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By "Today" contributor
updated 5/20/2006 8:15:40 AM ET 2006-05-20T12:15:40

In the latest installment from "Today" show contributor Dr. Ruth Peters' book,  “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” she shares advice on how to get better behavior from your child. Here's an excerpt:

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Law #5:
Connect Consequences to Behavior
I guarantee you can get better behavior from your child. But there is only one way to do it. You must make it perfectly, unmistakably, absolutely clear that what he does will determine what happens to him. No amount of nudging, cajoling, or, worst of all, threatening, will do a lick of good until you connect consequences to his behavior.

***

Psychologists have long struggled with the chicken-and-egg concept of what comes first — attitudinal or behavioral change. One group believes that folks must adjust their perceptions or feelings before they will change their actions. The other camp campaigns for motivating behavioral change first, with changes in desires, perceptions, and feelings following.

As a behavioral psychologist I am a dyed-in-the-wool member of the latter camp. I strongly believe that changing a person’s actions leads to changes in thoughts and attitudes. For example, using good study skill behaviors leads to homework completion and good grades, as well as increased knowledge in the subject. When a child is well prepared for class, it is a more enjoyable and interesting experience. Usually that results in greater class participation, even higher grades, and a heightened academic self-confidence. This in turn develops into feelings of mastery of the subject and increased interest. Voila! — a change that began as study skill behavior has resulted in the attitudinal advantage of interest and enjoyment.

Psychologists who favor a more psychoanalytic or Freudian approach would not agree with me. They believe that folks cannot change their behaviors until genuine attitudinal changes occur first. The problem with this notion, in my mind, is that I don’t want to take the time to talk people into considering change. Why waste weeks, months, or even years yakking about the need to see things differently when you can motivate your children to change their inappropriate behavior within a few weeks using behavioral methods? What’s more, behavioral changes lead to the development of valuable skills, such as increased frustration tolerance, self-discipline, and perseverance, that not only help your kids during childhood but will follow them into and through their adult years. In short, their future spouses, employers, and children will thank you for your diligence during this time!

I’ve found that the effective use of consequences and teaching what I call the “behavior-consequence connection” are the most efficient ways of gaining better behavior as well as genuine changes in kid attitude. In this law and the two that follow, you’ll learn the simple but effective parenting tactics that make changes fast and make changes that last.

Okay, let’s try some old sayings on for size. How about, “What goes around comes around,” “You get what you pay for,” “You reap what you sow.” All of these mean the same thing — that what you do (your behavior) determines what will happen to you (the consequence). That, in a nutshell, is the essence of the behavior-consequence connection. Try as we may to be new and innovative, those old sayings still fit. We simply cannot avoid this inevitability of human nature.

I truly believe that good things come to good people, that those who persevere and persist achieve their reasonable goals and that slackers end up bitter and resentful. Sure, some folks sneak by and get away with cheating once in a while or run a red light and avoid a ticket, but in the long run it all catches up with you. As parents, we must teach our kids that they are the masters of their destiny. Blaming others for defeats or failures is a waste of time, energy, and self-pride. Most of all, we need our children to take responsibility for their behaviors on a daily, weekly, and long-term basis.

Kids Learn Fast
Let’s take a look at how this learning occurs with your child. She wasn’t born with the knowledge of repercussions of behavior, but the training begins almost immediately following birth. Within a few hours your beautiful newborn started getting the hint that if she cried, she would be cuddled or fed. As a toddler she caught on pretty quickly to the idea that holding on to a table top or your hand would help keep her steady as she learned to walk. After a little more practice, she probably felt confident enough to start cruising around on her own.

As she gets older the learning continues to grow in complexity. In preschool she won’t innately know that she should sit still at circle time as her teacher reads a book — she must be taught to do so. In grade school she learns about following rules by being praised for appropriate behavior (turning homework in on time) or by sitting out recess for horsing around during class.

With multiple teachers and classes to deal with in middle school, she may learn the behavior-consequence connection the hard way — by bringing home some atrocious report cards. A disorganized approach to the school day usually doesn’t cut it. This means incomplete homework or being unprepared for tests. And her grades will show it. Mom and Dad are usually less than thrilled with the result and then the hammer comes down — being pulled from certain after-school activities or grounded altogether.

In high school the pressures, responsibilities, and dangers grow. With driving and curfews come rules that she may choose to obey or disregard, with drastic consequences. As a teen she’ll meet kids with all types of values (ranging from horrific to terrific), and she must make behavioral choices as to whether to engage in substance use, sexual activity, or slacking off academically. I’ve worked with many teens over the years who ignore or flat-out deny that their behavior has real consequences, or they admit it but resent the adults who remind them, and attempt to make their lives miserable as a result.

I’ve also met many kids who are rarely allowed to feel the repercussions of what they do. Mom or Dad may “fix” the problem for the kid (repair a damaged car without the teen pitching in with some of his own money), defend the child inappropriately (“My Tommy would never come up with the idea of sneaking out at night. Your Johnny must have pressured him into it!”), or ignore the behavior altogether (not checking or commenting upon poor report cards). Although well-meaning, folks who do not allow their children to be held accountable for their inappropriate behavior actually deprive them of learning the behavior-consequence connection and perpetuate the myth that whatever they do is okay.

One of the best examples of a thickheaded kid not being trained to respect the behavior-consequence connection was Chance — a real cutie whom I first met when he was 12 years old. His mom brought him to see me because he was about to be booted out of his private-school classroom for acting up as well as failing to complete homework or to study for tests. During class, Chance was hysterical — he could break up the class with his stand-up comedy at a moment’s notice, and he was usually game for some impulsive risk-taking, especially if it involved entertaining the troops by making rather gross body function noises. The interesting thing was that although he spent more time fooling around than paying attention, Chance consistently made great grades, report card after report card. His parents weren’t concerned that he displayed few, if any, study skills, and they thought that his antics were actually amusing.

