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I recently talked with a parent who had a relatively harsh style of disciplining their child. I talked with them for a while about trying to shift their style more to a warm guidance style, instead of a stern because-I-said-so approach. But I got push-back. The individual said:

“Look, I know that I can be stern and heavy-handed sometimes, but that’s what my kid needs. For this kid, it works.”

“How do you know it works?” I asked.

“Because, when my kid really steps out of line and I really let them have it, they start doing better.”

“I see.” I replied. “And have you tried rewarding your child for doing things well? Have you tried to bless your kid for doing the right things?”

“Yep!” came the answer. “That really backfires. When my kid is doing really well, and I try to give them good feedback or some kind of reward, they start slacking off… they don’t do as well the next time.”

What do you think of this parent’s answers? They sound sort of logical. After all, if your kid does better when you punish them, and they do worse after you praise them, then it seems like punishment works and praise doesn’t.

But there’s a very important theory in statistics that proves that this parent’s way of viewing the situation is very wrong.

In statistics, we have a theory called “regression to the mean.” Don’t let that term freak you out. I’ll give you an example, and you’ll get this right away.

If I have you flip a coin ten times, chances are very good that you will get 5 heads and 5 tails. Chances are a little less that you would get 6 of one, and 4 of the other, and lesser still that you would get 7 and 3. The chances you’d get 10 heads and 0 tails are as about as slim as you can imagine.

So, let’s suppose today I tell you to flip a coin 10 times, and you get an extreme value. You get 8 heads, and 2 tails. If I then ask you to do the same exercise tomorrow, you’re nearly guaranteed to get fewer heads and more tails. That’s the thing about extremes–they nearly always calm down toward the average.

So think of it this way… if your kid behaves extremely bad today (meaning, they behave much worse than they usually do), they are likely to behave better tomorrow, whether or not you punish them. And, if your kid behaves extremely well today (meaning they do much better than they usually do), they are likely to behave worse tomorrow, whether or not you praise them.

The parent I was talking to was observing a normal, natural occurrence (that extremes tend to average out over time), and giving their discipline strategy the credit.

I’m not trying to make the case in this post that discipline is a bad thing, or that kids should be rewarded for every good thing they do. Actually, I’m wanting to make the point that we should not be seeking to manipulate tomorrow’s behavior, but instead shape the set point of our child’s behavior. We should be looking at their average behavior, and recognize that there will be extreme good and bad days on either side of the average.

After all, the child is more important than the behavior. If all we do as parents is try to change behaviors, manipulation will do the trick. It will be a very short-lived benefit, and it will strain the relationship between parent and child.  Manipulation can change behavior. But if we want to raise our children to be exceptional human beings, we need to be more concerned with how our influence shapes our child. And positive shaping comes from warm, gracious, empathetic, guidance. That guidance includes instructions, consequences, and clear boundaries. But it also includes grace, love, and patience.

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