The Edmond Sun

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October 5, 2012

When punishing, follow the Agony Principle

McClatchy — Q: When I attempt to put my 3-year-old daughter in her room for punishment, she refuses to go. I have to pick her up and take her, during which time she flails her arms, screams and kicks. My back is paying for the struggle. Her dad doesn’t have this problem with her, by the way. What can I do to make her go on her own without getting physical with her?

A: Since you only describe the hassle involved in getting your daughter to go to her room, I’m going to assume that once she’s in there, she will stay until you set her free.

If so, then your only “mistake” (the quotation marks are purposeful) is in forcing her to go to her room. Don’t misunderstand me. When you direct her to go to her room, she should go, without struggle, under the power of her own two feet. The mistake is not that you tell her to go, the mistake is that you MAKE her go.

Currently, you tell her to go and she refuses, challenging you to force her. You accept the challenge, which means that even though you appear to “win,” you actually lose. How? By letting her define the terms under which she gets to her room. Furthermore, you end up paying more of a price for her misbehavior than she does.

In so doing, you’re violating my Agony Principle. It simply states that parents should not agonize over anything a child does or fails to do if the child is perfectly capable of agonizing over it herself. In other words, the emotional consequences of a child’s misbehavior should be borne by the child and the child alone.

The solution is for you to stop trying to MAKE your daughter go to her room. Instead, when she misbehaves, and you tell her to go to her room (everything is fine to this point), and she refuses, just shrug your shoulders, say “OK,” and walk away.

That evening, immediately after the evening meal, you and your husband together should tell her that because she wouldn’t go to her room when you told her to go, she has to go to bed right then and there.

She will probably cry and protest, but that should be the end of it. Let that be your policy from now on. When she figures out (which should take no more than a few experiences of this sort) that if she doesn’t cooperate in a small consequence during the day, there’s a big one later, she’ll begin cooperating in the small one.

This is an application of what I call the Godfather Principle: To move the emotional consequences of misbehavior off of a parent’s shoulders (or back) onto the child’s, simply make the child an offer she can’t refuse. Marlon Brando was a parenting genius.

One last word: The next time your daughter refuses to go to her room for punishment, don’t tell her what awaits her after supper. Surprises keep children on their toes, minding their p’s and q’s, and that sort of thing.

FAMILY psychologist John Rosemond’s website is

www.rosemond.com.

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