I recently read a really interesting book called ‘Parentology’ by author and sociologist Dalton Conley. In it, Conley writes, with as much humor as footnote, of the successes and failures of a parenting style of his own design, the pseudo-science he calls Parentology. Basically, he takes results from all kinds of studies on human behavior and applies them to his precocious offspring in order to get them to be the most awesome versions of themselves possible. Everything from giving them unusual names (E and Yo, respectively) in order to distinguish them from the herd to bribing them with candy to finish their homework. His results are admittedly mixed as far as achieving the desired outcome, but the concept is one I really like. This scientific view can give you permission to view your child’s crazy antics with more fascination than frustration, allowing you to observe the outcome of stimuli on your child and adjust your methods accordingly, rather than putting all your eggs in the basket of someday ‘perfecting’ your child’s attitude.
Inspired by this, I started viewing our daycare as a laboratory and began experimenting with ways to encourage good behavior and soften the blow of outbursts or other distracting reactions. Of course, I have tried and failed with dozens of angles and tactics over the years, but emboldened by the ‘long con’ of science (“The Answer Is Out There” anyone?) I now use the following methods in one variation or another dozens of times a day. It’s always trial and error, but I see that they work for remediating the immediate problem and I also believe they also set the stage for smoother interactions in the future. They encourage real feelings of security for the child and provide pat but powerful responses for the parent. Similar to coming up with the perfect comeback to your boss three hours after the insult, you don’t want to be left scratching your head at your child’s problem behavior so often that they get the message that it’s ok to proceed with it. If these scenarios occasionally catch you up, try the following solutions.
Experiment: Your child is doing something they shouldn’t. Instead of whatever you’re saying that isn’t working, try this: “When you do (problem behavior) it shows me that (this scenario) isn’t working. Is that right?” Like this: “When you ignore me when you’re playing dolls, it shows me that the dolls are too distracting and need to be put away. Is that right?” “When you throw the fork off the table it shows me that you shouldn’t have a fork right now, is that what you are showing me?”
This works two ways. It offers the child that all-important choice. Most of us know by now offering our child a choice between two acceptable things can sidestep many unnecessary freakouts. I’ve heard parents balk at this with the ol’ “But they have to do what I’m telling them to whether they want to or not, why give them a false choice?” To these parents I say, godspeed. The rest of us will welcome you back with open arms when you’re tired of losing battles to someone still shitting their pants. But back to our scenario, if your kid is just being absent-minded or has momentarily lost control of their arms and hands as children are wont to do, they have the opportunity to refocus. If they choose to push the limits then the consequence has been built right in. Away go the dolls. No second chance. They chose, with their behavior, what happened next. Secondly, with time, it helps them do what you need them to more quickly (and therefore with less opportunity for tension between you) once you make it clear that you mean business and will follow through. No shaming or negotiating. The trick to making this work is to be kind but firm. What a bummer that the dolls are being put away! Oh well. They can try again next time!
Experiment: Your child doesn’t want to do that. Putting on shoes. Taking off shoes. Going outside. Coming inside. Name a thing. They do not want to. Strongly. How do we get six children to comply all at the same time at daycare? Empathy then option for help. In that order. Empathy. Option. Repeat as necessary.
“Wow, you do NOT want to go outside right now. I hear that. You are unhappy about going outside and you wish we were staying in. Is that right?” (empathy) Child nods. “I see that. (Pause to find a reasonable option to help them) Ok, do you want to put your shoes on or should I?” Next kid. “Boy, you want to go outside NOW, is that right? I hear you. (Pause to find option) Do you want to hold my hand while you wait or sit on the floor?”
All people, but perhaps especially children, want desperately to be seen and heard. They know they don’t really have a choice, but they want their desires to matter! Why wouldn’t they? You can see the relief on their faces when you acknowledge the problem they are having. Empathy doesn’t strive to solve that problem, or release them from the task at hand, but it doesn’t ask them to pretend they don’t feel it, either. Empathy HEARS. Empathy SEES. That’s all. It’s one of those tricks that’s simple even if it’s not always easy. Notice that there is no explaining why we are going outside or insisting that they’re going to have a good time when we get out there. That’s all a waste of breath since none of that feels true for the child in that moment and you’re not going to convince them. It’s a two part maneuver. Empathy then option for help. The end.
Experiment: Your child talks to you or someone else in an unacceptable way, perhaps in public. Your gut reaction?
“You DO NOT talk to me that way! Say you’re sorry!” Not totally unreasonable but the tone a conversation starts with is likely going to be the tone it ends with. Don’t let your child set the tone. They don’t yet have the skills. Good thing you’re about to teach them! Try this: “Wow, I don’t allow people to talk to me like that. I’m going to take a break until you can treat me better.” If you can safely walk away a short distance, do. If you can’t, just ask for them not to talk to you until they are ready to do so with respect. If the recipient of their ire was not you, your response becomes, “I won’t allow you to talk to Grandma like that. Please walk away until you can show respect.” Then simply turn away. You again, have been unemotional. Dare we say, scientific?
How it works: First, make no mistake about it, losing your attention is the worst punishment you can dole out. Don’t bust it out for any old infraction because you don’t want your child to feel as though your presence is conditional, but here, it makes sense. You are a person and your feelings were (probably not but could have been) hurt. Next, you’re teaching your child a powerful way to care for their own emotions in future relationships. They don’t have to blow up or shut down, but they don’t have to stand for being treated or talked to with disrespect. They can calmly remove themselves from those situations and request better treatment in the future. Avoid launching into an After School Special when your child does return to you. If they have returned with respect then just move on. Continuing the punishment by lecturing them only muddies your promise to happily regroup once they’ve changed their tune.
I now routinely use these methods with children as young as 18 months with lots of success. I’m not saying their aren’t outliers and off days, of course there are, but the most lasting benefit truly has been the shift in my own focus towards experimentation and openness to change.