Monday, November 16, 2009

Non-Punitive Discipline Keeps Me Honest

I've mentioned many times that my using Positive Discipline strategies with my kids is good for me, too. I think PD is great for my kids, and they are the primary concern here, that I'm raising them in a way that will encourage them to develop self-discipline and get a lot of practice in decision-making and problem-solving.

But PD is great for me, too, because when I am focusing on parenting in a non-punitive way (leading and guiding rather than punishing and bribing), then I am using the virtues, too. I have an example from yesterday that I hope will illustrate this.

We were invited to a birthday party for two of the kids' homeschool friends. The party was about an hour away, and was scheduled to last for many hours. It was at a pumpkin farm, and included a corn maze and hayrides and roasting hot dogs and s'mores. We really like these girls and all of the families who would be in attendance, and naturally, we're big fans of open fires and s'mores, too. We ALL were looking forward to attending.

In the morning, we talked about our plans for the day, and everyone was super-excited about the party. But the house was also in its usual disaster state. I pointed this out to everyone and said we needed to get things back in some kind of order before we left for the party. Suddenly, people who were, only moments before, attempting to scale the walls Spider-Man-style, began exhibiting the energy and physical strength levels of decrepit little old ladies. "I'm tired!" "I can't move my legs!" Etc. Not too unusual, really. And oh, how they were pitiful.

After enduring this for a while and getting little help, I started to say, "If you won't help, we won't go!" In other words, I considered offering a punishment (skipping the party) for this non-cooperation. Because I was mad and because that's what my parents (and indeed, many parents) would have done.

And I can't really fault them for that, because I completely understand that feeling of needing something not-so-fun to get done, and holding the super-fun thing out there as a bribe, and threatening to take it away as a consequence. Not that the party wasn't a great motivation--it was, for all of us. In fact, it was such a great motivator that it didn't even need a threat of removal for it to remain motivating.

But instead of issuing the threat, I considered these questions (in my own head):

  • Why am I mad?
  • Do I really want to attend the party? (rational self-interest question)
  • Am I prepared to skip the party? If so, what are the reasons I'm willing to skip the party for?
  • What is it that I really want here? Why?

And my answers (also in my head, although I have been known to talk to myself--I know, sign of impending insanity, yes? Isn't that from Zork?):

  • I'm mad because there's too much to do and I really need help. Also it's not fair if I'm the one cleaning up everything myself. Boo! Hiss!
  • Yes, I do, in fact, really really want to go. My homeschool friends will be there, and we'll get to spend more time talking than we do at our weekly co-op, in a more relaxed setting. It's a gorgeous day, a little warm, and we're not going to have many more days like this. I'd like to spend it outside with our friends.
  • Yes, I'm prepared to skip the party--but only for sudden or contagious illness, something emergent with Brendan's work (although I'm also prepared to take the kids myself), or some other unforeseen emergency. I'm also prepared to skip in cases of Extreme Whine, but nobody's even close to that just yet--plus I'd also have to take the desires of the others into account. I'd probably not skip altogether in that case, I'd leave the offending child home with Brendan.
  • What I really really want here, is some help cleaning up. Why? Because I hate returning home to a messy house, especially if I know we had had time to make a dent in the disaster before we left. It will stress me out if I think about it at the party, and interfere with my ability to have fun. I also might feel really resentful at the kids at the party, and that feeling will make it hard for all of us to enjoy the party. Also, it will stress me out thinking about the mess and non-cooperation on the drive home, and when walking into the house. I know everyone will be cranky and tired because it will be late. I don't want to have even more stress in that situation.

These thoughts didn't go through my head all at once like that, and it took probably 20 minutes before I figured out my actual reason for wanting to get the cleaning done before leaving: that Thinking about the Mess will Stress Me Out and Make Me Feel Resentful, Which Will Interfere with Our Fun.

Once I figured it out, I just told the kids the honest reason--I don't want to be thinking about the mess at home. That will make it hard for me to enjoy the party. I don't want to be grumpy at the party.

Ryan was much more willing to assist me after that. Much. Morgan, not-so-much, but that's partly because she's four (and-a-half!, she'd insist I add). However, even she helped out a little more after that.

We had to work quickly so we'd have time to eat lunch and go to Target before the party, and knowing we had this party ahead of us was good motivation. We got things kinda picked up--not perfect, but enough for my peace of mind--and had a lovely time at the party.

If I'd just said "Help me clean up or we're not going to the party." then I might have received about as much actual assistance as I did, possibly even a little bit more. But there would have been many things wrong about that strategy. I really wanted to go--so it would have been hard to follow through on that threat. And if I did, then I wouldn't get to do something I really wanted to (I get to have self-interest, too!). Honestly, I wanted to go badly enough that I really might not have followed through on the threat--which would then have demonstrated that I don't really mean what I say, setting us all up for problems in the long-run (especially if I gave empty threats regularly).

