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Teaching Self Discipline – Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Average parenting doesn’t cut it for kids who are of the Explorer persuasion. I don’t think there is a bigger rule-tester than my son. These kids need parents who are able to learn from their mistakes and who are constantly looking for effective and creative ways to raise the challenge which they spawned. I personally believe that parenting techniques can and do make a HUGE difference in whether an Explorer child is classified as ADD and whether or not he ends up in jail. This does not mean that bad parenting causes ADD! Attention deficit disorder is usually characterized by physical differences in the forebrain and in dopamine activity. But research increasingly is showing that changes in disciplinary techniques can be very effective for ADHD kids with behavior problems. In the short run, medication will tend to work better, if your goal is a perfectly compliant (and drugged) child. In the long run, I think it is better if children are able to learn self discipline without the use of meds. If you would prefer a spirited and challenging child who is simply more manageable, then using some creative discipline techniques can probably get you there.

David Keirsey, from “Drugged Obedience in the Classroom”

“Let us review the lessons the child learns, depending on whether he is treated as a defective person who must be drugged, or as a very active person who must learn how to control himself to keep that wonderful privilege of having a teacher and classmates:

Using Drugs:
I can’t control myself
I can’t learn without drugs
I can’t win friends
I can’t become competent
I’m not OK

Using Logical Consequences:
I can control myself
I can learn without help
I can win friends
I can become competent
I’m OK


ADHD kids are difficult to discipline. They often don’t respond to “punishment” very well and are far more likely than other kids to engage in domestic warfare in response to criticism, punishment or any other sort of negativity. Yell at an ADHD child and he’s likely to throw something against the wall, even if he knows this will cause him further trouble. But these kids desperately need firm discipline – lot of it!

Discipline can and will make the difference between an adult life spent in jail and one which is productive and rewarding. Unfortunately many of today’s parents simple do not discipline their children effectively. This includes some of my best friends – smart, well meaning and highly education people. In my opinion, on a scale of one to ten, the average parent today is a three. The Explorer child, especially a hyperactive boy, needs a nine or ten. 

I have found three discipline strategies which are closely related and highly effective. I use a mixture of all three. When I use them my son’s behavior is great. When I forget to use these strategies and slip into easier methods of discipline (yelling, threats and bribes) it is amazing how quickly my son’s behavior deteriorates. The methods listed below require a lot of determination, thought, creativity and planning, but the results will be worth it. As I said before, these methods are highly related and in fact there is a lot of overlapping between the three.

1. Choice. This method is described in The Edison Trait by Lucy Jo Pallidino although the strategy has been around for a while. 

2. Abuse It – Lose It. Created by David Keirsey to deal with prison inmates and modified for “mischievous” kids. Keirsey’s article on the method has been reprinted online at

3. Logical Consequences. Another method that’s been around for awhile. Described in the book “Backtalk – 4 Steps to Ending Rude Behavior in Your Kids” by Audrey Ricker, Ph.D., and Carolyn Crowder, Ph.D.

Let me again stress that I have used all three methods with great success, while traditional techniques like lectures, arguing, threats, and yelling often only start a war between parent and child. I highly recommend that every parent and teacher who deals with ADHD children read the three sources I have listed above. It will cost a total of probably $20 or $30 and may save the life of your child (not to mention your sanity).

I like a description of three different types of parents I read somewhere: The Brick Wall Parent, the Jelly Fish Parent, and the Backbone Parent1. The Brick Wall parent is super-controlling and judgmental, and the ADD child is likely to rebel. On the other hand, the Jelly Fish Parent is a wimp and the ADD child is likely to become spoiled and throw tantrums, having no respect for anyone. How can he be expected to control himself when the adults aren’t even in control of the situation? The Jelly Fish parent is likely to snap once in a while and suddenly become a Brick Wall parent after they can’t take anymore.

The Backbone parent, on the other hand, respects the ADD child and gives him a measured amount of freedom whenever possible, mixed with loving, firm and consistent discipline. The Backbone parent is in control, but is not controllingObviously you want to be a Backbone parent.

