Him: “NO! I don’t WANT to put on that shirt!” [folds arms and sits on floor]
Me: “You don’t? Why? Please? You’ll look so cute!”
Because I realized that in our society, it’s important that one’s child wear clothes, I bought a few parenting books that were popular at the time. From the bits I found time to read, I learned that most effective behavior management starts with rewards and consequences. On the positive side, I should “catch him doing something good,” and either notice it verbally ("I see you put your trains away!") or give him a reward. For negative behaviors, it was best to issue immediate consequences. Most importantly, I needed to be consistent. Every single time I gave in, it would set us back, the experts said. (Or maybe not... I have to admit I love this blog post by a mom who recently blew the whistle on the whole consistency thing, at least with respect to garden variety discipline issues involving older children.)
According to the books, this was what I was supposed to say, calmly, without emotion: “Put that down now.” This is more like what I was saying, with more than a trace of anxiety in my voice: “Honey, would you please put down that big, sharp, scary knife? Mommy is using it to cut the cucumbers. Also, you know, it can be VERY dangerous! See those little ridges? They are for cutting things up in small pieces, and they could hurt your fingers. Put it down, okay? I SAID PUT IT DOWN RIGHT NOW!” With practice, years of it, coupled with the help of some of my son's terrific teachers whose techniques I imitated, I got much better. I am proud to say that my son never showed up naked to school and that all his digits remain intact to this very day.
Just as I started to get the hang of my authoritative mommy voice (which I confess remains a work in progress -- I still tend to explain way too much), I met a mom of a little girl who was having much more difficulty, even though their sticker chart was so much better than anything I ever assembled. (I am pretty sure she used a hot glue gun.) But the little girl was winning almost all the time, and the mom was at the end of her rope. Not even one of my favorite parenting books, which I insisted she read, made a difference. 1 2 3, there was no magic happening at that house.
So unlike me, this mom made an excellent decision: she decided to look for professional help. She found a "cognitive behavioral therapist" with a good reputation who accepted their insurance, and they got started with weekly sessions. Together, they tailored a system to their unique situation, taking into consideration what motivated this little girl -- not the hypothetical children in the books. Instead of stickers, she substituted these miniature, creepy little plastic doll things that her daughter loved. And every week, she shared with the therapist what worked and what didn't during the week before, and they tweaked the program together.
As she described her weekly sessions, and the time in between, I imagined their helping her much like my Weight Watchers meetings helped me. The sessions provided valuable guidance and information, but it was the time in between that mattered the most. As far as I know, she didn't have to step on a scale in front of the therapist, but she did have to describe the ways she was inadvertently reinforcing inappropriate behavior, which I bet made her think twice before giving up and buying her daughter candy whenever they were in the checkout line at Target. Within a matter of weeks, the daughter's behavior had improved considerably.
The point is this: if you can learn proper behavior management strategies and implement an effective plan all by yourself, well then hats off to you -- either you’re a natural or your kid is easy. Consider yourself lucky. But if you find you’re locked in a constant power struggle with your child and it’s wearing you down bit by bit to the point you feel like you want to take off like the woman in Eat, Pray Love, a professional can really help. And although finding a qualified and affordable therapist may take some effort, they are out there, and I have seen more than once how their expertise and support can work, well, magic. So take a look around and give it a try. Right now. When you’re done, I’ll give you a sticker.