Close Window


A fairy tale about discipline.
by Aviva Schwab, M.Ed.

Once upon a time there were three new businesses. Each had one owner and one employee. The owner of the first business was TOO HARSH. The owner of the second business was TOO SOFT. The owner of the third business was FIRM but KIND (just right).

When the TOO HARSH owner found out that her employee had left the copier on all weekend, she screamed, "YOU ARE SO IRRESPONSIBLE!" Then she punished: "No coffee breaks all week!".

When the TOO SOFT owner found out that his employee had left the copier on all weekend, he just muttered to himself, "I'd better not mention it because I want my employee to like me, but I really hope that this doesn't affect my electric bill too much."

The Perils of Punishment
(Including spanking)

Yelling and punishing are like crash diets - they only work in the short run and sometimes have harmful side effects.

I-Messages and consequences are like sensible diet plans. They work slowly and gradually but they have lasting results.

When the FIRM but KIND owner found out that her employee had left the copier on all weekend, she said to him "When I realized that the copier had been left on all weekend, I felt frustrated because it will increase our electric bill. If the copier is left on again, I will have to charge you for the extra cost."

After only two years, both the TOO HARSH owner's business and the TOO SOFT owner's business went bankrupt. Why? Well, the TOO HARSH owner was always looking for a new employee. One after another her employees quit because they were afraid of her. Very little work got done.

The TOO SOFT owner's employee, on the other hand, never quit. She was not afraid of the owner at all. But she did not like him too much either - she thought of him as a pushover. Over time, she became less and less helpful - she came into work late, she spent time joking about her boss over email with her friends and she never ever turned off the copier. Very little work got done.

What about the FIRM but KIND owner's business? Unfortunately, her employee forgot to turn off the copier three more times. Each time, he had to pay for the extra electricity. After that, he remembered to turn it off every time. In the meantime, the FIRM but KIND owner's business grew. Lots of work got done. Today she has 176 hard-working, loyal employees at three locations. And what about her very first employee? Well, with the owner's guidance, training and encouragement, after 18 years, he went on to start a new business of his own.

Cooperation: Is It a Fairy Tale?

This story could be about families too. Some parenting methods are too hard (authoritarian), some are too soft (permissive), and others are firm but kind (authoritative-reciprocal). Like the FIRM but KIND owner and her employees, you and your children can work through the many challenges that a relationship brings. Having cooperative, loving, respectful children is not just a fairy tale. What follows are two skills that FIRM but KIND parents use to make the fairy tale come true.

Skill #1: I-Messages

When the TOO HARSH owner found the copier on, she used a criticism: "YOU ARE SO IRRESPONSIBLE!" Criticisms blame and attack. They are usually said in an angry tone of voice:

"You're such a slob."
"What's the matter with you?"
"You're driving me crazy."
"Cut that out."
"You should know better."
"When will you learn that..."

When children are spoken to in this way, they may feel put down and humiliated. They begin to lose respect for themselves and for their parents.

So should parents just put up with misbehavior and say nothing, like the TOO SOFT owner did? Definitely not. Keep in mind that his employee did not respect him either. She thought of her boss as a "wimp." Children who are raised by permissive parents sometimes begin to believe that they have control over the whole family.

How did the FIRM but KIND owner handle the copier problem? She did not blame or criticize. Instead of yelling, she talked about her own feelings with an I-Message:

"When I realized that the copier had been left on all weekend, I felt frustrated because it will increase our electric bill."

I-Messages treat people with respect. Children are much more open to listening and improving when they hear an I-Message because they feel safe and valued. In turn, they begin to show the adult respect.

Talk about Yourself!

I-Messages don't criticize because the person giving the I-Message talks about him/herself. Here's how to do it:

"When...(tell what is happening)
I feel...(tell what you feel)
because...(tell the reason you feel that way)."

Example: Brooke, 8, is throwing a ball in the living room.

