Your 15 Minutes Have Started

While I’m writing at a café a girl of about 9 is carrying a mason jar of parfait balanced on a saucer, as she begins to sit it slides off the saucer, bounces on her chair, then shatters on the floor.  She freezes as the tears start to well up in her eyes.  She looks at her brother who seems unfazed.  She stands, moving slowly to get a napkin as her face contorts as she half tries to clean it, not knowing what to do.  

The adults, it looks like her mom and grandpa, reassure her it’s fine, “Everyone makes mistakes”, and “We’ll get another one, it’s no big deal”.  It occurs to me that 40 years ago the tears would be about the lost dessert and perhaps the scolding that came with breaking the jar, but these tears are humiliation, they come from a pressure to know how to do things, a pressure to have it all together.  

The café staff also reassures her and moments later they have appeared with a new, identical parfait.  They have her move to another spot at the table so they can clean up the floor-splattered dessert and jar.  Something about this scene reminds me of my friend’s 10-year-old son.  His interactions seem like he’s trying to remain calm and confident while the plates he’s spinning fall to the floor, always overly confident about facts and insights that are as often wrong as right.  

This is the problem with too much praise, with too much allowing them to pretend they know more, are capable of more, are better at more than they are.   It creates pressure to be something they’re not.  To spend too much effort managing the façade, managing the image of perfection.  Their 15 minutes of fame have started and they’re only 7.  From this moment on they must keep treading water to keep themselves up in this rarified air.

Little Darth Vader

Many parents I talk with have children whose behaviors are baffling and difficult to understand.  These children appear to enjoy “being bad,” laugh when they’ve made an adult angry, and show no remorse after they’ve emotionally or physically hurt someone.

I spoke with a couple that told me the director of their upscale preschool told them their 4-year-old son was, “The worst child I’d ever seen.  He appears to understand but not care about the rules.  He’s aggressive and violent with other children and shows no remorse for his actions.  He seems almost like a sociopath.”

While it’s typical for adults to rush to conclusions about these children (Emotionally Disturbed, Bi-Polar, Autistic, Oppositional-Defiant, or even Sociopathic) there are simpler explanations for the behavior and motivations of these children.

Imagine a 3 or 4 year-old who enters preschool and finds that his natural tendencies to play with and be liked by others don’t work very well.  He thinks it’s funny to push and grab, but the other children find it annoying.  He gets loud in hopes of being interesting. Some of this he does impulsively, without thinking or intention.  He is good natured and affectionate but gradually finds that he isn’t liked and embraced by the other children.  His mind works hard to unravel the social puzzle in front of him.  He craves interaction, attention and some feeling of social status in this new world.  Though his attempts to be accepted aren’t working, many of his loud and aggressive gestures do get him the immediate attention of others.

It’s as though he’s in the casting call for Star Wars.  He looks around the room and sees there are a few good candidates for the role of Luke, there are a few Princess Leias, Obi-Wan is taken, there’s a bigger Chewbacca and even a better Han Solo.  But wait!  No one has taken the role of anti-hero Darth Vader.  That’s a great role, filled with power and very cool.

Children want social power, a strong role in their peer group.  Social power can be negative or positive.  When a child has a hard time finding a positive role in their peer group, they will find a negative one.

For the child who is playing the role of Darth Vader all the usual motivators are reversed.  Luke wants you to like him, Vader wants you to fear him, Luke wants your positive attention, Vader wants your negative attention.  Luke has lots of friends, Vader doesn’t and pretends not to care.

This is why so many professionals have a tough time dealing with the little Vaders in their classrooms.  They’re treating Vader as if he was Luke, and it’s not working.  In fact, it’s actually making things worse.  When Luke hurts another child’s feelings you sit down with him and explain to him how he’s hurt someone else and he feels bad about it because he wants to be liked.  If you sit Vader down and tell him how he’s hurt someone’s feelings he thinks, “I know! That’s my role. That boy doesn’t like me anyway so at least he’s a little afraid of me.”  When Luke throws his toys you tell him you don’t like it when he does that, and because he wants to please you, he’s motivated to stop.  When you tell Vader you don’t like it when he throws his toys, he is encouraged to do it again, because he’s successfully gotten a rise out of the teacher and shown he doesn’t care what you like.

The most important thing to understand about Little Vader is that his embracing of this role in the classroom or the home is natural and logical, not a sign of disorder or lack of ability to empathize.  Little Darth Vaders are typically very bright and socially astute.  They may have come into the school setting already feeling too powerful and a bit isolated.  Then they are either draw to the Vader role in the social structure of the group and/or they choose it after failing to be successful at one of the other roles.

The role of the anti-hero can be an exciting one for a child.  I’ve seen little boys (and girls) who walk onto the kindergarten play yard only to have other children scream and run away from them.  You can almost hear Darth Vader’s theme music playing as he struts across the sandbox (Bom, Bom, Bom, Bomba-bom, Bomba-bom).  He might as well have been a rock star (think girls screaming and pulling on their hair).

The most common response, and the one that backfires with little Vader is explaining to them why what they did was wrong while telling them how angry, sad, disappointed or hurt you are by their actions.  Vader knows what he did wrong and he did it for exactly the effect he got.

To effectively deal with our little anti-heroes we first need to stop telling them what they already know, and give them short consequences that discourage what they’re doing.  Take away the feedback that empowers Darth Vader, and create opportunities for them to successfully get positive feedback for the little Luke Skywalker that’s trying to come out.

Raising Charlie Sheen

Charlie Sheen is the perfect icon for a culture that encourages, even idolizes, unconditional rather than transactional relationships.  We laud those who become so powerful/wealthy that they don’t have to answer to anyone.  We promote self-esteem as the primary virtue and value speaking your mind over responsibility to others.  While most people see Charlie Sheen as having gone too far, he’s only taken our culture’s delusions to their logical conclusion.
Internet pornography is the ultimate unconditional relationship.  Bill Maher recently made headlines when he said, “Now psychologists are telling us that for a sizable percentage of men in America, masturbating to porn is Plan A, and doing it with your wife or girlfriend is more like a fallback option for when the power goes out.”
So what do Charlie Sheen, our national porn addiction, and parenting have in common?
Raising children where the emphasis is placed on the many and elaborate ways in which the parents should recognize the child’s needs while sacrificing the assertion of their own needs creates children who are self-absorbed, narcissistic, and filled with feelings of their own omnipotence.  This creates adults who understand the world as unconditional and not transactional and is the number one contributor to our growing national porn addiction.
Boys with mothers who don’t assert their own needs and desires grow up to become men who want women without needs and desires.  And since empowering children through martyrdom parenting is so in vogue, they will be hard-pressed to find adult women who will suppress their own needs and focus primarily on them like dear old mom.
These boys are being groomed to seek the non-transactional, virtual sex lives found in Internet porn.  Why bother with a real woman with wants and needs of her own when they can have all the selfless, unconditional, virtual women they want who’ll demand nothing of them, just like mom.
Alternately, these boys might become men with powerful feelings of their own omnipotence (think Adonis DNA and tiger’s blood) that propel them to successful, take-no-prisoners careers and money.  In this case they can run through strings of women who each eventually become tiresome due to the assertion of desires, needs, aging, and real life.  Perhaps becoming as successful as Charlie Sheen who exchanges his brides every few years in between having porn stars come to him.
As a culture we have gradually shifted our childrearing away from transactional to unconditional.  Transactional childrearing requires a give and take, respect, appreciation, and courtesy.  Entitlement is its nemesis.
Unconditional Parenting prepares children for an unconditional world. A world where friends don’t leave you no matter how abusive or obnoxious you’ve become, where everyone gets an “A” whether they made efforts or not, where employers won’t fire you when you refuse to show up, and where wives stay with husbands who continually beat them. The world is not unconditional (unless you’re Charlie Sheen?). The world is transactional. Love is transactional.
This worship of children –this idea that we should be kind and respectful to children even when they are rude and inconsiderate –is inane, and ironically, self-serving; self-serving because it is born of the narcissistic desire to see in our children our own unfulfilled perfection and to create for them a perfect world free from disillusionment.  It is the popular conceit in a society where we strive to inflate our self-identity based on our selfless acts toward our children.  But when adults make themselves selfless children are left all alone.  How about giving our children a break and finding our self-identity without them?  Children need real people with real needs, not parents who will service them unconditionally.

