Thursday, April 1, 2010

Choices, Choices

If you’ve been following my blog, you know that I’ve been extolling the virtues of my new favorite parenting book, Parenting with Love and Logic, by Foster Cline and Jim Fay, for quite some time now. We started using the method of parenting described in this book a few months ago now, when James’ 4 year old tantrums were rapidly spiraling out of control. At the time, I recognized that his behaviors were likely a response to the arrival of his baby sister; toward that end, we put some important strategies in place to address his feelings and help him feel more loved (see my State of the Household: Part 3 post for more details). But we desperately needed a method for helping resolve some of the daily eruptions that were quickly weaving their way into the fabric of our lives. Enter Love and Logic. Without a doubt, this method of parenting has had a huge impact on our little family. Andy and I are finally on the same page of the same parenting book (a feat that is not easily accomplished). James’ extreme tantrums are all but gone. Love and Logic strategies are simple, yet can have a profound impact. With that in mind, here are the steps we took to bring more peace to our house.

Step 1: Stop the lectures. Allow children to fail and let the consequences speak for themselves.
One of the major tenets behind Love and Logic is to let children experience consequences now, when they are young and the consequences are minor. In other words, rather than prevent children from failing, encourage failure! Encourage failure? This simple phrase is enough to let any good parent gasp in horror. And yet it’s exactly what we did. Rather than say no, we said yes.

If James didn’t want to wear a coat in 30 degree weather (“It’s sunny out, mom!”), we said, “okay.” When he got cold, we empathized and he learned. If James wanted to open the creamer at a restaurant, we said, “Okay. But remember we don’t waste food. So if you open it, you’ll need to use the whole thing.” When he realized that he didn’t actually like creamer, we empathized. But we still made him drink the whole thing. And he learned. When he didn’t want to us to pour him any milk for lunchtime, we said, “Okay.” When he was thirsty 20 minutes later, we told him that he could have a drink at snack after rest time, as usual. He protested that he simply could not wait that long. He was sooooooooo thirsty. We empathized. He learned. When he wanted to sniff the ground Cayenne pepper, well… I did warn him that it was not wise. I actually took the pepper away. But when it spilled a couple days later, he took a sniff before I could blink. When the tears started to fall, I empathized with his pain and helped him wash out his nose. And oh, did he learn from that one.

It’s hard to let our little ones fail. Our job as parents is to protect them and help them succeed. To let them make poor choices and then stand back and watch them experience the results runs counter to our natural tendencies to protect and defend at all costs. And yet I have learned how incredibly important it really is. Letting our children make their own decisions gives them some semblance of control and reduces power struggles. More importantly, it teaches them to choose wisely, to learn from their mistakes, and to listen to themselves, rather than outside influences. Who wouldn’t want their children to learn those lessons?

Step 2: Change demands into choices. Any experienced parent knows the value of offering choices. Children love to exert their power by making a choice. Prior to reading Fey and Cline’s book, I already had a habit of speaking in choices whenever I thought it was possible (Do you want the red cup or the blue one? Are you going to wear your Spider man shoes or your white ones? Did you want your sandwich in two parts or in five?). But there were still many times when I issued commands rather than questions (Stop banging your fork on the table, please. Don’t throw the ball around your sister. It’s time to get of the tub, please. Yes, now. Right now. Get.Out.Of.The.Tub. NOW). Fey and Cline’s book helped me realized that there was still a choice being made in these situations and that it was wise to present it as such. Instead of telling a child what *not* to do or what he *has* to do, Fey and Cline recommend giving choices that explain what the child *can* do.

So, “Stop banging your fork” becomes, “You are welcome to use your fork properly here at the table in the kitchen with us, or you could take your plate and fork to the table in the dining room where I can’t hear you bang.” And, “Don’t throw the ball near your sister” becomes “Would you like to sit down on the floor and play in the living room next to your sister or would you like to take the ball outside to play?” And “No, you can’t stay in the tub any longer; you need to get out of the tub NOW” becomes (deep breath of calm here) “Well, I guess you can choose to get out of the tub as asked or you can stay in the tub and play for longer and then take showers for the rest of the week so that we can turn off the water and get you out faster when we need you to be done.”

Each of these choices is offered in a nice, easy-going tone without frustration, reprimand, or sarcasm (this was the hardest part for me—I do so love my “mommy” tone). One also has to be careful not to turn a choice into a threat. Saying “You can stop throwing that ball or you can go to your room” isn’t really a choice; it’s a punitive statement in disguise. When framing my choices, I often had to stop and think for a minute before offering up the choices. But it’s amazing how many choices I found when I took the time to be creative.

It’s worth noting that James certainly chose the choice I didn’t expect at times. One time he actually did move to the dining room table instead of staying with us in the kitchen. After about five minute alone, he asked if he could come back with us; we welcomed his return. When I offered him the choice about staying in the tub and taking showers the rest of the week or getting out of the tub when asked, he chose to stay in the tub for a while longer. I did not enjoy having to wait the extra time for him to get out of the tub at his own leisure that night (I wanted to watch Survivor!). But I did enjoy the quick convenience of showers for the rest of that week. And as it turned out, James took showers for a week, decided he didn’t like them after all, and then returned to the tub. He has since chosen to get out of the tub when asked, each time.

Now, the wise parent who reads this will quickly surmise that there will be times when their independent child will simply refuse to make a choice. What then? Fey and Cline write that there is always an unstated third choice: either the child makes a choice or the parent does. If James doesn’t make a choice, we make it for him. We only had to do this a few times before he learned that he was much better off making his own choices than have us choose for him.

