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The Heart of Life

The Heart of Life: July 2012

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Measuring Success in Discipline

It has been a busy, busy month.  I am severely disappointed in my lack of posts this month, seeing as I have much to say on the topic of parenting.  So, I made an executive decision to do one post a month on parenting skills.  So get excited about that!

I've been reading The Power of Positive Parenting by Dr. Glenn Latham, and it's a fantastic book.  I highly recommend it.  Parts of it are slightly dated, and his examples of how to handle certain situations are shamelessly cheesy, but he has really good advice that can be applied to any family.  Anyhow, shortly after I wrote my post on spanking I read a chapter in his book on spanking.  To my delight, he made a majority of the points that I made!  I love when doctors agree with me!

He did mention one extra thing that is genius, so I thought I'd include it as well.  Dr. Latham explains that when disciplining a child, it's important to pay attention to what happens to the child's behavior after the discipline is administered.

For example, let's say Tommy fights with his sister 7 times a week.  His parents have decided that this must stop, so it is decided that the punishment for fighting is sitting in time-out.  If this punishment results in Tommy only fighting with his sister 5 times that week, and then only 3 times the week after that, the punishment has been successful because it has decreased the undesired behavior.

On the other hand, what if Tommy's parents started using the punishment and found that Tommy was still fighting with his sister 7 times a week?  Or what if Tommy started fighting with his sister 8 or 9 times a week?  If a behavior continues or happens more often, this means that the "punishment" was actually reinforcing to the child--something about the punishment encouraged the child to keep misbehaving.  How does that work out?  Maybe Tommy likes the attention he gets from his mom when she puts him in time-out.  Maybe he sees sitting in time-out as a small price to pay so long as his sister stops bugging him.  Does that mean time-out is a bad punishment?  No, it just means it doesn't work for this kid in this situation.  If a punishment doesn't work, it's time to try something different.

Oddly enough, sometimes it never occurs to parents to change a punishment when it's not working.  Sometimes parents become so caught up in the idea of a punishment--that it should work--that they have a hard time accepting that it simply isn't working.  They think that sooner or later the punishment will change the child.  This doesn't make any sense.  Dr. Latham uses this quote to explain, "If you're always going to do what you've always done, you're always going to get what you've always gotten."  In other words, if you don't change anything about how you parent, how do you expect your child to magically change?

Now, in my spanking post I mentioned that people use spanking because it works.  I need to clarify:  Spanking works well short-term, but not so much in the long-run.  Pain is a great short-term trainer, but a terrible long-term teacher.  If you don't believe me, consider this:  A successful punishment decreases (or completely eliminates) bad behavior.  If spanking was successful, a parent would find themselves spanking less and less, and perhaps stop spanking altogether because their children are such perfect angels.  It might happen, but not probably not often.  More often than not, a spanking gets the child to stop the misbehavior in that moment, but it doesn't teach them not to repeat the misbehavior in the future.  Thus, when the child does repeat the offense (and they will), all the parent remembers is that spanking got them to stop last time, so it will get them to stop again.  This is not success, by any means.  No matter how painful or unpleasant the punishment may be, it's not successful if the child's bad behavior doesn't improve.

In my spanking post I promised to suggest some positive discipline strategies; don't worry, they're still coming!


Monday, July 30, 2012

{Moderately} Healthy Broccoli Alfredo

I have this thing for pasta.  And since I'm really not a fan of marinara sauce, my default favorite is Alfredo sauce.  However, I'm not a huge fan of store-bought Alfredo sauce.  Let's face it, it's nasty compared to home-made.  I have a delightful recipe for Alfredo sauce that I love (and I'll probably share sometime), but it calls for a lot of butter, cream, cream cheese, and Parmesan cheese.  Clog my arteries now.  Hence, it's more of a special occasion sauce than a bi-monthly sauce.  Sad story.

But then the clouds cleared and the Pinterest sun came out... Skinny Alfredo!  Also, I should apologize for the crappy quality of the above picture.  I used my ipod.  Enough said.  I've made a few modifications to this recipe.

Firstly, it called for roasted broccoli.  Whaaaaat?  Broccoli can be roasted?  However, she didn't share how to roast broccoli.  Thus, Rachael Ray came to the rescue.  Bless her heart.  Roasting it is so worth it.  A billion times better than steaming.

Secondly, the recipe called for Greek yogurt.  That stuff is super healthy and super not in my budget.  Too fancy for me.  I'd rather spend my splurge money on the Kroger knockoff of Nutella.  Thus, I found a slightly less healthy, but more affordable substitute:  sour cream.