Tips for Transactional Parenting
Insist your children treat you with respect. Set consequences that make their lives very difficult when they choose not to.
Require your children participate in the upkeep and maintenance of the home.  The things parents provide shouldn’t be taken for granted and your children will appreciate your efforts more when they are required to chip in regularly.  Making dinner, cleaning up, walking the dog, etc.
Assert your needs and desires. Parents provide all of the resources for a family to function and should make the lion’s share of decisions.  When parents continually make decisions with the priorities placed on the children’s preferences, the children learn they are entitled to this everywhere.

Difficulty With Transitions

I was talking to a friend recently when he told me something I’ve heard many parents say, “My son has difficulty with transitions.”

He went on to describe the battle that happens every afternoon when it’s time for his son to get off the computer and begin his homework.  He warns his son that in ten minutes he’ll need to turn off the computer and start homework.  When the time comes to begin, his son ignores his requests to turn off the computer or says, “I just need to finish this level.”  Five minutes later he again tells him he needs to turn off the computer.  Then the son begins resenting his father’s nagging and tells him, “Get off my back!  I said I’m getting off.”  Voices get raised.  Soon they’re yelling, and the computer is still on.

There were daily struggles to get him out of the house to school and getting him to the dinner table.  “Any transition from one thing to another seems to be a huge drama,” he said to me.

Then I said to my friend, “It’s clear your son has difficulty moving from video games to homework and from television in the morning to getting dressed to leave for school, but what about the reverse?  Does he have difficulty transitioning from homework to video games, or transitioning from school to coming home?”

“No, none of that’s ever a problem” he said.

“So your son doesn’t have a problem with transitions.  You have a problem getting your son to do things he doesn’t want to do?”

He laughed and said, “Yeah that sounds right”

If it was really a difficulty with transitions, that would mean broadly having difficulty switching from one activity to another, from a preferred activity to a non-preferred activity, or from a non-preferred activity to a preferred activity.  If there’s no difficultly transitioning from a non-preferred activity to something else, then clearly the problem isn’t transitions.

The problem is doing what they don’t prefer.

By using the phrase “difficulty with transitions” we pathologize what is actually normal, healthy behavior.

In truth, the child has no problem at all, it’s the adult that has the problem.  The adult has difficulty getting the child to do what the child doesn’t want to do – plain and simple.

By saying the child has “problems with transitions” we make what is inherently an adult problem to solve a child’s pathology.  What should be “I can’t get that child to do anything they don’t want to do” becomes, “That child has an inability processing a change from one activity to another.”

To be fair, there are a small percentage of children who do have difficulty with transitions, whether it’s transitions toward or away from preferred activities, but they are now the rare exceptions.  Initially, the term “difficulty with transitions” was likely meant to describe children who obsessively fixate on the activity in front of them and then have a real inability, or great difficulty, disengaging from one activity and beginning another.  Children with moderate to severe autism come to mind.  In the case of these children, the “difficulty with transitions” would present itself in both directions, toward and away from a preferred activity.

The use of the term “difficulty with transitions” to pathologize behaviors in children that are actually normal and healthy isn’t just common among parents it’s commonly misused among educators and psychiatric professionals.

Whether it’s at school or at home, mistaking normal willful behavior for disorder or disability can cause serious problems.  When adults attribute a behavior to inability, the natural response is to create accommodations or give more lengthy explanations to help the assumed thinking problem.  In either case the result is a real disconnect between the adult and the child.  The adult is assuming and speaking to problems that aren’t there and consequently are less able to address the actual problem.

Additionally, a sort of shadow relationship between the adult and child starts to develop.  The adult assumes an inability that doesn’t exist.  The child learns that encouraging this fallacy allows them to avoid doing the things they don’t want to do and feign even less ability.  The adult unwittingly makes more accommodations, more convinced that an actual disorder exists, while simultaneously becoming more frustrated at the lack of response to their requests.  The cycle feeds itself.

It will take a conscious and concerted effort for parents and teachers to actively go against the current culture that encourages us to pathologize our children.  If we are to move toward healthier and more honest relationships with our children, the first step is to assume our children are able of much more than we know.  Only then can we take the responsibility to deal squarely and honestly with the strong, empowered children we’ve worked so hard to raise.

Think Like a Child

Recent research on children is showing that children as young as 18 months have an uncanny scientific instinct.  They are constantly observing their surroundings and gathering data about the people around them and the world.  Developmental Psychologist Alison Gopnik puts it best when she said, “Babies are making complicated calculations with conditional probability that they’re revising to see how the world works.”

As I thought about the ways in which children are very much little scientists, I realized that much of the success I’ve had working with difficult children comes from the fact that I have much in common with our little scientists.

1. I never believe anything until I’ve proven it for myself.

I never assume that any behavior I see can’t be controlled.  I see attention, emotional states, and comprehension as flexible states that tell me very little about a child until I’ve tested them to see if his or her behavior can be changed.  For all I know these “inappropriate”, difficult and even aggressive or violent behaviors are serving an important purpose.  Most likely, these behaviors have developed to meet a need.  Let’s change the effects/reactions to these behaviors in a precise and consistent way and see if these things change.

Anyone who’s worked with difficult children knows that the first thing they ask you, before you even meet the child, is “Have you read their file?”  The kids I’ve worked with all came with a file.  Filled with others observations, diagnosis and conclusions about the existing disorders.  Others always gave me funny looks when I’d respond with “No I haven’t.  I don’t like to read the file before I’ve met them.”  Truth be told, I almost never read the file even after I’d met them.  I didn’t want to prejudice myself before I’d seen things with fresh eyes and tested what I was seeing.

2. Always do rigorous testing.

A mother recently said to me about her 8-year-old, “He is always putting his mouth on the dog, it’s gross.  I’ve asked him to stop, but he’s been doing it for more than a year.  I can’t give a break for something like that can I?  I mean, he’s got an oral fixation.  I don’t think he can help himself.  He walks around the house going like this (she opens her mouth, sticks out her tongue and wags it back and forth).  So if I’m going to try and get him to stop, I should give him something else to do with his mouth instead, right?”

