Great system, bad example!

We’ve been struggling with our three-year-old’s demanding behavior and angry outbursts and have sought help from several books.  The most recent was Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline by Becky Bailey, frequently recommended in online discussions.

Overall, it’s an okay book.  The main idea is that a conflict is an opportunity to teach your child skills he can learn to control himself on his own, and she explains very clearly why this is such a great approach.  The book has a few very good parts:

  • Seven Powers for Self-Control.  You can’t really control your child (due to that pesky free will), so your most important task is to control your response to your child’s behavior, in order to keep the situation from spiraling out of control, and that in turn encourages your child to behave better.
  • A good chapter on assertiveness, clearly distinguishing assertive parenting from punitive or rescuing/indulgent parenting.  There’s an “instead of X, do Y” list that is both generalized and easy to apply to real situations.
  • Step-by-step instructions for connecting with a child so that you can address a problem effectively.
  • Step-by-step instructions for recognizing a child’s positive motivations and working from there to address his behavior.  (I must say, I think “positive or neutral motivations” would be a better phrase.  For example, wanting an apple is not a positive motivation, exactly, just not a negative one.)

I took two pages of notes on these sections before returning the book to the library, but I’m glad I didn’t buy the book.  It has one big flaw: Becky Bailey needs a co-author or editor who has actually lived in a family practicing positive discipline.  She isn’t a mother.  She makes several references to the damage to her own psyche caused by her parents’ parenting style, so she didn’t experience these techniques as a child herself.  She gives many examples of how she was able to practice loving guidance of other people’s children, but (as far as she mentions) she has not lived with any children during her adult life.  I think this is the reason that many of her examples fall flat, for me.

One example, in particular, had me gasping repeatedly in astonishment and indignation.  It’s not that it’s unrealistic–I can totally see this happening in a real live family, and I understand what the mom is feeling and how she ends up doing what she does.  The trouble is that it’s not an example of how to do things right, which is what it’s set up to be!  The mom makes one mistake after another, and in several places she is violating principles spelled out in this very book!  (I will underline those principles in my explanation.)

Some background: The author suggests managing conflicts in which a child is blaming someone else for his bad behavior with the GAMES strategy [paraphrased for brevity]:
Give guidance about appropriate behavior.
Allow the child to experience the consequences of his choices.
Model self-control.
Empathize.
Strategize with the child to help him learn what to do differently.

Great approach!  The first example given to illustrate it is fine…but then there’s this one:

Nathan and Ashley were close in age.  Their constant bickering had really worn down their mother’s patience.  [She’d been trying to change it for a while when] Rebecca heard Ashley screaming from the bedroom, and she entered the room to find Nathan hitting Ashley on the arm.  As soon as Rebecca appeared, Nathan backed off and started shouting, “She took my book.”  Rebecca took a deep breath and said, “You have a choice.  You may hit your sister to get the book, or you may ask your sister for the book by saying, ‘Give me my book.’  If you choose to hit your sister again instead of talking to her, you will play in your room alone for the rest of the day.”  After this, she left the room.  Within five seconds, Ashley began screaming again.  Rebecca felt like screaming herself and telling both children that they would never live to see the age of 16, but she refrained.  She walked back into the room and calmly said, “Nathan, you seem really upset about that book.  It must be terribly important to you.  Feel free to read, do schoolwork, or just hang out in your room for the rest of the day.”  Nathan starts shouting, “It’s not fair.  You always take her side and pick on me.”  Rebecca responded with empathy, “It does seem like that sometimes.”  She continued, “Let me know at dinnertime if you are interested in learning other ways to get things from your sister instead of hitting.”

Let’s take this piece by piece:

As soon as Rebecca appeared, Nathan backed off and started shouting, “She took my book.”

When he saw his mother, Nathan immediately stopped hitting and (indirectly) asked for her help.  He realized he was out of control and needed a different approach to resolve the problem.  She doesn’t notice this.  She fails to attribute positive motivation to his behavior.

Rebecca never addresses Ashley’s behavior.  In what way did Ashley take the book–did she hit Nathan and grab it while he was cringing?  Did she take it knowing that Nathan didn’t want her to?  We don’t know, and neither does Rebecca.  She assumes Ashley is innocent because she saw her getting hit.  In my experience as a sibling, this may well be an inaccurate assumption!

Rebecca took a deep breath and said, “You have a choice.  You may hit your sister to get the book,

WHOA!!!  Don’t tell him he may hit his sister unless you mean it!  If you’re going to offer a choice, offer a choice between acceptable alternatives.

or you may ask your sister for the book by saying, ‘Give me my book.’

That’s not asking.  That’s ordering.  You can be assertive while still being kind and polite.  This is a very important skill to teach your child if you want your child to speak nicely to you, never mind anyone else.

