Do You Want to Go to Timeout? Leadership Lessons from Disciplining a Two Year Old

Do you want to go to timeout?" "Do you want a spanking?" These are two things my husband and I find ourselves saying to our two year old more often than we'd like when he misbehaves. Of course he doesn't want to go to timeout and of course he doesn't want a spanking, but in our misdirected way of discipline, it seems to be the easiest way to try to get him to behave without actually having to follow through on a consequence.

A dear friend and parent coach Carol Ozier, when asked about how to discipline children, simply responded, "Say what you mean and do what you say." If I have no intention of putting him in timeout or spanking him, my words don't matter and he knows I won't follow through with my actions, so what does he do? He continues to misbehave. What seems to be the route of least resistance oftentimes ends up being what keeps us beating our head against a wall by behaving the same way and expecting a different result. Insanity at its finest.

This dilemma reminds me of a common motivation principle that is emphasized in one of the leadership classes I facilitate. The law of effect, simply put, states that behavior is a result of consequences. Consequences can be good or bad. We often associate a negative connotation with consequences, but they are simply an outcome or result. The "law" emphasizes that in order for behavior to change, consequences have to be:

1. Immediate
2. Certain
3. Negative (in the case of stopping the behavior)

For leaders, this simply means that if you want to increase positive behaviors and diminish the negative ones, then "Say what you mean and do what you say." For example, if someone violates a safety rule at work, oftentimes the worst negative consequence of an injury doesn't occur (thank goodness). The injury isn't immediate and it isn't certain. However, if you say your company's first priority is safety, and you don't make the consequences of following or not following safety practices immediate and certain, then safety really isn't your first priority. I have one client, who if a person does not lock-out tag-out (for those of you outside the manufacturing world, lock-out-tag-out is a way to make sure a machine is turned off before you try to fix anything with it or modify it in order to avoid getting hurt) and they have a way of tracking this, it is an automatic three years probation. Do it again, and you're fired. No questions asked.

But I would also challenge us all to think about what positive consequences we could make immediate and certain that would spur along good behavior.

Despite my often failure and disciplining my toddler consistently, potty training turned out to be a breeze. Thanks to the consistency established at his school with his wonderful teachers, potty training took less than a week. Why? The consequence of using the potty, established by his teachers, was immediate and certain. You go number one on the potty you get one m&m; go number two in the potty and you get two m&ms. We followed suit at home. The reward for the behavior got progressively more challenging at the teachers' guidance. After about two weeks of being put on the potty, you didn't get an m&m reward unless you told the teacher you needed to go potty or you stayed dry through nap time. Now, he goes the potty consistently, and usually doesn't even ask for an m&m anymore. Going to the potty is just what "big boys do". And besides, who wants to be wet or dirty anyway? Just like who wouldn't want to keep from cutting their hand off in the safety example?

The path of least resistance is often found with consistency. Once you establish that consistency, you don't have to keep fighting the battle over and over again. If we ensure we "Say what we mean and do what we say" through immediate and certain positive and negative consequences, we can all stop beating our heads against a wall or at least stop sounding like a broken record.

This post originally appeared on The Point Blog.

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