I said to her, “Let’s not make any assumptions about an oral fixation.  When I think about it, I’ve never seen him do this at school, and maybe there’s a reason for that.  Perhaps at school when he did that the other children gave him funny looks.  Maybe they mocked him for doing it.  Maybe others just asked him quizzically, “What are you doing?”  Perhaps that was enough for him to inhibit this behavior.  There’s nothing wrong with inhibiting behavior.  We inhibit behavior all the time.  We don’t fart when we’re around others, hopefully.  We don’t scratch the wrong places in public, hopefully.  We inhibit urges to interrupt when others are talking, etc….  All of this healthy inhibition happens because we feel a slight tension, an awareness of others needs and feelings when we are in their presence.

So before we rush to any conclusions about your son having an oral fixation, let’s create some healthy tension around that behavior.  Let’s test it and see what happens.  This is actually a perfect behavior to give short breaks for.  The next time you see your son put his mouth on the dog tell him to take a break for a minute.  Don’t tell him why you want him to take the break.  Don’t be angry, disgusted or judgmental in your reaction.  Just tell him to sit quietly in the nearest chair for a minute.  Do this every time you see him put his mouth on the dog.  Essentially, you’re creating a similar kind of tension to what exists at school minus the shame, guilt or judgment.  This tension, this mild one-minute frustration, will create awareness of your needs (you need to not see your son putting the dog’s tongue in his mouth).

Do this for a month, and then tell me if the behavior has changed significantly.

3.  Consider the situation with scientific instincts.

When they’re presenting a behavior (a problem behavior like tearing pages out of a book), they aren’t doing this because they need to tear. They’re doing it because they want to see what happens when they do that. It’s an experiment. When the parent sees the child tearing the pages out of the book and responds with, “No thank you, we don’t tear books.  Do you need something to tear?” (giving them paper to tear so the child can satisfy their need to tear something) they’re missing the point.  The child’s actions ask questions.  What will Daddy do when I do this?  Can I do this?  Is this allowed?

As we get older we tend to believe the rules and take more for granted.  We stop experimenting.  Someone tells us this is the right way, these are the rules, this is how it’s done, and we believe them.  For children, everything is new and must be tested independently by them alone.  They don’t care if you say hitting the other children is wrong or bad.  They are trying to learn the meaning of “wrong” and “bad.”  When they do it they get a reaction.  For example, the other child drops their toy, and you give them lots of excited and loving attention.

When you know your children’s behaviors are guided by healthy, scientific instincts it’s much easier not to become mad or judgmental in reaction to their behaviors.  Children aren’t acting out of some flawed moral compass or desire to hurt or disrespect you or others – they are learning!  To reason exhaustively with them, as many popular parenting approaches advocate, is like refusing to speak French when you are in France, and becoming annoyed when no one answers you.  Give your children data!  That’s what a scientist loves.

The Opposite of Thank You

I heard about a Buddhist philosopher recently asking a group, “What is the opposite of thank you?” After the listeners had offered a variety of responses he said to them, “The opposite of thank you is: you’re supposed to do that.” In others words, a feeling of entitlement. Living in the condition of thank you is happiness. Living in the condition of that’s what you’re supposed to do is suffering because you’ve set yourself up for constant disappointment.

I watched a woman reading to her three-year-old grandson, Ryan. Halfway through the book Ryan had chosen, he decided he wanted her to read a different book. Grandma said, “No. You chose this book and I want to finish this one.” Ryan whined and started to cry, “But I want the other one!” Ryan’s mother came over and said, “Come on Mom, why don’t you read him the other one?” But the older woman wouldn’t budge. “He needs to learn he’s not the only one around here,” she stated. By asserting her desires, Ryan’s grandma was insisting that he recognize her. She was instinctively trying to establish mutual recognition.

In order for Ryan to develop a healthy capacity for mutual recognition, the adults around him must be willing to have faith in his ability to survive disappointment and frustration. They must not let their fear or anxiety sway them toward indulgence. The fear implicit in Ryan’s mother’s impulse to give him what he wants in this situation is, What if he doesn’t develop a love of reading? or, What if he doesn’t learn to assert his wishes? Or, maybe just, I want this moment to be one of joy, not of disappointment.

The accumulation of so many moments when adults have yielded their wishes and desires to the wishes and desires of the child results in the imbalance toward children developing power over connection. While these moments, when viewed in isolation, appear harmless enough, the cumulative effect is a child who develops a very strong feeling about their entitlements and a very weak feeling about the needs of others.

When giving your child choices, remember that you must prepare her for being successful and happy at school. If home is a place of unlimited choices and accommodations and school is a place of limited choices and few accommodations, don’t be surprised when your child doesn’t like school.

The parenting practice that is closely tied to choices is regularly soliciting the child’s opinion. This can range from letting him choose what clothes he’ll wear to asking his preference of which restaurant to go to, to choosing what color to paint the kitchen.

Whether it’s the boy who wants to continue to wear his Halloween costume to school two weeks into November or the girl who refuses to wear anything but her favorite dress even though her mother hasn’t had a chance to wash it in five days, I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a parent dragging a tearful, puffy-eyed kindergartener into school late after a long battle over what the child will wear.

Children who are given choices about everything learn to question anything they don’t prefer. This might seem fine for a tolerant parent at home, but by the time these children enter school it becomes extremely difficult to deal with their belief that their opinions are just as valuable, or more valuable, than the opinion of their teacher.

I’ve seen third grade math classes where children argue with the teacher about the way she’s teaching. This isn’t spirited discussion aimed at clearing up a lack of understanding, but rather an insistence that their way is correct and the teacher’s is not.

A veteran teacher approached me after a seminar I gave and said, “It’s like you’ve given us permission to be adults again.” As parents and teachers, we are encouraged to provide so many choices and to elicit so many opinions from our children that we are left feeling as though our opinions are less important than those of the kids. We are supposed to make everything fair, consider everyone’s opinion, see to it that no one is inconvenienced (except us), and that everyone’s needs are met, all while facilitating some great, chaotic democracy. But in the middle of all this have we forgotten that we are the adults? We should decide what is good and not good for our children.

Giving children choices and soliciting their opinions can have many positive effects only when you also regularly assert the needs, to which children must yield, of the others in the home. Additionally, you should be prepared to set and hold firmer, more tenacious boundaries to balance the powerful identity your child consequently develops.

Children who are given choices –and asked their opinions –about everything grow up feeling entitled. Children who are practiced in considering the wants and needs of others learn to live in the condition ofthank you.

ADHD Summer Camp

Nineteen years ago I was working as the Crisis Intervention Specialist at a summer camp for all-star behavior problem children.  There were about 280 children that came from all over the country and a few from other countries.  Most of them had been thrown out of several camps and schools before coming to us.

That summer I noticed that the biggest problems came up in the “Education Department”.  The teachers couldn’t keep any control or get anything done, there were constant arguments about behavior, and the kids hated being there.  I think I understood the sources of the problems so the next summer I came back as the Director of Education in charge of the program for myself and six other teachers.

There were three problems I sought to remedy.  First, the nature of the curriculum focused on learning in the modalities that were most difficult for them (sitting still, waiting your turn, keeping your hands to yourself, being quiet, etc.).  Second, there was judgment attached to the consequences and too much argument about behaviors.  Third, there was no effective means of reigning in the constant disruptive behavior in order to get anything satisfying done.

So I created a curriculum that required the children use their hands, move around, build things, call out, act things out and run around.  We built 12-foot tall freestanding dinosaur skeletons, played casino games with poker chips to learn math, acted out scripts to practice reading and learn history, and ran all over the camp during science and math scavenger hunts.