"When the ball is thrown in the living room
I feel concerned
because the lamp might break."

Notice that the I-Message used "I" instead of "you." Of course, sometimes it is not possible to leave out the "you." For example "When I saw you walking towards the street, I was worried that you might get hurt."

The most important thing about an I-Message is having a caring tone of voice. In fact, once in a while it might be enough just to say a few words like "the lamp might break" if you think that your child might get the message.

Okay, what if you give Brooke the I-Message in a kind tone of voice and she continues to throw the ball in the living room anyway? Should you say the I-Message again? Absolutely not. Repeating yourself just gives her negative attention and can lead to nagging and lecturing. It does not teach Brooke to respect you because it shows that your rules are soft instead of firm. Therefore, say the I-Message only once. If Brooke continues to misbehave by throwing the ball, use a consequence.

Skill #2: Consequences

"No coffee breaks all week!" That was how the TOO HARSH owner punished her employee when the copier was left on. The punishment probably worked. The copier was never left on again. But at what cost? Employee after employee left because they resented being treated so harshly.

Likewise, if Brooke receives a punishment for throwing the ball in the house ("No TV for the rest of the day!") she may stop doing it. But at what cost? Brooke may feel angry or resentful about being treated so disrespectfully. She may even throw the ball in the living room when you are not around, or she might misbehave in other ways to get back at you.

Consequences: More effective in the long run

The FIRM but KIND owner told her employee about a consequence: "If the copier is left on again, I will have to charge you for the extra cost." Did it work? Yes, but not as fast as the punishment ("No coffee breaks...!") did. The employee experienced the consequence of paying for the additional electricity three times before he finally stopped leaving the copier on. However, it was worth the wait. Not only was the problem solved in a fair and respectful way, but he continued to be a happy, dedicated and hard-working employee.

How to give a consequence

Back to Brooke and the ball. Consequences are different from punishment in two ways. Consequences are extremely mild and they are logically related to the misbehavior. So telling Brooke, "No TV for the rest of the day! is too harsh and has nothing to do with throwing the ball in the house. (Brooke may think, "No TV? That's not fair! My Dad's so mean - I'll show him!")

Instead, a consequence would be: "If the ball is thrown in the living room again I will have to put it away for 8 minutes" (the number of minutes equal to Brooke's age). As was the case with the I-Message, the consequence is mentioned in a caring voice and only once. If Brooke continues to throw the ball, follow through immediately by removing the ball and saying "I see you decided not to use the ball. You can have it back in 8 minutes." (Brooke may grumble to herself, "I'm not happy about this but I hate to lose the ball - I guess I'd better be more careful from now on.")

Brooke gets the ball back after 8 minutes. If she throws it again, extend the consequence. Say something like, "I see it's still hard to remember not to throw the ball in the house. I'll have to hold onto it for 12 minutes" (half again as long as the first time). And so on. Eventually, Brooke may have to wait until the next day to use the ball.

Cooperation: The Happy Ending

A note of caution: At first Brooke's behavior may get worse or she may say, "I don't care! Big deal!" when you follow through with a consequence. What she is doing is testing you to see if your new method is firm or soft. Do not give up. If Brooke hears a kind I-Message followed by a fair and mild consequence each time that she misbehaves, she will begin to realize that you are firm and that you always mean what you say. In time, she will begin to cooperate as soon as she hears an I-message. Only rarely will you need to follow through with a consequence! That is a sign that your efforts have helped her develop self-control and self-discipline -- a very happy ending indeed.

Parents: See if your kids can help you find the I-Messages and the Consequences in the examples in the interactive exercise that follows. Ask them how they feel about different ways that they are disciplined when they "mess up."

Click here to try an interactive exercise with your children.

Resource: The Parent's Handbook by Don Dinkmeyer, Sr., Gary D. McKay and Don Dinkmeyer, Jr., STEP Publishers.

Close Window