The Iron Hand


Is it appropriate to change your mind about your discipline, or would that be inconsistent?

I used to think it was inconsistent, but I've since changed my mind.

By "change your mind," I assume you mean, after the heat of a discipline moment has passed, to have second thoughts about your decision or style — or both. That's what most parents mean.

Let's say Barney has just tormented his brother, Andy, for the umpteenth time today. In a fit of frustration, you exact a heavy penalty: "I don't want either of you breathing within a mile of each other for two days, and if you do, you'll be grounded for a week."

Two hours later, Barney's in bed, asleep, looking cherubic, and you're calm, wondering how to get out of the corner you painted yourself into without looking wishy-washy or inconsistent.

First of all, it is neither weak nor inconsistent to logically reconsider a decision made during a burst of emotion. If you conclude a lesser punishment would better fit the crime, this is not backtracking. Let's call it reassessing based upon — and this is key — a clearer perspective. Discipline will still happen, only in a more measured way.

Second, if you've laid down a pretty foolish law, i.e., no contact within a one-mile radius, you're going to look even more foolish trying to enforce the unenforceable. Unless your house is absolutely enormous, or really tall, your discipline is pure fiction. Better to cut your losses, salvage your credibility, and tell them you meant "within a meter" of each other. There's still a consequence, only now it's realistic. Kids love to push us to wild overstatement, and then watch us wiggle around on our own words.

Then, too, sometimes logistics dictate a discipline change. A one-week grounding may burden you more than them. Figure out something else to substitute. Your discipline is still in force, but the consequences have been changed to protect the innocent — you.

Third, be ready to apologize for verbal or emotional overkill. Your discipline itself may have been right on target, but your style was rough. You got personal or off the real point. It is never wrong to admit one's own misbehavior. It's mature, even merciful. Admitting our own childishness can help our kids grow up.

Finally, real inconsistency in discipline comes from a pattern of poor follow-through due to laziness, or guilt, or fear of disapproval, or weakness of will, or being badgered. In other words, inconsistency arises from all the wrong reasons. It is not inconsistent to correct, or tinker with a decision, provided you're not doing so out of a misguided sense of self-doubt.

Therefore, be open to a change of mind when, through calm deliberation, you determine it's called for. You will neither lose credibility nor send your kids the wrong message. Indeed, I think you'll rise in their eyes. They'll know that you're willing to think things over, because you think it's warranted, not because they do.



Ray Guarendi. "Family Matters: The Iron Hand." National Catholic Register. (July, 2001).

Family Matters is a weekly family advice column of the National Catholic Register. Reach Family Matters at

This article is reprinted with permission from National Catholic Register. To subscribe to the National Catholic Register call 1-800-421-3230.


Raymond N. Guarendi, aka Dr. Ray, is a practicing clinical psychologist and authority on parenting and behavioral issues active in the Catholic niche media. Guarendi is an advocate of common sense approaches to child rearing and discipline issues. Guarendi received his B.A. and M.A. at Case Western Reserve University in 1974, and his Ph.D. at Kent State University in 1978. He is the author of You're a better parent than you think!: a guide to common-sense parenting, Good Discipline, Great Teens, Adoption: Choosing It, Living It, Loving It; Straight Answers to Hearfelt Questions, Discipline that lasts a lifetime: the best gift you can give your kids, and Back to the Family.

Copyright © 2001 National Catholic Register

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