Backseat brawls – How to handle the kids in the car

photo by Will Hale via Flickr

It was pouring down rain and I could hardly see. The windshield wipers barely kept up with the sheets of heavy rain. The only thing I saw was the flashing hazard lights of the car in front of me. People were pulling over.

I plowed through. Wheel gripped tightly, eyes squinted, I plowed through…

because the two kids in the back seat were about to tear each other’s face off. I think they were collaborating with each other to see how much they could annoy me.

There wasn’t a storm in the world that was going to delay me getting home and getting out of the Hell hole that was my vehicle. The kids might be possessed. Continue reading

Good grief! How long is does it take you to do that?!?

Photo by Aniket Thakur via Flickr

Sometimes the most important things can be the hardest to notice…getting dressed and ready in a timely manner is one of them. Here are some things to do about it.

7:25 pm –

Walking out of the room where my child stands naked after taking a bath, I quickly say, “Alright, man…here are your pajamas. Go ahead and get dressed.”

From Thomas the Train undies to the Toy Story PJ set, this is a 2 minute task…OR SHOULD BE.

Ten minutes later I open the door ready to read the bedtime story and all I see is our son in some naked Yoga pose over a set of trains perfectly lined up on a new track (like, “new” in the last 10 minutes “new”). “Why are you not dressed yet?” I ask, not expecting an answer I would approve of.

Why this is important

I tell this story because it reflects two bigger issues I think we all deal with as parents:

1. We often forget to notice and reinforce behavior that doesn’t seem really great, but really makes a difference when it doesn’t happen (i.e., there is a big difference between a morning before school with a kid who gets ready on time vs. one who messes around and requires constant nudging to get ready).

2. When kids are slow in doing something you want them to do, they are simply being kids. The behavioral explanation for this is there are competing reinforcers. This is not hard to understand, but sometimes difficult to get through. I will help you out.

Hard to notice good behavior

Simply stated, there are a lot of behaviors that are just not that noticeable, like getting dressed in a decent period of time, picking up something when dropped, closing a door instead of slamming it, NOT freaking out when told “no.” Sometimes we refer to these as the should behaviors (i.e. “he should be able to do that”) and other times the behaviors are nearly impossible to notice (e.g., a flushed toilet, socks put away, having a bookbag put together).

Do this today…yes, you

Sit down and make a list of these behaviors that happen frequently enough, but when they don’t happen, it really annoys you or it causes a hitch in your day. Put this list somewhere that will help remind you to pay attention to these things. Remind your kids before the behaviors happen (i.e., right before they are getting dressed, when you know they are about to go to the bathroom). When it happens, pay attention to them…praise them…thank your kids for doing these things.

Sounds simple. It is. It is as important as it is simple.

Find more powerful motivation if you need

I have written about competing motivations before, but it is worth mentioning again. If your  kids are consistently dragging and taking forever to do things, you might need to set up some other reinforcers or things to motivate them at the time these things usually occur.

Make sure the requirements/criteria are clearly stated (written on a list for older kids). This can be something as simple as a special breakfast choice if ready for school before a specific time (state the time and use the clock in the kitchen) or as easy as “as soon as you finish getting dressed you can _______.” You could even read the posts on token systems and use something like that for these times.

Try to make the reinforcer/reward as close to the behavior occurring as possible. The quicker the fun thing occurs after the behavior occurs, the better it will be. For older kids, can you get away with something special after school for a job well done in the morning before school? Yes, but it will not be nearly as effective as something that they get in the morning.

Hopefully things will speed up a bit for you…having the night-time 10 minute episode of Thomas the Train turned on when we leave the room at PJ time sure has sped up our little man.

“Zoom out” in times of distress


photo by alexindigo via Flickr

I have often thought parenting is like climbing a mountain: ups and downs, tricky turns, sometimes going down a little to go up and sometimes slowly navigating slippery passages. All of these trying times, however, come with incredible feelings of accomplishment at every “peak.” After listening to a recent interview with a famous author and mountain climber, I’m even more convinced.

Climbing mountains and “Zooming in” on the problem

Jim Collins, the coauthor of the book Great by Choice,  is a mountain climber. He talks about times when you get a not-so-great grip during a climb and things start looking bleak. He says climbers (ahem, ahem: parents) tend to “zoom in” on the problem, trying to find a way to get a better grasp; clinching and gripping even tighter to that bad hold. With each slight move of a finger or shift of weight in an effort to make that grip better, the problem gets worse and worse. Ultimately, if the climber can’t break out, he falls.

Undivided focus is given towards the weakening hold: the problem

Zooming in on the problem puts undue attention on the problem, rather than the solution. Teeth are mashed, knuckles are popping, and fingertips loose pressure. Bad goes to worse.