Thirdly, the recipe calls for roughly half a can of chicken broth.  What the crap do I do with the other half of the can?  Drink it?  Sheesh.  So I doubled the sauce recipe.  More is better, right?  Put it in a Tupperware and take it to work!

Fourthly, to make up for the decrease in healthiness thanks to the sour cream, I decreased the Parmesan cheese.  I didn't really notice a difference in taste.

Fifthly, I'm just not coordinated enough to throw chicken into the mix.  I'm roasting some broccoli, stirring a sauce, trying to keep the noodles from boiling over, and you want me to grill some chicken too?  Not in my 81 degree house.

Lastly, I used garlic powder instead of minced garlic.  It's more cheap that way.  Not to mention easier.  Are you noting a pattern here?

Now, this sauce isn't as delightful as my fancy, fatty Alfredo sauce--not nearly as creamy--but it's still pretty dang good.  And much more healthy.  So without further ado, here is the recipe:

{Moderately} Healthy Broccoli Alfredo

Roasted Broccoli: (Serves 8)
4 cups broccoli florets, washed and cut into bite-sized pieces
1/2 tsp garlic powder (or 4 cloves garlic, finely chopped)
6 Tbs (or 1/4 cup plus 2 Tbs) olive oil
Salt and Pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  In a bowl combine all the ingredients and stir to evenly coat broccoli.  Spread out on a cookie sheet (or whatever you prefer) and bake for 15-20 minutes until it's crispy and the ends are slightly brown.

Sauce: (Serves 8)
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tsp garlic powder
1/4 cup flour
1 (14 oz.) can fat-free, low sodium chicken broth
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup skim milk
1/2 tsp pepper
1 dash ground nutmeg
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Heat oil and garlic powder on medium-low heat in a medium saucepan.  Whisk in flour until smooth, then gradually whisk in broth, sour cream, milk, pepper, and nutmeg.  Bring to a low boil, stirring constantly, then reduce heat and simmer until sauce thickens (approximately 3 minutes).  Stir in Parmesan cheese until melted.

Combine the sauce with the broccoli, and serve with an appropriate amount of the noodle of your choice.  Maybe 16 ounces of Fettuccine?  Choose your own adventure.  Also, if you're ambitious enough to add chicken, please feel free.  If you desire, garnish with a little extra Parmesan cheese.  Voila!  A quick, easy, and {moderately} healthy meal!


Monday, July 16, 2012

That One Taboo Subject

 I've mentioned before that I'm not a fan of spanking as a form of discipline.  I promised an explanation, and now is a good time to slip it in.

Before I start, I need to acknowledge that spanking is incredibly common, and when done correctly (it should leave no marks or bruises), it's perfectly legal.  I'm certainly not looking to condemn anyone (especially my own parents), so please do not be offended or hurt by what I have to say.  I'll try really hard to keep it educational.

Spanking is the most classic form of punishment, and there's a good reason why:  It works.  Getting a spanking isn't fun at all, so of course the threat of getting one can be enough to prevent misbehavior.  It's the same idea we talked about in the last post with the shock-collared dog--it trains, but doesn't necessarily discipline.

I think another reason why spanking has been perpetuated is partially due to an Old Testament scripture that has been taken out of context.  In Proverbs 13:24 it says, "He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes."  From this came the common phrase, "Spare the rod, spoil the child." Both are fabulous bits of advice, but many people have interpreted them to mean, "Good parents hit their kids with a stick when they're bad."  What?  That can't be right.

In the Old Testament, a rod usually refers to a shepherd's rod.  This rod was used to fend off wolves that threatened the flock, or it was used to guide the sheep to the desired destination.  I don't think the rod was used to actually hit the sheep--I'd imagine a hurt sheep was less valuable.   If we keep that in mind, we can interpret the scripture to mean, "He who fails to protect and guide his son hates his son."  I don't know about you, but that makes a lot more sense than the idea of hitting a kid with a stick.

Regardless of the reason why a parent uses spanking, we have to take into consideration what spanking teaches kids, since discipline is instruction.  Spanking without teaching and explaining is just punishment, and that isn't desirable because nothing is learned.  When a parent uses spanking as a predictable consequence for misbehavior then proceeds to teach the child how to do things differently next time, etc, it becomes discipline.  This is just about as effective at preventing misbehavior as any other type of negative-consequence-related discipline.  Perfect!  So what's wrong with spanking?

