Thursday, March 8, 2012
The Truth About Consequences and Noodles
Discipline is absolutely my least favorite part of being a parent. My heart races a little just thinking about it. I never considered when I looked at my beautiful brand-new baby girls that eventually they would need discipline. They both looked too perfect to ever do anything wrong, right? Besides, my parents disciplined me a certain way, and it must have worked because I turned out okay (mostly). Surely what worked for me would work for my kids. Hah... The past seven years of trial and error have confirmed that I was just plain delusional-- ignorant even-- about discipline. I discovered that I needed a new bag of tricks for my darlings, and sometimes I needed a different bag of tricks for each one! Geez-- why couldn't this be easier? I expected to just know what to do! I was told by my mother that I would know what to do for my kids, but this felt like a big fat lie-- right up until I started figuring it all out.
I began my journey into the world of discipline by doing what my parents did. If Princess and Birdie were misbehaving, I would pop them on the bottom or on the hand to try to deter the bad behavior. I figured out very quickly that this was not the way to go with my girls. After popping Birdie's hand only once (she was reaching to yank on the dog's ear for the millionth time), she flinched every time I reached for her for several days after. I bawled in despair! My child was scared of me and it was my fault! I felt like a total failure. Princess, on the other hand, would giggle with delight when popped on the hand. It was as if she desired the more forceful contact. She would do the same bad deed over and over to see if she would get the same result each time-- another epic fail on my part. When the girls got older, we started trying time-outs (the equivalent of being sent to my room when I was young). For Birdie, this was very successful for awhile because she HATES to be alone. My Princess, however, LOVES her alone time and very quickly learned to work the system. "Mom, I hit Birdie. I'm putting myself in time-out!" Well that's just great.
Having kids on the spectrum was really putting a cramp in what I thought would be my disciplinary tactics (which I had incorrectly predicted I would not need that often). Physical contact was obviously out of the question, which I was secretly gleeful about. I felt horrible on the few occasions that I resorted to spanking, especially as I learned more about autism and SPD. (Autistic children interpret sensory input with such intensity that the results can range from pleasure to torture, depending on the type of input they can or cannot tolerate at the time. No wonder Birdie freaked.) Isolation punishment only worked for Birdie and wasn't appropriate for every bad deed. I needed some new tactics so I began reading and experimenting. I came to some creative conclusions.
I looked in every book and to every trusted adult I could find. I looked up the word discipline in the dictionary and found a dozen or so definitions pertaining to training, behaving, enforcing, or acting in accordance with rules; i.e. you have discipline or you will be disciplined. I read dissertations and child studies. I watched advice shows. I drove my pediatrician crazy. I discovered when you get down to the nitty-gritty of all the parenting books, child-rearing gurus' advice, psycho-analytical, behavioral mumbo jumbo (and even the Bible), you will find that-- ultimately-- discipline is about only one thing: bribery. Now before you get your knickers in a twist, let me explain...
Bribery-- the dangling carrot-- is just the reverse-psychology counterpart to old school discipline. Any punishment can easily be disguised as a positive motivating force. For example, when I was a kid, most behavioral infractions resulted in a spanking. I remember my mom saying on many occasions "if you don't behave, your dad will spank you when he gets home from work!" The bribe version of this same punishment would sound something like "if you're good for the rest of the afternoon, you're dad won't have to spank you when he gets home." Sounds a lot like a reward that way, doesn't it? (I know it's a little Mommy Dearest, but you get the point.) Rather than the old bad-begets-bad-things approach, it's more like the good-begets-predictable-things approach. Bribery allows us as parents to replace the fear-factor of discipline (used to deter bad behavior) with a motivation-factor (to encourage better behavior).
After reading (and creative interpretation) of tons of info, I felt like I could actually use bribery on my girls and still be able to look at myself in the mirror. I decided to give it a shot. The problem was figuring out what carrots to dangle and when.
