[NOTE: I originally posted this to my old site in 2005, but I have received occasional feedback about it ever since, so I'm copying it here.]
been getting increasingly frustrating. She's taking Joshua's toys away
from him, running into the street by herself, throwing tantrums over the
smallest things, not doing what she's asked (or doing it at a snail's
pace), and generally being obnoxious. I suspect there are a variety of
causes, including sibling rivalry, attention seeking, limit testing, and
perhaps some sort of physiological change which makes it harder for her
to control herself. No matter the cause, her behavior puts me in a
very bad mood and brings out the control freak in me. I find myself
constantly yelling at her or giving her timeouts. Unfortunately, that
sort of treatment is only making the situation worse, and it certainly
isn't the unconditional parenting
approach I was shooting for.
night after I'd regained some semblance of calm, I decided to focus on
finding a solution to the problem. The programmer in me took over, and I
found myself creating a flowchart for how to deal with various
behaviors. I'm reasonably happy with what I came up with. I think it
balances the unconditional parenting approach with the need for
consequences under some circumstances. I decided that there were three
types of behavior that needed to be addressed: disobedience, unethical
behavior, and tantrums.
Disobedience is when we
ask her to do (or not do) something and she doesn't do it (or continues
to do it). When I examined my own motivations, I realized there were
three reasons I wanted her obedience:
- Obedience makes my life easier.
- Obedience is part of respect for authority which is an important value.
- Sometimes safety requires obedience (e.g. "Stop!" or "Don't touch that!").
my life easier would be a nice side effect of her being more obedient,
but it wasn't a driving force in shaping my approach. Keeping her safe
and helping her develop respect for authority are what is truly
I decided that my treatment of her was actually
modelling disrespectful behavior and was thus counter-productive. So I
vowed that an important part of the approach would involve me being more
respectful of her whenever possible. That would need to be balanced
with the occasional need to put safety first even if that meant being
less respectful. So, here's the algorithm I came up with:
- Decide if the matter is urgent. If it is, skip to step 4, otherwise continue.
respect for her. If possible, give her a goal and let her figure out
what she should do. For example, "It's almost time to go to school,
what do you think you should do?". If she can't figure it out, ask
politely: "Put on your shoes please." If she doesn't comply, ask "Why?"
she doesn't have a good reason, look for a compromise. For example, if
her reason for not putting on her shoes is "because I don't want to",
ask what she *does* want to do and then say "OK. Do that for a couple
minutes and then put on your shoes please." If she still doesn't
comply, treat the matter as urgent (see next step).
- For urgent matters, say "Please do X right now." The phrase "right now" is the indication that she must comply immediately.
she doesn't comply, say "Apparently I can't trust you to do what I ask
when it is important, so I'm afraid you are going to have to (live with
some consequences)." Whenever possible, the consequences should be
"natural" instead of "punitive". If she didn't put on her shoes, put
them on for her but she doesn't get to choose which ones. If she didn't
hold my hand while crossing the street on the way to the park, we don't
go to the park. A timeout is only used when I can't come up with a
more natural consequence.
behavior is when she does something wrong even though she should know it
breaks the Golden Rule. Disobedience doesn't generally break the
Golden Rule -- she shouldn't obey me in hopes of me obeying her.
However, violence, teasing, not sharing, and other antisocial behaviors
do break the Golden Rule. My primary goal in addressing this behavior
is to get her to think for herself and think before she acts. Here's
what I came up with:
- Start by asking "Why did you do that?".
she doesn't have a good explanation, ask "Was that the right things to
do? Why not? What should you have done? Why?" and correct her answers
as necessary. Her answer to the "Why?" question should be something
like "Because I would like it if someone else did that."
- If the
issue is not a safety issue, just wait to see if it reoccurs. If it is a
safety issue or if it is not a safety issue but it reoccurs, tell her
to "Go think about it." This is not a normal timeout. It is more like a
self-regulated timeout. She is expected to spend some (unspecified)
amount of time thinking about what she did wrong, what she'll do next
time, and why. She decides when she's done.
- If the behavior
reoccurs again, say "Apparently, you can't control yourself right now,
so I'm afraid you are going to have to (live with some consequences)."
The consequences should be natural but not vengeful. For example, if
she was teasing someone I *don't* tease her to "show her how it feels".
Instead, she has to stay away from the person she was teasing. If she
didn't share something, I take it away temporarily. A timeout is only
used when I can't come up with a more natural consequence.
tantrums, I'm not referring to run-of-the-mill crying. That can
normally be addressed with a hug and a "What's wrong?". Instead, I'm
talking about prolonged screaming, crying, and thrashing about. I
believe tantrums are actually therapeutic for a child. They help her
vent, and eventually help her learn how to regain control of her
emotions. The problem with tantrums is that they are incredibly
disruptive and can be used as an attention seeking mechanism. My
approach is to calmly tell her "You are disturbing the rest of us. If
you need to have a tantrum, please go to your room until you calm
down." That both removes the audience, gives her permission to vent,
and encourages her to learn how to get her emotions back under control.
Of course, sometimes she refuses to go to her room. In that case, it
becomes a disobedience issue and if necessary, I physically take her to
I've been trying to use the above
approach for the past couple weeks. The hardest thing is to remember to
actually do it. Old habits die hard, and I sometimes still find myself
just losing my temper. But, when I do remember to do it, it does seems
to help. Hopefully my behavior will get better over time, and Julia's