If you choose to hit your sister again instead of talking to her, you will play in your room alone for the rest of the day.”  After this, she left the room.

She’s not allowing the child to experience the consequences of his choices; she’s spelling out the consequence she’s going to impose on him if his “choice” is not the one she’d like him to make.  It’s true that a natural consequence of hitting someone is that she won’t want to be near you.  Rebecca could facilitate that consequence by encouraging Ashley to leave the room with her and preventing Nathan from coming near Ashley for a while, allowing contact between them to resume when Ashley feels ready for it.  Arbitrarily isolating him for the rest of the day leaves no room for Nathan to think about when he feels ready to behave appropriately or for Ashley to work on forgiving him.  Nathan is “in trouble” and Ashley has “won”.

Besides, as the older sibling who frequently wanted my younger sibling to get out of my room and quit messing with my stuff, I tended to think that being in my room alone was a relief!  I might well have chosen to hit my brother again if my mother spelled it out as the way to get some time alone.

Rebecca left the room abruptly, without doing anything to reduce the tension or encourage the child’s choice of better behavior.  I thought this was because she was so frazzled and angry that she needed to get out of there and cool down before she said something regrettable.  But then I read, later in the book, that the author is advocating that parents hope their children make wrong choices so that they will have more teaching opportunities!!  That’s appalling!  How can you expect a discipline method to work if you apply it hoping that it won’t work?  How can you keep your child’s best interests at heart while scheming to get him to do wrong?

Within five seconds, Ashley began screaming again.

Is that because Nathan hit her again?  We don’t know, and neither does Rebecca.  She just assumes.

She walked back into the room and calmly said, “Nathan, you seem really upset about that book.  It must be terribly important to you.

This sounds like empathy–at least, if she really is calm rather than sarcastic, it does.  (I’ve been trying to use empathy and active listening long enough that I know how easy it is to get the tone of voice wrong, and what a difference that makes in how my words are perceived!)  But if Rebecca truly understood that the book was important to Nathan, she would do something to make sure that he got the book back, unscathed, from the clutches of his sister.  If the author truly understood that the book was important to Nathan, she would tell us who’s holding the book at this point and whether Nathan will get to read it during his time-out.  Both Rebecca and Becky Bailey think that this is not about the book; it’s about the hitting.  So much for positive motivation and empathy.

Feel free to read, do schoolwork, or just hang out in your room for the rest of the day.”

Ohhh, no fair, Mom!  You said before that he could choose to play alone.  Now you’re suggesting he do schoolwork!  What a bait-and-switch!  You’re pretending to offer him an array of choices here, but you and he both know he’s not free to choose to do anything outside his room.  (There’s an even worse bait-and-switch in the next example in the book.  A mother tells her son that if he leaves the yard without telling her where he’s going, he’ll be allowed to play only in his own yard for one week.  After he wanders away again, she tells him he’s going to stay in the house for one week!  She doesn’t explain the switch, and neither does the author.)

I’m nauseated by the author’s instruction (earlier in the book) that, when offering a choice to a child over five years old, you use the phrase, “Feel free to…”  What you are offering is not freedom but a limited choice.  Don’t confuse your child; say what you really mean.

Nathan starts shouting, “It’s not fair.  You always take her side and pick on me.”

Well, he’s got a point there!  When did Rebecca ever consider the possibility that her precious Ashley may have had some fault in this conflict?  Sounds like this is a pattern in their family.

You can tell by his reaction that her “empathy” was not effective.  She doesn’t seem to notice, though.

Rebecca responded with empathy, “It does seem like that sometimes.”

That’s some pretty hollow empathy, there.  It’s similar to saying, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”–it translates, probably in the mind of the speaker as well as the listener, as, “I disagree.  Things aren’t really the way you think they are.  I’m trying to be nice about it.”  This would be a great opportunity for Rebecca to mirror the child’s feelings so he knows she’s listening and understanding, even as she holds firmly to her position.

She continued, “Let me know at dinnertime if you are interested in learning other ways to get things from your sister instead of hitting.”

IF???  Don’t leave it up to the child to bring it up again if he decides he wants you to teach him!  Conflict is an opportunity to teach, remember?  All of you need a chance to calm down right now, but as the parent it’s your responsibility to find the right time to talk some more about what to do instead of hitting.

Rebecca is bolstering the impression that she’s on Ashley’s side by referring to “ways to get things from your sister”: It’s Nathan’s book; he shouldn’t have had to get it from his sister.  She should be more respectful of his ownership of the book.  If it actually isn’t his book, that’s a separate issue, and they should be talking about that more than the hitting.  What you focus on, you get more of, and Rebecca’s focus is very much on the hitting.

