Control without nagging (It is possible)
Yelling and nagging at children can become a habit, and an ineffectual one at that! Have you ever screamed at your child, "This is the last time I'm going to tell you, 'this is that last time?'" Parents often use anger to get action, instead of using action to get action. It doesn't work. Let me give you an example.
Eight-year-old Henry is sitting on the floor, playing with his games. Mom looks at her watch and says, "Henry, it's nearly nine o'clock (a thirty-minute exaggeration) so gather up your junk and go take your bath." Now Henry knows, and Mom knows, that she doesn't mean for him to go take a bath. She merely meant for him to start thinking about going to take his bath. She would have fainted dead away if he had responded to her empty command. Approximately ten minutes later, Mom speaks again, "Now, Henry, it is getting later and you have to go to school tomorrow, and I want those toys picked up; then go get in that tub!" She still does not intend for Henry to obey, and he knows it. Her real message is "We're getting closer, Hank." Henry shuffles around and stacks a box or two to demonstrate that he heard her. Then he settles down for a few more minutes of play. Six minutes pass, and Mom issues another command, this time with more passion and threat in her voice, "Now listen, young man, I told you to get a move on, and I meant it." To Henry, this means he must get his toys picked up and meander toward the bathroom door. If his mom pursues him with a rapid step, then he must carry out the assignment posthaste. However, if Mom's mind wanders before she performs the last step of this ritual, Henry is free to enjoy a few more seconds reprieve.
You see, Henry and his mom are involved in a one-act play; they both know the rules and the role being enacted by the opposite player. The entire scene is programmed, computerized, and scripted. Whenever Mom wants Henry to do something he dislikes, she progresses through graduated steps of phony anger, beginning with calm and ending with a red flush and a threat. Henry does not have to move until she reaches the peak anger point. How foolish this game is! Since Mom controls him by the use of empty threats she has to stay mad all the time. Her relationship with her children is contaminated, and she ends each day with a pounding, throbbing headache. She can never count on instant obedience; it takes her at least five minutes to work up a believeable degree of anger.
How much better it is to use action to get action. There are hundreds of tools which will bring the desired response, some of which involve pain while others offer the child a reward. The use of rewards (bribes) is discussed in the next chapter, and thus will not be presented here. But minor pain can also provide excellent motivation for the child. The parent should have some means of making the child want to cooperate, other than simply obeying because he was told to do so. For those who can think of no such device, I will suggest one: there is a muscle, lying snugly against the base of the neck. Anatomy books list it as the trapezius muscle, and when firmly squeezed, it sends little messengers to the brain saying, "This hurts; avoid recurrence at all costs." The pain is only temporary; it can cause no damage. When the youngster ignores being told to do something by his parent, he should know that Mom has a practical recourse. Let's return to the bedtime issue between Henry and his Mom; she should have told him that he had fifteen more minutes to play. It then would have been wise to set the alarm clock or the stove buzzer to sound in fifteen minutes. No one, child or adult, likes a sudden interruption to his activity. When the time came, Mom should have quietly told Henry to go take his bath. If he didn't move immediately, the shoulder muscle could have been squeezed. If Henry learns that this procedure is invariably followed, he will move before the consequence is applied.
There will be those among my readers who feel that the deliberate, premeditated application of minor pain to a sweet little child is a harsh and unloving recommendation. I ask those skeptics to hear me out. Consider the alternatives. On the one hand, there is constant nagging and strife between parent and child. When the youngster discovers there is no threat behind the millions of words he hears, he stops listening to them. The only messages he responds to are those reaching a peak of emotion, which means there is much screaming and yelling going on. The child is pulling in the opposite direction, fraying Mom's nerves and straining the parent-child relationship. But the most important limitation of these verbal reprimands is that their user often has to resort to physical punishment in the end, anyway. Thus, instead of the discipline being administered in a calm and judicious manner, the parent has become unnerved and frustrated, swinging wildly at the belligerent child. There was no reason for a fight to have occurred. The situation could have ended very differently if the parental attitude had been one of confident serenity. Speaking softly, almost pleasantly, Mom says,
"Henry, you know what happens when you don't mind me; now I don't see any reason in the world why I should have to make you feel pain to get your cooperation tonight, but if you insist, I'll play the game with you. When the buzzer sounds you let me know what your decision is."
