list. Every time they choose to misbehave, they get Busted Back to Zero and have to work their way back again – even if they are only halfway through the list from the last transgression.

It quickly becomes apparent that the more items on your child's list, the longer it takes for him/her to regain full privileges, so having at least seven guarantees a week of focused intentionality on the part of your child. It is also crucial that your child does not know HOW the list will be used until after it has been composed and numbered.

It's a good idea to present it to the child as an adjustable structure. In this family's case, for example, Hanna had expressed her desire to the children that they learn to resolve the differences between siblings on their own, instead of running to her with 'tattletales.' She assured them that she would monitor the situation, from afar, to keep them all safe.
In that vein, when it came time to ascertain what constitutes misbehaving at home, we left Trevor's tendency to annoy his sisters off the list. However, Hanna did inform Trevor that while his overall treatment of his sisters would not be 'bust-able' for now, this would be quickly amended if he took unfair advantage of the reprieve.

I should note here that the recommendation to leave annoying his sisters off the 'bust-able offense' list was made in consideration of the 'Problem Child' habit of perception that had developed over the years. We wanted to give Trevor a clean slate, and Hanna and her daughters an opportunity to redirect their habit of assuming the worst out of Trevor. To this end, Hanna and I speak frequently about her efforts to set a more intentional example for the girls via Hanna's treatment of Trevor – choosing her words more carefully so that more respect, and less accusation and judgment, is evident. We were testing the hypothesis that if the assumption of Trevor's 'badness' could be lifted from the paradigm of that household, then perhaps he would find room to grow and able to afford more sensitivity toward the feelings of others.

The truth of this situation is that the Busting Back To Zero plan was really put into effect for Trevor. The girls had no overt behavior problems, aside from an occasional unfinished chore day. But we thought it made sense to put it in place for everyone, so that there was less of a spotlight on Trevor which helps parties on both sides of the 'Problem Child' designation.

On the day the program was put into place, Hanna lifted the 2-month grounding from Trevor and started him at Ground Zero on the new plan. He was very motivated to meet the challenge -- it was immediately evident that he was enjoying the sense of control this allowed him in his life. No more wondering what would happen if he got caught, no more trying to negotiate with his mother over every punishment. Even though it took him getting Busted Back to Zero three times inside of two weeks before he was able to have all of his 'favorite things' returned to him, he maintained an attitude of focused enthusiasm during that time.

The overall effect of this approach includes a lessening of tension between Trevor and his sisters, as well as changes in Hanna's parenting. She is more motivated to remember to turn her remarks 'around' so they are affirmative in nature, rather than accusatory -- this is setting an important example for her daughters at the same time it helps disperse the negative consensus energy they unconsciously collected and directed toward Trevor. And finally, the simplicity of the plan is giving Hanna more confidence when there is a need for her to be firm with the children. Where the children used to wear her down with the endless negotiating, she now has some breathing room in which space she has noticed something growing: her authority!

I can't say enough here about my personal amazement at the power of such a simple idea. It is truly a dynamic, empowering concept that accomplished in three weeks what had been unattainable over the course of 12 years.

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