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Building Better behavior

That's it! Off to your room!" Sherry was fed up with her 11-year-old son's disrespectful attitude. Like one of his action figures, Billy was transforming from a polite, mild-mannered boy into a why-should-I-have-to-do-anything-around-here ingrate.

"What happened to my little Billy?" Sherry asked me through her tears, wondering if aliens really could inhabit the bodies of fifth-grade boys.

Ever been there? You know, that point when you've tried every trick in the book and nothing seems to work? You've reasoned, given second (and ninth and tenth) chances, counted to ten, sent them to their rooms, taken privileges away, used time-outs, and even spanked. When nothing worked, you cycled through the same list again, this time louder and longer. You always hoped that once the labor pains were over, things would get better from there. You never dreamed they could get worse.

Without a doubt, the majority of clients I see in my practice come to me with discipline issues. The truth is, they don't always know they have discipline issues. From a parent's perspective, the problem is the child's behavior. But from where I sit, the solution isn't just changing the kids. The whole family discipline system needs to be transformed.

That process starts with rethinking your understanding of biblical discipline. Making discipline biblical doesn't mean quoting a Bible verse while you scream at your child. Proverbs 22:6 summarizes the biblical approach to parenting: "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it." To be sure, part of that training includes providing appropriate negative consequences for misbehavior (Proverbs 29:17). The problem is that this is often all we do. Using only negative consequences to provide discipline is like trying to build a house with just one tool. It may be a perfectly good tool, but adding a few others will make the job much easier. Here are two you can't do without:

Positive Payoff: tells us that the corrections of discipline are the way to life (Proverbs 6:23) and that wisdom brings rewards (Proverbs 9:12). You want your children to learn that listening and treating others with respect is worth the effort. These behaviors are the best way to make friends, build a healthy self-concept, and enjoy fun privileges.

Naturally, your kids won't automatically draw that conclusion, so point it out to them—often. When they listen well and talk to you with respect, let them know you noticed. Draw attention to the positive result by saying, "I sure love it when you listen the first time I ask you to do something. Great job!" When you see these behaviors becoming a pattern, surprise your child with a new privilege and be specific about your reasons for granting it.

Remind your child that the way he responds to other people shows them that God is living in his heart. If he wants to show God's love to others, then his respectful attitude is one of the best ways to do that.

Skills for Success: Keep in mind that children don't automatically know how to handle daily situations in a thoughtful and respectful way (there are a lot of adults who are still learning these skills too!). Remember Proverbs 22:6? Most of us don't really know how to "train a child," so we don't even try. One of our responsibilities as parents is to teach our children how to handle conflict. You can do that by modeling constructive conflict resolution with your spouse, with other adults, and with your children.

You'll also need to remember that kids need consistent reminders of what's expected of them. Yes, that means you'll have the same conversations over and over, but that really is how children learn how to function. Your child didn't learn to speak in a day, and he won't learn to behave in a day, either.

The Psalmist wrote, "Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain" (Ps. 127:1). But using the right tools certainly speeds up the building project. Start thinking beyond the use of consequences to change your child's behavior. Use all three discipline tools: positive reinforcement, negative consequences, and positive skill-building. Help your children learn that obeying God and listening to Mom and Dad are some of the best choices they'll ever make.

Todd Cartmell is a child psychologist, author, and popular workshop speaker. He is the author of Keep the Siblings, Lose the Rivalry and The Parent Survival Guide (both from Zondervan). Visit his website at www.drtodd.net.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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