Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Following-Up on Consequences

I'd like to think that being a teacher for nine years will help me be a better parent. Of course there are real differences between teaching children and parenting them, but I hope I have learned some helpful strategies by interacting with more than 320 children.

For example, I learned a lot by reading Lee Canter's Assertive Discipline. In that book, he talks about the importance of:
  1. Teaching children how to see their own behavior as a choice that they are in control of
  2. Helping children clearly understand the consequences of their actions, both positively and negatively
  3. Following through on consequences consistently and without emotion

I see these three fundamental strategies break down over and over again in families. In my own family, for example, I remember my parents screaming at my brother, "If you don't clean up your room right now, we're going to throw everything away!"

For starters, we should try to avoid letting these kinds of situations escalate into shouting, anger, and explosive emotions. I know it's easier said than done! Parents can be under immense amount of stress as they try to juggle everything in their lives, and it can be difficult to maintain equanimity.

Second, we should never blurt out consequences that we won't actually follow-through on. Children can only learn that there are real consequences for their choices, if we set up situations in which we can actually follow-through with those consequences.

I've seen this play out in other ways, too. For example, a colleague of mine has a very needy and whiny daughter. While we were out to lunch together, the daughter was sitting on the mother's lap, whining for some of her drink. The mother did a great job of trying to empower her daughter by saying, "You're welcome to get some of my drink, but you need to get it yourself. You know how to do it."

But the child persisted in wanting the mother to bring the cup to her mouth for her. She continued whining and fidgeting. The mother tried to continue her conversation with the rest of us and would occasionally stop to remind the daughter that she could have some of the drink if she got it herself.

After a few minutes of this, the mother relented and brought the cup to her daughter's lips.

What did the daughter learn in that situation? She learned that when her mother tries to establish boundaries and expectations, she doesn't really mean it. She learned that if she is persistent and annoying enough, she will get her way. She learned that she doesn't have to accept responsibility for herself.

Something similar happened with another friend of ours. The little boy was sitting on a chair in the house and throwing the ball off the chair. He would then whine for his father to get the ball for him. The dad said, "If you want the ball, you need to get it yourself." The son persisted with his whining and pouting. The dad persisted with his message: "If you want the ball, you need to get it for yourself."

Finally, the dad relented and got the ball for his son. Again, the son internalizes these lessons: When my parents give me boundaries and expectations, they don't really mean it. If I am persistent and annoying enough, I will get my way. I don't have to accept responsibility for myself or my actions.

I don't mean to say that we should parent in robotic ways or that we shouldn't do things for our children. However, if we want to raise children who accept responsibility for their actions and who make good choices for themselves, we need to give them lots of practice in the little moments. If we tell them they need to get the ball if they want it, then we need to follow-through with that expectation, even if they break down and engage in a major tantrum. If we tell them they are welcome to help themselves to our drink but we aren't going to hold the cup for them, then we need to follow-through with that expectation--especially if they get more whiny and insistent about it!

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diana said...

I think the results of more parents following through on what they say would be amazing. My sister is a great example of following through with her 5 year old and while she might whine for a moment, she knows it doesn't get her anywhere. She is a strong, independent and capable young girl because of it.

lisa said...


Hard to do but well worth it. Babies are like puppies: you have to think if you want the currently cute behaviour to continue for the next 5 years, and if it will still be cute then.

Anonymous said...

I love this! I know you will probably be seeing comments like "Easier said than done" or "Just wait til your kid gets older" and what have you. But I completely disagree. Unfortunately, parents with this problem have set it up this way since the beginning and are having a hard time breaking a habit than it would have been just making a better habit from the start. I'm sure it seems harmless when our babes are so little. But I intentionally try to remember this with my 9 month old. When she is crying because she's not in a good mood, I talk to her soothingly until she calms down, THEN I pick her up. I do not want her to get into the habit of crying to be picked up. (Granted, this does not apply to babies younger than 6ish months, or when she's crying for another reason, like she's fallen very hard.) Another prime example is the dropping-something-so-mom-or-dad-will-pick-it-up game. On the one hand, learning about cause and effect is a very important milestone, but there is a point where children will think that means they are IN CHARGE in their environment. I'm glad you posted this, it is a huge consideration in my parenting right now (and hopefully always will be!)

