The “You-and-Me” Dialogue (Discipline Skill #2)
I refer to the “Accountability Dialogue” also as the “You-and-Me Dialogue” because this is where I (parent) talk to you (child) about how we are treating each other — especially after you break an agreement you have made with me.
Unacceptable child behaviors (UCBs), such as temper tantrums, arguments, angry and disrespectful insults, lying, stealing, physical or violent attacks on others, etc., can be distressing events for parents. How to handle them can often be a confusing disciplinary challenge.
In my New School approach to how to be a parent, I advocate reaching an agreement with the child (even as young as two years old) about how they will handle the particular UCB in the future. The best the parent can expect to get at that point is an agreement from the child that she will do something different next time. It is understood that the child will break her agreement (at least sometimes). This approach rejects punishments for the misbehavior because punishments are meaningless, ineffective, and counterproductive–they invite the child’s anger and “payback.”
After a Broken Agreement
Strange as it may seem, when children have made an agreement to do better next time, and then go and break their agreement, this presents parents with a “golden opportunity” to strengthen the parent-child relationship as well as to influence the child to change her behavior. This great opportunity can occur at any time after the broken agreement (even days later). The “you-and-me dialogue,” the “Accountability Dialogue,” is a purposeful conversation with the child NOT about the distressing event (the original UCB), but about the fact that she broke her agreement with you.
From the parent’s point of view, the overall purpose of the “you-and-me” dialogue is to hold the child accountable for her breaking a previous agreement that is very important to you. To hold someone accountable means to seek an accounting from them about why and how something happened, and here you want to find out why and how she broker her agreement with you.
Your main objective should be to listen and learn from the child about her own perspective on breaking her agreement, and her ideas about the implications of that event in terms of how you treat each other.We are talking here about the Golden Rule, and even two-year-olds understand it.They know that if you change your mind and decide to break an agreement you with them earlier, that that is’t fair.
This is a key question: “What about our agreement?” Instead of getting a response regarding his latest request (or demand) of you, Johnny has now gotten a reminder about a previous agreement he had made with you and then broke. What it comes down to is this: How do we each think about agreements?
Another one of your key questions for Johnny is, “How would you feel if I break an agreement with you?” You might give an example. “Let’s say I said you could have ice cream for dessert, and then at supper I changed my mind. How would you like that” Or, “Let’s say I said you could go to the party Friday night, and then Friday afternoon I changed my mind. How would you feel?” You will most likely get a very reasonable response, like, “I wouldn’t like it,” or “I would be mad.”
Another key question is, “Okay, so how do you think I feel when you break your agreement with me?” Most children (even two-year-olds) have a keen sense of fair play, and can readily understand what you’re getting at: namely, that what would upset them would upset you, too. Johnny might respond with, “You would be mad,” or “You wouldn’t like it.”
The next key question would be, “So how do you think I should handle this now?” You are referring to the fact that Johnny broke his agreement with you, and you feel upset about it (which he understands). And you are now asking him what he thinks you should do about it. He might propose a punishment; you may or may not want to go along with it. You may want to propose something different. You may not want to propose any punishment at all. Remember, the key here is not punishment but teaching and learning about breaking agreements. You are helping him learn that how he handles his agreements affects others–and particularly you–in a serious way. It’s a far better approach to discipline than punishing bad behavior.
Finally, going far beyond mere punishment, with this dialogue the parent helps the child learn how to arrive at new solutions to relationship problems, and how to make amends for unacceptable (antisocial) behavior.
3 Steps to Parent-Child Harmony is my book that describes in detail the differences between the Old School Parenting model (power, control, and punishments) and the New School Parenting model (dialogue, agreements, and accountability). The ideas contained here represent a shift from parenting harder to parenting smarter. They can transform a stressed parent-child relationship from conflict and arguments to one of cooperation and harmony. Please see these links if you are interested in more information on the book, which is available in downloadable pdf format or in print as a soft-cover.
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