The next change I implemented was a clear behavior management system that utilized short breaks (time-outs) as its primary motivator.  If Billy kicked Jason under the table I’d say, “Billy I need you to take a break for a minute just over there.”  I wouldn’t engage any argument or discussion about the behavior.  If the child attempted to argue or got upset I’d tell them, “You’re not in trouble, and it’s no big deal, but you do need to take a break for a minute and I’m not discussing it.”  If they continued to argue I would double the break time.  If they needed to be taken from the room then the break was five minutes.

On the second day of class I’d add a warning prompt when a behavior was starting to become disruptive, “Do you need to take a break for a minute?”  This was a serious question, not sarcasm.  Children could always choose to step out of the lesson.  Occasionally, a student would say, “yes” to needing a break and take one.   The method communicated to the children that if they didn’t want to be in the lesson that was okay.  It was the student’s prerogative to choose to participate in the class or not.  It was the teacher’s prerogative to set and enforce the parameters of the lesson.

It took one or two hours of class time for this behavior system to start working smoothly.  At first the children got upset about getting a consequence and wanted to argue or tried to offer an apology or promise to stop the problem behavior in lieu of taking the one-minute break.  But soon they realized how simple and easy the small consequence was.  Because there were no long-term consequences when the break was over they returned to the activity of the group with fresh with a clean slate.  There was also an emotional relief because problem behaviors weren’t being pointed out or even mentioned at all.  These were children who were used to hearing about or discussing what they were doing wrong all day long.  If a child was upset about being given a break or didn’t understand why we would be happy to talk tot hem about it after they had taken the short break.  On average, once a week a child would choose to talk about he consequence they had just gotten.  I’d assumed correctly that these children would be able to figure out for themselves what had caused the small consequence.

By the third day of class the children would happily take the breaks that were given with very little argument, resistance or upset.  Sometimes in a class of 12 eight-year-old boys I might give 10 or 15 one-minute time-outs in a single lesson.  They would take the break at the end of which I’d ask them, “Are you ready to come back?”  “Yes” “Come on in” and they’d return eagerly to the lesson.

Classes became enormously productive.  The children were proud of what they were accomplishing.  There were no lectures, and almost no arguing, about behaviors.

Some of the most satisfying days occurred when the first half of camp ended and half the campers went home and were replaced with campers coming for the second half only.  The new classes were now composed of some children who were used to the program and some who were new to it.  When a new camper would become irritated or attempt to resist the one-minute break the veteran campers would coach them through it with, “It’s no big deal.  He’ll let you come right back” or “Your not in trouble.  You should take the minute” or “Don’t argue.  Joe never changes his mind.”

On visitor’s day many parents were shocked that the first place their children dragged them to see was Education.

The emotional judgment had effectively been taken out of the consequence.  The teachers had an effective tool with which to manage behaviors and teach.  The children were free from the emotional weight of constantly being reminded about what they had done wrong.  Great things were accomplished in class that every child was proud of.  The children did their best to self-regulate and respect their teachers and peers.

I’ve seen classrooms that have a clear and effective behavior management method but curricular content that is dry and boring.  I’ve also seen classrooms with exciting, well-varied curriculum and a poor or ineffective behavior management method.  And neither of these comes close to motivating and inspiring like a classroom that has both.

In the 18 years since that summer I’ve taught dozens of teachers to use immediate, nonjudgmental, short consequences to manage their classrooms.  And at the same time taught them how to drop the use of harsher, more punitive consequences, reward and point charts, behavior contracts, threats and judgmental or moralistic language.

Homework Tips

I get a lot of requests for advice on how to get children to to their homework.  Here’s some basics tips that I think make homework time easier.  Start using this pattern as early as possible.  The earlier you begin setting and holding a pattern for how homework is done the better.

Create a space to do homework. This place should be a desk or table that is free from other things/distractions. Do some trial and error to see what space works best. My daughter definitely worked best at the kitchen table. The mild tension created by the presence of others in or in and out of the room helped her stay focused. However, I’ve worked with families whose children worked best when they were at a desk, alone, in their room. If you do leave them alone to do their homework do a couple of weeks checking in on them during this time to make sure that their working and not doing something else.
I recommend that you don’t have a computer with internet access in your child’s room. My wife compares this to leaving your child outside in New York City at night.


Use homework to help your child develop their sense of time. Children do better in school if they have a good idea of what time means and how long common tasks in school take. Before homework time begins review the assignments and ask your child to estimate how long each assignment will take.


Set up a regular time and place for homework to be done. Everyday follow the routine below when doing homework.


1. Have your child take out all their homework. Have them do this at a table where you can see it.
 

2. Ask them to show you what they have to do and explain what’s required for each assignment. The parent should then examine the work and make sure the child understands correctly what the teacher is asking for. If your child doesn’t understand or misunderstands talk to them until they’re clear about it.
 

3. Have them write down the assignments and estimate how long it will take to do each (Math – 15 min., Spelling – 20 min., Science – 30 min, etc..)
 

4. Have your child order their assignments and place a number next to each to indicate the order. If the homework time is longer than 30 minutes you can also let them choose when to insert a short break (2nd Math – 15 min., 1st Spelling – 20 min., 3rd Break – 10 minutes, 4th Science – 30 min, etc..).
 

5. Now they do their homework. Have your child check in with you after finishing each assignment and take a moment to review the work with them and see how close their time estimate was. Have them write the actual number of minutes it took next to the assignment on their list (2nd Math – 15 min.(5), 1st Spelling – 20 (35) min., 3rd Break – 10 minutes, 4th Science – 30 min. (12), etc..). This step will help your child learn to tell time, and perhaps more importantly, it will help them develop a sense of how long various tasks actually take. This is an invaluable skill at school when a teacher tells them they have x number of minutes to complete an assignment.
 

6. When the work is completed watch them put it away into their notebooks/folders and put everything into their backpack so it’s ready for school. While this step may seem obvious, a high percentage of homework that children finish never makes it to school. In the morning rush to get everything done and ready for school homework is often left at home.

 

Little Stalker

I recently talked with a mom whose seven-year-old son, Jacob, would become enamored with girls at school and wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.  Once he fell for a girl (usually a year or two older) he’d transform into a little stalker, relentlessly wanting to play with them, constantly trying to strike up a conversation and even sneaking up to kiss them when they weren’t looking.  It didn’t seem to matter whether the girls told him “no” politely or abruptly Jacob was undaunted in his pursuit of their affections.

Jacob didn’t have any problem taking “no” for an answer in other social situations.  In fact, he seemed to be socially astute and respected the boundaries of peers and adults.  His mom sat him down several times and tried to explain to him the importance of respecting the wishes of the girls he liked and listening when they told him “no”.  Although Jacob seemed to understand this, he had a harder time understanding that the girls actually didn’t like him.  After one conversation about this he was reduced to tears and inconsolable for almost ten minutes.  Thirty minutes later when he saw the girl in question he tried to kiss her when her head was turned.

Things came to a head when Jacob’s mother discovered he’d gotten the girls phone number from the online PTA directory and was now calling her at home despite the girl repeatedly telling him she didn’t want to talk to him.

