Language Translation

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Choice and Accountability

I was asked by a father:

"Do you have any pointers on how to introduce something new into my children's lives without causing extreme amounts of fit throwing and contention? I can't seem to figure this one out."

There are many different tips out there that are suggested by therapists, doctors, families, etc.  The most common seems to give plenty of time for adjustment and talk about it often to help them readjust to the new information in their lives.

What happens when there isn't time though?  What do you do then?

It partially depends on what is being introduced.  Is it something different the children will have to do?  (i.e. chore changes, schedule changes, changes at school, etc.)  Or is it something that is being introduced to them that throws of the balance?  (i.e. a move, a new baby, a sibling going to camp, etc.)  

If the change is something that is going to change the way your child lives daily life, then the first thing is to remember to provide choices.  They are very adamant about their agency and ability to decide for themselves, so let them.  If they would rather deal with the natural consequences, then that is what they choose.  Even if they don't like the consequences, if you remind them that you offered a choice and this is what they chose and said they would be okay accepting the consequences, the arguments and tempers are generally minimal.  These children have an extremely strong moral fiber and if you remind them that they gave their word on something, they will keep it unless under extreme circumstances - or if you let the fit get so far before you help them back to the logic they chose.

For instance.  Let us say that Sam wants to play outside.  You got home late from errands and lunch is going to be late.  You want to send him outside to play while you make lunch, thinking it will be a nice diversion and hoping he doesn't realize how hungry he is.  But you also know that once Sam is outside, it is really hard to get him to come back in the house, no matter what.

So you say, "Sam, I'll give you two choices.  You can stay in the house and help me get lunch ready and then go outside after we eat.  Or you can go outside and play (at this point he has already headed for the door.  Make sure he hears the rest of your condition)....or you can go outside and play if you come inside when you are called.  SO you can stay in here and help me and then play or play and then come in without arguing or crying when it is time for lunch.  Which do you choose?"

Sam chooses to go out now.  When lunch is ready, Sam is so engrossed in what he's doing that you have to call several times.  You give him the tried-and-true 5 minute warning that he needs to come in.  But he does not.  You go to the door and say "Sam, your 5 minutes is over.  It's time to come in and eat."  Sam does not move from the insect he is watching with wonder.  (There is an addendum post, if you will, about not responding the minute you speak.  It was too much to put right here.  Look for it to follow in a day or two.)

What to do?

At this point there are several options depending on what is most important that Sam learn.  You can drag him in....I find this to be barbaric and only resort to it when it is absolutely necessary.

You can remind Sam about the deal that had been made.  Sometimes this simple reminder is enough to get him moving.  If it is not enough, then natural consequences come into effect.  You let Sam know that because he is not keeping his word, that next time he will not have a choice.

Yes this is a little harder and will possibly cause a fit next time, but it is not something to eschew.  If you compromise on the compromise, Sam will continue to run the house.  If you hold him to his choice, he learns that his choices have consequences.  This will not only help him make better choices in the future, but will allow him to make mistakes as a child, when the costs are much less severe.

One day Sam will be grown.  One day he will have to make choices without you there to guide and direct.  The ability to make a good decision will be developed because he will know that he has choice and accountability.  If you negate the accountability part you are setting him up to fail as an adult.  His choices in the future will have consequences that you will not be there to save him from.  And the choices as an adult have much higher stakes.

So when it's time to come in and Sam does not, remember that he is a very clever being.  Remember that he prizes his sovereign rule over his own life more than anything else.  He does not like to be told what to do, he likes to be asked to do it.  If he chooses not to do it, let him know the consequences.  And then, no matter the fit, stick to those consequences.

On that note, I do not suggest a consequence like having to go to his room.  Then we get into physical force which is another issue.  Physically picking up the child should always be avoided and only be a last resort - not just when your patience is gone, but truly a LAST resort.

Natural consequences are much better.  What happens when Sam breaks his word to you?  He loses your trust.  How does he get it back?  He starts keeping his word again.  Explain this logic to him.  He will understand.  And if he wants back the ability to choose, he will be happy to keep his word, and may even point out to you that he is doing it.

If you must send him to his room, give him the choice to walk there on his own.  If her refuses to go and is screaming and crying, then wait for a moment of breath.  "Sam you have two choices.  You can be carried to your room by me, or you can walk to your room.  I'll give you the count of ___ to decide."  (Always give the positive choice last, so it is what his mind dwells on more.)  I usually use a count of 3 or 5, depending on how severely the child is into the fit.  If he is screaming and crying a lot more, then I give a little more time for him to calm down and understand what I am saying.

At this point, he knows the consequences of his choice.  With almost every child, the first time I had to carry them to their rooms.  They didn't believe I would do it, because it seems so very belittling and humiliating to them that they can't believe I would stoop that low.  And it hurts my own sensitivities to do it.  But after the first time, they usually choose to walk to their room on their own because they know I will follow through if they don't.  Again, this should be the last resort though.

I'm sorry I'm very long-winded.  I'm trying to sort out all that I want to say as I go along.  Almost done.

More than anything, preserve his right to choose.  I cannot explain how very, very precious this is to him.  He values it more than almost anything.  If you take away his freedom of choice, he will fight you tooth and nail and come to resent you.  If you offer choices and show the consequences of those choices, he will learn to make wise choices.  And usually when he is butting up against you, he has a reason.  Ask.  His logic may not be sound to you, but it is to him.  He is choosing something because, from his perspective, what he is doing is more important than what you are asking him to do.  If he feels you understand his logic and you think he still needs to do something, he is more likely to listen to you.

If Sam has felt restricted for years, it may take a little time for him to come around...there will be a period of testing to see if this is for real or if this is just a trick.  Does he really get to choose, or is this some new kind of discipline a new therapist has suggested that will soon go away with the new therapist and the new suggestions?  He wants to see that you mean what you say and that you don't say it unless you mean it.

Give them the opportunity to make good choices and help them see the consequences.  It will not be the end of fits today.  But you will see the fits diminish and become less severe when they happen.  I have found the fits come more often when they feel they have no choices in their own lives.  Give them choices and watch what they do with them.  They are fierce about their right to choose for themselves.  Guide them, don't crush them.  Give them the sight you have from living years longer in this state than they have, and let them choose.  Remember today's consequences are far more preferable to the consequences of adulthood.  Recognize their ability to reason and choose and respect their right to make choices.  They will learn much faster, I promise.  And they will learn to choose well as time goes on.  You're job is to help them see the choices they are making, not to make the choices for them.