Unfortunately, a child learns a lot more from spanking than just the simple message that they aren't to misbehave.  Here's an example, then I'll break it down:

A child is arguing with his sister, and soon it escalates into him punching his sister.  The family's consequence for hitting is a spanking.  After the mother calmly finds out what happened, she takes the child aside, calmly explains to him that punching his sister is unacceptable and also hurts his sister.  Then the mother reminds him that the consequence for hitting is getting a spanking.  She then tells him that the next time his sister is bothering him he can walk away from her and try playing with something else for a while.  Then, true to her established consequence, she spanks him.  She then asks him to apologize to his sister.

If this sounds ridiculous, you're right.  Who spanks a child calmly?  Spanking happens in the heat of the moment, not after a meaningful teaching moment.  This is what normally happens:

A child is arguing with his sister, and it soon escalates into him punching his sister.  The mother hears the sister's screams and bounds into the room.  As soon as she gets the jest of what happened, she spanks her son.  She admonishes him, "Don't hit your sister!  We do not do this in our family!"  She then sends him to his room.

That sounds more like it, right?  Not calm at all.  That's our first clue that spanking isn't the best kind of punishment.  When done in the heat of the moment, spanking is natural and makes sense, but when done calmly it seems awkward and...well, dumb.

You might have noted the irony of the consequence in both examples.  The consequence for hitting was hitting.  Does that seem strange to you?  It does to me.  This sends very confusing and contrasting messages to the child.  On the one hand, he's being told not to hit.  But at the same time, his mother is spanking him (which is essentially hitting).  So is hitting ok or not?  When is it ok to hit?  Is it ok when you're an adult?  Is it ok if someone is breaking a rule?  It's very confusing to a child.  Actions speak louder than words, and it's no exception with parenting.  The child ends up reasoning, "If mom hits, it must be ok.  She says it's not good, but if it really wasn't good, she wouldn't do it."

Even if spanking is given as a consequence for misbehavior other than hitting, it still teaches weird lessons.  I'll never forget an experience I had when I was in kindergarten.  I was playing house with a friend my age, and she was playing the mom while I played the daughter.  At some point I did something she didn't like, so she slapped me on the face.  Hard.  Looking back, it's obvious that's how it worked in her family.  When she and her siblings didn't do what their parents wanted, they were slapped.  She had thus learned that when someone doesn't do what you want, you can slap them.  That wasn't what her parents had intended, I'm sure, but that's what she'd picked up from what she saw at her house.

We must keep in mind that spanking isn't the only form of punishment out there that teaches weird, contradictory lessons.  A little while ago this Youtube video was circulating around Facebook.  You can watch it if you want--it's fairly entertaining--but it's kind of long, so I'll summarize.  Basically, a daughter wrote this huge complaint on Facebook about how much work she has to do and how much her parents pick on her.  Her dad found it and decided to retaliate.  He made this video to formally address her complaints, and at the end he shot her laptop to teach her to not complain about her parents on Facebook anymore.

There were several comments along the lines of, "Atta boy!  Way to teach her!" and, "Finally someone out there is willing to man up and be a dad instead of a friend!"  While I do give him props for doing something, I feel his response was very inappropriate.  Much like my example of punishing hitting with hitting, this father was trying to teach her not to complain on Facebook... by complaining on Youtube.  Very mature.  Also, by shooting her laptop, he inadvertently taught her that if someone says something bad about you on Facebook, it's ok to shoot their stuff.  See, weird lessons.

How parents handle frustrating or annoying situations is a child's main model for how he or she should handle frustrating or annoying situations.  If parents are modeling a hot burst of anger and mild violence to solve problems, it's only natural that the child will use the exact same skills to solve his or her own problems.  This isn't how we want children to behave, so why on earth would we act like this ourselves?  If we discipline in such a way that models calm, rational, and non-contradictory problem-solving skills, the kids learn to use these skills too.

Of course, this is easier said than done.  Next time I'll talk about ways this can be done.

In summary:
  • Any impulsive punishment that gets its power from your anger probably isn't a very good punishment.
  • Pay close attention to what a punishment actually teaches.
  • Don't give your kids a rule you aren't willing to follow.
  • Solve problems the exact same way you want your child to solve problems.


Thursday, July 12, 2012

An Intro to Discipline

I apologize for last post's cliff-hanger.  I'm sure you have been dying to know what I'm going to tell you about next.  Because the topic of parenting tends to be a touchy one, I've needed a little extra time to think through what I'm going to discuss and how I will do it.  I definitely don't want to come across as know-it-all-esque.  Because we all know that's annoying.  Especially since I don't have kids.  So here goes nothing.

