January 6, 2009 14 Comments
Disclaimer: We only have one child. Other children may react differently to this technique. Give it a try and see if it works for you!
I started into parenting thinking that it’s unfair to impose a consequence on a child without warning him first (except in a dangerous situation, of course) and that once you’ve chosen a consequence you must stick to it, to show your child that you mean what you say.
Here’s what I’ve learned from Nicholas, who just turned four years old:
Often, warning a young child that his behavior will result in a consequence has no apparent effect or perhaps gives him “permission” to do it one more time. This happens when the consequence is one that you’re going to impose–rather than something that will be caused directly by his actions–and it’s a lot more likely when he’s tired or restless or in a silly mood. He won’t really listen to what you say; you have to do something to get his attention. It’s as if he doesn’t believe in the consequence until he sees it.
Having seen the consequence of continuing the misbehavior, sometimes he will ask for a second chance, and at that point much more is gained by giving him the second chance than by removing him from the whole situation. More often than not, when he gets a second chance after a demonstration of the consequence, he will behave correctly. If he doesn’t, though, the consequence sticks; he doesn’t keep getting more chances.
This sounds very abstract, so here are some examples:
EXAMPLE #1: I’m trying to read to Nicholas on the bus.
MAMA: They had been picking since early afternoon, and now she was–
NICK: Look, a red bug-car!
MAMA: Yes, I see. They had been picking since early afternoon, and now she was tired. She looked around for Len, but she–
NICK: You have to show them the scratches.
NICK: When we take the DVD back to the library. Don’t just tell them it’s scratched. Because you can see the scratches. Show them. And tell them exactly what the computer said.
MAMA: We don’t have to tell them all that. They’ll believe me anyway, and they’ll order a new copy of the DVD.
NICK: Look, a lot of birds!
MAMA: Yeah, they’re eating something. What do you think it is?
NICK: I don’t know. (impatiently) Read the book!
MAMA: She looked around for Len, but she couldn’t see him anywhere. He was probably on the other side of the path, just as far away from–
NICK (computer voice): DVD Player has an error and can not recover!
MAMA: You’re not listening to the story. (closes book and puts it away in bag)
NICK: I am! Wait! I was listening!
MAMA: You were pretending to be the computer, and talking about birds and DVDs and cars and things, and I didn’t get to read even two sentences in a row without you interrupting me! I don’t like that, so I’m all done reading for now.
NICK: But no! They were picking the blackberries in buckets! I will listen!
MAMA (consciously using Calm Firm Voice): I will not read unless you are listening. Are you ready to do that now?
(I get out the book and resume reading. If he interrupts for an unimportant reason before I get through at least one paragraph, I won’t read any more during this bus trip.)
EXAMPLE #2: We are eating in a restaurant. Nicholas uses his straw to remove water from his glass and decorate the table.
MAMA: Water belongs in the glass or in your mouth. It is not for painting on the table.
(As soon as I look away, Nicholas dribbles more water onto the table. I wordlessly take his glass and place it out of his reach.)
NICK: Hey! My water! (He attempts to crawl under the table to go get the glass. I restrain him.)
MAMA (consciously using Calm Firm Voice): You were putting water on the table on purpose. That makes a mess. You couldn’t stop on your own, so I took away your water.
NICK: But now I will stop!
MAMA: I told you before, and you did not stop.
NICK (kicking): I’m thirsty!
MAMA: Ow! When you hurt me, I do not want to give you things.
NICK: Sorry. (After glowering for a moment, he uses his super-polite voice.) Mama, please give back my water. It’s for drinking. When I am not thirsty anymore, I will just leave the water alone.
MAMA (cheerfully): All right! That’s the right way to use water at the table!
NICK: And also it is okay to dip my napkin in it to clean my face. But only if I am sticky. And just a quick dip, not drippy wet.
MAMA: That’s right.
See? I stopped the misbehavior (interrupting/making a mess) by removing the opportunity (stopping reading/taking away water) as soon as the misbehavior became really annoying to me. Rather than go through repeated corrections and warnings before acting, I acted first and then negotiated. I allowed Nicholas a second chance only after he clearly expressed his intention to behave correctly.
Not only is this effective at changing his behavior, but it works pretty well for controlling my behavior. If I make myself state a clear, fair warning when I’m already annoyed, then basically I’m waiting with clenched teeth for him to do it again so I can strike, and when he does do it again I’m angry. Then I feel that I’ve already given him a second chance and he screwed up, so he certainly shouldn’t get to try again. Then the rest of my energy goes into preventing him from finding a new aggravating thing to do.
This approach to the second chance worked even when he was just one year old. If he was banging a book against the floor, I would say, “I see you are not playing gently with the book. It needs to go away for a while.” and put it on a high shelf. Sometimes he would accept that and move on to another activity. But if he got very upset and kept pointing up at the shelf, I would say, “You want a second chance to use the book the right way. Here you go. Be gentle with the book.” and demonstrate appropriate use of the object as I handed it back to him. More often than not, he would behave acceptably on the second chance, at least for a while before he forgot. It worked much better than demonstrating “gentle touches” without taking away the object.
And it was really sweet to see my little toddler rage briefly over the removal of a toy and then pull himself together, point up at it, and beam hopefully, “Secca chass?”