Remember, this is supposed to be an example of the GAMES method in action.  Did Rebecca follow that method? Well, she Gave guidance about appropriate behavior–but she made it one option, with the undesirable behavior presented as an equally offered option.  She Allowed the child to make the wrong choice–by allowing her other child’s behavior to proceed unquestioned–and allowed him to experience the consequence she imposed.  She Modeled self-control, in that she used a calm voice and refrained from threatening her children with untimely death, but she could’ve done better at that.  Her children probably could tell that she was angry and frustrated, so this would have been a great time to say, “When you do X, I feel Y.”  She tried to Empathize but didn’t do so well.  Instead of Strategizing with the child, she offered him passive instruction if he chose to request it at one specific time.  Overall, this was a good attempt, and Rebecca could’ve done a lot worse, but it just isn’t good enough to serve as an instructive example.

Okay, ‘Becca, if you’re so smart and have so much more clue than Rebecca or Becky, how about you write a better example?

Nathan and Ashley were close in age.  Their constant bickering had really worn down their mother’s patience.  One day, Rebecca heard Ashley screaming from the bedroom, and she entered the room to find Nathan hitting Ashley on the arm.  As soon as Rebecca appeared, Nathan backed off and started shouting, “She took my book.”  Rebecca took a deep breath and said, “You wanted her to give back your book, so you hit her.  You may not hit people.  Instead, say, ‘That’s my book.  Please give it back.’  Try that now.”  Nathan shouted angrily, “That’s my book!  Please give it back!”  Ashley threw the book at him, and it hit the floor such that some pages were crumpled.  Rebecca said, “I feel angry!  When you two hit and throw things at each other, I’m afraid you’ll hurt each other.”  After another deep breath, she calmly said, “Nathan, you seem really upset about that book.”  He yelled, “Yeah!  I just got it, and I haven’t even read the whole thing yet, and Ashley came barging in here and grabbed it in her sticky hands, and she wouldn’t give it back, and now she crunched it!  It’s ruined!”  Rebecca said, “You wanted to keep it to yourself until you finished reading it.  It’s new, and you wanted to keep it looking nice.”  Nathan nodded and began unfolding the crumpled pages.  Rebecca said, “Ashley, you wanted to look at Nathan’s new book, so you came into his room and took it without asking; is that what happened?”  Ashley said, “Well, he wasn’t sharing!”  Rebecca said, “Sometimes a new thing is very special, and its owner isn’t ready to share it right away.  When you want to use something that belongs to Nathan, say, ‘Could I please look at it for a while?’  Try that now.”  Ashley said, “Could I please look at it for a while?”  Nathan said, “No!  I’m not ready to share it!”  Ashley grabbed for the book and dodged as Nathan tried to hit her.  Rebecca said, “Nathan, you are hitting and yelling.  I can see that you need to be alone for a while.  Ashley, I bet you don’t want to hang around with someone who is hitting you.  Let’s go do the laundry.”  They left the room and closed the door.  An hour later, Nathan came out of his room.  Rebecca said, “Let’s talk about when and how Ashley can have a turn to read that book.”  After some discussion, the kids agreed that when Nathan finished reading the book, he would loan it to Ashley, who would wash her hands before reading, be careful not to crumple the pages, and return the book to Nathan as soon as she finished it.  Nathan apologized for hitting Ashley, and Ashley apologized for crumpling his book.  Rebecca showed them how to put a heavier book on top of it to flatten the crumpled pages.

How’s that?  It’s longer, mainly because Rebecca addressed Ashley’s behavior as well as Nathan’s and the triggering issue as well as the hitting.  I had the kids continue to misbehave after the initial intervention (as they do in the original story) because that’s how it goes sometimes–these techniques don’t always work perfectly right away.  In addition to GAMES, I had Rebecca use Becky Bailey’s method, “You wanted X, so you did Y.  You may not do Y.  Instead, when you want X, do Z.  Try that now.”  Nathan wound up alone in his room but with a clear understanding of why, rather than a sense of imposed punishment.

The “trouble” with having been raised with positive discipline ourselves is that when Daniel and I read how-to books, we find a lot of stuff we already know.  Sometimes, as with this book, we end up rolling our eyes and “correcting” the examples and ranting to each other about how screwed-up and confused some people are.  It’s frustrating not to find the help we need with the discipline problems we do have.  But it’s still worthwhile, because it helps us to realize how much we already know, feel confident about our abilities, and remember to be grateful for all the screwed-up-ness we don’t have to overcome.

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About 'Becca
author of The Earthling's Handbook, about the environment, parenting, cooking, and more!

3 Responses to Great system, bad example!

  1. Pingback: 3 Good Books About Parenting « The Earthling's Handbook

  2. Pingback: What right have you to be angry? | The Earthling's Handbook

  3. Pingback: The X, Y, Z Method of Child Discipline | The Earthling's Handbook

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