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February 2000  -  Volume 3  -  Issue 2

Win-Win Discipline

By Diana Tonnessen
from Parents magazine

Win-win discipline borrows from the East Asian tradition of "saving face" -- allowing people to get out of a sticky situation gracefully -- without judgement or confrontation. This approach, by definition, is an antidote to power struggles. After all, if there's no winner and looser, there's less reason to fight.

Power struggles that push a child into submission lead to the three R's: revenge, rebellion, or retreat, according to Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., author of the Positive Discipline series of books. The child loses face, and the parent loses influence. "Lectures, threats, and punishment create distance and hostility," she says. "Face-saving discipline creates closeness and trust."

The key to saving face is giving your child options -- and responsibility -- for his behavior and allowing him his dignity. "Even very young children can feel humiliated when stripped of their power," says Rebecca Kantor, Ed.D., associate professor of family relations and human development at Ohio State University.

Allowing your child to save face, especially in front of his peers, becomes even more important as he gets older. Giving your child more power in the discipline process doesn't mean relinquishing your own. As the parent, you are still responsible for setting limits and teaching appropriate behaviors. And inevitably, you will have to instruct or correct your child in front of others, whether it is friends, family, or strangers in public places.

Here, then, are some tips for turning "I win, you lose" battles into win-win victories -- for both of you.

Give them a choice . . . and a way out of trouble. "Giving limited choices sends a message to your child right from the start that he chooses th behave in certain ways, that he is responsible for his actions, and that his actions have consequences," says Kantor.

Let the consequences fit the crime.  Once you've given your child a choice of behaviors, you must accept his decision. He, in turn, must accept the consequences of his actions. Just make sure that they are not harmful and that they are a natural outcome of the behavior, advices Nelsen

Be discreet. The best way to help your child save face in public is to discipline in private. "There's nothing more humiliating to a child, especially once he is school-age, than being singled out and yelled at our punished in front of others," says Marilyn E. Gootman, Ed.D., and education professor at the University of Georgia, in Athens, and author of The Loving Parents's Guide to Discipline (Berkley).

Sometimes, however, your child will do something in public that demands immediate action. There are ways to halt his behavior without humiliating him over it. The first thing you do, according to Gootman, is to calmly tell your child to stop, and matter-of-factly explain why. If she persists, gently remove her from the situation or leave.

Offer an incentive. Different than a bribe, a face-saving incentive lets your child walk away from and encounter having gained, rather than lost, something. It can be a tangible reward ("Once your room is clean, we'll be ready for dessert") or a psychic one ("As soon as you calm down, you can join us at the table"). Either way, you show your child that his efforts are valued. "Adults don't go to work every day for nothing," says Irwin Hyman, Ed.D., professor of school psychology at Temple University, in Philadelphia. Likewise, he adds, children need to see their hard work pay off.

Praise is one of the greatest incentives. "Whenever I see that my kids are about to do something bad, I immediately start to praise them for the opposite behavior," says Marci Levi, of Reston, Virginia, mother of Andre, 6, and Danielle, 7. "If my son isn't sharing, I say 'Andre, I really liked the way you shared your toys with your sister yesterday.' He usually catches himself before things get out of control.

Show you care. Nelsen suggests starting off any disciplinary talk with a statement of genuine concern: "I love you, and I'm concerned that what you're doing could get you into trouble." Perhaps nothing ensures a win-win outcome more than a declaration of your love.

Diane Tonnessen is the mother of three and a writer in Reston, Virginia.

Copyright Gruner + Jahr USA Publishing. Reprinted from Parents magazine by permission.

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