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DEMOCRATIC DISCIPLINE for STEPTEENS

By Sharon Hanna *

"Challenging!" was my quick reply to what it was like to raise children in a step family. The children in my frame of reference are my two daughters Lisa and Lyn, and my two stepsons, Jeff and Greg, who lived with my husband and me before and during their adolescent years. Reflecting from an "empty,' nest, "I would add another word to my reply. . .rewarding!"

"How did you do it, and what should we do?" are common questions of concerned parents and stepparents. Based on graduate studies and hands-on experience, I'm eager to offer suggestions. The following is an excerpt (with a few modifications for step families) from my book Person to Person: Positive Relationships Don't Just Happen, to be published in 1991 by Prentice Hall.

Ask adults to define discipline, and you get answers such as, "making a child mind you," "directing a child's life," and "teaching a child ‘right' from ‘wrong' ." Ask children and teens the same questions, and you are likely to hear, "getting punished,' or a specific type of punishment. Sadly, parents often do use punishment to accomplish what they think discipline is.

A broader definition of discipline is guiding a child from infancy to adulthood in order that he or she can live positively in the world. A parent/stepparent has a role of leader and teacher while a child is a learner. Discipline, thus, has multifaceted dimensions. When people think about discipline, they don't usually picture anything positive. This broader concept is affirmative rather than negative. Punishment may be used, but if so, sparingly and as a last resort. If you picture discipline as a pie, punishment is the smallest possible slice.

Styles of Discipline

General ways of discipline are identified by family life specialists and researchers. An understandable and useful model describes three styles (Albert and Einstein, 1983): Authoritarian style, the preference of yesteryear, puts the parent/stepparent in total power as the "boss." As such, he or she is dictatorial, strict, and inflexible. The parent or stepparent/child relationship is characterized by fear, distance, coldness, and rigidity.

Exactly the opposite is the permissive style in which the parent/stepparent is a bystander and servant while the child is powerful and in control. A parent/stepparent is indecisive, yielding, weak, and inconsistent. The parent/stepparent-child relationship is distant, tentative, and manipulative. The democratic style fits the broader definition of discipline and is the mode of positive parenting. The roles of the parent and stepparent are as leaders and guides.

As such, she or he is approachable, reasonable, flexible, and affirming. A child is encouraged to think, to contribute, and to cooperate. Power is not a major issue and, essentially, is shared. Open communication is the norm, and the emphasis is on positiveness. The atmosphere is relaxed and consistent while the parent or stepparent/child relationship is close, open, and sharing. This is not necessarily a common style; however, experts recommend it, and research shows a number of benefits. Democratic discipline can spell the difference between success and failure in a step family. No matter how long you have been in a stepfamily, you can switch to democratic discipline. A recommendation is to bring the family together and announce the new approach!

Democratic discipline

Democratic discipline emphasizes positiveness: a change in vocabulary helps. The word "rules" sounds negative. Use the word "guidelines" or "policies' instead. Who establishes these guidelines? In democratic discipline, input is accepted from all who are able to contribute. If you are an employee, aren't you more likely to comply with policies if you have been involved in their formation? Teens react similarly. Periodically, the family can evaluate the guidelines and the consequences. Some may be obsolete or need updating. Other democratic methods include:

Model the behavior you want. Realizing that parents/stepparents will have adult privileges that teenagers do not have, discipline still includes the positive examples you set.

Apply behavior modification techniques. The ones which work best for teenagers are contracting and rewarding desired behavior. Use logical consequences. Preparing a child for adulthood and responsibility necessitates the learning of consequences. For any child who is old enough to understand the reasoning and handle the consequences, this method is amazing.

Consequences can be natural ones. If an automobile is wrecked because of a teen's careless driving, there is no car for him or her to drive. Allowing natural consequences is frequently hard on a loving parent/stepparent, but necessary in the development of responsibility.

Consequences can be created. A key element is to include the children in formulating consequences. Some recommendations in creating effective and fair consequences (McKay in McKay and Fanning, 1987) are that consequences should: be reasonable; be related to the event; occur close in time to the event; be enforced consistently; and, be understood in advance.

A favorite consequence story concerns my stepson Greg who, as a teenager, was unusually even-tempered. However, a phone conversation with a girl evidently got the ‘best of him." He hit and made a hole in the stairwell wall. "The wall has to be fixed," was our reaction. He patched the hole and even painted the entire stairwell! If Greg has used his fist on a wall since, I'd be surprised.

The use of consequences teaches responsibility and prevents parental nagging, scolding, and other punitive measures. A child's self-esteem usually remains intact, and the feeling of responsibility and control can even give it a boost.

Provide structure. Plan with the children how the household will operate. Having designated tasks and systems in place decreases the number of times a parent has to intervene. A family meeting is a good forum to use. You can introduce the idea by saying, "I want to include everyone in deciding how our household is going to function. A family is a team; a home requires care and maintenance. Let's decide what needs to be done and how often, then how it will be accomplished." My stepfamily used a system in which the children had daily and weekly duties designated by number. I still smile when I think of the neighbors' reaction to one child's yelling to another, "Come on in. It's time for you to do #2!" The system was not foolproof, and consequences had to be a part of it. Generally, it saved us hours of complaining and nagging.

Adolescents need to develop autonomy or independence. Performing tasks and being responsible are ways to accomplish this. Obstacles are usually in the parents' minds and behaviors. ‘She's too young to do that," and "I don't let her iron her clothes because she would do a poor job."' Is she really too young? My younger daughter, Lyn, started doing her own laundry when she was seven years old. That came from my personal rebellion after the remarriage. Not only was there the laundry from three females, but now what seemed like an avalanche of dirty clothes from the three males. "I quit!" I exclaimed. ‘From now on we all can do our own laundry." To be fair, that included Lyn who was probably the most enthusiastic. Years later a reward was in store for me. Both Lyn and Greg said that doing their own laundry all these years was a "good deal" because they were self-sufficient in that area. As for the quality issue, whether a child does as good a job as you can do is only as important as you want to make it.

Discipline, as such, is part of nearly every interaction with children/stepchildren. You are able to choose the meaning of and the style of discipline in your stepfamily. To choose a broader positive definition and to commit to a democratic style is to chart your course in a successful direction. Then, from an "empty nest," you, too, will likely reflect on your stepfamily with pride, happiness, and love.

* Sharon Hanna is past-president of SAA, and lives in Lincoln, NE With her husband, Bob Dinkel. For a detailed explanation of democratic discipline, order the booklet Dealing with Discipline from the online SAA catalog. This article was published in the SAA quarterly STEPFAMILIES, Summer 1990.

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