The Highway Patrol Approach to Discipline and Correction

A young teen sitting alone in a spotlight

There are as many discipline methods and techniques as there are parents. Correction methods for children regarding misbehavior, offensive remarks, and family rule violations typically range from physically abuse to no parental involvement. Each parent has his or her own style, methods, and attitudes about discipline and correction.

Imagine videotaping parents as they interact with their children during the week. Reviewing all the tapes, we could find a variety of parenting behaviors and discipline styles. Some of those discipline methods and techniques may include:

  • Ignoring all misbehavior that is not life-threatening
  • Threatening disciplines such as grounding, spanking, etc.
  • Scolding and yelling at the child
  • Lectures about genetics – “Stop acting like your father!”
  • Assigning time-outs or isolating the youth in their room
  • Demanding information about the misbehavior – “Why did you hit Tommy?”
  • Lecturing the child about the misbehavior
  • Isolating and terrifying the child – locking them in a closet
  • Calling the child names or making derogatory comments
  • Spanking the child on the buttocks (butt in southern Ohio)
  • Making the child feel guilty – “You’re the reason I’m sick all the time!”
  • Slapping the child in the face
  • Threatening time travel – “I should knock you into next week!”
  • Striking the child with a belt, paddle, or other object
  • Grounding the child
  • Humiliating the child in front of other children
  • Laughing about the misbehavior
  • Warning the child that the next misbehavior will bring serious consequences
  • Fortune telling – “You’re going to end up in prison if you keep acting this way!”

The methods of discipline are unique to each parent and each family. In some two-parent families, both parents may use the same methods. In other two-parent families, the methods used by the parents may be completely different, prompting the children to prefer discipline by one parent and developing fear of the other parent. When parents are divorced or when several residences are involved, parenting methods may differ with each location.

Where did we develop our current method of discipline? In most cases, we use the method that was present in our childhood environment. If our parents yelled and screamed – we will likely yell and scream at our children. It’s no secret that physically and/or emotionally abused children often become physically and emotionally abusive parents. Some discipline methods seem to be preferred in certain families, as though the method and technique was approved for use in that family. I’ve noticed some families have approved aggressive and violent parenting methods such as face slapping, paddling with switches/belts/boards, or injury-producing physical assaults. Adults using these methods typically have a justification such as “I was brought up that way and I turned out ok”.

The methods of discipline/correction in a home have a strong influence on later teenage and adult behavior and attitude. We can create certain behaviors and attitudes in our children by the discipline methods we use in the family. Most of the time, the parent may be unaware they are creating these behaviors and attitudes as they are using methods that have been accepted in their family for generations. Over the years, I’ve seen parents mention the correction of their child and the methods used without any sense that the method may be abusive or emotionally damaging. I’ve heard “I told him I’ll kill myself if he doesn’t straighten up” or “When she said that word I busted her in the mouth and she didn’t say it again!”

Without question, all children will be in need of discipline and correction. It’s an important part of the personality and emotional development of the child. However, some methods are more psychologically and socially healthy than others. Some methods may change the path of a child’s personality – permanently.

In the interest of rearing socially and emotionally healthy children, we want to use the most effective methods that have the fewest negative side effects. The Highway Patrol Approach to Discipline and Correction is an attempt to provide guidelines for better discipline methods. This approach may also help parents understand how using poor discipline methods can damage the positive attitude and behavior of a child.

The Highway Patrol Approach

The Highway Patrol Approach uses the discipline and correction methods of the adult world with children. In the adult world, inappropriate types of discipline and correction are often legally corrected through legal actions, civil suits, media exposure, etc. Authority figures who correct adults – such as law enforcement personnel, job supervisors, government representatives – have strict guidelines regarding how corrections are applied and in what situations. For this reason, the adult world does not use many discipline and correction methods that would be psychologically damaging, at least for minor offenses. Additionally, the adult world has similar guidelines in all situations – correction at work, in the community, in social situations, etc.

The adult world also includes an element of fairness by emphasizing appropriate discipline and consequences. The criminal justice system actually ranks offenses by their seriousness or degree of victimization. Corrections and punishments used for murderers cannot be used for individuals who steal gas from your automobile. In short, the severity of punishment matches the severity of the crime in the adult world.