My husband actually stumbled on the first carrot by accident. One day my Birdie went into a long diatribe about the "abuse" she incurred from having to climb so many stairs in our 3-story townhouse. She was angry that she, a self-described non-athlete, had "no choice but to climb the stairs to get to her things". Later that day Birdie and Princess had a knockdown drag-out fight, resulting in a crying angry Birdie and a full-blown tantrum from Princess. What to do... hmmm. And then, my husband had his epiphany. "Walk the stairs, ladies. Five times up and down." Well, a small miracle took place over the course of the next five minutes. Birdie's tears dried up and after a few minutes of aggravation she calmed down and was rational again. The Princess went from stomping her feet and shrieking on the first two trips up to stairs, to sniffling on the third, and by the fifth she was actually smiling. The physicality of the activity had a calming effect on both of them. Holy cow! Even better that all that, we were all able to discuss what led to the fight and how we might better resolve future disagreements. So now, when the girls have a physical altercation or they are disrespectful, they walk the stairs. Carrot 1: You don't have to walk the stairs if you don't fight with your sister and are respectful to others. It is essentially a bribe. It's a promise not to rock their boat if they don't rock ours.
Once we had a carrot for basically minor infractions, we had to come up with the next level of bribery. What would we do if that fight between sisters (or anyone else, for that matter) resulted in someone or something actually getting hurt? The carrot would have to be a good one-- one that would really make them think twice. The answer was obvious-- their electronics! Carrot 2: You get to keep your DS/netbook if you don't injure another person or their property.
These two carrots have done 99% of my disciplinary work for me for this whole year. As the girls' motivations change, I am sure I will have to change their motivators. Right now these work most of the time. For the other 1% of our disciplinary needs, however, we have had to get really creative.
Now each of my little ladies had a behavior that we needed to discourage (their own 1%), and neither of our carrots really fit the bill. My Princess was getting in trouble at school on a regular basis for refusing to work with boys in class. She would choose disciplinary action from the teacher over working in a group with a boy. My Birdie was getting in trouble for her drama at home. She would get upset over something minor and would cry and moan and whine on continuous loop without end. I needed to nip these things behaviors in the bud and fast, before they grew into permanent ways of thinking and responding to the world. I looked everywhere and tried many things, but ultimately I found my "1% Carrot" in a blue box.
To discourage my little darlings' 1% behaviors, we instituted (at home and school) Operation Earn Back the Mac. That's right, y'all. Good ol' mac & cheese has saved the day and has become the ultimate bribe. After several weeks of Birdie drama and several disciplinary notes from Princess's teacher, I had had enough. I sat Princess down and asked her to start listing her favorite things in all the world. I had Birdie do the same. Both agreed on the awesomeness of their favorite food, and Operation EBtM was born! Right then and there, they had to earn back the right to enjoy mac & cheese. I gave each girl a baggy with 10 pasta noodles in it. Princess took her baggy to her teacher. Each time she worked with a boy in a small group without trouble, she got to remove a noodle from her bag and bring it back to me. Each time Birdie stopped one of her dramatic tirades after being asked only once, she removed a noodle from her bag. Each third noodle earned a small portion of cheesy goodness at dinner. The tenth noodle would earn an all-out daylong mac-stravaganza, where every meal all day long could be mac & cheese. I am happy to report that Mac-stravaganza is on for this Saturday!!!! Yay! Who knew?
One month and one week after it all began, we have had success! Princess no longer gets uptight about being in a small group with a boy and Birdie's drama sessions are growing shorter! I motivated Princess to leave her comfort zone and Birdie to express herself in a more acceptable way-- without losing my mind in the process. Hallelujah!
Will this motivational tactic ever work again? I am sure I will find out soon enough. I imagine I am going to have plenty of opportunities in the future to get my creative discipline juices flowing once more. Most likely there will be a parade of different 1% Carrots in my future. The girls are only seven, after all, and I am no longer delusional enough to expect angelic behavior all the time. In the meantime, I have some shopping to do for our weekend mac & cheese feast, which is well deserved.