Wednesday, November 05, 2008

And when she was bad, she was horrid.

It's another discipline post. Really it is. But first...

Here's Nuvy in her "Purple Butterfly With A Big Dress" costume, stuffing a chocolate between houses on Halloween night. I love this costume, but I was looking forward to making her into a "Shark", the first iteration. The second, "A Pink Bear with Big Purple Teeth," left me totally at a loss.

So, butterfly worked out great, third year in a row. Poor Van, he got stuffed into Nuvy's old butterfly costume from two years ago--completely adorable, by the way--Sans wings-- and was a caterpillar.

Anyway, on to the discipline part. NOLA mom asks what I think about ignoring bad behavior, as negative reinforcement is still reinforcement. This is a topic that keeps me up at night from time to time, because I read that, too, and I'm pretty jumbled in my feelings about it, and will now make another overlong post to that effect.

I think it's a nice idea that you can effectively discipline a person (or an animal) with no negative feedback, but I have to admit that I also think the approach is somewhat limited.

Here is an article I read about using dolphin training methods to train your husband, which espouses pretty much the same idea. Reward positive behaviors, and ignore negative ones. This woman reports some success training her husband in this way, and I can certainly see the appeal of the idea. It's a fun read.

The Montessori Approach
Montessori relies heavily on peer pressure to guide children's behavior. The teacher models the correct behavior and points it out in other children. Likewise, the other children point out to the errant child his error, and so there is a kind of "movement" toward good, community-oriented behavior. Acting out produces its own consequence, in that the offender is shunned by others who don't want to play with him in his current state of activity, and so the teacher is pretty much there to help reintroduce the child to the group once the acting out is over. Fights and other group expressions of inappropriate behavior are usually discussed in a general way at circle time, and the children will come to an understanding of why a behavior is inappropriate or ineffective. It's not called "normalization" for nothing.

This works splendidly in large groups of children. (Please remember that Montessori herself worked with orphaned or otherwise abandoned children whose parents exerted no influence, and who lived in the facility.) I have always maintained that Montessori teachers have a much easier time than parents, since there is nobody else to point to at home, it's just you and your child. Oh, and all your emotional baggage.

My Home-modified Montessori Approach
Now that we're staring down the juggernaut of our own tempestuous offspring, let's get real. For children, there are certainly some behaviors that it does not pay to reinforce in any way. There are also some behaviors that have to have immediate, real consequences, and some of the Montessori school consequences just don't have as much weight at home. My own modification of Montessori school discipline includes some categories of behavior that need different categories of response.

Acting Out
Acting out or "protest to the contrary", I define as an outsized emotional response to an authoritative decision the child opposes. For example, "I want/don't want to go to school/bed/table/bath", but the decision is already made. Really, I don't advocate negotiating on this, once you've made a pronouncement, and I think this is a good time to ignore bad behavior. Here's why: If the tantrum precipitates "five more minutes", then the tantrum has been successful. If the tantrum elicits yelling or violence from the parent, this is the kind of negative reinforcement you don't want. Not necessarily because it's "attention," but because it's "effect." While she didn't get what she wanted, at least she managed to make you as miserable as you made her, so it's a draw.

This is why I think it's important to be completely unmoved by protest tantrums. This kind of behavior will not get you anywhere in life. It will not get you friends, or a job, or a loan from the bank. You have to keep your wits about you, and learn how to play ball. The lesson is that tantrums get you nothing at all.

Violence against others
In real life, contrary to a little raging hyssy-fit, violence against others will get you something indeed. It will get you arrested. That is why I think hurting other people is an actionable offense, and should not be ignored. With toddlers, I think you have to express disapproval in no uncertain terms, and I think it should be personal. "Nuvy, I will not let you hurt Colin (hit Van/bite me/throw things at people...). If you hurt us, we cannot work/play with you." I think a toddler needs to know not only that violence against others is not allowed, but that you, the parent, intend to prevent it.

When Nuvy is violent with me, I feel like it's ok for me to show her a little attitude, because I really think this is the logical consequence. I mean, on the playground (or in the girls' restroom in high school) what is the usual result of physically assaulting someone? They get really pissed off, right? Naturally, I don't hit her back, but after the first "I will not let you..." I say sharply "Go away from me, now! I won't let you hit me!" Likewise, after the first warning with others, I remove her abruptly from the situation. So far, this works pretty well. She seems to understand it.