Methods of discipline and correction used by parents would not be tolerated in the adult world. Severe and damaging parenting techniques are used with children as the children have little ability to exercise their constitutional rights. They can’t challenge their consequences and can’t afford an attorney. Let’s imagine the consequences of using some child parenting techniques in the adult world:

  • When a coworker uses a profanity – try sticking a bar of soap in his or her mouth.
  • If your supervisee is tardy for work, try taking away his/her automobile for a week.
  • When your coworker “talks back” and disagrees with you, slap them on the mouth.
  • When a coworker fails to turn in a report on time, begin crying and telling them “You’re the reason I never get a promotion!”

In the adult world, each of these coworker behaviors can be corrected, but through a process that is strictly business. This “strictly business” approach is found in almost all businesses and operates in the community as well. In the US, for example, sticking a bar of soap in someone’s mouth will find you charged with assault.

Does using an adult-world approach to the correction and discipline of children make sense? Let’s review the statistics (all psychologists do this by the way). Based on current numbers, five percent of all children have experienced severe physical abuse. Statistics on emotional abuse are more difficult to obtain. However, a Bureau of Justice Statistics 1999 report entitled “Contacts between Police and the Public” estimates that less than half of one percent of an estimated 44 million people who had face-to-face contact with a police officer were threatened or actually experienced force. Importantly, those face-to-face contacts occurred because the individual was involved in a crime of some sort – while child can be disciplined for non-crimes such as spilling milk, back-talking, homework problems, etc. Clearly, fewer children will be physically or emotionally abused if we follow a law enforcement model.

The Highway Patrol is used as an example of professionalism in discipline and correction. There may be other examples of professional law enforcement in your area. The Highway Patrol, or state police in the United States, offers us a model of responding to problems with behavior or rule violations. I’m assuming for this model, that the Highway Patrol officers in other states are as professional as those in Ohio.

The Highway Patrol Approach is strictly business, not emotional or reactive, and corrects behavior through punishment (the fine) and bringing attention to the incorrect behavior. If you are speeding on the highway and are pulled over by the Highway Patrol, after viewing your license and registration, the conversation goes something like this:

Highway Patrol: “Mr. Jones, you were clocked going 65 in a 55 mile per hour zone.”

The officer has just informed you of the incorrect behavior and the legal and required behavior.

Highway Patrol: “The fine for speeding in this state is $85.00. Please sign this ticket.”

The officer has informed you of the punishment (fine) for that offense.

Highway Patrol: “Instructions for paying the fine are included on the back of your copy. Have a nice day.”

The officer remains polite and businesslike. He does not ask why you were speeding. He does not try to make you understand the reason for speeding laws in that state. He does not insult you with “How can you be so stupid?” or “Where did you get this junker of an automobile?”

The Highway Patrol Approach involves three simple steps:

  • Step 1: Identify the offense or correct behavior.
  • Step 2: Inform the offender of the punishment or fine.
  • Step 3: Remain polite and calm.

When used with children, and adults for that matter, the Highway Patrol Approach is effective in reducing hostility, anger, and incorrect behavior. The fine for speeding won’t force the offender into legal bankruptcy, will sting in the pocketbook, but is not unbearable. It’s also not easy to ignore. The Highway Patrol Approach has been found to be very effective in the adult world. If we pay a credit card bill late, we are “fined” a late fee as a reminder that prompt payment is required. If our behavior isn’t corrected and we are continuously late in our payment or fail to make a payment, the “fine” increases to notifications to the credit bureau or eventual repossession of our big-screen television. Methods of correction in adulthood seek to provide a punishment that is appropriate for the violation as well as avoiding punishments that are extra, excessive, or damaging.

The Highway Patrol Approach is a method of using the adult world approach with children. It decreases the anxiety and anger often associated with parental discipline in both the children and the parents. By identifying the incorrect behavior, providing an appropriate fine or punishment, and maintaining a calm, business-like interaction with the child, we decrease the misbehavior while continuing our good relationship with the child. An example:

Parent: “Jimmy, you shoved your brother and you know we don’t allow shoving and hitting in this family. I want you to go to your room for fifteen minutes. When your time is up you can join the rest of us and watch television. We’ll see you in fifteen minutes.”