Now I’ve known this family for some time and know that her son has been raised surrounded by loving, attentive women.  There was a nanny that was with her son whenever mom was working and a grandma who doted on him.  So I asked the mom, “Before he went to school was there ever a woman or girl who didn’t welcome his affections?”  “No” she immediately responded.  “And when he wants your attention to talk or show you what he’s doing or interested in, do you try to always be available?”  “Yes.  And I know Maria (the nanny) is the same with him.  It’s a very rare that I won’t give him my full attention if he wants it”, she said.

So for her son the idea that a woman might not want his attention and welcome his affections was completely out of his realm of experience.  The conversations his mother or teacher might have with him about “no mean no” must be weighed against his years of experience that taught him “women/girls always welcome my affections.”  The bottom line was the history of his interactions with women outweighed any conversation about boundaries.

It’s a common myth that if a child is misbehaving it’s because they don’t understand how they’re supposed to behave.  So we’re surprised when after a rational conversation the problem behavior continues.  But behaviors don’t have to be “appropriate” or “good” for a child to choose them.  They just have to work.  All the rational conversation and explanation in the world won’t change the fact that 99.9% of the time when Jacob has wanted the affections and attentions of females he’s gotten it.  “No” isn’t part of his experience, and experience trumps reason.

Jacob’s “little stalker” behavior is a natural result of his experiences, not a sign of an inability to understand social norms and cues.  And his behavior will change as he accumulates experiences that contradict his previous ones.  His mom and I talked about setting consequences for his “stalker behavior” that could speed up the realization that Jacob needed to come to, namely that his not taking “no” for an answer wasn’t going to work for him any more.

Our conversation about his led to a discussion about the experience an affluent, only-child has versus that of a less affluent child in a big family.  My wife, who is fifth of six children, commented that being aware of social cues was part of surviving when she was a child.  Her mother had five others to feed, cloth and attend to so if she wanted attention, or even her share of dinner, she needed to stay aware of those around her.  From a very young age it was important for her to read the social cues and know how to communicate her needs effectively to those around her.

On the other hand, many children today have parents that are so attentive to their needs that there’s not much need for them to become aware of the needs of others or the social cues around them.  While there’s inevitably a lot of healthy development in children with such attentive parents there’s a downside to not needing to consider others.

Much of our children’s behavior and thinking about things is a direct outgrowth of their experiences in the home.  Just as parents of children in bigger families should make special efforts to make sure no child’s needs get lost in the shuffle, parents of only-children and affluent parents should make special efforts to create situations for children to postpone or let go of having some of their needs met in order to meet the needs of others.

US News and World Report Interview by Nancy Shute

There are lots of parenting guides on how to deal with defiant children, but this is probably the only one written by a former defiant child. Joe Newman knows all about the kids that drive parents bonkers. After being diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and being put on Ritalin in second grade, he went on to achieve success in business before deciding to make a career out of helping problem kids. He has spent the past 20 years working with teachers, parents, and children on managing behavior problems. His new book, Raising Lions (CreateSpace, $18.99), explains why children today are fiercer than they used to be. I spoke with Newman; here’s an edited version of our conversation.

Why did you decide to start working with “not polite” children?
When I was in my late 20s I did some soul-searching. I realized in the years since high school a lot of what I had been doing was damage control for what I had done in school. I thought, “There must be a lot of kids out there like me.”

I just walked into an elementary school and said I wanted to volunteer: “I want to work with the kids who drive you crazy.” They were ecstatic. Six months later, I applied to work at a summer camp where it was all ADD kids. I told the owner about my experience, and how you have to start from understanding their capacities and gifts, since that’s the only place you could build from. He hired me as their crisis intervention person. I learned by doing over the years, watching people who were better than I was.

What kind of trouble did you get into as a kid? 
Before I was medicated [with Ritalin], I was getting into fights at school every day. It was mostly the result of my need to constantly push things one step further. One little push led to a bigger push— to a smack, to a harder smack. Next thing I knew I was rolling around in the dirt with another boy.

Throughout my school years I found it nearly impossible to stay in a seat for an hour, or keep myself from yelling out something interesting or funny. I was impulsive and always trying to get attention at school. I once brought in magic “disappearing ink” and squirted it all over my favorite teacher’s dress. The “disappearing ink” took a couple of hours to fade away.

I remember in high school I’d bring home all of my books every day fully intending to do all the homework I had. And nine out of 10 times I wouldn’t even open a book. If I did open a book, I didn’t last more than 15 minutes until I was distracted and onto something else. I only passed my classes because once a month my mother would take my dictation. I’d walk in a loop through the kitchen, the living room, and down the hall while I’d dictate and my mother would type [my essays].

I did a lot of vandalism and stealing in my early teens. I was never arrested because I never got caught; being on the wrestling team reined in a lot of my bad behavior later, because I didn’t want to be [kicked] off the team.

You think kids today are different than they were a few decades ago?
Parents have spent a lot of effort building up the self-esteem and confidence of their kids. As a result, kids have a strong fierceness to them; they assert their will, they’ll fight for it. They also understand manipulation. They know how to use it, and they’re less susceptible to it. They’re also less eager to please. I see a lot of kids who are so strong-willed that people don’t know what to do with them.

But you think parents also misunderstand that strong-willed nature as inability, and that’s dangerous. You’re saying that when you were doing things your parents didn’t want you to do, it wasn’t because you didn’t know better. You were being defiant.
As a toddler, I looked at my father as I put my finger in an electrical socket again and again. My father slapped my hand away repeatedly, but I didn’t stop until he gave up and carried me away. When I wrote about that in my blog, a woman wrote that clearly my father didn’t understand my impulsive behaviors. I thought that was a bizarre thing to say; it was willful behavior on my part. If you treat willful behavior as impulsive behavior, you create a monster. I see a lot of children who feign inability whenever they want to avoid struggle. They develop a whole set of behaviors that allow them to continue to win power struggles. And that’s not healthy.

You say parents are too quick to protect their children from failure. Why is that a bad idea?
There’s a misunderstanding about the place of struggle in childhood. Society thinks avoiding struggle leads to happiness. But struggling to create and accomplish things is what makes us happy. It’s a natural part of life. We need to calmly coach children through the struggle and difficulty, as opposed to taking away that learning moment. Then you raise children who, instead of being afraid of failure, are comfortable with trying.

What should parents do if they feel their children are already defiant and hard to control?
First: Understand what you have power over and what you don’t. You work on what you can control, which is primarily access to resources. Set it up so children only have access to what they want—cell phones, TV, nights out—when they are cooperating.

The second thing is to use language that doesn’t try to manipulate them, but recognizes their power, so you don’t personalize the power struggle. When my daughter was a teenager, we had an agreement that she had to do two hours of homework before she could go out. She wanted to go to an open-mic night, and said, “I did an hour of homework, but it’s all I have, and I want to go out.” An emotional response on my part would have been to say: “You said you’d do it, you have to do it.” Or, “You’re lying to me that you only have this much homework.” Instead, I said: “You can make the choice. If you decide not to do the work you don’t go out. Maybe you want to argue with me for two hours, but at the end of two hours I’ll still insist that you do the homework. I really have no control over what you’re going to do, aside from the fact that I won’t let you out until you do what we’ve agreed on.”

Acknowledge their choices, acknowledge that you don’t have power over the things they choose, just the things you choose, and let it play out.

