One of the best forms of childhood discipline I ever discovered was a philosophy suggested by a friend: ''Every action has a consequence. If you choose the action, you must accept the consequence as well.''
It was a simple motto, one I had lived by for a long time. But somehow I had never expected my preschoolers to accept the same rule. Weren't they too little to grasp the concept of cause and effect?
Not at all, my friend maintained. Children of all ages like to know what is expected of them and what will happen if they disobey. They flourish in an atmosphere of consistency, where what was true today will also be true tomorrow. And they learn best when order is maintained and limits are set.
It sounded logical, so I decided to try the ''actions have consequences'' theory on a problem I was having with our four- and five-year-olds - running into the street. I talked to them again about the dangers of traffic, then added a new note: ''If you run into the street again, you will come into the house for the rest of the day.''
The next day our four-year-old followed a ball into the street. Instead of shouting or scolding, I simply reminded him of the rule, pointed out that he had chosen to ignore it, and took him into the house. There was much weeping and pleading for another chance, but I remained calm and steadfast. Two days later, he ''tested'' me by running into the street again and was again taken into the house. By the end of the week, both boys were playing happily and safely outside , and a problem I had grappled with for months had suddenly ended.
My husband wondered if the theory would work at the dinner table, and we decided to try it. Often our preschoolers would refuse to eat what was being served and ask for something else. Too often, we gave in for the sake of peace (which never really resulted). That night, however, we informed them that from now on, there would be no substitutes. If they didn't care to eat, that was their choice; the consequence would be an empty tummy until breakfast.
For several nights, tears and temper reigned. My husband and I reacted pleasantly, ignored most of the fuss, and remained firm. On three occasions, we followed through by putting the children to bed with empty stomachs. Within a week or two, our offspring were happily eating whatever was served to them.
Through the years, I've applied this theory to many situations and have discovered that it not only smoothes my routine but teaches our children self-discipline as well. If someone forgets to set his alarm clock, he misses the bus and must walk to school. If a child has not finished her homework, she forfeits evening television. If the teen-agers have not done their laundry, there will be no clean clothes to wear tomorrow. My husband and I are always there to support, comfort, and advise our children, but we no longer take on the responsibilities that rightfully belong to them. Maintaining this attitude cuts down on parental nagging and helps children to become self-reliant and organized.
In putting the ''actions have consequences'' theory into practice, a parent should consider these points:
1. Children should fully understand a rule and the consequences of breaking it, and be capable of obeying it. You cannot expect a toddler to meet the same behavior standards as a 10-year-old, and rules must be adjusted accordingly.
2. Once a child has chosen to ignore a rule, the consequences must be the same each time. It does no good to lightly scold a child for being late to dinner one evening and withhold dinner the next. An on-again, off-again atmosphere confuses even the most well-meaning child.
3. Parents should strive for a relaxed, pleasant attitude when dealing with troublesome situations. Remind yourself that Tommy chose this course of action; thus Tommy has also chosen the consequences. Your role is simply to see that the agreed-upon consequences do result. If you refuse to take part in angry outbursts or arguments, Tommy will soon learn to place the responsibility where it really belongs - on himself.
Discipline is a many-faceted subject. But the ''actions have consequences'' theory does work in many situations and helps children to learn in a logical and comfortable atmosphere.