How Parenting Approaches Produce Misbehavior in Children

The Highway Patrol Approach, like all forms of parental discipline, could easily be altered in a way that would produce poor attitudes, additional misbehavior, and personality changes in adults and children. Changes in the laws of your state or country could dramatically change your personal behavior when disciplined. Let’s explore how we could change the laws for law enforcement and actually produce bad behavior in adults. For example:

Excessive Fines

Change in the Law: A new law allows the Highway Patrol officer to fine a speeding motorist $1,000 for each mile over the posted speeding limit. Traveling ten miles over the speed limit is now a $10,000 fine for example.

Behavior produced in the Offender: The majority of adults, knowing that the fine is excessive and damaging to their finances, would try to evade or out-run the officer. If apprehended, they would lie or do anything in their power to avoid that ticket and fine.

Discussion: It’s rare that a routine speeder attempts to avoid an $85.00 fine unless the speeder has additional outstanding warrants for another crime. When the fine is appropriate for the crime, mature adults tend to accept their responsibility and the fine for the offense. In children, excessive fines such as physical punishment or excessive grounding produce children who deny their behavior and/or lie about their involvement. When punishment and correction are “short and sweet”, there is little reason to avoid both personal responsibility and the punishment. The child feels no need to lie and risk another fine or punishment.

Unpredictable Fines

Change in the Law: A new law allows the Highway Patrol officer to create his/her own fine for the offense. The new law makes the fine for speeding totally unpredictable as the officer is allowed to provide a warning, a fine anywhere from one dollar to $50,000 or to physically assault or even shoot you on the spot.

Behavior produced in the Offender: If arrested, unpredictable fines prompt the offender to manipulate – trying to obtain the lowest fine possible from the officer. The speeder may plead, cry, and claim to have a brain tumor, or threaten with an attorney.

Discussion: Unpredictable fines prompt the child to be a con artist and/or manipulator. The child will attempt to manipulate to obtain the lowest fine or punishment possible. When a parent gives a five-minute time-out for an offense, then six-month grounding for a similar offense, the child attempts to control the fine. Consistency in fines can avoid manipulation in both law enforcement and parenting situations.

Cancelled Fines

Change in the Law: A new law allows the Highway Patrol officer to assign a fine/punishment at the time of arrest, then call and cancel the fine the following day.

Behavior produced in the Offender: When a fine is cancelled, the speeder will be more likely to continue speeding as he/she feels the fines won’t be applied. In criminal justice systems, it’s common to see career criminals who have a long list of arrests followed by “dismissed” and “probation”. Canceling fines and consequences can lead to repeated offenses.

Discussion: When children are punished/disciplined, then “bailed out” of the punishment, they are likely to continue their misbehavior, as they never suffer the consequences. Children who are frequently rescued from the consequences of their behavior develop the feeling that the rules don’t apply to them and can be ignored…as nothing happens. These children often increase their misbehavior, feeling they are never going to be consequenced for their actions. They eventually reach a severity where rescue is no longer possible. This situation is often found in adolescents who are given probation for several criminal offenses by local courts, being suddenly shocked when the judge/court assigns prison time. Short, appropriate fines and corrections do not need to be cancelled in parenting.

Guilty Fines

Change in the Law: A new law allows the Highway Patrol officer to punish your loved ones for your misbehavior and/or offenses. The officer assigns the fine to your loved ones at no cost to you.

Behavior produced in the Offender: In emotionally healthy individuals, this fine method produces guilt and anxiety. The helplessness of the situation may also produce depression and low self-esteem.

Discussion: Parents often use guilt to control their children. The child is told their misbehavior is the cause of personal, family or marital difficulties. Misbehaving children are blamed for a divorce, illness in the parent, a lack of employment, the family financial situation, etc. “You’re the reason nobody in this house is happy!” Parents have been known to threaten suicide in an effort to emotionally punish or control their children. This method of discipline and correction produces guilt-ridden children. In some cases, however, excessive use of guilt creates a child (then an adult) that is emotionally numb to the feelings of others.