You’re happy with the fact that kids today are fiercer; in fact, on your website it says “I hate polite children!”

My website does have a blog titled “I hate polite children!” but this is a reference to something a boy I worked with said.  While I definitely relate to why the children I work with might “hate polite children” (because they get all the love in school) I don’t dislike polite children, I just prefer the fierce ones.”

I like a kid who knows his power. Yesterday at school there was a boy who got in trouble in one of the classrooms, and the teacher lost his composure and sent him to a classroom one grade down as a punishment. The boy was like, “Forget it. I’m not going there; you can’t make me.” He basically called the teacher’s bluff. I talked to the teacher later and said, “You never want to set a consequence where they can call your bluff.” The kid wanted to hang onto his dignity. I like those kids; they’re kids I relate to.

To Ritalin or Not To Ritalin

As a toddler I was the kid who repeatedly stuck his fingers in the electric sockets. My mother tells of my father slapping my hand for doing this and with tears streaming down my face I looked him in the eye and did it again, then another hand slap, then again, and another slap, over and over until my father gave up and carried me away. By age three I’d learned how to use the screwdriver and began taking everything in the house apart (like the reclining chair I removed all the screws from, then watched from the closet to see what would happen – it collapsed into pieces when our neighbor sat in it.) I was aggressive with other children, knocking them over and taking their toys. When my mother brought me to the playground the other mothers would gather their children and leave.

By first grade I was getting into fights every day at school. And in the second grade they diagnosed me as A.D.H.D. and put me on Ritalin. Although the Ritalin made me a bit easier to manage, I still spent a lot of time in the principal’s office. I made explosives out of model rocket engines in the basement and tested everything to see how well it would burn or what it looked like when I blew it up.

I was unfocused in school and found it difficult to sit down to read or write for more than a few minutes. My teachers described me as “not working up to my potential,” or “a good student if he would just try.” When you’re a child who can’t focus or control his impulses, most teachers treat you as if you either don’t understand what’s expected of you, or you simply don’t care. You spend your school years annoying and/or disappointing everyone and most teachers’ feeling for you is one of either condescension or chagrin.

I don’t know if I would have graduated high school at all if it hadn’t been for my success on the wrestling team and the fact that my mother was willing to take my dictation. Once a month she would type my papers for me while I’d pace between the kitchen and the living room calling them out to her.

Although school often left me feeling humiliated and angry, I made it through and was even admitted to the state university. (At the time they would admit you based solely on a decent SAT score.) But university looked like more of the same. Sit still, be quiet and regurgitate what we say. The only thing it seemed to offer was an education in competitive drinking, and since I’d already mastered that in high school, I didn’t see the point in staying. So after seven weeks at college I shaved my hair into a Mohawk, dropped out, and went surfing.

Ten years later I still carried the shame of being A.D.H.D. It had been a secret no one but me, the doctors and my parents knew. Ritalin was the disguise I needed to survive behind enemy lines. Every time I took that pill, I also swallowed the belief that I was broken, disordered and not like everyone else. But the last ten years had begun to teach me something else.

Instead of being the one who couldn’t sit still, I was the one who kept moving and got a lot done. Instead of being unable to focus on one thing, I was able to do several things at once and adapt quickly. Instead of being too impulsive and aggressive, I was spontaneous and driven. Instead of asking too many questions, I was a good problem solver. Instead of being unable to follow the rules, I was creative and unafraid to take risks. The flip side of those characteristics that had been called a disorder, and needed fixing with medication, were actually my strengths.

So after all this what do I think about putting children on Ritalin? First, every parent should know that Ritalin is a two-edged sword and not a silver bullet. The truth is that while Ritalin did some serious damage to my self-identity it also prevented untold damage that might have occurred had I not been medicated. While it postponed my learning to master and find the gifts in the mind I was born with, it also allowed me to fit into and survive the culture of public school.

The second thing parents should know is that behavior and neurology are malleable. A well thought out behavior plan and effective boundaries can make a big difference in how much self-regulation, impulse control and respect for others your child develops. The more a child is out-of-control the more the mind practices this and the better at out-of-control it gets. When adults effectively motivate respectful, in-control behavior in their child the child’s mind practices and gets better at this. Creating consequences that effectively motivate self-control is the key.

For instance if self-regulation were measured on a scale from one to ten, one being the least self-regulation, effective boundaries and a behavior plan could shift your child from a one to a four (or two to five etc…). While rating a four in self-regulation might not be perfect, it could mean the difference between being able to succeed in public school without medication or not. And that four in self-regulation combined with strong problem solving skills, creativity and enthusiasm could make for a very successful student.

When my parents decided to put me on Ritalin, like most parents, they did so not because it was an easy answer, but because it was the only answer they had. This is why I’ve worked as a Behavior Specialist with behavior problem children for the last 19 years, so that today’s parents will have other answers.

Helping Children Avoid Physical Aggression: "My Son Hits Other Kids"

Question:

My two-year-old son Jack is a hitter, and an occasional pusher. He usually gets physical when he’s fighting with another toddler over a toy, but sometimes it will come out of nowhere. I understand that this is normal behavior for a two-year-old, but it’s still embarrassing, not to mention traumatic for the child who gets hurt. My question is, what is the right way to respond when Jack hits or pushes another child? And is there anything I can do to reduce this impulse in him, or do I just need to wait for him to grow out of it? (You can assume that he’s well-rested and well-fed when these outbursts occur; I know kids are more likely to lash out when they’re tired or hungry.)

Answer by Joe Newman (Behavior Consultant)

First, the solution:

When Jack hits or pushes another child (or adult) you should immediately remove him from the situation and guide him to a nearby spot where you can have him sit quietly next to you for one or two minutes.

While removing him from the situation you should say, “We don’t hit other people” and “When you hit someone you need a timeout.” You can phrase this in a way that’s most natural for you so long as you avoid adding judgment, anger, or yelling (so don’t use “wrong”, “bad”, “naughty” or any other pejorative comment). Then sit next to him and insist that he get quiet before you start his time out. “If you need to cry that’s okay. But I can’t start your time out until you can sit quietly.” So the first time you do this a one-minute time out can take 10 minutes (9 minutes of crying or tantrums and then the one or two quiet minutes).

It’s important that during the time out, or waiting for him to become quiet, you are neither talking nor cuddling with Jack. Otherwise, the time out time can become a reinforcer for the hitting you’re trying to stop. The time out is meant to be boring and frustrating, and conversation and cuddling remove this necessary frustration.

After the time out is over you should ask Jack “Why did you need to take a time out?” or “What did you do to ______ that made you have a time out?” And give him some time to come to the answer himself. This way he becomes a more proactive problem solver.

Now, the explanation:

There are two primary motivations driving a two-year-old’s pushing and hitting. First, emotionally he is trying to understand his own power and his emerging identity in relation to others. Second, intellectually his actions are exploring his environment in a quest to understand what the rules are and how things work.

Emotionally, two-year-old Jack is aware of his own power and needs but not yet aware of the power and needs of others. He enjoys asserting his power but feels anxiety at not fully understanding who’s in control. So while pushing and hitting are natural, they are also a cry for boundaries. He is trying to find out where he and his power end and you and your power begin. Only by coming up against the expressed will of another (mostly you), does he begin to understand others as like himself. Your giving him firm, consistent action consequences will enable him to develop capacities for intimacy (a real awareness of others as equal to himself), will relieve the anxiety he feels because he will feel you’re in control, and will allow him to slowly develop the capacity for self-control and emotional regulation. (For a more in-depth explanation of this stage of development go to my blog A Seismic Shift In Parenting and the succeeding three blogs.)

