5. Believing that harsh, long-term punishments will work.
Harsh, long-term punishments usually come about when parents are personalizing their child’s behavior. Some parents feel that if their child gets a really severe or long-term consequence, they’ll never forget it—and the experience will cause them to never disobey them again. But if your punishment is too harsh, your child won’t feel remorse but probably will feel resentment towards you. In my opinion, we don’t want to use punishments to create fear, shame, physical pain, or resentment.
Don’t take away special occasions, birthday or holiday celebrations, or anything the child cannot earn back. Taking away a video game for a week is very different from taking away a homecoming dance your son or daughter will never be able to go to again. Instead, you want them to have opportunities to practice doing the behavior correctly and to earn privileges.
It can take practice for your child to change his behavior, and being able to practice means learning how to make better choices. So being grounded for three weeks is often ineffective—you’re really just “teaching your kid how to do time,” as James Lehman says, not how to change what he’s doing. You’ll also be lucky if your child remembers why he’s been grounded in the first place. And here’s another big one: you’ve got nothing to work with as a parent—no opportunities to use incentives to motivate your child during this time. Your child needs the opportunity to practice getting it right the next time in order to improve behaviors.
Here’s an example. Let’s say your teen frequently swears at you and his siblings. Giving him a long-term consequence gives him no opportunity to practice controlling himself—he has no incentive to try. He’s already lost everything for three weeks, so he’ll probably reason that he might as well swear, because he’s got nothing left to lose. Rather than trying to stop something that happens frequently all at once, require your child to make steady improvements.
Instead of long-term consequences, we recommend that you first think about how frequently a behavior happens. Set your goal at gradually reducing the frequency. So if your kid swears at you four times a day, your initial goal might be three times a day with an eventual goal of zero. This can be hard to accept at first, but this really works.
Also, if the behavior happens four times a day, you’ve got to have incentives that you can use four times a day. For example, you might take away your child’s cell phone for two hours each time. And in that time period, your child has to practice not swearing at anybody in the house in order to get his cell phone back. If he does swear again, the two hours start all over again. Now, rather than trying to stop something immediately, you’re encouraging your child to learn how to behave appropriately, all the time. And that’s the name of the game—for every parent.