On working harder than ever before *OR* how to solve problems without punishment
November morning. Outside, two chickens are chasing the magpies who are cleaning up after Dan’s last elk hide-scraping. Inside, Col and Rose are reenacting timeless sibling dramas around colorful lego pieces that have become building blocks to a shared world. There are arguments, negotiations, collaborations and lighthearted sibling laughter that pinballs through my heart like something heavy but ungraspable. I would keep them here, in the safe refuge of snapable bricks, forever if I could.
However, on the table is Col’s breakfast bowl, rivers of unwanted oatmeal malingering and coagulating.
“Hey Col, can you take care of your breakfast dish?” A parental voice attempts to penetrate the lego fortress.
(Sounds of legos being snapped together)
“Hey, Col? Can you respond?”
(snapping…laughing with Rose)
“Col, I would appreciate a response.”
I’m guessing this isn’t an unusual scenario (non-responsiveness to unpleasant tasks), and it has become more frequent in our house. I’m sure many parents “solve” this problem with threats, i.e “If you don’t put your breakfast dish away in one minute, no more legos today.” That may work in the short term, but our belief is that threats, consequences and punishment undermine a child’s intrinsic motivation to be helpful, while eroding connection between parents and children (the very connection that supports cooperation!). Plus, we love how the kids play together in the lego pile. Taking that away is unrelated to the issue, would affect Rose, and remove a source of creativity, problem-solving and stress-reduction for the kids. Here is an account of our attempts to work with this issue using empathy and connection. I hope this is helpful to you.
We ask Col to engage in personal responsibility (brush his teeth, put his shoes on, come to a meal) so the family, together or separately, can move onto the next thing. Col doesn’t respond.
The Feelings and Needs:
Being the parent who is getting no response after repeated reminders can evoke anger, frustration, discouragement and a feeling of helplessness. Our needs are for respect, harmony and order.
Col, who is wrapped up in a book, playing, or drawing and receives an unwanted request, feels annoyance, indifference, detached, and reluctant. His needs are for choice, understanding, fun, and autonomy.
Two Guiding Philosophies:
In our family we have two guiding philosophies that help steer our responses.
1) We are each responsible for our feelings.
2) Punishment is not effective in helping children take responsibility for their role in family dynamics or in helping children to create new habits.
Because we are responsible for our own feelings, and Dan and I are tired of feeling angry, frustrated, discouraged and helpless, it was time to look deeper into this dynamic.
Through a discussion where, instead of accusations, we became curious about Col’s motives for not responding to us, we learned:
- Col often perceives us as “coming at him” with unpleasant requests.
- He wants to shield himself from these requests because they’re not fun.
- He hopes that by not responding he’ll prolong having to step up and do what is asked of him.
- It’s hard for him to transition out of reading/drawing/playing to do something less pleasant.
Having all this information was immediately helpful. It felt reassuring to Col to be understood, and to us to have some understanding into what is driving his behavior.
Where to go From Here:
First, deliver empathy. Col’s motivation is not hard to empathize with. Who wants to put down a good book and turn to the laundry that needs folding? Or, switch suddenly out of creative, non-linear play to the practical, left-brain mode of getting out the door? We can always, and easily empathize with his position.
Next, deliver information. Our household works best when everyone pitches in to do their part. We all want to play, relax, engage in creative work. We will always try to make time to do the things we love, and there will always be less appealing tasks that need attention.
Next, solutions. We put Col on this, asking him to come up with five potential solutions to the problem of not responding.
We went through each solution and discussed its potential.
- Getting up in Col’s face doesn’t feel pleasant to any of us. Also, studies on the brain show that when you raise your voice at children, instead of listening, they become fearful and their executive brain function shuts down.
- Col liked this idea of giving consequences (although this is not something he’s experienced). He thought that if we threatened something really unpleasant, it would jar him from his non-responsive fog. We explained that consequences create compliance based on power, in this case, our power over him, and that he would eventually resent this (as I would, if Dan said, “I won’t make coffee for you in the morning until you clean the chicken coop”), and that our ultimate hope was that he would choose to respond to us because he respects and cares for us.
- We had just spent the last half hour talking about this very scenario, and it seems more discussion would a) make us late for scheduled activities b) keep him from getting back to playing/reading/drawing, etc… i.e. not the most efficient use of time.
- same as above.
- Hmmm. We all liked this. We all agreed that when creating new habits, it helps to have a plan.