However, if the climber could simply zoom out instead of zoom in, he or she would notice the better foothold or another better grip position. Moving in any of these other directions immediately alleviates all the problems being encountered. However, if completely zoomed in on the problem, the solutions are not visible.

Are there times in your role as a parent you focus too much on the problem rather than the possible solutions or bigger picture?

I see this sometimes in a wide variety of situations where the parent gets so deep into trying to “follow through” or “make sure the child doesn’t get away with it,” that the parent is almost ensuring the behavior will escalate and cause a much bigger problem than it was in the beginning. I have heard parents say, “if he does not clean his room after I ask two or three times, I’ll go in there and MAKE him do it.” What does that mean? You are going to force it and create a bigger mess than the room ever was? ZOOM OUT, for crying out loud!

I have seen parents get so frustrated with making sure their kid does what they say, that they end up having WWIII when, if they would have gone about things differently, there would not be a problem in the first place. Adding punisher after punisher until something finally hits so hard the child submits. Physically engaging at the point of total frustration. Both parent and child typically leave this situation embarrassed and emotionally drained. I get it…it happens to all of us.

Zoom out!

Zooming out in these situations means stepping back and asking questions about why he is not cleaning his room and how you can make it more likely next time. It is about asking why she always dilly-dallies around in the morning instead of being ready on time and how you might could motivate her to move quicker and more independently in the future. It is about why YOU react so strongly in some situations and how YOU can better prepare for (or avoid) them in the future.

Put up notes around the house, put something on the fridge. Whatever it is you need to do to remind yourself to ZOOM OUT in times of distress or difficulty. Enlist your spouse to tell you to “zoom out” when things are getting tough. Look for other options. Don’t fall off the cliff because you wanted to make that one grip hold. Make it to the top because you found better solutions once you got into trouble.

Behavioral Momentum…ride the wave to more compliance

“Heading into the final weeks before the race, it seems Mr. Soandso has the momentum that will likely take him to the promised land”

There are so many ways we speak about momentum in our lives. You can hardly get through 15 minutes of Olympics coverage or, gag, the “Race to the Presidency” coverage without some mention of who has the “momentum.”

Momentum is an incredibly important and real factor with the behavior of your kids too, and is a bit more scientific than the sometimes mythical version you hear elsewhere. It is a strategy…a way to get from noncompliance to compliance. Simple, if you really think about it, but not used enough as far as I can see. Continue reading

The Parent Who Cried Wolf – why your child does not listen


You know the story…a young shepherd boy routinely tricks the townspeople into thinking his flock is being attacked by wolves. Over and over, he cries “WOLF!” and the townspeople come running. Then, the moral of the story comes around when a real wolf shows up and no one reacts when the shepherd boy calls for help. The flock is destroyed.

Why has this not become a story about parenting? What is the moral of the story for parents?

As parents, we are always on the lookout. We are the protectors of our own little herds.

But, sometimes we talk too much.  WAAAY TOO MUCH.

When we talk too much, our words, our warnings, our “lessons” can become less powerful because they get lost in all the other words. You’ll end up sounding like Charlie Brown’s teacher and your words won’t mean much.

Sometimes children do not listen to warnings or follow directions simply because they are given too damn many. A parent who gives too many directions will more than likely have children who are less likely to follow them (including the important ones). 

Think about it…its a simple truth

The more directions you give, the less likely each one will be meaningful. No parent is going to follow through with every request, but at least be aware of it. When you get ready to ask your kid to “come here,” you better be prepared to get up and walk her over when she does not follow the direction. If you really do not want to get up (and ultimately won’t), don’t ask…it must not be that important anyway. 

If you give 20 requests or directions within an hour, and you follow through on one of them, guess what? You just taught your kid that 19 of 20 directions do not matter. You have actually taught your kid more about NOT following directions than you taught her about being compliant with directions.

The same is true about warnings and cautions of danger.

If you over-caution or over-warn your kids, they will be less discriminate of things that are actually dangerous or require caution. They will learn this because you have “cried wolf” too much.

“Don’t touch that” has been said so many times and, most of the time, touching “that” has been reinforced by touching something that looks or feels cool. No danger really. “Actually, this is pretty cool,” they say as you turn the page on the most recent People magazine to see who is pregnant and what celebrity marriage has “surprisingly ended.”

Guess what happens when they are hovering over the poison ivy plant and you say, “dont touch that?” You’re looking at salt baths and caking on layers of nuclear looking pink liquid for the next week. You follow this with your frustration of saying, “I told you not to touch that,” as if the lesson is going to be learned “this time.” No its not. “This time” is the single, seemingly random occurrence when something bad happened when you said “don’t….” All the other 500 times NOTHING happened. Stock up on the lotion…

So what is the moral behind this story?

Be careful about how many requests you give.

Be careful when you make requests. Make them count. Make sure your kids follow through with requests more often than you let them be noncompliant. Don’t give requests that are simply not going to be followed.

