The skeleton key…what behaviors open doors?


skeleton key (plural skeleton keys)

  1. A key that has parts filed away so that it will open a range of locks

When I think of a skeleton key, I think of one key that opens a variety of doors.  When it comes to your kid’s behaviors, I think about behaviors that result in a variety of options that were only made available after the behavior occurred.  The behavior “opened doors” that were previously “locked.”

“Open sesame!”

A child asks for chocolate chip cookies for snack.  The mother says, “no, you cannot have cookies for a snack.  You can either have bananas or blueberries.”

The child complains about how much he hates bananas, and the blueberries are too squishy.  This quickly turns into whining, mild tantrummy junk, and something that looks like a close cousin to a Riverdance.

The mother gasps and, as she opens the refrigerator and the pantry, says, “well, you could have these leftover strawberries, your yogurt or…well, what would you like OTHER than cookies?  You can’t have cookies!”

The child stops, pouts and grabs the yogurt from the refrigerator.  He stomps off.

What just happened?

The choices available to the kid changed or increased AFTER a series of protests.  She started with bananas and blueberries and, after the tantrum, presented the whole lot of the refrigerator and pantry.  Wow, that was nice.

The protest was the “skeleton key” in that it opened the door to choices that were not available before the protest happened.

Think about this a bit.  How many times do our kids get options after a crummy behavior they did not have before the crummy behavior.  Is your kid “opening doors” this way?

Here is another example

Your 12 year old is laying across the couch texting one of his girlfriends and your 5 year old daughter circles around him like a gnat.  The 12 year old swats her away, but the gnat is relentless.  You see what is going on and tell your daughter that her brother is busy, to “go play, while I make you dinner.”  She crosses her arms, stomps and says, “HE NEVER PLAYS WITH ME…” and starts crying.  You look at your son with those eyes that say “Please, son, help me out here.”  After a quick LOL and :), he puts down his phone and says, “What do you want to do, you little gnat?”  She smiles as she sets out the princess set.

Access to the brother was locked before she pouted and cried.  Access was granted after she cried.

Dinner is served

We have talked before about picky eaters and how behavior around the dinner table can ultimately be a skeleton key to more food choices or for less demands on what your kid needs to eat for dinner.  You’ll want to read that if you have not already: mealtime negotiations 

Isn’t this hard to avoid?

Yes.  But it is important to be aware of how your kid’s behavior opens doors that were not open before the behavior occurred.  Some “skeleton key” behaviors are desirable: calm requests for other choices, reasonable explanations for why something did not occur or cannot occur, or other behaviors that help the child successfully communicate in an appropriate way.  For example, “mom, my stomach got upset last time I had blueberries, can I have something else?”  Nice.  That request opens up a variety of “doors,” including the pantry and refrigerator.

So what do I do?

Be aware of the potential problem.  There are times you know that the choices are terrible and you are likely to get some resistance.  You know it.  All parents have been there.  

If there are options that you are OK with, give them up front…before the tantrum.  

A good example is the first story above: if you are OK with yogurt or the leftover strawberries, give those options up front.  If you are wrist deep in dinner, ask your son to help out with the little one before she starts begging and bothering him.  If you are OK with your son only eating 1 green bean then being done, serve 1 green bean.  If you will ultimately play with your son while over at a friend’s house TRYING to have a relaxing time, play up front, NOT after he bugs the heck out of you. This requires a bit of thinking on your feet and some effort up front when you might not think you have it, but you can do it.

If it does happen (and you have followed the recommendations above), leave it.  Don’t open the doors to more options.  If you are only OK with bananas or blueberries, then those are the choices.  Say, “sorry…we’ll have dinner in a bit” and move on.  If big brother is studying for the SAT, say, “your brother is busy” and ask your son to go to a place where he cannot be bothered.

Can you think of some situations where your kid used a “skeleton key” to open a door?

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1 thought on “The skeleton key…what behaviors open doors?

  1. Pingback: Are you begging your child to cooperate? |

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