This is the third and final installment of my "Wrong Things Experts Have Said (and Still Say)" series. Thus far: I've debunked the myth that a consequence must be delivered immediately in order for a child to make the misbehavior-consequence connection; exposed the detrimental nature of high self-esteem; laid bare the falsehood that behavior modification works on human beings; and outed Freud for the fraud that he actually was.
The next psychological sacred cow in my shooting gallery is the notion that when it comes to consequences, parents must be consistent. Supposedly, a child should always be able to accurately predict the consequence his parents (or teachers) are going to apply to misbehavior. He should know, for example, that when he calls his mother a foul name, she is going to put him in time-out for five minutes (because he's 5 years old). Supposedly, a child's inability to accurately predict consequences causes some sort of potentially ego-threatening psychic disturbance, generally referred to as "confusion." And as anyone with a full complement of common sense knows, children should never experience any form or degree of psychic disturbance. (Full disclosure: There was a time when yours truly believed this claptrap.)
The truth is that when a consequence is predictable -- when the consequence is employed over and over and over again -- it's very likely that the child in question will become immune to it, and fairly quickly so. This explains why parents commonly report that a certain consequence worked for a time and then stopped working. Sometimes, parents will say that the child seemed to stop "caring" that he received the consequence.
Precisely! The child became immune to the consequence. It became humdrum because he knew exactly what his parents were going to do if he misbehaved.
At some point, and fairly early on, the consequence becomes meaningless. He learns how to entertain himself so as to make the five, or ten, or fifteen minutes of time-out go by quickly. Thus, being put in time-out (or losing television for the rest of the day, going to bed early, writing sentences, etc.) becomes a game.
To prevent immunization and the possibility that punishment becomes a game, I recommend that parents employ what I call the "Consequence Grab-Bag." Put ten consequences in the grab-bag. When misbehavior occurs, close your eyes, reach down into the grab bag, and pull one out. Surprise!
"Guess what, Billy! You're going to your room for the rest of the day!"
"What!" Billy exclaims, shock written all over his cute face. "That's not fair!"
"Fair?" says Billy's mom. "This is December. The fair never comes in December."
When I refer to the grab bag, I'm speaking figuratively, but I do know of some parents who put each of 10 consequences on pieces of paper the size of Chinese cookie fortunes. Each "fortune" (in a sense, they were) was folded and put in a fishbowl. When their son misbehaved, he had to go to the fishbowl and pick out a consequence.
A year later, this approach continued to be -- according to the son -- unfair. In other words, it continued to work!
John Rosemond, a family psychologist, answers parents' questions at rosemond.com.