We’ve been having two main problems with our seven-year-old Nicholas since he was about three. Recently, I thought of a new strategy that just may be working to solve both problems!
One problem is that Nicholas is sometimes rude, bossy, and defiant. Not all the time. Sometimes he’s quite a delightful companion for hours at a stretch, maybe even a few days in a row, but then all of a sudden something twists and he starts acting very annoying! (We now understand why people of olden times believed children were possessed by demons! It’s often a really sudden change, as if our nice Nicholas has been taken over by someone else.) He’ll argue with every instruction we give him, use a snarling condescending tone of voice, and scream, “You’re interrupting!!!” every time anyone else tries to speak–even when we’re answering the question he just asked–yet he interrupts us over and over again. Daniel and I don’t want to allow our child to treat us this way, both on principle and because it usually upsets us, but up until this point we hadn’t found any consistently effective strategy other than taking away his television/computer time. Putting him in time-out sometimes helps, but often it simply shifts the epic struggle from whatever was the original issue to getting him to go to his room and stay there.
Our other problem is that Nicholas wants to have a lot of stuff. He keeps bringing home things he finds, buying things with his allowance, drawing pictures, getting gifts, etc., etc., and then he leaves his stuff lying around on the living-room floor or the dining-room table and says he’s going to put it away “later” and never gets to it. Daniel and I are aware that we are hardly perfect in our ability to deal with stuff, so we’re not trying to hold him to an unrealistic standard of perfection; we just want to be able to go about our daily lives without stepping on Legos, shuffling around pyramids of stuffed animals, or taking trains off our placemats and heaps of artwork off our chairs before each meal. We’ve tried various approaches to encourage clean-up and organization, with only mild success. The most effective way to deal with the tide of stuff is to clean up when he’s not around and confiscate a lot of his stuff; some of it goes in the trash/recycling and some in the pile of things to be sold or donated to people who’ll take better care of them. He often doesn’t notice what’s missing because he has so much stuff!
The weekend before last, we had a yard sale. As I was sorting the items to be sold, after Nicholas went to bed Friday night, I had a brilliant idea! I knew that our merchandise included many items that had belonged to Nicholas until he’d left them lying around and ignored warnings about putting them away. I knew that when he saw them up for sale, he’d be indignantly horrified: “My leprechaun koosh-ball that I bought with my own money! My glitter basket that Hannah gave to me! You can’t sell them, NO!!!” and then he would throw a big tantrum and frighten the customers–and I couldn’t really blame him; it does seem unfair. Somehow, this worry connected in my mind with the idea that we need to be doing something positive to reinforce his good behavior instead of just punishing his misbehavior. I remembered how his kindergarten teacher had a Treasure Chest of small toys, and when a child got through a whole week without a disciplinary incident, he got to choose something from the Treasure Chest.
In the morning, I woke Nicholas and told him my great idea before he came downstairs: “I know that when you see the stuff that’s ready to sell, you’ll see some things that you’d rather keep. I’m going to give you a box that will be your Treasure Chest, and you can put things into that box until it’s full, if you want. Then, whenever you use your good behavior all day, at the end of the day you can choose something from the Treasure Chest.”
I was amazed at how well this worked! Nicholas was so pleased by the prospect of choosing treasures that he objected only mildly upon realizing that some of the things he’d have to win back were his own legitimate purchases. I managed to use my Calm Firm Voice (instead of ranting impatiently) to explain that owning such things is a privilege that you lose when you do not take good care of them, and that he would earn them back by demonstrating his responsible, considerate behavior. He accepted that and happily dropped an occasional item into the box as he helped to stick price tags on things. Ultimately he filled the box (the kind office paper comes in) about 3/4 full of toys, knick-knacks, and interesting things like a desktop organizing tray. I was surprised by some of the things he’d battled over in the past that he let go without a whimper.
In the week and a half since, Nicholas has earned Treasure Chest several times. We have set our standards high: Even one incident of defiance, even one minute of continuing to whine and snarl after being warned about his tone, disqualifies him for that day. We don’t warn, “If you keep that up, you won’t get Treasure Chest,” but just wait until the end of the day to explain why he won’t get it. Nicholas quickly began to show efforts to control his own behavior. Now, when something he says comes out sounding like he hates us, he’ll sometimes follow it immediately with, “I’m sorry. I meant [same thing in nicer words and nicer voice].” Sometimes this is followed by, “Can I still get Treasure Chest?” and we tell him, “I like the way you noticed your mean voice and apologized and used your nice voice. Keep working on your good behavior, and you still could get Treasure Chest.” But if he doesn’t apologize until an hour later, that’s not good enough. There are plenty of other treats in his life, so I can say something like, “Thank you for recognizing that you went wrong. You won’t get Treasure Chest today, but now that you’ve calmed down you can come to Trader Joe’s with me.”
The way he’s taking responsibility for his behavior reminds me of when he was toilet training and setting up a sticker chart seemed to be the magic trigger for his realization that it was up to him to get this done right. Five years later, that particular approach doesn’t work so well–we’ve tried to do sticker charts for good behavior, but he launches into demanding that both parents get sticker charts too, announcing the offenses for which he’ll revoke our stickers, etc., etc. We needed something more complicated to hit his groove now.
I suspect the Treasure Chest is working partly because it is filled not with new toys but with the consequences of his past sloppiness and defiance. Each treasure is not just a reward for today’s behavior but a reminder: I was happy to get this before. Then I kind of forgot to take good care of it. Then when Mama told me to put it away, I didn’t. Now I earned it back. I can choose to do better this time.