Saturday, December 1

Don't Punish Your Kids, Teach Them a Lesson

Consequences can be hard to set and difficult to stick to.  Rewards work even better. Remember how we talked about not being a bitchface to your kids and how to only say things once?  Let's continue your education about how to be the magnificent parents other parents envy.  Set forth, after the jump!

     So, kids are jerks sometimes.  Believe me I know. But, here's the thing; you can't hold it against them because it's part of growing up.  That's why kids have parents and aren't plopped out into the world fully formed and ready to roll like sharks.  Boys will be boys and girls will be girls and I'm sorry but your 3 year old will probably have some truly mind blowing temper tantrums which will embarrass and disgust you.  Simply because boys will be boys and smash each other in the face with frogs doesn't mean that it's ok (you don't want them doing that at 16, it's really distracting while driving).  It's normal to have a kid in the terrible 2s and the reason they aren't like that at 10 is because they've learned new things.  The trick is to understand where your kids are coming from, while teaching them new things.
     Teaching kids new things is usually through behavioral modification (rewards, punishments, or consequences) because most 5 year olds don't understand when you sit them down to explain the intricacies of humanity, like how it's not ok to take your penis out of your pants in the grocery store.  What is a punishment? A punishment is something that shames the kid in an attempt to teach them a lesson and a punishment doesn't necessarily fit the crime (every time you make a mistake at work I write 'loser' on your car).  A consequence on the other hand is directly related to the problem behavior and helps the child learn from the error (every time you make a mistake at work I dock your pay).  A reward is something which is earned and helps shape the behavior you want to see more of, it may be directly or indirectly related to the behavior (every time you go 3 months without any mistakes at work, I give you a pay bonus).
     In my experience, punishing kids is the go to way parents rely on because it's really easy.  You can literally just make up whatever you want.  That's easy . . .  But, it's not very effective and part of the reason is that punishments teach kids what not to do, not what to do. That's an important distinction. Imagine that I put you in a room with a 100 toys and wearing a shock collar and then every time you pick up a toy I don't want you to play with, I shock you.  Eventually, you pick up the slinky and I don't shock you.  You would be highly suspicious of me.  You could have gotten 99 shocks before you got to the slinky. That's punishment.  Consequences work because they provide more structure and guidance so that kids learn some skills for independence and understand their actions.  Imagine that same shock collar scenario.  Using a consequence approach I would say to you, "I want you to play with the slinky. If you don't play with the slinky, I'm going to shock you."  You might walk right over and play with the slinky. You might pick up the SuperSoaker instead and if you do, I would shock you.  You might play with the slinky for a while and then get bored and go for the SuperSoaker and if you do, I would shock you.  Using a rewards system I would say, "I want you to play with the slinky and when you do that for 30 minutes, I will give you $10."  When you make a break for the SuperSoaker I wouldn't shock you, I would completely ignore you.  I also wouldn't give you any money.  When you do go for the slinky and spend 30 minutes with it, I would give you $10.
     So, let's put this into practice!  Rewards and consequences go really well together because then you are shaping the behavior from both sides.  You're pulling the kid to the right thing with a reward and you're pushing them away from the problem behavior with a consequence.  People seem to get stuck on rewards and consequences because they think they should be big.  They shouldn't!  Consequences should actually be pretty short term so that the kid isn't hopeless.  When kids are grounded for two weeks, they keep acting like terrors because they have nothing to lose.  When a kid is grounded for a day, it's a negative experience and they get to try again tomorrow.  "Didn't earn a reward today? Oh, well.  You can try again tomorrow!"  Also, you can't give in.  As much as you want to keep tacking on time to how long your kid goes without tv, you can't take two weeks of tv away from your 10 year old and expect them to learn a lesson when you allow them to earn it back two days later or get sick of them hassling you after a week.  It works much more effectively to add quick consequences for kids (vacuum the house, clean the bathroom, sit at the table to do homework) than it does to take things away.  Ditto for rewards.  Rewards can be as simple as "When you are upset and you ask to take a break, I put a quarter in the jar and when you have enough quarters you can go to the dollar store."  Rewards can also be free!  "When you don't call your sister names for two days, you can pick a game for just the two of us to play together."  Kids act out for attention, so beat them at their own game and let them earn it appropriately!  When you give a reward or a consequence, it's set in stone.  There's no taking it back.  If he goes two days without calling his sister names and earns a game and then he spits in your face?  You still have to play a game.  If you don't and you take away that reward, you've just implemented a punishment, because you never tied the game to spitting in your face.  If she doesn't wash the dishes but cleans the whole rest of the house, she still doesn't get to watch tv because you told her that when she washes the dishes she can watch tv.
     There's also this great thing called natural consequences.  Then life is a bitchface, not you!  And let's be honest, life is a bitchface sometimes, so these are lessons worth learning.  Parents seem to shy away from these kinds of consequences and I think it's because they are driven to protect their kids from the harsh light of day and responsibility.  But, natural consequences are great.  You know when you don't do laundry and then you have no clean underpants?  That's a natural consequence.  That time you were like, "hmmm, I should probably stop drinking now so I'm not hung over tomorrow!" but then kept drinking and felt like death? Natural consequence.  So for kids it's the same.  Example:

DAD:  She [any kid 6-14] just doesn't get ready for school in time, she's always late to school because she's watching tv instead of getting dressed.
ME:  Ok, so I want you to give her a 10 minute warning, and if she's still in her jammies when it's time to go, you need to take her to school in her jammies.
DAD:  No!  That's absurd.  What will people think!?  People will be mean to her!  It reflects badly on us as parents!
ME:  I'll be really surprised if it happens more than once.  You're showing her that she needs to be at school on time and that the state she shows up in is up to her.  It also reflects badly on you that your child is late to school every day, so let's fix both problems really quickly.

Ok, obviously, for some kids that isn't going to work great because they'll love going to school in their jammies.  To which I say, pick your stupid battles.  If things are truly inappropriate, then you need to teach the need for appropriate clothes.  If you're just concerned about the fashion statement, get over yourself and go take a bubble bath with all the free time you just made for yourself, because that's you caring about your problem with the situation, not you caring about your kid's problem with the situation.
     The moral of the story is this: plan for rewards and consequences.  If teeth brushing in the AM is always a struggle, make a cookie at lunch contingent on brushing!  Or make it so that when they go three days in a row with brushing their teeth they get to pick what's for dinner.  But plan.  Try your level best to tell kids what they should be doing, rather than directing them away from what they shouldn't be doing.  Don't make things last too long or else kids have nothing to hope for and will be dreadful.  Swallow your own pride and give kids guidance, but let them learn for themselves.  Funny story to end on: Once upon a time I had a kid who started to run down the stairs.  "You need to walk on the stairs!" I said.  The child plowed down the first few stairs and I found myself impressed, thinking, oh, maybe he's totally got this!  Naturally, as I thought that, his body weight shifted and I watched the disgraceful plummet he took down the entire second half of the stairs.  He smashed into the wall at the bottom of the stairwell, eyes wide, and he stared at me.  "You ok?" I asked.  I didn't suggest anything could be wrong.  Didn't rush to aide him.  He stood up, took stock, and nodded affirmatively.  "Ok, that's why you need to walk on the stairs," I said.  Kid never ran down the stairs again.  He also had a concussion.  No, no he didn't I'm just kidding, he was totally fine.  Never even cried.