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Homework Hassles
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  My fifth-grade daughter tests well and does well in class but will not do her homework unless I stand over her and make her. That, however, results in horrible scenes nearly every evening. So I recently stopped micromanaging her, and with her teachers’ help, have put her on a daily report card system similar to what you describe in your book “Ending the Homework Hassle.” I no longer ask her if she has homework, but she’s back to not doing it and is losing privileges as a consequence. We now have a much better relationship, and she’s back to her happy, funny self despite the fact that she has not enjoyed any privileges for several weeks. I must be doing something wrong. What?

A: It doesn’t sound like you’re doing anything wrong. You’ve stopped micromanaging, which is good. You’re obviously in touch and have a cooperative relationship with your daughter’s teacher, which is essential to managing an underachieving child. It is certainly right and proper of you, under the circumstances, to deprive her of privileges.

Most parents today have what I call a “Skinner box concept” of child discipline. Every introductory psychology student learns that the right combination or rewards and punishments will cause a laboratory rat, within the confines of a Skinner box, to learn just about anything the experimenter wants it to learn. What most parents don’t understand is that the principles and methods of behavioral psychology do not work nearly as neatly and reliably on human beings as they do on laboratory rats. Apply the principles and methods of behavioral psychology to a lab rat, and the rat will do what you want him to do. Apply the same principles and methods to a human, and the human may well refuse to do what you want him or her to do.

The difference is one of free will, which humans have and animals do not. As “Grandma” said, “Every child has a mind of his own.” So, whereas consequences, properly applied will change the behavior of a rat, consequences alone will not change the behavior of humans. With humans, choice changes behavior. Proper consequences put pressure on children to make the right choices but do not guarantee them; and the fact is that some people in some situations will continue misbehaving no matter how punitive the consequences. That is simply the nature of human beings.

Let’s assume you’re doing all the right things in response to your daughter’s irresponsibility. You’re using proper consequences, and your daughter stubbornly refuses to do what both you and her teacher want her to do. Here’s my rule of thumb in such situations: If parents do the right thing in response to a child who is doing the wrong thing, and the child keeps on doing the wrong thing, then the parents should keep right on doing the right thing. Depriving your daughter of privileges may not “work” to solve the problem; nonetheless, it is the right thing to do because in the real world, privilege is obtained through responsible behavior, and privilege is lost when one behaves irresponsibly.

In other words, despite the fact that your daughter is not doing the right thing, she is learning how the real world works. Likewise, you are learning that in this same real world, a choice made by a fifth-grader may be much more powerful than any discipline you can bring upon her.

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By John Rosemond. Reprinted with persmission from Signs of the Times, December 2006. Copyright © 2007 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines.

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