Yes, I might have gotten more (or less, or the same) cooperation if I'd held out the carrot and was prepared to use a stick. And it would have taken a whole lot less time, too. Trust me when I tell you how close I was to doing it--how tempting it was.

But because I took a few extra minutes to introspect and think about MY desires and needs, I think we're better off for it. I was completely honest with the kids about why I wanted the cleaning up to be done before we left. I phrased this in terms of my rational self-interest: I'd be stressed, grumpy, etc. This way they get to see me as someone who gets to have self-interest (as opposed to just "Mom").

I also expressed my thoughts in a calm way, not in a stressed out grumpy way, because my focus was simply on communicating to them with honesty. I wasn't emotion-less, but I was not merely dumping my emotions onto them in a mean way. This is still something I'm learning how to do.

My being completely honest with them was also a demonstration of that virtue, and integrity as well. That was a good way to model the virtues I want them to embrace.

Also, I was treating them the way I'd treat anyone--Brendan, my friends, other adults. I was not talking down to them, using my parental authority (with the threat of force to back it up by taking away a fun opportunity as a punishment) to make them obey me. In expressing my emotions in a calm, honest, rational way, explaining the situation as I saw it, I was implicitly saying to them "This is something I'm confident that you can understand. I know you'll work with me here."

In other words, I was appealing to their rationality. Of course, with kids, that rationality isn't always something they'll choose to use--their minds are still new and brains are immature, but they are developing their minds all the time. It's always worth it, I think, to see if the light is ON and appeal to their reason first. In doing so, I can simultaneously model how rational adults treat each other and treat them rationally. Win-Win.

And I think that Ryan at least, saw my point, understood the truth of it (Mom sure does get freaked out about returning home to a mess.), and also saw the fairness of it (There's a lot to clean up and she needs us to help.). Which is why after I told him what I wanted and needed and why, he got more cooperative. He is old enough to begin to appreciate this in a more mature way. Morgan's not there yet, but I'm hopeful that when she's seven (and-a-half!) she'll be there, too. Sean is still the caboose--but I actually got the most cooperation from him--he loves the Put Things In the Box game, and is young enough to just take my suggestion and try to do it. I'll miss that when it's gone. :o)

I'm so glad I handled this issue that way, and I'm also glad I wrote it up--maybe this blog post will help me remember to do more of this!


Beth said...

Hey Jenn,
Great description of your thinking process.

Just want to respond with a reaction I had when reading this post that took me by surprise.
Yesterday I had a prolonged conversation with a family member that went through many of the stages you describe and ended up with a similar solution, one that respected everyone. That conversation was with my mother-in-law who is struggling with increasing memory loss in my father-in-law and the decision of whether or not it is safe for him to drive.

The conversation started off with her expressing her fears and feelings of being over-whelmed while watching his progressive (though gradual) decline in cognitive functioning. He recently completed a course of chemotherapy and after months away from the car is just beginning to drive again. This has triggered a heightened reaction to every instance of confusion or forgetfulness, with my mother-in-law immediately jumping to questions like "If he can't remember where to put the check book, how can he drive safely?"

What she was looking for was support and understanding, but also for some back up to go to her husband and tell him he shouldn't drive any more. But it was too much like going behind his back and treating him as less than an adult, which really isn't justified by his current cognitive abilities.

Trying to shorten this, the solution we ended up with was to broach the subject with her husband in a way that honors both of their needs: hers to not be worried and frightened, his to maintain his independence for as long as possible. She would bring up the subject saying something like "We both know you won't be able to drive for ever. Let's talk about what kinds of things we should be looking for to know that the time to stop has come. I want you to be able to drive as long as possible, but I also have to deal with my fears." I told her that it may be they'd come up with a compromise where he has to give up driving sooner than he otherwise might just so she doesn't make her self sick with worry (a very real possibility.)Or, she may need to accept a higher level of risk and worry in order to help him preserve his dignity.

Anyway, what I liked about it was the way this method got her to engage her husband as a partner in this decision and to acknowledge both of their needs and accept there is not one perfect solution which will fulfill each person's needs completely. The honesty of admitting her fears, and acknowledging that even though they may be excessive, they are real and she only has so much control over them, was a way for her to speak up for herself, and yet not put all the blame for the problem to be solved on the fact of my father-in-law's decline. It freed up a way to look at the problem that respected both of their points of view and to try and find a mutually acceptable meeting point. just made me think that many of the positive discipline tools you describe are good ways to interact period, not just ways to parent.

Sri Lalita said...

This is great and makes perfect sense!

Are there any books you recommend about non-punitive discipline? I'm especially interested in applications for early childhood. How would you have handled your pumpkin patch/messy house situation if you had a two-year-old in the mix?

Thank you!


christinemm said...

great post!

Doug Reich said...

Great post! This is very helpful advice.

Naomi Campbell said...

I'm just reading this...4 years later. Thank you...It's so difficult when I just want to say "because I said so! Now do it!". I'm SO frustrated with my 9 y.o., but trying to find non-punitive ways of working through things...