Harassing Officer

Change in the Law: A new law allows the Highway Patrol officer to harass anyone who has received a prior ticket for speeding. Once receiving a ticket, the Highway Patrol officer begins to stop you on a daily basis to remind you that you are a speeder, although you are traveling the speed limit each day. You receive a lecture about speeding with each stop.

Behavior produced in the Offender: The citizen develops bitterness and resentment toward the officer and toward authority figures in general. He/she begins avoiding highways/roads assigned to that officer.

Discussion: Harassment by a parent produces children who are bitter and resentful. They feel unjustly punished. If reminded often, they try to avoid conversations with the parent and eventually avoid being in the same area with the parent. This is a common experience when the misbehavior produces financial difficulties or public embarrassment for the parents. In some situations, the parent is emotionally traumatized to the point that the physical presence of the child/teenager brings up the emotional trauma. This situation is unhealthy for both parent and child.

Insulting Officer

Change in the Law: A new law allows the Highway Patrol officer to insult and threaten anyone stopped for speeding. A routine speeding ticket is accompanied by a string of personal insults and threats.

Behavior produced in the Offender: Most people can accept their mistakes and fines as well – if the punishment is appropriate for the offense. Insults and threats, however, are often more damaging than the fines. Everyone becomes defensive when threatened.

Discussion: Angry adults make angry parents. When disciplining a child, parents are often angry or upset by the situation, creating the temptation to “jab” at the child with insults, even after the punishment is over. Imagine working a job where your supervisor, often in the presence of your co-workers, tells you how ignorant you are each time you make a mistake. Insults are more damaging than fines or consequences and produce adults and children who are angry, resentful, and have low motivation. The principle behind any parenting style is to correct, not emotionally hurt, our children.

The Angry Officer

Change in the Situation: The Highway Patrol officer has just pulled you over for speeding. In your rearview mirror you observe him to be angry, cursing, clinching his fists, and walking toward you as though he or she is going to rip the door from your automobile.

Behavior produced in the Offender: Observing the anger of the officer, you become frightened and anxious. You are fearful of an attack of some kind. You become terrified that you will make the wrong comment or move in a manner that may get you assaulted or maced. For that reason, you “clam-up” and offer no or minimal response to questions.

Discussion: When we discipline our children in anger, they become focused on our angry mood and potential for attack – not their original misbehavior. Following several of these incidents, our children become anxiety-ridden and have the sense they are “walking on eggshells” in our presence. Children in these home environments, where an adult has a “hot temper”, feel intimidated on a daily basis. They begin to hide school notes, report cards, and avoid contact with adults in the home. When in this home environment for several years, the children develop anxiety disorders, bedwetting, sleep problems, physical ailments, and behavior problems.

Summary

When disciplining children, it’s important that we provide our discipline, structure, and interaction without anger and hostility. Being terrified of a parent is not a form of respect – it’s a form of intimidation in which violence is respected, not the individual or parent. Our behavior as a parent provides a model for children. When our discipline consists of yelling, threatening, physical violence or abusive behaviors – these children will grow to use these same behaviors against the parent and eventually against their partners and their children.

A patient recently described an audit with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). As he describes it, the audit was introduced with “This audit is not a punishment. This audit is simply to insure compliance.” Insuring compliance, good behavior, and following the rules is the goal of parental discipline. Parental discipline and correction can be an activity in the home, not a personal challenge to the parent. Guiding our children, by correcting their mistakes at times, is best done in a series of small corrections, not intense shoves.

The Highway Patrol Approach to Discipline and Correction prepares children for the adult world by focusing on individual responsibility, acknowledging that mistakes and misbehaviors occur, and that improving and correcting our behavior can be done in a manner that is not emotionally or physically harmful. We can provide correction and structure for our children and still maintain an emotionally and physically healthy home environment.

Mental Health Professional Joseph M. Carver, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in southern Ohio USA. He began his career in 1971, and has practiced in psychiatric and medical hospitals, community mental health centers, and private practice. He is currently in private practice. He also provides expert witness testimony for the Social Security Administration. In May 2007 he became a Consulting Psychologist for Counselling Resource in Great Britain.

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