Some ADD specialists advise parents to use lots of rewards, charts, stickers, etc. in combination with the loss of privileges when a child does not comply. I advise against this strategy, as do many experts. It is ultimately very controlling behavior. Children who are controlled in this way do poorly as soon as the rewards are taken away, and they do not develop inner discipline. They behave only for rewards. You want to teach a child inner discipline and values. The frequent use of bribery will not get you there.

Most ADHD children I know are highly sensitive and fiercely independent by nature. Their spirit is like an untamed lion, ready to pounce at the slightest provocation. But many parents do not realize how sensitive and delicate the ego of these kids can be because they seem so very thick at times. Be careful not to crush the fragile spirit of this child or you will wind up with someone who is either very depressed or openly hostile. The three discipline techniques I use respect the child’s spirit but are extremely effective.

Before I get into the three discipline techniques, a word about discipline itself. Your Explorer child may be extremely persistent (mine is). You must match that persistence. NEVER GIVE IN. Not once. If you give in one time out of 100, just that one percent chance of getting his way will propel your child to keep pushing for another payoff. And never make a rule that you cannot enforce (I actually allow my son to jump on his bed). If you discover you have done so, change the rule. Let me repeat: NEVER GIVE IN. YOU are the boss. It is your child’s job to challenge you relentlessly. It is your job to rise to the challenge. Again, NEVER GIVE IN. This should start when a child is a toddler, because it’s a heck of a lot harder to crack down on an older child who is already spoiled. (The term “spoiled” refers to a child who gets his own way, not one who is rich). If your child wants some candy at the store and you say “no”, then you should never, ever, ever change your mind. Once your child learns “no means no” then he’ll give up a lot quicker. 

Incidentally, psychologists believe that children develop a conscience at age 7 or 8 only after they have learned that their actions have consequences. Spoiled or neglected children who have not experienced consequences do not develop a conscience. Also, research has shown that the happiest children are ones who have received firm, fair and loving discipline. Next happiest are kids who have been over-disciplined. The most unhappy kids of all: Those who received the least discipline.


At age three my son Ryan, a real “Explorer” type, had a wonderful daycare teacher named Betty who he absolutely loved. She was a firm disciplinarian and some of the other parents didn’t like her for that reason. At home, Ryan often talked about Betty and in school he gave her great big hugs.Then he was moved to a new room. He has always adapted quickly to new surroundings and did great at first. But after a few weeks I noticed that he seemed to be more difficult than usual. He was grumpy, much more hyperactive, and got into lots of trouble at home. I started getting notes from his new teacher that he was hitting the other kids and at nap time he refused to stay on his cot. Instead he was running around the room and yelling. Finally one day he bit the teacher. The other kids didn’t want to be around him. Doesn’t this sound like the type of problem behavior we associate with ADHD, the textbook case where the author says “so I prescribed Ritalin and he calmed right down”?

I decided to take some time off of work and observe his classroom. I noticed immediately that Ryan’s new teacher was not at all in control of her classroom. The boys were all over the place. Instead of disciplining them, the teacher focused on the quiet girls. She was very soft spoken and seemed overwhelmed by the high energy level of the boys, especially Ryan. Intuitively, I could tell she did not care for him and blamed him for not following her instructions. She seemed depressed and rarely smiled. Her helpers attempted to keep Ryan under control during naptime by rubbing his back and finally by holding him on their laps (as he squirmed to get off). How did the Center discipline kids in order to keep them from disrupting other kids during naptime? “Sometimes we give them an extra five minutes on the cot after naptime is over” I was told.

Can you identify all the problems in the classroom which were contributing to Ryan’s behavior?

1. The kids were in charge.

2. Ryan was rewarded with extra attention when he misbehaved. The teachers rubbed his back and held him while the good kids were ignored.

3. The classroom was over-stimulating because the kids were out of control.

4. A lot of the kids (including Ryan) weren’t getting any sleep, which was making them even more over-stimulated.

5. There were no realistic consequences for kids who did not follow the rules and stay in their cot.

6. The kids were not provided with a quiet environment in which to take a nap because so many of the kids were causing problems (especially mine).

