Change Management

Despite all my best intentions to go with positive parenting and construct our own little participatory democracy in our home, I have become a grumpy old nag monster. What disturbs me the most is that, in those moments when I have run out of options and tempers are beyond boiling point – when we have hit flashover, in fact – my toolbox is empty and a little voice in my head is saying “Smack her! She deserves it!”

I don’t believe that hitting children is ever a good solution. There is no good message to be extracted from resorting to violence. I have twice hit my 6 year old on exceptionally bad days, and although I didn’t hit hard, I hate the fact that I did it, because I was out of control, and I was teaching her to deal with stress by lashing out. This is not the role model I want to be, to put it mildly. In my ideal world I would be modelling (and hence teaching my daughters) positive, effective ways of coping with stress. In my experience, dealing with stress by lashing out increases the stress exponentially. Yet there are, I am ashamed to admit, holes in our walls from some days that really scraped the bottle of the barrel, quality-wise.

Although some days flashover happens all too easily, in most cases it is reached via a staircase of escalating drama, and it often begins with me being a nag monster.  Yet nagging is not only useless, it is actually counterproductive. “Sit up straight. Use your knife and fork, not your fingers. Don’t leave your towel on the floor. Bring your jacket home from school. Always put your jacket back in your bag, never put it down anywhere else. Where is your jacket?” (Yes, I am in severe danger of becoming jacket obsessed.)

This sets up a most pernicious feedback loop – she ignores me, I get grumpy, I nag, she gets grumpy, I get even grumpier, she ignores me some more, BOOM! It doesn’t result in her doing what I want her to do more often, but it most certainly does result in me going BOOM on a regular basis.

Despite our best intentions, this kind of feedback loop happens incredibly easily in parenting. We simply don’t have time to stop and reflect on every single strategy or tactic we use. Self-reflection is a luxury that only other people have time for. But sometimes we are lucky and have a flash of insight. Recently my husband got fed up with nagging our 6 year old to sit up, eat over her plate, use her knife and fork, and generally eat like a civilised being. So he got out 20 5c counts, representing her pocket money for the week. Every time she did the wrong thing, he would take away 5c. To our intense astonishment, she has finished the week with 90c.

I have mixed feelings about this. Knowing the right thing to do, and being told the right thing to do, have very little effect. But threaten to take away her pocket money and she is a glowing beacon of goodness. I must admit there is something rather irritating about that. But it also seems like a very negative, punitive technique, although my husband couched it as helping her to break a few bad habits, which does have an appealing ring to it.

I have resolved to try a new approach. I am going to try the old rewards chart trick. Bring home all lunch containers for a week(worse than jackets, I tell you: “Where is the container?” “Um… last time I saw it, it was on the ground outside.” I mean, where do you even start with that??) , and the jacket every day, and there will be a reward – I don’t know what, yet, so I think we will negotiate that one with the plaintiff.

I don’t want to start a pattern of good behaviour only showing up if there is a reward involved, but I like the idea of incentives to change bad habits, or build good ones. Habits are hard to break. Once the behaviour is established, we can make the rewards tougher to earn, and move onto more challenging habits. I think I might need my own reward chart, while we’re at it. Days without shouting, perhaps. Days without swearing. Crumbs! This could be a challenge!

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