Macaroni Kid Reader Asks:
Some things that used to work to get our four-year-old to behave don’t really have much effect any more. It used to be that we could say, “If you do that one more time, you’ll get a time out” and she would stop, but that’s becoming more rare now. Is this just her age?Noël Janis-Norton
It’s not really about her age. There are a lot of things that we do as parents to try to get our kids to cooperate – whether it’s to get them to stop doing something wrong or just to get them to transition to something they need to start doing. Some strategies we might use include reasoning, reminding, negotiating, yelling, distracting, or threatening a consequence, as you’ve mentioned.
In the Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting seminars that I lead, when I ask parents if these strategies are working, the answer is almost always ‘no’ or ‘sometimes’. It’s true that these strategies generally do work sometimes, but no parent wants to have to threaten their child into cooperating all throughout the day, so it’s important to have strategies that are far more effective – and positive.
Let’s also dive a little deeper into what happens when we threaten a consequence like, “If you do that one more time, you’ll get a time out.” For your child, this is a bit confusing. She’s already done something wrong and has only received a threat. In her mind, she is able to get away with this misbehavior, even if it’s only once. In a lot of families these warnings or threats aren’t said only once. You’ve probably been at the park when a parent has warned their child, “If you throw sand again, we’ll have to leave the park.” Yet their child does do it again only to hear, “Ok, this is the last warning.” Then the child does it again and the parent says, “I mean it!” From that child’s standpoint, the parent doesn’t have to be taken seriously because he/she isn’t following through on the instructions. They are empty threats.
What’s far more effective, and I can even promise you that it will work 90% of the time if you do it consistently, is to prepare ahead using a strategy I teach called a ‘think-through
’. We want to set our children up to succeed – to do things right – instead of waiting until things go wrong and then reacting with annoyance or threatening consequences. This means that we need to think about what’s gone wrong in the past, anticipating what might go wrong in the future, and then be willing to do something different so that things are more likely to go right the next time. This is where a think-through comes in.
Let’s take the example of a child throwing sand at the park. It’s quite likely that this is something that has happened in the past. So long before you go to the park, at a completely neutral time of day when nobody is feeling rushed or annoyed, do a think-through with your child. In this think-through you would first clarify what your rules are for playing in the sand at the park and then ask your child to tell you the rule and answer a few questions about it:Parent:
When you’re at the park and you’re playing in the sand, the sand has to stay low. What’s our rule about where the sand has to stay?Child:
It stays low.Parent:
That’s the right answer. And sometimes you might really feel like throwing it up in the air but where does it have to stay?Child:
You know the right thing to do. So how can you dig and still keep the sand low?Child:
Keep my arm down?Parent:
Great idea! That will help keep the sand low. And you may not always remember. What do you think will happen if you do throw sand?Child:
You’ll ask me to stop?Parent:
No, honey. I won’t ask you to stop or give you a warning. I used to, but not anymore. We’ll leave the park immediately. So what will happen if you throw sand? Child:
We’ll leave the park.Parent:
That’s exactly right. You know a lot about this rule.
As your child answers your think-through questions, she actually gets a visual mental image of herself doing it right. This has a positive impact on her memory and will maximize the likelihood of her doing the right thing the next time she’s at the park.
One of the delightful benefits of preparing your child for success in this way is that the more you focus on preventing misbehavior, the fewer behavior problems you’ll be faced with and the fewer consequences you’ll need to give! Family life becomes calmer, easier and happier.
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