Intellectually, Jack wants to know what happens when he hits and pushes. Does he get what he wants? Does he get to talk to mom for a few minutes? Does he have to say the words “I’m sorry”? So it’s important that your response sends a clear message to Jack: “Hitting and pushing will not get you what you want. Rather, they will result in you feeling frustrated.” Let the consequence create frustration around his choice as opposed to having your anger, judgment or moralizing create shame or guilt in his assertion of his power. In this way you can coach him into an understanding of the cause and effect nature of his choices and interdependent autonomy.

Lastly, avoid the common mistake of trying to substitute reasoned discussion for real consequences. Your two-year-old is trying to learn the meaning of his actions and your words. If your words aren’t rooted firmly in action then your son will learn that your words aren’t dependable and that he can use them for manipulation. Discussions are fine after the consequence is finished.

Learn more by exploring raisinglions.com or contact us.

Finding a Balance Between 'Strict' and 'Permissive' Parenting

Question:

I’m a divorced mother of a 6-year-old. My ex is always giving in to whatever my daughter wants. When she comes back to me I feel like the bad cop because I enforce boundaries. My ex says I’m too strict, and my daughter isn’t so happy with me either. What should I do?

Answer by Joe Newman (Behavior Consultant)

When parents are separated and a child is being raised in two different households there is always a tendency to try and compensate for what the other parent is doing wrong or to compensate for the short amount of time you have with your child by being more indulgent than you would otherwise be.

So the first rule is: don’t parent in reaction to what your ex is doing.  Stick with your best instincts and work to create a balanced approach in your relationship with your daughter.  You won’t improve your daughter’s upbringing by either being stricter because your ex is too lenient or by being more lenient because your ex is too strict.  A too-strict relationship with your daughter won’t remedy the too lenient one she has with her father.  It will only mean she has two unbalanced relationships instead of just one.

Next, to the extent that it’s possible, try to unite with your ex in terms of the ways you both parent your daughter.  Try to agree on bedtimes, morning routines, and guidelines about play dates and even the ways you set boundaries and give consequences.  Perhaps you can ask him to suggest a parenting book he likes and then read it to find common ground.

After a discussion or mutual reading, I suggest writing down some points that you think are most important.  Present it to him by letting him know this is just a first step in the two of you being unified and ask him to freely change or add to anything you’ve written.  There is a lot of power in having some basic points written down that you both agree on.

Lastly, the “bad cop” feeling you’re having can be mitigated by doing your best to set boundaries in a compassionate and sympathetic tone.  Parents often feel it necessary to give consequences and enforce boundaries in a tone that tells their child how angry, upset, or disappointed they are.  It’s as though they don’t trust that the consequence or boundary will be enough to change the behavior they don’t like so they need to add an additional emotional motivator.

But the emotionally charged tone when giving a consequence is a form of emotional manipulation that undermines your relationship and the autonomy of your daughter.

I suggest trying to do two things simultaneously: be firm in your setting of boundaries and consequences, and while doing this acknowledge your child’s autonomy, respect her decisions, and keep any judgment of them out of your voice.  Let the boundary do the work of shifting the behaviors –not emotional manipulation.

Here are a couple of examples of how that might sound:

“Yes, I realize your father puts away your toys for you when you’re at his house, and if you can get him to do that for you that’s between the two of you.  But when you’re in my house you need to clean up after yourself before you do anything else.”

“Yes, I realize you hate sitting in timeout.  Timeouts aren’t supposed to be fun. But if you decide to call Mommy “stupid” you’re going to get a timeout.  You’re the only one who can control what you say, not me.  I just control the consequences.”

Learn more by exploring raisinglions.com or contact us.

Treating an Airline Flight With a Small Child Like Game Day

Question:

My wife’s family lives far away; mine lives local. Since our two-year-old was born we’ve flown five times and it’s getting to be a nightmare. I don’t know if any of you have travelled with a toddler but we could really use some tips and advice because between the whining and the tantrums and the squirming on the plane I swear that I never want to leave my state again. I’m normally a very nice person. But not when we fly. Help!

Answer by Joe Newman (Behavior Consultant)

Sometimes, no matter what you do, or how well you do it, flying with two-year-olds can drive you crazy.  At two years old, children are in the middle of redefining their relationship with their parents; they are in a developmental stage that is characterized by conflict and testing boundaries.  Add to this the inability to move around a plane, the cabin pressure’s effect on their ears, and the strange and unfamiliar environment and it can quickly become an overwhelming experience for a toddler.  And when this happens it’s natural to feel like they’re holding you hostage.  When flying, I’m often more annoyed with the irate passenger who’s complaining to the flight attendant than I am with the parent trying their best to deal with a screaming child.

Having said that, there are a number of things you can do to improve your chances of a good flying experience with your toddler:

“Never do on Game Day what you haven’t done in practice.”

Flying with children is Game Day.  In order to have a chance of controlling your toddler on an airplane you must have first successfully handled those same behaviors at home, in restaurants, and in the car.  Having a toddler you can successfully fly with has more to do with what you do when you’re not flying than what you do when you are flying.

Although you might find certain behaviors and demands acceptable when you’re driving or eating out with your toddler, try to hold them to a standard of behavior that would be acceptable when flying.  This is the practice time and should give you an indication about what you can expect from them when flying.

Use a trip to the restaurant to teach them to stay in a seat for gradually longer periods of time.  Bring toys and games that they can play with without disturbing the other patrons.  Get a sense of how long they can sit and be quietly entertained without needing to get up from the table, then use different strategies to gradually increase this time until they can sit for an entire hour.  This will also give you an idea of what and how much to pack for a long flight.

Prepare them for the flight by talking about it and explaining what’s going to happen and what they should expect.  Have car rides where you pretend that you’re on the plane.  Teach them about each step of the trip then ask them to tell you while they imagine it.  Build anticipation about the trip.

Prepare special items for the trip.

  • Have them choose some special travel games, books or toys that can’t be opened until the plane takes off, then another for after the meal, and perhaps a third for after the movie.  Or if you prefer, you can have surprises that you give them at crucial moments on the flight when they’re especially bored.  Over-prepare! It’s better to have more than you need to keep your toddler engaged than not enough.
  • Bring your toddler’s favorite foods and snacks.  Don’t count on finding foods they’ll like at the airport or on the plane.
  • If you like to limit the time your child spends watching videos or playing games on your laptop, in-flight might be the best time to indulge them with these.

Lastly, consider booking flights that are during your toddler’s normal sleep times.  The easiest flights with a toddler will be the ones they sleep through.

If all this fails and your toddler is still driving you and everyone around a little crazy, consider offering to buy the person next to you a cocktail or a sandwich and tell them how much you appreciate their good-natured tolerance (even if they look irate and not very tolerant).

Joe Newman is a behavior consultant who trains parents, teachers, administrators and specialists. During the last twenty years he’s taught 2nd through 12th grade classes, designed curriculum, and founded a national mentoring program. His book Raising Lions is available at Amazon.com.

