A really rough day with Brogan earlier this week had me and Blake looking for some new tactics to handle our “spirited” child. Blake found this article Parenting Your Strong Willed Child, and since it was pretty much the polar opposite of the approach we had been taking (which wasn’t working), we figured it was worth a try.
So here’s the first status update: we’re making progress. The last 5 days, have, for the most part, gone pretty smoothly. And it was within those 5 days that Brogan took a Sharpie marker to 20+ locations upstairs (walls, doors, furniture, sheets, door knobs…).
And how, you ask, is this going smoothly? The real answer is that it’s all about perspective. And attitude. Mostly attitude. And so what I’ve focused on this last week was controlling my reaction over Brogan’s behavior. Not ignore, but control. And control myself, not him. Stop myself from getting too angry. Stop myself from doling out ultimatums, absolutes and punishments that I don’t really believe in. Address misbehavior and let him know what’s acceptable and what’s not, but not take any indiscretion too seriously. He’s three. We’re not talking felony offenses here. What I’ve found is that this approach does not stop the bad behavior. But, what it does stop is the escalation. Things don’t turn as bad as they were. So by changing what would be a 30 minute ordeal to a 5 minute conversation, it feels like things are much better. We’ve spent much less time being angry, throwing temper tantrums, and raising voices (both of us). But let me reiterate, this has not stopped the bad behavior. He still tests the limits, he still does not want to listen. He still gets into things he shouldn’t, and doesn’t want to take a bath. But how we’ve responded to it has changed – he gets choices. He doesn’t want to clean up. Fine. He can choose to clean up and get to play afterwards, or he can go on to bed. Up to him. He can choose to listen to instruction, or he can lose the toy he’s playing with. Again, up to him. Turns out he’s been making the right decisions. Good decisions lead to positive reinforcement, “You’ve been making good choices tonight, buddy!” which leaves him beaming and proud. And while sometimes those decisions are madebegrudgingly, he says the words – he makes the decision. Whoa.
Sounds easy, right? Wrong. It is totally counter-intuitive to the natural parental instinct. They misbehave = you punish. They don’t listen = you demand they do… right now. And the louder you relay the message, the more they understand it (yeah right). But that’s what we think. That’s what we do. And so here this child psychologist comes along and says “discipline through the relationship, never through punishment” and my first thought is, seriously?!?
But I have to say that it is liberating. Parents spend a lot of time doing what they think they should do. Well, he wrote all over my house with a Sharpie, of course he should be punished. But maybe not. Ever think about why we punish? We punish because we want them to stop the behavior. We want them to stop the behavior because we want to keep them safe and we don’t want it to lead to other bad behavior that would prevent them from being productive members of society one day. But what if punishment doesn’t stop the behavior… Isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome? So if you attempt punishment, the behavior doesn’t stop and no one walks away happy, why is it that we repeat over and over and over again? Crazy, right? Just to recalibrate, I’m not talking about doing away with punishment for all kids. Not at all. It works for some. And if you’re lucky, the threat of punishment is enough to deter behavior. But not my kid. No sir. Punishment has not been working for him.
So what are we doing when misbehaves? Expressing our disappointment. Our first real test was with the Sharpie incident. I got a call from Blake on Monday when he was home with the boys, and he, who was very heated, explained that Brogan had taken a Sharpie off of our bathroom counter (which had recently been taken out of Blake’s work shirt… good husband – no one likes markers in the laundry) and gone Michelangelo on the place. Blake was calling wondering what in the world we do now. We needed to strategize. I calmly reminded him of the decision we’d made the night before to try this out and I hesitantly said, “I don’t think we punish him. Just talk to him – tell him how disappointed you are that he destroyed things that are really special to us.” And so that’s what he did. And when I got home, I did the same thing. You could tell Brogan was remorseful. He said, “I already said I was sorry,” and each time it was mentioned later that evening, he’d hang his head and say he didn’t want to talk about it. Since then, I have, unsolicited, been apologized to multiple times. Surprisingly, I think he got it. And then I think, what would have been his reaction if we had punished? Would he still have been sorry? Maybe. But here’s another thing I’ve been thinking about punishment – when you give a punishment, a time out or a spanking, whatever, it’s almost like a transaction. They do wrong – you punish – the debt is paid – they are off the hook once the punishment is fulfilled. But when you don’t “make them pay” it’s almost as if they still owe you something. And while I’m certain my three year old cannot comprehend this on a conscious level, I do think something feels a little different to him about this incident.
Think you’re up for a change in your M.O.? Here are some of my takeaways…
1) Attitude – control your own… after all, that’s all you can really do
2) Change your perspective – perhaps punishment is not always the way to go… maybe there is another way
3) Choices – give them options (you can live with) when they aren’t doing as they are told… let them make the final call (and making no decision is a decision – but it gets to be the one you want)
4) Be on the same page as your spouse – make sure you’ve got an ally, someone to strategize with and remind you when you’re straying back to your old habits
5) It’s harder than you think – it tools more conscious effort to go this route, but the outcome is much less stress
And on the attitude front, I’m going to leave you all with one of my favorite quotes by Charles Swindoll…
“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude, to me, is more important than facts. It is more important than the past, than education, than money, than circumstances, than failures, than successes, than what other people think, say or do. It is more important than appearance, giftedness or skill. It will make or break a compay… a church… a home. The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we embrace for that day. We cannot change our past… we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play the one string we have, and that is our attitude… I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.
And so it is with you… we are in charge of our Attitudes”