When we first implemented these strategies, we were met with resistance. At that time, resistance from James was often accompanied by yelling or hitting (anything to provoke a reaction from one of us). When we offered a choice, James wouldn’t make one. When we chose for him, he became angry. If this happened, we offered the following words of wisdom for him: “Hmmm, it looks like you need some time to calm down.” And then the following choice: “Would you like to walk to your room, or would you like us to carry you?” (And yes, we had to carry him the first few times). Then: “Would you like your door open or your door shut?” If he was still yelling or hitting, we told him—gently, calmly, lovingly—that it looked like he was choosing to have the door shut.

I won’t kid you, it wasn’t pretty at first. He yelled. He threw things. He broke things. (I pause here to note that I had previously tried other strategies to calm him down. I tried hugging him, I tried talking to him, I tried having him hit pillows to get his anger out, I tried taking away privileges. None of it worked). When he finally calmed down, we opened up the door and told him – gently, calmly, lovingly—that it looked like he was ready to have the door open. He was asked to wait in his room for 5 minutes, calmly, and then come out. When he came out, he was welcomed back into the main rooms of the house, given a hug, and the day moved on as if nothing happened. (Although he did have to pay for anything that had been broken and clean up his room if he had thrown things).

The first couple days of this were, to put it lightly, tough. But it’s always the darkest before the dawn. Here I drew from my knowledge base from working with children at my job: when dealing with extinguishing challenging behaviors, the behaviors often escalate to a fever pitch just before they are gone. Sure enough, after just a couple days of consistently and gently implementing these strategies, the extreme behaviors decreased as quickly as they had increased. Now-a-days, James still has to go to his room to calm himself down at times, but he almost always chooses to walk there and he most always chooses to have the door open. In fact, he’s discovered that he enjoys turning on the radio while he is in his room and he emerges from his room a much a calmer boy. We have gone nearly 30 days without any extreme behaviors. Yippee, Skippee!

Step 3: Follow through, follow through, follow through. Step 1 and Step 2 won’t work without careful adherence to Step 3. Enforce consequences. Follow through with choices. Calmly, gently, lovingly. Step 3 is the most simple one, but the most crucial of all.
That’s it. It seems so simple, but as Leonardo de Vinci wrote, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” The simplicity of this approach makes it easy to remember in the face of a grumpy preschooler. It also makes it relatively easy to get on the same page with your parenting partner. But the simplicity is also deceptive. This approach is really rather sophisticated and thoughtful at the same time. It allows us to be coaches for our children, not drill sergeants. It teaches our children to control their own impulses, to take responsibility for their actions, and to experience their consequences and learn from them. And that, my friends, is anything but simple.


  1. Thanks for sharing this, Becca. I found so many similarities in our parenting-styles-of-choice (for instance, the "mommy voice" and providing a choice of do it now, or go to your room). I have heard wonderful things about Love and Logic Parenting from friends in the area. I have been trying, as the age of three approaches, to offer more choices and let Natalie (and Taylor) live with the consequences, but you're right, it is ever-so-difficult to let them fail... and to not revert back to "dictator-mom."

    I think this is a wonderful parenting tool, but I hesitate just for a second because I always wonder what will happen when these well-adjusted, happy kids hit a possible kindergarten room of demands rather than choices. Do Fey and Cline address that?

  2. They do address it, at least indirectly. I'll go back and see if I can find more info on it when I've got a bit more time. But from what I can remember, they touch on it from the standpoint of trusting that our children will learn quickly from the consequences in each situation. When our kids get to kindergarten, we can trust that they will learn from the expectations there (and to that point, James does very well with the expectations at 4K). As parents, we step back and let the teachers run the classrooms and enforce their own consequences and we, as parents, trust that our children will learn to make choices there as well as they have learned to do at home.

    Oops, Kasia is crying so I have to end this comment now!! I'll post again if I can find some more info. Great question though!! :)

  3. I'm back with one more thought after pondering your question a bit. I think that Love and Logic is all about setting up situations that teach our children to take responsibility for their actions. It's definitely not about letting them get away with whatever they want. When I started following (and encouraging Andy to follow) the Love and Logic tips, James actually became *better* at listening and cooperating. Fey and Cline's rule #1 is that "adults must set firm, loving limits using enforceable statements without showing anger, lecturing, or using threats." And then we have to follow-through. As long as we follow through consistently, we are teaching our children to listen carefully to what we say and make good decisions, and take responsibility for the consequences of what they decide. So then when they get to school, if they have a teacher who only makes demands, they have a unstated choice: listen to the teacher or face the consequences. Because Love and Logic has prepared them to make good choices and take responsibility when they don't, they may be more apt to do well in this type of situation.

    In reality, though, I think most really good teachers draw from the tenets of Love and Logic, too. Actually, when I went to preview James' kindergarten, his (future) principal had a copy of the book on her desk!

    I totally think you should read the book, Sarah! It's a quick read and I probably can't do it justice in one blog post! :)

  4. Thanks, Becca. I was thinking more about it, too and I was thinking of our Autistic kids... we give them control over the things they can have the control over so that they don't act out in ways that command control... I don't know if that made sense, but for Natalie, if I give her choices on things, for instance, bath or shower, she quickly makes a choice without arguing (more times than not) and then when she is faced with a demand, she is less likely to rebel because she has control in some of the other areas of her life. We've been trying it at home and did have a rough few days of tantrums - which had never occured before - but now its going really well! Thanks for posting your encouraging stories about James. It helps to read about someone else's struggles and triumphs!