The Compassionate Time Out

Although often misunderstood, when used correctly, time-outs are a simple and effective tool for managing behavior and helping your child develop the ability for self-regulation and deferred gratification.  This blog will focus on understanding how to use this powerful parenting tool.

If you initially use time-outs frequently for minor misbehavior before things get too severe in a short time you will need to use them less and less because your children will take your rules and boundaries seriously.  I use short (one-minute) time-outs with 2 to 16-year-olds to great effect at home and in the classroom.  Because the time-out is so short I get very little resistance once I’ve established a no-negotiation precedent.  I also stay strict about the time-out doubling if I get an argument.  You can take the emotional/oppositional element out of it with comments like, “You’re not it trouble.  I just need you to take a one-minute break” and “It’s no big deal.  You can come back to what you’re doing in one-minute.”

While longer time-outs may be necessary for more severe behavior (i.e. hitting) it is much easier to give frequent short time-outs for small behaviors and children are more likely to take your direction before things get too heated.  Think of yourself as an emotional air conditioner that turns on with a minute or two of cool air when things get to 75° instead of waiting until the temperature reaches 90°.

Recently someone asked me about how to handle crying during time-outs.  She and her friend had both read in my book Raising Lions that time-outs shouldn’t start until the child stops crying.  However, when she watched her friend use do this it didn’t look right to her.  When her friend’s 4-year-old son was given a time-out he began to immediately cry.  His mother told him to “Stop Crying!” and “I’m not going to start your time-out until you’re quiet.”  The boy’s crying continued and even got louder.  Every minute or so his mother would tell him “You need to stop!” or “I’ve told you to stop the crying.”  The other woman felt like it was unfair and ineffective to yell at the boy for crying and asked me what I thought.  Below is my response.

While time-outs shouldn’t start until your child has stopped crying you should also let your children know that crying is perfectly acceptable and natural.  The last thing we want to do is shame them for crying or create a power struggle when there’s no need for one.  So when a child is crying when they’re on time-out we can empathize and recognize their power while still holding a firm boundary.

If a child is crying when I’ve given them a time-out I might say, “Yeah, time-outs aren’t any fun.  If you need to cry that’s okay.  When you’re finished crying we’ll start the time-out”  (Sometimes when I say this the crying gets louder, they might even cry louder and yell, “I want to start the time-out now!” which is a clear indication the crying is at least in part a manipulation.)

If the crying continues I do my best to ignore it (so long as the child remains in the time-out chair) and will occasionally say to them, “Let me know when you’re finished and I’ll start your time-out.”  My tone is tender and empathetic, coach not adversary.  I also make an effort to let the child know that they, not me, have control over when they stop crying and therefore also control when the time-out starts. By recognizing their power and letting them know that I have no desire to control their choices I’m able to avoid a power struggle over that which I really have no control.

The purpose of requiring your child to stop crying before a time-out starts is so they will exercise self-regulation after a moment that lacked self-regulation.  Additionally, we want to take away any manipulation that might be motivating the crying.  Quite often, children have learned that if they cry loud enough then the adult will begin negotiating with them and the original consequence will be amended.  So crying or tantrums become effective tools to avoid or decrease consequences for behavior.

Time-outs are meant to be boring, a minute or two when the child is denied access to interaction or activities that are fun.  If an adult holds and comforts a child who’s crying because they’ve been given a time-out they are creating a reward in response to the misbehavior they are trying to discourage.

Time-outs are only effective if they’re boring.  If a parent or teacher talks with or comforts a child in an attempt to calm them down during the time-out they make the time-out interesting and deny the child the opportunity to exercise the psychological muscles of self- regulation and control.

The ideal time-out combines strictness and compassion in the same moment.  It asserts firmly the boundary while acknowledging the child’s power and choices without judgment.

Joe Newman

The Modern Time Out

Although they’re often misunderstood, when used correctly, time-outs are a simple and effective tool for managing behavior and helping your child develop the ability for self-regulation and deferred gratification.  This month’s series will focus on understanding how to use this powerful parenting tool.

Use time-outs frequently for minor misbehavior before things get too severe.  I use short (one-minute) time-outs with 2 to 16-year-olds to great effect at home and in the classroom.  Because the time-out is so short I get very little resistance once I’ve established a no-negotiation precedent.  I also stay strict about the time-out doubling if I get an argument.  You can take the emotional/oppositional element out of it with comments like, “You’re not it trouble.  I just need you to take a one-minute break” and “It’s no big deal.  You can come back to what you’re doing in one-minute.”

While longer time-outs may be necessary for more severe behavior (i.e. hitting) it is much easier to give frequent short time-outs for small behaviors and children are more likely to take your direction before things get too heated.  Think of yourself as an emotional air conditioner that turns on with a minute or two of cool air when things get to 75° instead of waiting until the temperature reaches 90°.

Recently someone asked me about how to handle crying during time-outs.  She and her friend had both read in my book Raising Lions that time-outs shouldn’t start until the child stops crying.  However, when she watched her friend use do this it didn’t look right to her.  When her friend’s 4-year-old son was given a time-out he began to immediately cry.  His mother told him to “Stop Crying!” and “I’m not going to start your time-out until you’re quiet.”  The boy’s crying continued and even got louder.  Every minute or so his mother would tell him “You need to stop!” or “I’ve told you to stop the crying.”  The other woman felt like it was unfair and ineffective to yell at the boy for crying and asked me what I thought.  Below is my response.

While time-outs shouldn’t start until your child has stopped crying you should also let your children know that crying is perfectly acceptable and natural.  The last thing we want to do is shame them for crying or create a power struggle when there’s no need for one.  So when a child is crying when they’re on time-out we can empathize and recognize their power while still holding a firm boundary.

If a child is crying when I’ve given them a time-out I might say, “Yeah, time-outs aren’t any fun.  If you need to cry that’s okay.  When you’re finished crying we’ll start the time-out”  (Sometimes when I say this the crying gets louder, they might even cry louder and yell, “I want to start the time-out now!” which is a clear indication the crying is at least in part a manipulation.)

If the crying continues I do my best to ignore it (so long as the child remains in the time-out chair) and will occasionally say to them, “Let me know when you’re finished and I’ll start your time-out.”  My tone is tender and empathetic, coach not adversary.  I also make an effort to let the child know that they, not me, have control over when they stop crying and therefore also control when the time-out starts. By recognizing their power and letting them know that I have no desire to control their choices I’m able to avoid a power struggle over that which I really have no control.

The purpose of requiring your child to stop crying before a time-out starts is so they will exercise self-regulation after a moment that lacked self-regulation.  Additionally, we want to take away any manipulation that might be motivating the crying.  Quite often, children have learned that if they cry loud enough then the adult will begin negotiating with them and the original consequence will be amended.  So crying or tantrums become effective tools to avoid or decrease consequences for behavior.

Time-outs are meant to be boring, a minute or two when the child is denied access to interaction or activities that are fun.  If an adult holds and comforts a child who’s crying because they’ve been given a time-out they are creating a reward in response to the misbehavior they are trying to discourage.

Time-outs are only effective if they’re boring.  If a parent or teacher talks with or comforts a child in an attempt to calm them down during the time-out they make the time-out interesting and deny the child the opportunity to exercise the psychological muscles of self- regulation and control.

The ideal time-out combines strictness and compassion in the same moment.  It asserts firmly the boundary while acknowledging the child’s power and choices without judgment.