Q: I appreciate your traditional, call it old-fashioned approach to child rearing, but I’m a tad confused and hope you can help straighten out my thinking. I’ve been reading your column for maybe 20 years and have used many of your suggestions with success. Your recommendation that consequences be huge has been especially helpful, but I recently read an online interview that caused me some confusion. The psychologist being interviewed, who has very impressive credentials, said that when it comes to consequences, a few minutes in time out or taking away a privilege for a few hours or the rest of the day will suffice. He cited what he implied was the best research. Why should your readers, me included, believe your opinion over science?
A: My colleagues — not all, but certainly most — seem to be stuck in the late 1960s, when they began making these ridiculous claims (which I, a graduate student seeking to please my professors, believed as well) concerning punishment, consequences, rewards, self-esteem, letting children express their feelings freely, and everything else parenting that has contributed to child mental health being in free-fall since that time. I cannot think of even one thing “they” have collectively recommended that has worked out well for children and parents.
To your question, I’m a certified heretic in my field. As such, any research paper I might submit to a journal isn’t going to be published. So, I don’t waste my time. Nonetheless, I’ve been doing parenting research since 1976 when I began writing this column. Known as “field research,” it consists of anecdotes collected from parents all over America, which almost without exception affirm that the best outcomes (happy kids who possess good social skills and do their best in school) are obtained by parents who adhere to a traditional parenting model involving unconditional love and unequivocal authority. The latter includes powerful, memorable consequences for misbehavior.
If you want to still be dealing a year from now with the same behavior problems you’re dealing with today, all you have to do is follow the advice of the psychological mainstream. (I believe I read the online article to which you refer, by the way, and found it to be nothing but the same-old, same-old ridiculousness “they” have been dispensing for 50 years.)
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Concerning misbehavior, the punishment should NEVER fit the crime. Multiply the “size” of the crime by 10 and voila! you’ve got yourself a suitable consequence. If the pre-delinquent in question doesn’t scream, “THAT’S NOT FAIR!” and break out in hives, the consequence wasn’t large enough.
The point is to create a memorable experience, one the pre-delinquent — now a responsible citizen — will tell friends when he or she is 50 years old, to everyone’s amusement. Thus, one of my more brilliant parenting maxims: You need to give your kids things to laugh about when they grow up. They won’t laugh about you handing them the keys to a $60,000 sports car when they turned 16, but they will laugh about the outrageous discipline you handed out. The point, mind you, is not to be mean. It is to prove to your kids that you mean what you say, not sorta-kinda, but right down the line.
As for my opinion versus science: First, I’m not pulling arbitrary opinions out of thin air. That’s what “they” have been doing since I was a grad student. I’m passing along what worked for thousands of years until parents started listening to mental health professionals tell them how to raise kids (and child mental health went into a nose-dive) and, according to a consensus of parents, still works. Second, most of the parenting “research” being done today would have been used by my very logical experimental psychology professor as examples of junk science.
Third, this year marks the 40th year my column’s been in syndication. Let the free market of ideas speak for itself!