Sharpiegirl said...

watched a preteen sitting and whining and crying at a bbq joint this week. And the parents caved to her whims.... Just amazes me everytime I see it.
How are these kids going to know how to act when they grow up?

Anonymous said...

I see it as a parent who can't see what the chils is actually asking for... not a drink, but attention.

Research on emotion coaching (the gottman relationship institute) suggests a parenting style that is tuned into a child's emotional experience can allieviate this type of "bad" behavior.

There is a really great book about it sold on thier site. It is short and very accessable and based on decade of systematic research.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your post. And, yes it is easier said than done. I look forward to seeing your perspective on these same situations your friends were in once Henry is about 2 and a half.

lindel said...

I agree with the last anonymous above my comment - yes, all very well in theory and definitely something we are working to get better at. We are also teachers so know the ins and outs of child behavior and theory quite well. But wait until Henry is 2 - 3 years old and then lets revisit this post. I am sure there will be plenty of times when you cave, (especially when trying to enjoy some adult time with friends and don't want to escalate to a full-blown public tantrum!). Please reserve your judgement while Henry is a relatively compliant, non-mobile, non-verbal 5 month old baby. To be honest, I am finding that parenting a 2 year old is the hardest stage so far (and I don't think we have a particularly difficult child either). Judgement/advice like this from people who have the benefit of distance is quite difficult to take.

I also agree with the other anonymous in recognizing this behaviour is perhaps more about attention than thirst. I find investing in some good one-on-one time before we socialise or go out and do something that is not about our son really helps minimise the negative behaviour. Plus talking to him about what we are going to do and what we expect also really helps. He gets frustrated when we 'surprise' him with bathtime or dinner or car trip but if he has warning about the activities that are coming next he handles it better.

Virginia said...

I definitely agree with your philosophy -- but I was interested to note that both of the examples you cite here happen in social situations, which I think does change the dynamics. A parent might be willing to stand firm even if whining escalates to a temper tantrum at home, but when you're out with friends, I think it's an understandable and even pretty logical response to give in for the greater good -- a dinner with friends that isn't ruined by a screaming kid.

I'm not a parent, so I'm speaking more from the perspective of the friend at such events who is glad when a child's bad behavior is dealt with quickly instead of becoming the centerpiece of the evening. Maybe there is a strategy for handling those situations that avoids the melt-down but still gets the point across that parents will follow through on consequences? I'd be interested to hear ideas about how this could work.

I guess also, if parents are following through often enough, kids will know this and not push too hard in public so it doesn't have to get to that point... hmm. Interesting!

Sara E. Cotner said...

Hi, All! I didn't mean to come off as "holier than thou" in this post (I know I often have issues with tone). The post is really about me and the kind of parent I aspire to be. Looking to others as examples is something I've always done (it started when I read Ramona Quimby as a child). And even though I aspire to be consistent and uphold boundaries, I imagine that it will be difficult and I won't always do it. (I already sometimes use the pacifier in ways I never intended!) Even still, I think it's valuable for me to talk about my intentions, so that I keep them at the forefront of my mind. I'm sorry if it came across as judgement. We're all doing the best we can!

@ Anonymous: I'm reading one of Gottman's books about emotional coaching right now! I'm only a few pages in. I'm eager to learn about the concept.

lindel said...

@sara e cotner

I have a problem with tone too sometimes and my students pull me up on it (particular when I teach online)!

The other thing that I wanted to say which came to me last night while engaged in dialogue/conflict with my son is that you have to pick your battles. It is great to have a parenting intention/aspiration but as you and other say it is often difficult to be consistent. So the mantra of 'pick your battles' helps me with that. There are some things (and he knows which ones) that I am super firm on, and there are others that we can let slide. Also I have noticed that as a two year old there is only so many 'nos' that he can handle in a day before he gets understandably frustrated at the world he is trying to understand through experience. I stick to about 4 important ones at any time (no going on the road, no hitting, no climbing on the table, no spitting out dinner) and add a new one as he moves beyond needing a no for another one i.e. he doesn't climb on the table anymore so we have moved on to the spitting rule and saying please.

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