7. The teacher had unrealistic expectations that 3 year old boys should listen to and follow her instructions.

8. The teacher disliked certain kids.

I set up a meeting with the Director of the daycare center and the head teacher and asked them to make certain changes. Interestingly, the teacher started out by saying that Ryan was behind his peers in his ability to listen and follow directions, a very typical thing for a teacher to say about an ADD child. The day after the meeting Ryan returned to the sweet, lovable, active little kid he was before. He stayed on his cot and went to sleep. He didn’t fight with the other kids. He got along with his teachers. At home he was much happier and easier to have around. What changes were made which made this dramatic switch? I’ll get in to that under the topic “Abuse It -Lose It.”

The purpose of this example is to show how kids need and want firm discipline, and how a lack of it can lead very very quickly to the type of negative behavior we associate with ADHD. Ryan hugged the disciplinarian teacher and bit the wimpy one. Doesn’t that tell you something? Incidentally, the disciplinarian was later compelled to quit her job because certain parents and teachers disagreed with her techniques, including the wimpy teacher that Ryan bit.


Method #1 – Choice. In this method you give the child the power to choose between two options and then appear disinterested in what they choose. This gives the child a limited amount of the freedom and independence he craves as well as the structure he needs for his sense of security. It is important that the adult NOT try to influence the child’s choice. Nor should the parent appear either pleased or displeased with the choice made.

Example: You want your child to clean his room, but he won’t. Maybe he starts but gets sidetracked and you end up yelling at him to stay focused. He gets mad. You get mad. And on and on. Believe me, I’ve been there. Now my 5-year old son Ryan has a choice. The rule is this: Ryan can watch TV whenever he wants as long as his room is clean. That’s it. I don’t care if his room is clean or not. I don’t care if he watches TV or not (OK, I’m pretending here). It’s his choice and he can do whatever he wants. If he says “Mom, can I watch TV?” I say “Sure, if your room is clean.” He may say “I don’t want to clean my room.” I say flatly “OK. But you can’t watch TV then.” “FINE!” he says and marches off. I don’t mention it for the rest of the day. Several times he tells me that he doesn’t feel like cleaning up his room. “OK” I say mildly. The next day he has become bored with his ability not to have to clean up his room. Suddenly it occurs to him that he has the power to watch TV whenever he wants. All he has to do is clean up his room! Presto. He hyperfocuses on picking up his room, marches up to me and says “Mom! I cleaned up my room and I’m going to watch TV now!” “OK” I say. Ryan starts for the TV, then turns around and proudly proclaims ” And you didn’t even have to tell me!” I smile and say “That’s right. You know how to clean up your room whenever you want and I don’t have to tell you.” Incidentally, since I implemented the “TV/clean room Rule” Ryan has watched a lot less TV and his room has been, well, a lot messier.

Notice that Ryan is learning self discipline. That is, he’s learning that he can clean his room when he wants to and he experiences a sense of satisfaction when he does so. He doesn’t need Mom standing over his shoulder. I should also note that for this method to work I had to gather up many of his toys and put them in storage because there were simply too many for him to be able to put away by himself.

I recently read a clever application of Choice by Dr. John Rosemond, who has a newspaper column called “Daily Doctor”. His teenage son was hanging around a group of kids that were known vandals. Rather than tell his son not to hang out with these kids (which would certainly backfire) he gave his son the following choice. “You can spend as much time as you want with those kids. BUT if this group of kids is implicated in an act of vandalism, I am going to make you fully responsible for paying 100% of the cost of the vandalism unless you can prove you were not there.” For a while his son continued to hang out with the vandals, but one day he came home in a panic and told his father that the kids were planning an act of vandalism and he wasn’t a part of it so don’t make him pay for it. He then decided he didn’t want to be around those kids any more.

Method # 2: Abuse It – Lose It.  This method was created by David Keirsey, a psychologist and expert in Jungian/Myers temperament types, to deal with prison inmates. Keirsey found that prisoners did not respond well to traditional punishment (the prison population is highly ADD). All it did was make them angry and defiant. Keirsey studied the problem and developed something that did work: Abuse It – Lose It. In the 1970’s Keirsey discovered that the basic principles of Abuse It – Lose It also worked for hyperactive kids (which he called “mischievous”) in school. He described the most extremely hyperactive, attention seeking, problematic boys in school, not just your run-of-the-mill hyperactivity.

