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On working harder than ever before *OR* how to solve problems without punishment

2015 November 5
by Rachel Turiel

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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.”

(no 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.

The problem:

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.

Family Discussion:

Through a discussion where, instead of accusations, we became curious about Col’s motives for not responding to us, we learned:

  1. Col often perceives us as “coming at him” with unpleasant requests.
  2. He wants to shield himself from these requests because they’re not fun.
  3. He hopes that by not responding he’ll prolong having to step up and do what is asked of him.
  4. 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.


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We went through each solution and discussed its potential.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3.  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.
  4. same as above.
  5. Hmmm. We all liked this. We all agreed that when creating new habits, it helps to have a plan.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle
 So, we asked Col to come up with a plan to create this new habit of Working on it Like Never Before.
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1. Remember to respond. This is key. The response doesn’t have to be what Col thinks we want to hear. But the response is a show of his willingness to communicate. That softens us to him, and makes compromise more possible.
2. Ask for more time. This is a reasonable request that we’re happy to grant if the situation allows.
3. Remember love. It may be helpful for Col to remember that we’re all on the same team, we all love and respect each other.
4. Remind myself that I can get back to the fun. Putting a dish in the sink can be quick; the legos await.
Follow Up:
We trusted that a solution that leaves everyone’s dignity and integrity in tact, co-created by all, was available. We put Col’s lists on the fridge for a reminder to us all. New habits take time. Col is wired to “check out” and withdrawl when under stress. He is currently making an effort. We are openly appreciating his efforts. We all feel relieved.
I hope this was helpful.
From the files of: The Magic of The Lego Pile
Rose to Col: (unfacilitated)
From Col to Rose: (also unfacilitated)working5

20 Responses leave one →
  1. Mollie permalink
    November 5, 2015

    This feels like a roadmap.
    A discussion without blame or baggage.
    Just listening, understanding, mutual solutions.

    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      November 6, 2015

      Nice. Yes, when we can drop the blame, bias and baggage, we hear each other so much better.

  2. Susan S permalink
    November 5, 2015

    Col sure is able to articulate his feelings well. It almost sounds like he wants to learn about consequences. What are “consequences?” Where are the boundaries? I admire this approach to conflict resolution, and I’ve been wondering how children learn how to deal with people who don’t use this approach, and how they learn to deal with the consequences they will encounter in the world outside the home and family? It will be interesting to watch Col’s progress. You and Dan are great parents!

    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      November 6, 2015

      I think honestly Col was hoping that an invented consequence would motivate him to create a new habit, because he was uncertain if he had the mojo to do it on his own. :)

      • Susan S permalink
        November 7, 2015

        AHA! Insight! Listen, Rachel, if I could get you to get up in my face? I’m in Murdo, SD, on my way to Minneapolis to do a 2-week internship at Children’s Hospital to finish my degree, and I’m not at all certain I have the mojo to cross the street, let alone to get this gargantuan project finished. I’ll take anything I can get. :-) Once again, I bow to your empathy and other parenting skills. You’re wonderful!

  3. maryann permalink
    November 5, 2015

    Complicated, and yet graceful.

  4. Becca permalink
    November 5, 2015

    Very, Very helpful. Go NVC.

  5. November 6, 2015

    Yes, helpful! Thank you for relaying such a relate-able scenario (minus the magpies/elk). Even with NVC intentions, it’s hard to see through these moments sometimes keeping the big pic in mind.

    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      November 6, 2015

      You are welcome. Glad it was useful.

  6. shadymama permalink
    November 6, 2015

    luuuuuuurve so much about this! so brave and true and inspiring – authenticity, hard work and being a team! thank you for the encouragement to keep on working hard in the parenting realm (perhaps even like i’ve “never done before”). xoxoxo

  7. Anonymous permalink
    November 7, 2015

    We are at the very same place with this challenge; thank you SO MUCH for sharing this wonderful way of being!!


    • November 7, 2015

      We are at the very same place with this challenge; thank you SO MUCH for sharing this wonderful way of being!!

  8. November 7, 2015

    (sorry for the technical issues with my comment) :0)

    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      November 7, 2015

      Lovely to hear from you, longtime reader Marykaye.
      Lots of similarities between our boys, as I remember.

  9. Bonnie Rozean permalink
    November 9, 2015

    Parenting with love & logic in action. Nicely done!

  10. Laurel Foster permalink
    November 9, 2015

    wonderfully patient of all of you to work through that scenario. by the way I have a book for Col, that he helped create!! lets connect sometime soon.

  11. November 18, 2015

    i love this. so lovingly articulated, like someone else commented, a roadmap. i mentioned to a friend the other day how just saying to quinn that the discussion about “i don’t want to go to school today” needed to happen in the evening, not the morning right before school. i told him i was willing to listen to everything he needed to say about school and not wanting to go, but that we needed to plan time to discuss it. this calmed things right down, and we got things done. this friend had just related a harrowing morning and ride (running late) to school with her son, and i hadn’t thought my tip of discussing in the evening was that big a deal, but it seemed like a big thing she hadn’t thought to do before, and she was super grateful i had mentioned separating the discussion from the in-the-moment get-where-we’re-going time frame. i think that is so key to this whole process, like it defuses the bomb, but i hadn’t really noticed that it was a strategy i was using until i compared notes with the friend. thanks for your brilliant notes we can all compare (and i don’t mean that in the sizing ourselves up type of comparison, but the sharing and collaborating and helping each other thrive category of comparison). xoxoxo

    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      November 19, 2015

      Yes! Then Quinn knows you’re on his side and you want to help him work this out, and there is an appropriate time for that, when you can really give him your attention and focus. Thanks for sharing!

  12. November 19, 2015

    Ah! You inspire me. I really dislike threats but still I find myself going there (like I’m possessed and I can see myself from above myself and want to say no! don’t!) in certain situations when I feel tired or frustrated. It never ever works. Ever. A good, consistent reminder. Also good and consistent: your words. x

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