Interrupting another person's work (snatching toys, mostly)
This one is hard with toddlers, and I think it's more a situation for dialog than for "consequences." Even though she's pushing three now, I still think the concept of sharing is a little nebulous for her. "Share" means "give it to me." For now, when she fights her brother or her friend over a toy, I try to walk through it with her. "Hey, wait a minute. I know you want that spoon, but Van wants it, too. Please let him finish his turn, then you can have one." The advantage is that Van is 11 months old, so once she gives up the object of desire, I can easily redirect him, so she can have what she's after. Positive reinforcement for waiting your turn, not punishment for grabbing. In Montessori school, it's easy to tell when someone is "finished" with something, because the child has returned the work to the shelf. Not always so at home, unless you are very well disciplined in your environment. Sometimes you'll want to help it along...

By the way--It is a little trick I've developed in the "non-Montessori" parts of the day at school, and at home, to ask one child to wait her turn, then quickly encourage the other child to another activity, giving the first one over to the waiting child to quickly achieve positive reinforcement for waiting.

So there's a start--anyone have more?


MB said...

This is a weird one and not based on any real theories whatsover but it works for us. My daughter is 23 months and when she starts have a tantrum I just pick her up and hold her and sing her favorite song to her (currently the ABCs), sometimes two or three times straight. She is so happy to hear me sing that she forgets all about what was upsetting her. Hopefully this will work awhile longer because it works really well for us!

M. T. said...

Again, I loved this post. I agree with the logical consequences that you have laid out here and (try!) to use them.
What exactly do you NOT advocate as far as timeouts go -- didn't you say you don't use them? For "violence against others" I send my toddler to her room saying that I must keep her baby sister "safe" and that means sending her away. I don't make her stay there for any length of time, she is free to come out whenever. Is this a real "timeout"?

Also, a question about tantrums. Do you so completely ignore them that you don't do anything about the screaming? At home, I send my daughter to her room to have her tantrum, but that usually escalates to a power struggle and a holding-the-door-closed-on-her-till-shes-done type of situation and it goes on and on.
Also, I'm concerned about the message being "I only want to be around you when you are acting "nicely" and you are unacceptable when upset."

Thank you for putting up with all my questions! I'm forging for my little family this path towards respectful discpline and though I feel so strongly about the rightness of it, I do think I'm a little hindered by the fact that I am only seen this in a Mont. school and never in anyone I know's homes. And I've never seen the "end result" of someone raised this way.
The emotional baggage you mention -- OH. YES. :) LOL.

Thank you also for all the links on the previous post -- I can't wait to read them.

Testdriver said...

m.t. on time out and tantrums--

Thanks! This is a really important issue for me...

I guess what I do is in keeping with the "spirit" of time out, but I think the time-out has to be logically helpful to the child. I think if kids are put "in time-out" for any rule infraction, it becomes just another punishment--by which I mean imposition of parental authority disconnected from any external cause and effect. Again, a temporarily effective way to produce obedience, but short-sighted in my view, since the motivation (keeping on the good side of the parent) is unreliable as the child gets older. I try to send Nuvy to isolation only when it makes sense as a response to what she did (like hurt someone or throw a fit). If she makes a mess, I try to involve her in the cleanup. If she mishandles something, I try to take just that thing away. It's more direct and more sensible to her. In cases where I do send her away, I let her determine when she may come back. It looks like this: "Please go (wherever) and sit by yourself until you are feeling better." When she thinks she can pull it together, she comes back and says "I'm better now." We then hug and I try to reiterate the correct behavior, and we move on. Not so for, say, crayons that were taken away. Once it's gone, it's gone--at least until there has been some interim activity, and a "new start" can be made with the material. If she immediately picks it up again, I say "No, I took that away because you misused it. We'll try again another time." Sometimes this ends peacefully, and sometimes it ends with a tantrum.

As for tantrums, Even if she has a throw-down screaming, hair-pulling nuclear hyssy fit, as long as she's not preventing me from getting something immediately necessary done, I try to just let it go. If, for example, I'm on the phone, I ask her please to go scream and cry in another room, so that I can use the telephone. Amazingly, this usually works!