Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Using Work As A Discipline Technique

May 6, 1996

Effective family discipline techniques should be based on the principles of being (a) unpleasant, (b) brief, (c) immediate, (d) fair, and (e) used to wipe the slate clean.

Ineffective discipline. Lecturing and yelling shut off communication. Children learn to tune out yelling as parents try higher and higher decibel levels to make their point with equally fruitless results. Physical force is resented. Anger creates anger and the child doesn't focus on what they are supposed to be learning. When parents use of anger and physical punishment, their children use these methods in their relationships with siblings and peers.

Grounding can backfire because it doesn't wipe the slate clean. Initially teens may be humbled and become cooperative but as they wait for the grounding punishment to be completed, they may grow sullen and resentful. The event that prompted the grounding has grown distant in their mind and unrelated to punishment. Someone has described grounding as chaining yourself to an angry bear to punish the bear.

Work-oriented discipline. Psychologists Steven Szykula of Salt Lake City, Utah and Matt Fleischman of Eugene, Oregon have developed a work-oriented technique of discipline. Their basic proposal is that a teen be assigned an hour to a maximum of an hour and a half of work as a discipline technique.

The work assigned should be useful to the family. It shouldn't be one of their regular duties. Examples include scrubbing floors, washing and cleaning the car, cleaning windows, defrosting the refrigerator or cleaning the garage. Until the work is done, there is no food, no fun, no phone, and no friends. When the work is done, all privileges are restored. Parents should avoid tasks that have the potential for interfering with family life, like cooking for example.

Parents shouldn't supervise the work but the completed task has to meet parental standards. If it isn't done right, the chore isn't done and the teen has to complete it before privileges are restored.

Parents have to be firm and assertive to insist the work is done before privileges are restored. Parents may offer other unpleasant consequences as a choice instead of the work requirement, making work the more attractive option. All consequences are imposed in a matter-of-fact manner. Lack of follow through defeats the program.

The child gets the message and buckles down. It is physical, concrete and when it's over, it's over. Seeing the work done has its own reward for everyone involved. The work assignment dissipates negative emotions on both sides.

Some parents may feel that an hour or so worth of work is not harsh enough for some violations. What if a teen would prefer that to say staying out well past curfew as a planned trade off. Assigning work can be the main technique used and a backup plan of suspension of privileges set up for repeated violations of the same rule.

Where they have tried this method, teens think it is fair and like the aspect of wiping the slate clean. Parents like it because it helps the family and creates more free time for the family to do things together.

Getting daily work done. For regular chores, each child should be assigned to a separate task. If they are assigned jointly, much time will be spent discussing who is really responsible for the work not being done.

If chores are rotated in the family, a weekly rotation avoids confusion about who has the responsibility. Also, if there is an activity, children can arrange an exchange with each other or with parents for a day of the following week.

Extra work for dawdlers. Each task needs a deadline. For example, dishes and the kitchen need to be cleaned up within a half hour after supper is over. Another example might be that their room needs to be cleaned to parental expectations by Saturday noon. If they miss the deadline, they lose all privileges and they inherit a chore off the "dirty" detail list posted on the refrigerator. These chores should be shorter and easier then the work assigned for major infractions.

Now the "slackers" can't go anywhere or do anything until their regular chores and the extra chores are done. They’ll get the picture that they can't win by dawdling or trying to get out of work.

The important thing parents need to remember is that they need a backup plan for their backup plan.

Adding allowance to the mix. For training purposes or to add extra punch to the system, parents might add a daily allowance for chores being done on time. However, if a child misses their deadline, they lose their allowance and have to finish their regular chore plus inherit a second chore. They will figure out they can't win. Pay allowances weekly.

Discipline is only part of a family atmosphere of love, honesty, truth, courtesy, responsibility and mutual respect. Listening to and consulting with children gives them a feeling of being respected and valued. Whatever the discipline system is - it will be effective if it is mutually understood and is consistently enforced in a matter-of-fact manner without unnecessary anger or emotion.