The child has a choice to make, and the advantages to him of obeying his mother's wishes are clear. She need not scream. She need not threaten to shorten his life. She need not become upset. She is in command. Of course, Mother will have to prove two or three times that she will apply the pain, if necessary, and occasionally throughout the coming months her child will check to see if she is still at the helm. But there is no question in my mind as to which of these two approaches involves the least pain and the least hostility between parent and child.
The shoulder muscle is a surprisingly useful source of minor pain; actually, it was created expressly for school teachers. It can be utilized in those countless situations where face-to-face confrontations occur between adult and child. One such incident happened to me several years ago. I had come out of a drug store, and there at its entrance was a stooped, elderly man, approximately seventy-five or eighty years of age. Four boys, probably ninth graders, had cornered him and were running circles around him. As I came through the door, one of the boys had just knocked the man's hat down over his eyes and they were laughing about how silly he looked, leaning on his cane. I stepped in front of the poor fellow and suggested that the boys find someone else to torment. They called me names, and then sauntered off down the street. I got in my car, and was gone for about fifteen minutes. I returned to get something I had forgotten, and as I was getting out of my car, I saw the same four boys come running out of a nearby hardware store. The proprietor of the shop ran out after them, shaking his fist and screaming in protest. I discovered later that they had run down the rows in his store, raking cans and bottles off on the floor. They also made fun of the fact that he was Jewish and rather fat. When the boys saw me coming, I'm sure they thought I believed myself to be Robin Hood II, protector of the innocent and friend of the oppressed. One of the little tormentors ran straight up to my face, and stared defiantly in my eye. He was about half my size, but he obviously felt safe because he was a child. He said, "You just hit me! I'll sue you for everything you're worth." I have rather large hands, and it was obviously the time to use them; I grasped his shoulder muscles on both sides, squeezing firmly. He dropped to the ground, holding his neck. One of his friends said, "I'll bet you're a school teacher, aren't you?" All four of them ran. Later that evening I received a call from the police, saying that these four boys had harassed merchants and customers along that block for weeks. Their parents did not choose to cooperate with the authorities and the police did not know what to do about the assaults. I can think of no more excellent way to breed, cultivate, and finalize juvenile delinquency than to allow such examples of early defiance to succeed with impunity.
Discipline in a school classroom is not very different from discipline at home; the principles by which children can be controlled are the same in both settings — only the methods change. A teacher, scoutmaster, or recreation leader who tries to control a group of children by use of his own anger is due for a long, long day of frustration. The children find out how far he will go before taking any action, and they invariably push him right to that line. Perhaps the most nonsensical mistake a teacher or group leader can make is to impose disciplinary measures that the children do not dislike. I knew a teacher, for example, who would scream and yell and beg her class to cooperate. When they got completely out of hand, she resorted to her maximum firepower: she would climb up on her desk and blow her whistle! The kids loved it! She weighed about 240 pounds, and the children would plot at the lunch and recess periods as to how they could get her on that desk. She was inadvertently offering them a reward for their unruliness. Their attitude was much like that of Brer Rabbit who begged the fox not to throw him in the briar patch. There was nothing they wanted more.
One should never underestimate a child's awareness that he is breaking the rules. I think most children are rather analytical about their defiance of adult authority; they consider the deed in advance, weighing its probable consequences. If the odds are too great that justice will triumph, they'll take a safer course. This characteristic is verified in millions of homes where the youngster will push one parent to the limits of his tolerance, but will be a sweet angel with the other. Mom whimpers, "Rick minds his dad perfectly, but he won't pay any attention to me." Good old Rick has observed that mom is safer than dad.
To summarize this point, the parent must recognize that the most successful techniques of control are those which manipulate something important to the child. Minor pain is one of those important variables. Words following words carry little or no motivational power for the child.
"Why don't you do right, Jack? You don't hardly ever do right. What am I going to do with you, son? Mercy me, it seems like I'm always having to get on you. I just can't see why you won't do what you're told. If one time, just one time, you would act your age, etc."
Jack endures these endless tirades, month in, month out, year after year. Fortunately for him, nature has equipped Jack with a mechanism that allows him to turn it off. A man who lives by a railroad track somehow fails to hear the trains going by; likewise, Jack finds it useful to ignore the unmeaningful noise in his environment. Jack (and all his contemporaries) would be much more willing to "do right" if it were clearly to his personal advantage to cooperate.