In school, the ability to attend the classroom is considered a privilege. If the disruptive child decides to abuse the privilege, he loses it. That means he has to leave school for the rest of the day. It is not punishment. He can go home and play or do whatever he wants. His parents do not say anything about it. He is not lectured or given dirty looks. This is repeated each day. If he disrupts the class, the teacher gives him a signal to go to the principal’s office. A parent is called and takes him home. At first, he thinks this is cool. But after a while, he feels left out. He’s not getting any attention, is he? And that’s what a lot of misbehavior is about: getting attention. Eventually he stays in class longer and longer each day before he has to leave. Finally he can stay in class all day without being disruptive. No one praises him for this, just as no one punishes him for being disruptive. Praise and punishment interfere with his choice selection and are viewed as subversive. Interestingly, the other kids start to like him better because he’s not so annoying to be around. And he gains self respect because he and he alone is responsible for sitting still and behaving in class. He has learned how to do it. His self esteem rises and he has friends. Keirsey was strongly opposed to using stimulants like Ritalin. He claimed that Abuse It – Lose It worked better than medication, especially in the long run.


“It’s interesting how age determines how fast children will stop fooling around in class when their disruptive behavior is the direct and immediate cause of their dismissal. A rule of thumb is that kindergarteners take one or two days to stop, first graders two or three days, second graders three or four days, and the rest five or six days.” – David Keirsey, discussing his Abuse It – Lose It Technique.


This strategy is useful when a child is acting inappropriately in a particular location. For example, if the child makes too much noise while everyone is watching a movie, then the child would be removed from the room. The “privilege” is the ability to remain in the room. Abuse that privilege, and you lose it. When explaining things to the child, stress that he is being removed so as not to disturb everyone else, not as a form of punishment. Remember that the goal of most misbehavior is to get attention. If you quietly remove the child from his audience then you have just completely screwed up his strategy for getting that attention.

“Time Outs” are really a lite version of Abuse It – Lose It for toddlers and preschoolers. They misbehave and you remove them from the location of misbehavior.


I had just read about Keirsey’s Abuse It – Lose It form of teaching self discipline when I started having those problems at Ryan’s daycare center. Even though Ryan was only three at the time, I decided to give this method a shot.I typed up a written strategy and met with the Director of the Center and his teacher. I started by asking the teacher what she thought about Ryan’s behavior. I had some real disagreements with the teacher and said so. She viewed him as developmentally behind. In my opinion, Ryan was a master manipulator, and had got the staff completely wrapped around his finger. After all, he had figured out how to get them to hold him and rub his back during naptime. I then suggested that we try something a bit radical, and handed them a typed up set of rules based on an Abuse It – Lose It approach. The Director was highly supportive.

The new rules stated that at nap time Ryan would get two warnings if his head was off the pillow. The third time he would lose his cot. If he got up off of his cot, he would lose his cot immediately. If he disrupted the class in any way, at any time, he would be removed to the front office. The director could then call me at work and I agreed to pick him up and take him home. The teacher was instructed on how to provide Ryan with his warnings: Make eye contact, hold up one finger, and say clearly and firmly “Ryan Gallagher, that’s warning number one for having your head off of the pillow.” He was to be given no other reminders or lectures. Also, the teacher was instructed NOT to give him any extra attention if he was being disruptive. No helpers rubbing his back, etc. This only encouraged his behavior.

That night I talked to Ryan about the new rule. I explained that it was necessary because the other kids were having trouble sleeping while Ryan was making so much noise. It wasn’t punishment, but I would have to take him home if he was too loud in school, got off his cot, or hit one of his friends. He listened very seriously and asked about the new rules the next morning. Keep in mind that I have always been a consistent parent. He believed what I said.

I assumed that he would test these new rules and fully expected a call from the daycare center. Keirsey said that his method works pretty fast for young children and can take several weeks for teenagers. I did not expect the results that day, but when I picked him up that afternoon I was told Ryan had used both “head off the pillow” warnings and then went to sleep. He was fine the rest of the day. I thought, well tomorrow it’ll be different. But it wasn’t. It was fine. Ryan was happier at home, too. The behavior problems stopped just like that. He instantly reverted back to his sweet squirrelly self, hugging and kissing everyone rather than hitting and biting them.