We've established in my last post that it's desirable for kids to learn certain skills that will help them to be successful, independent adults.  Discipline plays a pretty huge role in creating these skills.  Thus, it's important to understand exactly what discipline is and how to use it appropriately for a huge variety of situations and children.  Before I get too far deep into the topic, I'd like to mention that a vast majority of the things I have formally learned about discipline are from my supervisor, Jen.  I took her parenting class twice as an intern and learned a ton.  She's great.

The word discipline has taken on a lot of different implications, but it's archaic meaning is "instruction."  Here's a fun fact:  The word "discipline" is very closely related to the word "disciple."  The most common use of the word disciple, of course, is in referring to Jesus Christ's disciples.  Those of you who are familiar with Christianity know that Christ's disciples are his followers.  They follow what he teaches.  Another lesser known meaning of the word disciple is "pupil."  In other words, it's a learner.  Thus, a disciple (pupil) learns through discipline (instruction).  If you're Christian, there are many parallels you can draw there if you'd like.  One I like is that, ideally, the discipline of our disciples (our children) should look a lot like how Christ disciplined his disciples.  Christ chastised his disciples on occasion, but he always accompanied it with instruction.

When you look up discipline in the dictionary, it never takes long to come across the word "punishment."  Many people assume that discipline and punishment are synonymous.  This isn't necessarily true.  Punishment is a form of discipline, but one can punish without disciplining.  I'll explain.

If you've ever taken an intro to psychology class, chances are you've heard about operant conditioning.  Operant conditioning is essentially training a person (or animal) to behave a certain way.  There are a few different kinds of operant conditioning--punishment and reinforcement.

Punishment revolves around giving an unpleasant consequence in order to discourage a certain behavior.  A good example of this is shock collars for dogs.  If a dog barks, he is immediately shocked--he receives an unpleasant consequence in order to discourage him from barking.  After a while, the dog realizes the connection between barking and the shock and learns not to bark.

Is punishment effective in training?  Absolutely.  It wouldn't be operant conditioning if it didn't work.  But when you consider that the point of discipline is teaching, you have to consider what is being learned.  Has this dog learned that it's socially unacceptable to bark in the middle of the night when the neighbors are sleeping?  Has he learned that barking scares small children?  Nope.  The dog has learned that it doesn't feel good to bark.  He has learned that in order to avoid discomfort, he shouldn't bark.  If the dog still doesn't bark after the shock collar has been removed, it isn't because he has learned to respect his neighborhood.  It's because he has learned to be afraid of getting shocked.  The dog has been punished and trained effectively, but he hasn't really been disciplined.

Obviously, things are a little different when you're punishing a child instead of an animal.  Children have a much higher level of reasoning than animals.  You can't really teach your dog to have respect or responsibility, but this is something that can be taught to a child.  When punishments are carried out appropriately, they can be effective and teach the child what you want them to learn.  For example, let's say a family has a rule that if the kids come home after curfew, they must wash every window in the house as a consequence.  When a kid comes home late, the parents calmly sit the child down and explain why the rule is important, then administer the already-established consequence.  The parents also might encourage the child to call the next time she is running late.  Thus, the child has learned not only that washing windows is a crappy job, she also understands that her parents made this rule because they care about her and want to make sure she's safe.  As a bonus, she's learned how to handle the situation differently next time.  She has learned responsibility and respect without even realizing it.  Sure, she might be upset with her parents, but that comes with the territory.  When parents administer punishment appropriately (and predictably), it can teach much more than just fear of negative consequences--it teaches how to be a good adult.

If a punishment doesn't instruct, it isn't discipline.  What if the child had come home and the parents simply blew up saying, "I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU WERE LATE!  YOU NEED TO BE MORE RESPONSIBLE!  GO CLEAN EVERY WINDOW IN THE HOUSE, AND MAYBE THEN YOU'LL LEARN TO COME HOME ON TIME."  The only thing she learns from this is that cleaning the windows is a crappy job.  She might come home on time from now on, but it's not because she's magically more responsible.  It's because she doesn't want to clean the windows.  She has become just like the dog who doesn't bark anymore because he doesn't want to get shocked.  Punishment without instruction is just training.  The instruction is what makes it discipline.

