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Discipline Makeover


Clearly, Bentley's too young to discuss behavior and consequences, but Lancer says she can be helped by a modified version of the warning system. For instance, Tracy can say to Bentley, "If you rub Mommy's makeup into the carpet (one of Bentley's less endearing behaviors), I'll take it away." If she tries to anyway, Tracy should take the makeup from Bentley's hand.

A more effective tactic with a child Bentley's age, says Lancer, is to create an environment where "no" isn't the constant refrain. He suggests giving Bentley some nonstaining makeup or play powder (cornstarch) of her own. "Then set her in front of a mirror and show her: 'See, we put it on our cheeks, not on the carpet.'"

Or Tracy could keep a lower kitchen cabinet open, stocked with colorful, nonbreakable bowls and cups that Bentley can easily stack and put away.

In discussing Bentley's tendency to have tantrums, Lancer suggests that she, like everyone in the house, would benefit from a calmer environment. "We're constantly rushing," her mom admits.

Bentley's particular "witching hour" is right before dinnertime. While one parent or the other frantically tries to cook, Sydney and Jessica run in and out of the kitchen, and Bentley screams for juice and "ookies."

Again, Lancer urges, step back and strategize. The Whites agree that Bentley's before-dinner fits have less to do with hunger than with seeing the older girls grabbing snacks. To make sure she doesn't see what they have, Lancer suggests that each girl be given a pre-dinner activity that separates her from the others.

Keep in mind: It's not the end of the world if once in a while a parent lets an infraction slide. "As long as consequences are administered consistently over the long run, parents can  -- and should  -- cut themselves and their kids some slack."

"Better to lose the battle and win the war?" asks Tracy.

"Exactly!" Lancer says.



A month after the Whites' meeting with Lancer, we checked to see how they were doing.

Remarkably, Tracy and Rob say, they saw an improvement in the older girls' behavior as soon as they returned from their counseling session  -- even before introducing the new discipline system.

"Okay, Momma," Sydney replied, when asked to begin her homework. When she was told to wash up for dinner, she agreed without protest.

Clearly, part of the change came with the new sense of calmness in the family and the parents' fresh perspective on handling the kids, says Rob. "We realized that disciplining the children wasn't a lost cause  -- they're still young and very impressionable."

Rob and Tracy began the makeover process by discussing with Sydney and Jessica  -- over ice cream  -- ways to make family life run more smoothly. They explained the system of consequences and how it would work.

"We said that a consequence was like a natural result of their behavior," says Tracy. Rob gave the girls ex-amples of what could happen, such as not being allowed to play with friends or losing other privileges.

Later, they sat down with Sydney alone. "We asked her to be a better listener and to stop making the baby cry," says Tracy.

Within a day of their discussion, Tracy had her first opportunity to test the system. Despite repeated requests over the course of 20 minutes to put on her shoes, Jessica was still padding around in socks. Finally, in the car as they rushed to preschool, Tracy told Jessica there would be a consequence as a result of her dawdling, though she hadn't yet decided what.

"When I picked her up from school, she asked if we could get ice cream. I knew then what the consequence would be," says Tracy. "I told her no and explained why." Jessica didn't cry or complain, she says. Since then, she has been better about putting on her shoes and dawdling in general.

Things appeared to run more smoothly until the following week, when Rob and Tracy had their first conference with Sydney's first-grade teacher. They were dismayed to learn that their daughter was causing problems  -- calling children names, making faces behind the teacher's back, and not completing classwork.

After discussing it with the teacher, Sydney and her parents agreed on a system in which she could earn two stickers from her teacher each day to put on a special chart--one for conduct and one for completing class assignments. Every day, she was expected to earn both stickers.

Only once in the month since has Sydney failed. The consequence: staying inside that afternoon and helping Mom with chores, rather than joining her friends outside. "It kills her to miss out on the neighborhood fun," says Tracy.

Rob also began to help Sydney with her schoolwork when he's at home and makes a point of calling her when he's out of town. The result has been better performance and no more acting up in class.

Jessica, meanwhile, has become more challenging. "Her new thing is to stomp her foot and say no when I tell her to do something," says Tracy. "But for the most part she takes her consequences without complaint."

Jessica's apparent role reversal with Sydney has also led to a spate of tattling by the girls, with each one eager to report the other for small infractions, such as an unmade bed. Tracy is trying to head this off by imposing consequences on the tattler.

Yet overall, both girls' behavior has improved so much that Tracy has signed them up for swimming lessons as a reward. "If they continue to do well, we'll consider taking on another activity," she says.

Bentley is enjoying Lancer's suggestion that she get some makeup of her own. "I've given her some very light blush so even if she gets it all over her face, it barely shows," says Tracy. "Now she sits there quietly and lets me get ready."

Tracy has likewise tried giving Bentley a toddler version of consequences when she misbehaves. The effects have been limited, but promising. On a recent trip to the grocery store, for instance, Tracy agreed to let Bentley get out of the cart and look at the candy rack at the checkout. If Bentley grabbed any, however, Tracy moved her out of reach. "After being picked up a few times," she says, "Bentley got the message and left the candy alone."

Overall, the Whites feel they're getting good results from their discipline redo. The crux of their success, Rob adds, may be that they now realize just how much structure children really need. "We hadn't been giving them that," Rob admits.

Sydney and Jessica are also happy with the changes that have taken place in the household. "They're more patient," says Sydney of her mother and father. She also appreciates her parents' new interest in her opinions, and takes pride in having been asked to be her teacher's special helper.

Jessica, meanwhile, regrets several missed trips for ice cream, but admits that this particular consequence "helps me listen better." She also reports that she's been helping her mother with little sister Bentley and with bringing in the groceries.

As an unexpected bonus, Rob and Tracy say their teamwork has fostered a greater supportiveness of each other. "I've come to appreciate all that Tracy does to keep this family going," says Rob, "and I feel the same appreciation from her."

Best of all is the reward for all their hard work: a home life that's happier and decidedly more peaceful.