Sounds simple…it is. Doing it is the hard part.

Should do??? Won’t do!! – How to get your kid to do what they should


Just because you think your kid should be doing something does not mean that he will just up and do it one day…”just because he should.”

Look, there are a lot of things parents think their kids should do, but ultimately the question remains: IS he doing it?  If the answer to that question is ever “NO,” lets talk about it a bit more.

The source of this comment is usually about getting up in the morning, going to bed at night, completing chores, taking a bath, following general directions and simply being “respectful” to parents and other adults.  Here is the thing though…it has to have some benefit to the kid for him to do those things without throwing a fit, complaining, or pouting as he takes out the trash.  

Why most kids do what they should

Yes, some kids do such things so they can avoid making you mad, keep access to the game system, or simply preserve the ability to sit down without wincing (have a sense of humor…I am not saying spanking is a good idea).  There are also kids who do these things because they have sufficient experience with these things resulting in positive things such as praise, high fives, parental acceptance or even access to a little extra time in front of the TV or computer that night.  For a lot of kids, these two things are enough.

For some, it isn’t.  Here is the help:

To turn the should do into did do you need to begin with a three step shaping process:

1.  Arrange certain things to make the behavior more likely to occur.  This might mean shortening the task, making it less effortful, less time consuming or more interactive with someone fun (like YOU, for example). 

“Clean your room” becomes “pick up those socks, put those shoes under your bed and throw me that towel and we will get out of here!”  “Clean the bathroom” turns into “squirt some of this weird blue stuff around the inside of the toilet, flush it and lets go…”  “Get dressed” gets done by you going in, putting everything on but the socks and then saying “put your socks on and meet me in the kitchen for those awesome PopTarts.”

2.  Reinforce the completion of the task since you just made it much more likely to happen.  Be nice.  High five. A pleasant, “I appreciate you getting that done this morning.” 

Rewards have not been successful up to this point because the task was too aversive or too difficult.  The reward did not work because they never got access to it.  Now they have…now the reinforcer can begin to work.

3.  Slowly fade into higher levels of demand: “Here is your shirt, now all you need is your pants and socks…see you in a second,” “Make sure you get that towel off the floor too, please” or “rub that brush around in that blue toilet stuff before you flush then spray the shower while I get the movie going.”  

You see…to make sure something happens, whether or not YOU think it should, it sometimes means taking a few steps back to make it more likely to happen so you can reinforce it.  

You should do this…

Ignore the behavior…not the kid!


Sometimes the best thing you can do to get rid of or change a behavior is to simply ignore it.  However, this can be a fairly daunting task sometimes.  But, here is the good news:

You can ignore a behavior, but not ignore the kid and it still be an effective way to get rid of some junky behavior

Lets start here:

Lets say your little one is acting like a clown making weird noises you know she is clearly making to get your attention (if you don’t know…she probably is).  This has been going on too long, so you say, “NO! Stop those noises.  That is RUDE!” and she laughs…

WHOOPS: You just paid attention to the behavior and probably have made it more likely to happen again.

So next time comes around when she is making those noises and you think ignoring it will be the right thing to do.  You hang in there for a while, but it gets worse.  It gets louder.  Now she is actually dancing right in front of you as you try to pay attention to anything else but her.  You can’t take it anymore.  You give up and say “Sit DOWN and STOP IT!”  She either laughs and runs away or gets upset and whimpers as she sits.  Neither is what you really wanted.

Here is where many parents get in the black hole of ignoring and where a lot of parents feel like ignoring is not a powerful or effective tool.

Paying attention to the child, but ignoring the behavior?  Here is how…

Pay attention to her without paying attention to the behavior.  Don’t say anything about the behavior, act as if it was not occurring at all…ignore it, but don’t ignore her. Try a little misdirection:  Lets try this again:

DANCING QUEEN: (Dancing in front of you with fingers pulling her mouth to her ears while making noises that remind you of a siren at the fire station)

YOU: “I love your shoes, what color are those?” or “Did you see what dad put on the front porch?” or “Tell me what you did with your best friend yesterday?” or “Can you grab me your magazine right there by the TV?”

If she replies, keep talking.  Engage with her.  You are now teaching her you will pay attention to her, but not directly to the behavior.  You have the best of both worlds: you have attended to her so she will not escalate her craziness to get your attention and you have ignored a behavior you don’t really want her to use to access your attention.  Things are good.

If she does not reply, ask other questions, things she will be like to talk about.  This is not a demand, but a way to get her to engage with you so you can attend to her appropriate behavior rather than simply ignoring the junk

If she continues to chirp like a bird or sing the “beans are good for your heart” song, just let her know you want to talk to her about her new gymnastics routine when she is ready.  Then do what you can to get out of her visual area and continue ignoring.

Just remember…ignore the behavior, not the kid.