One of my assignments as a new family therapist in the late 70s was to attend a good parenting class. I chose Don Dinkmeyer and Gary McKay's three-day workshop called Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP). Since I had not been a parent but I had been a child I wondered what else there was besides punishment, reward, spanking, lectures and threats.
I was surprised to learn that giving a choice such as a natural or a logical consequence is more effective than reward and punishment. That punishment invites resistance and prevents the child from learning to make decisions, makes the parent responsible for their child's behavior and suggests that acceptable behavior is expected only around authority figures.
A memory from my childhood made me think using choices made sense. When my mother took me to the dentist when I was seven I cried and refused to open my mouth. The dentist said sternly, "Niki, you have a choice-if you cooperate your mother can stay otherwise she'll have to wait outside." I immediately stopped crying and opened my mouth.
Other STEP recommendations include:
Provide a logical consequence. For example if the child's shoes are soiling the couch give them a choice between sitting on the couch properly or sitting on the floor.
Provide a natural consequence. For example allow the child to go hungry if they do not eat.
Allow the child to learn from their mistake and be responsible for their actions. This helps the parent avoid the "bad guy" role.
Encourage the child to take responsibility for choices instead of pitying, shaming or overprotecting.
Ask the child what they think is fair. A consequence is more effective if the child sees it as logical and it fits the crime.
Talk less and act more when using natural or logical consequences.
A logical consequence implies no moral judgment. Punishment tells the child they are bad and ignores their natural goodness, desire to cooperate, inherent curiosity and the need to feel a part of the family.
Treat the child with dignity by separating the deed from the doer.
Instead of using praise where the child's worth depends on their ability to perform use encouragement as it focuses on effort not results.
Set realistic standards and focus on strengths instead of demanding perfection.
Stop criticism and encourage positive attempts. Use your feelings and reactions about a child's behavior to point to the purpose of the child's behavior.
Ignore attention-seeking behavior, withdraw from power conflicts, avoid retaliation, and hurt.
Learn to listen to the child's thoughts and feelings. When the child is "heard" they can change how they feel and act. Use "I-messages" not "you-messages" as they express feelings without blame.
When I used STEP's positive approach in individual, family and group counseling the families parenting skills and self esteem improved. The parents were surprised at their children's insight and wisdom. I found that STEP's principles really do provide information and techniques to help parents become more knowledgeable, confident and successful. As Dinkmeyer points out living respectfully with others is more effective than gaining control via a pecking order.
The STEP course not only made me a better therapist but it introduced me to a more positive and respectful way to relate to all people.