Thursday, April 2, 2009

Trial and error (and sometimes success).

The other night I found myself in one of those awful parenting positions where things kept coming out of my mouth that I knew I had to follow through on but that I would have just as soon taken back. The more ultimatums I gave, the more footing I lost. It was a battle of wits and I was being seriously outwitted by my three year old.

"Hey Liam, let's see a bite of oatmeal please."

"No thanks."

"Liam, that is your dinner. It's exactly what you asked for. Let's see at least one bite, OK?"

"Uh-uh."

"Liam, I'm serious. You need to take one bite of oatmeal or I will turn off Olivia."

Nothing.

"OK. Olivia is off now. OK? Now let's see a bite."

"Maybe we could just play something instead?"

"No, Liam, I am not going to play with you until you eat your dinner."

"No thanks."

I was trying not to let him see me sweat but I was panicking. First he wouldn't swallow his PB & J at lunch ("But, Maamuh, peanut butter sandwich will make me yak!") and now he wouldn't eat his old standby, apple oatmeal. Our short list of acceptable food items was growing impossibly shorter by the second. If he decided bananas were out too, he would surely starve to death within the month. Time to show him I meant business.

"OK, Liam. I am going to count to five and if you don't have one taste by the time I get to five, it's straight to bed." We both knew I was serious. I don't mess around with the cardinal rule of parenting - always follow through on what you say you are going to do, no matter how dumb it might be.

I took a deep breath. "OK, here we go. One." He wasn't budging. "Twooooo..." Nothing. "Threeeee. Liam, if you don't have a bite before I get to five it's time for bed." Blink. "Four." Picture his arms crossed tightly across his chest, nose up in disgust, untouched bowl of oatmeal growing colder and more unappetizing by the second. "This is your last chance, Buddy. Just have one little taste, OK?" I couldn't believe he was making me do this! "Fine. Five. Let's go brush your teeth."

Initially he took the early bedtime in stride which really ticked me off. If he's not going to be upset by a punishment, is it really a punishment? But by the time we got to the bathroom he was in full protest mode. He sat on the floor and refused to climb the steps to brush his teeth or wash his hands. Since I was already on such a roll (ugh), the situation quickly snowballed into a complete disaster. Fast forward a few ultimatums and counts of five and Liam was sent to bed crying with no bedtime stories, no milk and no sight of the mother I try so hard to be.

I stood in the hall by his room for a while wondering what I could have done differently. I wanted to rush in and hold him and tell him I was sorry for getting so upset. I didn't feel bad for punishing him but recognized immediately that there could have been a better way to do it. I had gotten emotional and raised my voice and allowed him to get under my skin. I was frustrated with the limited tools in my bag of tricks (time outs, taking things away) and starting to worry that he would always have the upper hand when it came to these types of power struggles.

Eventually I did go into his room to talk to him about these things and by the time he went to sleep I think everything was once again right in his world. I didn't go back on my word or let him win the war, I just showed him the person-to-person respect that I hope to teach him to show others.

I felt better after we spoke but it didn't do anything to change the fact that the exact same situation could crop up the next night and I would not have any better ways of handling it. Even if I kept my cool and did everything right, I would still be sending my three year old to bed with no dinner and no bedtime stories. That's not exactly my idea of good parenting. But if you don't spank (which we don't), how else can you get a stubborn child to do what you want?

Fortunately for me, my sister has her master's degree in behavioral psychology and works with lots of different families with similar problems. She has a much bigger bag of tricks than I do and can give me practical suggestions for specific problems as well as her professional opinion on the really big questions. I called her immediately.

"Moose, how much does it take to screw up a kid?"

"Oh, a lot. I don't think you don't have to worry about that."

Phew. After listening to me cry and berate myself for a bit, she talked me down and gave me some suggestions for working with Liam in the future.

Since threatening to take things away from him wasn't working, she suggested offering incentives instead. For example, instead of letting Liam watch TV while he eats and pausing the show or shutting it off to encourage bites (this used to be the best way to get him to eat which is why we let him do it), tell him he can watch a show after dinner if he eats well. This way, we will be on the same team instead of me vs. him. If he does a good job (sitting with us, tasting everything on his plate, and asking to be excused when he's finished), he will earn the chance to watch a show.

We have tried this a few times this week and I think it's working. He has yet to earn a show (taste everything on his plate - ha!) but we have all stayed relatively calm and happy with the outcome.

This same principle can be applied to other situations as well. If he's giving me a hard time about getting dressed, I can offer him a treat (like a few jelly beans) if he cooperates. You might be thinking that will teach him to expect candy every time he listens to me but, as long as I don't push it, the expectation of a bribe will naturally drop off.

We just experienced this with potty training. At first, every time he went potty he got a dance party and a parade and his choice of a candy treat. Now, one week later, he just goes potty like a big boy and doesn't expect anything at all. I still tell him I'm proud of him after he goes and every once in a while I'll offer him something special just because he's doing such a great job, but it's not something he demands or expects. My sister says that is normally how it works. Unless the parent continues to offer the bribe after it's needed, the expectation for it will soon vanish.

Such a small shift of perspective - earning something instead of losing something - makes a huge difference in the way things feel and in the way kids behave. Negative consequences are never as powerful as positive reinforcement and, even though I already knew this, I appreciated the reminder.

In about 30 minutes we are off to the airport to fly home to see our family. Instead of feeling anxious about traveling all alone with a newly potty trained 3 year old, I am feeling excited for an adventure with my precious boy. My carry on full of lolly pops and special treats doesn't hurt either. It's exactly the bag of tricks I was looking for.

1 comment:

chubi (which is the word SMS comes up with when you type "bitch") said...

it's britney, bitch.