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Too Late For Help?; Teaching Discipline, Positive Learning Climate Limits Need For Punishment

By Leslie Sowers

Punishment has had negative connotations for a generation of parents afraid of damaging their child's self-esteem. But mental health experts say parents must respond when children break rules against lying, stealing or fighting - actions that are clearly unacceptable.

For some, punishment is synonymous with spanking. While not widely condoned by child development experts, some say physical punishment can be acceptable if administered judiciously and nonabusively. Others believe it teaches that might makes right.

Often, parents who spank believe it will cause the one problem behavior to change, said Kay Albrecht, a Houston child-development expert.

But discipline is not a one-time action, she said; it's a long-term process that helps children gain control of their urges and behaviors through rules and consequences that make sense to them at each stage of their development.

"It begins at birth and lasts into adulthood," Albrecht said.

When children attain the freedom that comes with adolescence and confront a bewildering range of choices, it's clear how important that internal control becomes. They must follow the rules of society on their own as they take the wheel of a car and interact with peers and the larger community.

When teen-agers behave impulsively in ways that break the law or trespass on the rights of others, the current political climate favors strict sanctions delivered through the juvenile-justice system.

But to foster a good sense of internal control in a child, parents cannot focus solely on punishment for misdeeds without adequately rewarding positive actions, said Glen Pearson, a Dallas psychiatrist.

"Maintaining a positive learning environment minimizes the need for punishment," Pearson said.

He suggests that parents think of behavior in three categories: desirable, completely unacceptable and all the annoying or frustrating things that fall in between.

"The correct response is to lavish praise on the first, impose swift and sure punishment on the second and utterly ignore the third," he said.

He said it matters little what the punishment is, so long as it is applied lovingly and soon and then quickly forgotten.

Psychologist Robbie Sharp said punishment must follow the incident immediately if the younger child is to make the connection between cause and effect. The longer the delay, the less sense the punishment makes to a child. So parents need to have their consequences ready.

"Parents need to be predictable and consistent with their rules. If they say they are going to impose a punishment, they need to do it," Sharp said.

In addition to any punishment, she said, parents need to teach children positive ways to meet needs underlying their negative behavior.

Punishment must take a child's maturity level into consideration, said Ernest Fruge, assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine and co-author with Christine Adams of ``Why Children Misbehave and What to Do About It'' (New Harbinger, $14.95).

When a 3-year-old bites, Fruge suggests a sharp, loud and shocking verbalization. It can be as simple as "NO!" When an older child hits a sibling or friend, he might be sent to his room, followed by a session to talk through the feelings that led to the fight and suggestions on alternative ways to solve the problem.

When adolescents run afoul of school or community authorities, Fruge said, parents should not collude with their teen-agers by trying to protect them. Ultimately, he said, letting them experience consequences is more loving.

All children need clear expectations, structure and consistent consequences. But these are even more important for children who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or other neurological differences, said Houston psychologist Robert Weinberger.

Children with behavioral disabilities may find it harder to make the connection between misdeeds and consequences, but it can be done, he said. Even serious mental illness such as bipolar disorder should not be an excuse for a child's misbehavior, Weinberger said.

Parents of children with mental illness may need to learn some special approaches. For instance, they may need to back off when a child with bipolar disorder loses control and lashes out.

Later, when calm is re-established, Weinberger said, parents can impose consequences for any misbehavior that prompted the incident.

Pam Esser, of the Attention Deficit Disorder Association, advises parents of ADHD children to pick their battles and make use of timeout. Despite the opinions of well-meaning friends or relatives, spanking is like pouring gasoline on a fire, she said.

Parents may have to change their expectations to match limitations dictated by a child's disorder. Instead of punishing a child for losing things, a common ADHD trait, Esser suggests being creative: Leave school shoes in the car after school, ready to put on the next morning.

If the ADHD child has become a scapegoat, punishment only exacerbates anger and defiance, she said. At this point, anger-management classes or therapy may be necessary.

Even with punishment, flexibility is always a key to good parenting. MHMR parent advocate Sharon Brown offers parents the image of a tennis ball.

"Rocks don't bend - they're too rigid. A marshmallow is soft," she said. "A tennis ball is firm, but it gives a little."

Reprinted with permission of the Houston Chronicle, copyright 1998

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