After interviewing Chance, though, I found little humor in his irresponsible attitude toward his studies as well as his behavior toward his classmates and teachers. At 12 years of age and in the sixth grade, this intellectually gifted child was able to get by academically by depending upon his excellent memory and terrific verbal skills. He had a knack for eliminating incorrect answers to multiple-choice questions and could produce an essay with ease. That is, in the sixth grade. I cautioned this young man that his intellectual and high-level reasoning prowess would take him only so far, and that in the not-too-distant future his lack of organization, planning, and study skills would catch up with him. Well, Chance was not buying into my predictive abilities, and since his folks didn’t seem to care whether he did his math homework or not (as long as the grade on the report card was acceptable), he chose to continue his irresponsible ways. By the end of the school year, the administration had had it with him, and his admission contract was not renewed. So, off to public school he went.

I next caught wind of Chance in his senior year in high school. Although no longer quite the cutup of his middle-school years, he still did not see the need to do things that were not particularly interesting or fun. His homework was sloppy, if completed at all, and he continued to rely on his intellect to get him through his classes. But it was no longer working — Chance was learning the hard way that without the proper behavior (studying), negative consequences would occur (a poor grade point average and low SAT scores). His parents brought him to see me at that time because Chance was becoming depressed. Most of his friends were headed to 4-year universities in the fall, yet Chance had not been accepted at any of his choices. He would have to do his time at the local community college, and if he got his act together and made good grades, perhaps he would be able to hook up with his buddies for his junior year in college. At 17 years old, Chance was finally getting the message and was beginning to regret his irresponsible ways. But he was going to have to pay the price and bear the consequences of his previous actions.

Think your child is just going to pick this up on her own? Willing to bet her lifelong happiness on it? That’s really what you’re doing if you’re not actively involved in teaching this lesson. Sure, she’ll run into some consequences with teachers and friends along the way, but there are so many more teachable moments available to you at home and during family activities. She doesn’t have to learn through pain. It can be done in a normal, everyday fashion — without the dreaded sit-down formal lecture.

For instance:

  • When your little one grabs her favorite cereal box off the shelf at the grocery store (behavior), say “no” and have her replace the box on the shelf (consequence) and move on. If she asks politely and it’s a reasonable request (behavior), say “yes” and have her put the cereal into the shopping cart (consequence).
  • When your grade-schooler “forgets” about some homework until bedtime (behavior), set the alarm clock for 30 minutes earlier the next morning (consequence) so that she can get it done before school.
  • If your middle schooler leaves her lunch money at home (behavior), don’t deliver it to her. She can either go hungry that day or mooch some food or cash from her friends (consequence).
  • Your heavy-footed (behavior) 17-year-old can pay for her own speeding ticket or attend Saturday driving school for a few weeks (consequence) rather than you taking care of the bill for her.

The faster that kids learn the connection between what they do and the effect that it has upon others, the faster they begin to understand the idea of responsibility and outcome. They tend to think before acting, are less impulsive than their peers, and are often socially and academically successful. In addition, home life is much more comfortable as you find yourself having to nag and remind less, activities  not only frustrating to you but very annoying to your child.

Moreover, the ultimate goal of guiding your child into a self-disciplined adult is achieved. Kids who are allowed and encouraged

to learn the behavior-consequence connection evolve gracefully into responsible adults. Extra chores or obligations are handled appropriately and challenges are seen as just that — something to be accomplished, not problems to be avoided.

Living the Law

It’s never too soon or too late. Realizing that brand-new babies begin to make the connection between what they do and what they get should solidify the idea that your 13-year-old daughter can understand the concept also. Don’t give up on her — even if she professes to “forget” or to “just not get it,” don’t buy into that. She’ll figure it out quickly if there is something in it for her — be it positive or negative.

Take advantage of teachable moments. Although you don’t need to go on and on about the behavior-consequence connection, if you see an opportunity (and there’s probably at least one each day), bring it to your child’s attention. Now, that doesn’t mean that you’re constantly criticizing the kid. You’re just teaching her that making fun of her friend may lead to retaliation or at least a lessened friendship, or that getting a speeding ticket on her record will mean higher insurance premiums for years to come.

Watch out for feelings of entitlement. Be careful that your children do not take everything for granted — make them work for their allowances and privileges so that they see that effort leads to results! If they complain that it’s unfair that they have to work more than their friends, call a family meeting to discuss why you are making such a fuss about the behavior-consequence connection and why living it is so important to your family.

Check your own behavior. It’s really not a good idea to run a red light or to do one of those “rolling stops” at the stop sign. Even if you don’t get a ticket from a policeman, your kids may believe that there are two sets of rules out there — one for your family and one for the rest of the world. Remember, they are watching how you follow the rules and will most likely behave in a similar manner as they grow.

Don’t assume anything! Presuming that your kids will understand the connection just by attending school or playing with the neighborhood children is risky business. You may get lucky and have a mom or dad down the street who points out the behavior-consequence connection to your kid, but most will not. Folks tend to be reticent about disciplining other people’s children. So if you hear that your child acted up at a friend’s house or misbehaved in school, do something about it yourself. Sure, it may be double jeopardy, but I’d rather have the idea securely instilled in your kid than take the chance of it not becoming part of her personal value system.

NEXT WEEK: The importance of establishing daily expectations

Rodale Books

From “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” by Dr. Ruth Peters. Copyright ©2002 by Dr. Ruth Peters. Excerpted by permission of Rodale. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” For more information you can visit her Web site at www.ruthpeters.com. Copyright ©2006 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.

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