I'm sure you're wondering what happened to the other kind of operant conditioning.  Don't worry, it's still there.  Reinforcement is another way of training people (or animals) to behave a certain way.  Reinforcement is the rewarding of positive behavior.  Much like punishment, one can reinforce without disciplining.  For the sake of brevity, I'll go with another dog example.  If you want to train a dog to roll over, you can give the dog a treat every time he rolls over.  After a while, the dog will figure out the connection between rolling over and getting the treat.  Thus, he rolls over because he wants a treat.

When teaching a dog tricks, it's usually all in fun--there's no real reason for teaching the dog to roll over.  However, when reinforcing children to do a certain thing, it's usually not for fun.  There's usually a purpose.  For example, some parents reward their children with candy after they successfully sit quietly in church.  They want their children to learn to be reverent in church.  However, if parents dole out the reward without explaining to the children why they're being rewarded and why reverence is important, the kids only learn that they get candy if they're quiet.  When there's no instructing--no explaining of why--it's no different from training a dog to roll over.  Kids are capable of so much more than that.  If we want kids to be successful, independent adults, they have to know why good things are good and why bad things are bad.  We can train them to do the right thing, but it's better teach them to want to do the right thing.

So in summary:
  • Children need discipline to become responsible and independent.
  • Discipline always involves instruction.
  • When there's no instruction, it's not discipline--it's training.
  • Children can be trained, but training doesn't encourage responsibility and independence.


Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Bermuda Triangle of Parenthood

Since I've been doing a lot of pretty informal writing for the past few months, I've been craving something a little more... informative.  I'm a social worker--I sort of thrive on giving helpful information.  Thus, I've decided to talk about parenting this month.

Am I a parent?  Nope.  Definitely not.  So obviously I don't know everything about parenting.  By far.  But I do know a thing or two from the multiple parenting classes I've taken throughout my education.  So I'll regurgitate a few of the things I've picked up, and hopefully I remember it a few years down the road when I have kids.

The whole purpose of parenting is to teach kids to be successful, independent adults.  That's the simplest way to put it.  The whole point of parents having their children clean the house, feed the dog, take out the garbage, do their homework, eat their vegetables, get along with their siblings, take piano lessons, etc. is to teach them skills that will be important in adulthood.  Through these seemingly menial tasks, kids learn responsibility, punctuality, fortitude, talent, independence, and problem-solving. 

The longer I work with kids and their families, the more baffled I become at the range of care given to children.  On one end of the scale is neglect.  I know children who have been locked in closets.  I've met a 3-year-old so malnourished that he could have easily passed as 18 months old.  Not only are these children being denied the privilege of learning valuable skills for adulthood, even their basic needs aren't being met.  In addition, these children generally carry a lot of baggage with them into adulthood--self esteem issues, trust issues, or maladaptive coping mechanisms (e.g. unhealthy addictions).

On the other end of the scale are hyper-vigilant parents.  I like to think of them as Neverland parents because they (consciously or subconsciously) refuse to let their children grow up.  They don't really encourage independence.  I know a 13-year-old boy who still occasionally receives help from his mother in using the bathroom.  You read that right.  13 years old.  I can't make this stuff up.  While this boy does have some issues, he is very high functioning and completely capable of taking care of his personal business on his own.  The first time I met him, she announced that they needed to use the restroom, and marched after him into our single-toilet restroom.  The second time I saw him, I was very curious to see if she would accompany him to the restroom again.  She didn't this time, but she did hover outside the restroom door while he was in there.  When he came out she asked, "Did you do the three steps?"  I can only guess at the steps--zip, flush, and soap?  Oh, how I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt, but after watching two months of incessant hand-holding, I really can't.  On the slightly less extreme side of this same idea, I know parents who strongly discourage their children from moving out of the house once they've graduated from high school.  I'm sure these parents (bathroom boy included) honestly think they're doing their child a favor.  But I think we can agree that it really doesn't encourage successful, independent adulthood.

On yet another end of the scale (imagine a triangle), you've got the overly harsh parents.  These parents have got the whole idea of teaching independence and life-long skills down, but they get a little carried away.  Sometimes they forget to parent with love and understanding.  It seems to me that they also tend to have unrealistic expectations for their children--they want their children to behave like adults.  I'm fairly sure these parents do love their children, but they show it in an unconventional way, and thus their kids often misinterpret it.  These kids tend to resent their parents a little more than the average child and look for opportunities to escape.  Sometimes they have no intention of returning.

Obviously we're shooting for somewhere in the middle of these three extremes, but it's easy to get lost within this triangle.  We want to take good care of our kids, but we want them to eventually become entirely independent.  And of course we want them to like us.  Is this even possible?  Yes.  But we'll get into that later.