Friday, April 25, 2008

The Theory and Practice of Parenting

We have a 3.75-year old who sometimes makes unreasonable demands. It seems normal for a kid to test the limits of her control over her environment, including her parents. Sally and I have been working on a model of parenting that responds to and circumvents these demands by offering choices instead of ultimata. I'm not very good at this yet, and my alternatives often include the ultimatum as one of the choices. For example:

Francis: I don't want to take a bath.

Daddy: But it's time to take a bath. George is taking a bath.

Francis: Well, I don't want to take a bath. I'm not dirty.

Daddy: You are dirty; it's been three days since your last bath.

Francis: I'm not dirty.

Daddy: OK, you have a choice: you can take a bath and have a book and a song before bed, or you can skip your bath and get no book and no song.

Francis: (writhing on the floor) But I don't want to take a bath.

She took her bath eventually, but I think the idea is to offer choices that make the kid feel empowered before a confrontation even happens (e.g., "Hey Francis, do you want use the white washcloth or the blue washcloth today?").

Here's a blog in which an Australian daddy/economist applies the theories of his day job to the raising of his kids. In one of his ruminations on discipline, he notes that the perceived threat of punishment is often more important than the punishment itself:

I also know that their imagination is much more active than my own. So when I am not getting compliance with a request or order -- such as getting ready for bathtime -- I stand there and close my eyes and saw "I am thinking up a suitable punishment and if, when I open my eyes, you haven't done x, I will tell you it." Well, a flurry of activity always ensues.

That's what I want: some non-violent thing that I can do that always incites a "flurry of activity" from my children.


Jordan Brock said...

I definitely agree that the threat of punishment is infinitely worse in the mind of the child than the actual punishment. However, there was a short while when we introduced the concept of "time out" that when we said "you need to do (insert whatever she wasn't doing) or you'll go into timeout" our daughter would go and grab a chair and carry it to the timeout corner.

It was as though she enjoyed the idea of staring into a corner for 2 minutes. It kind of minimised it's effectiveness for a while.

Jason Boyett said...

Giving kids choice is good. But I think you're right in limiting the options to a blue or white whatever. For awhile, we let Owen choose what shirt he wanted to wear out of his closet each day (among maybe 15 shirts). It got to the point, though, that if we picked one out for him -- for a special dinner, or for church -- he was never happy with it. And he would never choose the nicer shirt over the camouflage shirt. So we lost control in giving him unlimited choice. So...yeah, limited choice is the way to go.