Teach your children well

2009-02-13 00:00

All parents have a duty to raise their children as law-abiding citizens. While the country benefits from that, it also teaches children self-discipline and to develop a sense of community and to live in harmony with others.

So says Dr Micki Pistorius, who has developed a protocol for child discipline based on the South Africa’s legal system. Pistorius believes that, like the country, households should distinguish between criminal and civil offences.

“Criminal offences are punished, but the consequence of civil offences is community service,” Pistorius says. “Children have to learn that they are part of a system, like Russian dolls that are concealed inside one another. A child is part of a household, school, city, province and country. All these systems have rules and laws for orderly functioning and for protecting everyone.”

Pistorius was previously attached to the South African Police Service, where she worked especially with serial murderers. She says that in her questioning of suspects, she realised there are only three reasons why people lie: first, not to get into trouble; second, to protect someone; and third, to get someone else into trouble.

“Children lie mostly because they don’t want to get into trouble, especially if they don’t know what that trouble will entail.”

Pistorius’s protocol is designed in such a way that children know exactly what the consequence of a deed will be and even make a contribution to deciding what their punishment or community service will be.

Pistorius says that children must be taught to consider the consequences of actions. The problem is that children don’t know what to expect if they’ve done something wrong. For example, they may receive the same punishment (being grounded, for instance) for two radically different offences, like leaving a dirty cup in a bedroom and arriving home two hours late.

“Because the offences differ, so should the consequences. If a child knows exactly what the consequences of a particular offence are, he may think twice before committing it.”

Pistorius believes children do not consider the short- and long-term consequences of their actions because they aren’t taught to consider them.

In her practice she asks teenagers what they think the long-term consequences are of smoking dagga. Most of them reply that you could be jailed for three years if you’re caught.

But, says Pistorius, the actual long-term consequence is that you have a criminal record afterwards.

With a criminal record, you can’t accompany your parents on an overseas holiday, and you would not be allowed to visit the U.S. on a working trip years later.

In order to make a distinction between “criminal” and “civil” offences in the home, Pistorius suggests that civil offences would relate to things like dirty dishes in your room and dirty clothes on the floor. The consequence of these offences are not punishment, but community service — like washing the dishes, cleaning the bathroom for two days, or washing the kitchen floor.

Pistorius says in this way children learn to perform domestic tasks at the same time.

“A parent might tolerate it if a child’s bedroom is dirty and untidy, or if a child is always late, but a prospective employer, flat-mate or marriage partner would not.”

Pistorius believes it’s important that children should also make a contribution regarding what this community service will involve, as well as the different kinds of punishment for “criminal” offences.

She describes criminal offences as things that threaten the safety of the child or someone else.

An example would be if a child gets in a car with a drunken driver, or does not let his parents know where he or she has gone.

PISTORIUS says a flat cellphone battery is no excuse, because a child has to learn to take responsibility for seeing to it that the phone is charged and that there is enough airtime for an emergency call.

“Criminal offences obviously also include breaking the country’s laws, like alcohol and drug abuse, theft, assault and damage to property.” Pistorius says criminal offences can be punished by grounding the child (imprisonment) or withdrawing pocket money or privileges, such as time in front of the TV or the computer (fines).

She suggests parents draw up two lists with examples of penalties for criminal and civil offences, in consultation with the children.

Each member of the household signs the protocol and gets a copy.

“If children feel they have made a democratic contribution they will be more inclined to comply with the protocol. Then parents will not contradict each other either when it comes to community service or penalties, and the child knows he cannot play off one parent against the other.”

Penalties and fines, but also freedoms, must be adapted to the child’s age, so that children learn that you earn freedom through responsibility.

“Parents must respect the privacy of their children, especially teenagers, but they do have the right to examine rooms, cellphones and computers for pornography and drugs.”

She says parents must set the example and also be subject to penalties if they commit offences.

Pistorius believes it is good if divorced parents can maintain the same protocol in their respective households. This stops the children from manipulating their parents and also helps enable step-parents to maintain discipline without being resented.

She suggests that children be given pocket money weekly or monthly to teach them to budget and to learn to appreciate and look after material things.

A parent can encourage a child to save up for an expensive item by paying half the cost. “No parent does a child a favour by buying her everything she asks for,” she says.

Extra pocket money can be earned by performing little chores around the house.

Pistorius says she finds that the protocol works well in households that have started applying it.

She says it is a good idea also to reward children for good behaviour now and then — not with money or possessions, but with a family outing, to which friends could also be invited.

“The government doesn’t pay us if we aren’t law-abiding, but we do get public holidays off!” she says.

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