Would you believe that every day for the next year Ryan used both of his warnings for “head off the pillow” and then went to sleep! He lost his cot only once.


Method # 3:Logical Consequences. When I was in high school, if I missed the school bus I would have had to walk three miles through the cold Minnesota winter to get to school. Needless to say, I never missed the bus.

The trick about logical consequences is making sure the child does not perceive the consequence as a form of retaliation or “getting even.” Otherwise, a war may ensue. The excellent book “Backtalk – 4 Steps to Ending Rude Behavior in Your Kids” by Audrey Ricker and Carolyn Crowder is something I think every parent should read. According to the authors, disrespectful behavior such as sarcastic remarks, put-downs, eye-rolling and wise-ass remarks like the popular “whatever” should not be tolerated starting at age three. This may seem impossible to some parents, but it’s not. In fact, parents who do not tolerate such disrespect raise responsible and caring children. 

I cannot give their book proper credit in the short space of this page. But here’s an outline:


4 Steps to Stopping Balktalk Using Logical Consequences:Step 1. Recognize the backtalk (or other disrespectful behavior). If it hurts you, embarrasses you, annoys you, or leaves you feeling helpless, it’s backtalk.

Step 2. Choose the right consequence for the behavior. This is the hardest part and the authors recommend that parents keep ideas for consequences floating in their heads at all times. Any backtalk or rude behavior automatically means that the child will not do what she wants or has planned to do — such as go to soccer practice or to a friend’s house. The way to make the connection between what your child is losing and what they did is this: Their backtalk irritated you and used up some of your energy so now you’re tired. Therefore, you’re not going to drive them to soccer practice.

Step 3. Enact the consequence, even if it’s inconvenient. Never give in to a request for a second chance.

Step 4. Disengage from a struggle with the backtalker. Don’t get sucked into an argument. Don’t explain or justify what you just did.


As with the previous strategies, it is important not to become angry or hostile. Do not lecture the child or focus on what they did. The conversation should focus on how it made you feel (annoyed, hurt) with a quick statement that the activity which was to come next has been cancelled because of how you feel. For example, you can say “I find that kind of talk disrespectful and it puts me in a bad mood, so I’ve decided not to take you to David’s house.” 

Here is a true case history told by Audrey Ricker from the book “Backtalk.”

“I will never forget the anguish I suffered when my new husband actually enacted consequences on my son for backtalking. When Noah informed his new stepfather in the same sarcastic tone he used with me that “I don’t help with dishes, and you can’t make me do anything I don’t want,” my husband acted immediately. He told Noah to do the dishes alone. He told him to get into the kitchen and not come out until the dishes were done. My son screamed and looked at me. I knew this was the first moment of the rest of our lives, so I looked away. This was the first time in Noah’s life that anyone had made him do anything against his will…I was sure I was creating an ax murderer, a serial killer, a ne’er-do-ell, or a delinquent.

“Disengaging from that struggle was almost unbearably difficult. I sat in the living room, trying to read while my husband watched television. I was sure my son would break every dish in the kitchen. Every five minutes I had to stop myself from going in to check on him. But in half an hour or so he came out and said casually that the dishes were done. From then on, the dishes were his job in the family. My son never again talked back to my husband — or to me, either, for that matter. I am not going to say we all lived happily all the time after that. I will say that in that moment I learned that actions speak louder than words.”

The authors describe the cessation of backtalk as only one aspect of creating a secure, loving and respectful home. Parent must also focus on modeling respectful behavior towards other family members, including children. For example, be sure you look happy to see any family member that enters the house or the room. Say hello’s and goodbyes, ask family members about their day, and listen to their answers. 


1. Since posting this article, I’ve been told that the “brick wall, jelly fish and backbone” metaphors come from the book “Kids Are Worth It! : Giving Your
Child the Gift of Inner Discipline” by Barbara Coloroso.

2. Choice.The Edison Trait by Lucy Jo Pallidino

3. Abuse It – Lose It.  Keirsey’s article on the method has been reprinted online at

4. Logical Consequences. “Backtalk – 4 Steps to Ending Rude Behavior in Your Kids” by Audrey Ricker, Ph.D., and Carolyn Crowder, Ph.D. I highly recommend this book.

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