Tuesday 19 October 2010

Teaching myself my own lessons

It had been a long day. I was distracted. I'd asked the boy to do something (I can't recall what it was) what felt like a hundred times, and it still hadn't been done. (Mistake #1 - not ensuring it happened after the first time I requested it.)

In my distraction, I carelessly tossed out a threat: "If such-and-such isn't done immediately, you won't get a bedtime story." Immediately I chastised myself. I'd just come up with a completely arbitrary punishment despite recognizing the many pitfalls of using punishment (or praise) to control behaviour. Mistake #2.

He paused, considered for a few seconds, and then said, "okay. I won't have a bedtime story. Okay?" And he started walking off to play.


I walked right into that one. I'd said it myself:

Finally, the child will come to consider whether the negative behaviour is “worth” the punishment. Is sneaking this candy “worth” the spank I will get? Is taunting my little sister “worth” being sent to my room for a while? And then what recourse does the parent have left when a punishment is no longer effective? Harder spankings? Longer groundings? More loss of privilege? There’s only so much you can do once the child has learned to weigh the negative behaviour against the likely punishment – and then the behaviour spirals out of control.

He had considered my threat and determined that the loss of his bedtime story was worth avoiding whatever it was I'd asked him to do.

Lesson unequivocally driven home, I gave myself a mental shake and turned my full attention to the situation, as I should have done in the first place instead of absentmindedly and repeatedly tossing out my request to a distracted three year old. I called him back to the table, apologized for making a foolish threat, and reinforced that no, my request wasn't optional. I restated my request in a proper manner (firm and clear), using eye contact and physical touch (my hand on his shoulder) to ensure I had his full attention. He immediately and cheerfully completed the task I'd asked him to do, and we both carried on with our day.

Discipline. Not punishment.


  1. So true.


  2. ha. my mother has a similar story about me as a child - choosing the punishment over compliance. Kids know how to reason! lol

  3. Oh Like - so much! I'm just now learning this lesson with my boys - who take the punishment any day over doing what their told *sigh*

    (on a side note - what do you do if they still refuse to do what they were told?)

  4. That's a good question, Alexia. In short, I'll note again my first mistake: not ensuring it happened after the first time I requested it. Basically, refusing isn't an option.

    My words need to have meaning now in order to avoid struggles later on when I can't make it happen. This definitely doesn't permit lazy parenting or parenting from the couch. I need to be able to enforce my words, which often requires me to get up and actively deal with a situation.

    If he refuses after the first request, I will restate my request and give him the option to either do it himself or do it with my help. If he does it, great. If he asks for my help, fine. If he continues to refuse, I will get up and assist him in completing the task. Not doing it isn't an option.

    At the same time, however, it's a hard question to answer because it is always going to depend on the situation and the child. If he is being particularly resistant, I will assess the situation for a cause - is he tired? hungry/thirsty? in need of a bathroom break? lacking in some other physical or emotional need? I will take such causes into account and solve those problems first before returning to the situation at hand.

    Finally, when I say that we do not use punishment, that doesn't mean that there aren't at times consequences for actions. For example, I threatened the loss of a bedtime story for something that was completely unrelated. It was foolish of me. But if I had asked him to pick up his toys at bedtime and he was dawdling, well, we might find that we run out of time for a bedtime story because he wasn't focusing on cleaning up. It's not to punish him (make him feel bad in order to avoid the behaviour in the future), it's simply what happens when you don't take care of your responsibilities. Same thing applies to me - if I dawdle with cleaning up the kitchen in the evening, I run out of time to relax and do an activity I enjoy. That's just a natural consequence of my actions.

    Or, for another example, if he is not taking care of a toy (using it in a dangerous manner, not tidying it up when he is done, wrecking it, etc), I will help him by putting the toy away until he is able to care for it properly. We phrase it in such terms, not as a threat or a punishment, and because of that he will often say to me, "I can't take care of this right now, please put it up for me." I will do so, and later when he's feeling able to care for it properly again, he'll ask for it back and go on playing with it appropriately again. That, to me, demonstrates the difference between discipline (teaching) and punishment (behaviour modification).

  5. thanks for the reminder for "Get-off-the-couch Parenting".

  6. Mistake #1 is a battle at our house. I'll catch myself asking him to do something a hundred times and have it still not be done, then it becomes a battle of wills, then he throws a tantrum, then I don't want to encourage tantrums by giving in... Usually I can at least talk him out of a tantrum by reminding him that screaming doesn't help, but asking nicely for a compromise might. But asking him the same thing a hundred times -- and then catching myself not wanting to ask him something once just because I know it'll turn into a fight -- has gotten out of control lately! Thanks for the reminder to get up and ensure it happens the first time.

  7. Oh, parenting. It's a stinkin' hard job.
    I only have a 17-month-old, but I know these days are not far away at all!