We’ve been having a lot of trouble with our three-year old recently. I’m 100% sure that his behavior is typical and similar to that of other kids his age, but the fact remains that his constant defiance is taking its toll on our family dynamics right now. With the added stress of having an often-fussy newborn, my husband and I have found ourselves at our wit’s end when it comes to dealing with PK’s preschooler behaviors.
We have always been on the same page when it comes to the notion that we want to raise children who understand that there are limits in almost every facet of life. We also both feel that it is important that our children listen and do what they are told. We are not strict disciplinarians, but we certainly have boundaries that we expect our children to adhere to – within reason of course, after all, our kid is only three!
For the better part of the last year, time outs were working great for PK. It was a physical and mental reminder to “check yourself before you wreck yourself.” Just spending 30 seconds to a minute sitting on the stairs helped to calm him down and also gave us a chance to step back and breathe. The understanding was that when the timer went off, PK and one or both parents would have a little chat.
It generally goes something like this: Do you know why you are in time out? I did _________________. You know I love you very much but you can’t _________________. I love you Mommy/Daddy. I’m sorry for _________________.
The problem with time out was that our son became wise to the calming down trick. He knew that the most important part of the scenario was the part where he said he was sorry. He also started to think that if he said, “I want to be good,” that all of his prior mistakes vanished. Time outs have become something that cause just as much stress as the actual egregious behavior. He’s constantly moving up and down the stairs, playing with the light switches, doing anything to not sit still. It doesn’t seem to matter where we put him, it’s just not working anymore.
My husband’s next step was to start threatening that our son would lose toys if (insert bad behavior here) continued. I immediately saw a few things happening. One: he has a lot of toys. Like, a LOOOOOOT. He doesn’t even remember that a Transformer or Batman was taken away yesterday because he has 46 other action figures left in the container today. Two: What if he’s doing something we don’t like, but isn’t currently playing with a toy? Does taking away a toy really mean anything to him in that moment? Probably not. I’m not saying I’m an expert in little kid behavior, but I knew that this was not the route that was going to work with our family.
Overall, one thing I know for certain in both teaching and parenting, is that if you threaten to do something, you better freakin’ believe that you need to follow through with that punishment if you want to be taken seriously. Punishing is hard because it requires you to have consistency and timeliness. It also requires that both parents have the same line to be crossed that warrants a particular discipline. It’s also mentally taxing to feel like you’re constantly punishing your child.
So today we’re trying something new. PK will be rewarded for his good behavior. This is something that I’ve read in about 700 different ways in teaching. I know that it works, but it’s something we haven’t thought our son could rationalize until now. While I’ve been held hostage in my newborn’s rocking chair I’ve been reading up on various ways to do this. At first I was going to do a chart & sticker system. Ultimately I decided that I didn’t want to have to keep starting a new chart every time our son earned the required amount of stickers. I also wanted something a little more tangible. I decided on a jar, some star beads. He will earn stars for doing particular tasks that he has been having trouble completing lately. We also decided that he would lose stars for particularly bad behavior snafus. For that category, we only listed two behaviors: being mean to other people (which can encompass the entire human race and thereby cover our bases pretty well) and being mean to his dogs. He’ll be rewarded for getting dressed calmly, sitting during meals, cleaning up after he plays, being gentle with his brother, putting his shoes on when he’s told to, and listening to directions. I decided that the things we want him to do are worth more than the bad behaviors, so even if he has a few set backs throughout the day, he isn’t losing everything he worked for.
I struggled with whether or not to reward him for behaviors that we just expect of him, but right now he doesn’t seem to have a good handle on what is “good” versus “bad” behavior. There is a lot of grey area when you’re three. Sometimes you’re so engrossed in an activity that you didn’t hear directions. Sometimes you don’t understand why something is bad. Sometimes you’re just having a cranky-pants day that you simply cannot process the idea of putting on your shoes without kicking your mom in the face.
As he goes along, he’ll reach the lines drawn onto the jar. The first few markers earn him a “sweet treat” – a lollipop, popsicle, fruit snacks, etc. He’s not really motivated by screen time. He enjoys watching shows on Netflix, but never asks for them at times when’s it’s outside of his normal routine (for example, he usually watches one while he eats breakfast and we get ready for work). Although I wasn’t sure whether to reward behavior with food, he LOVES lollipops and would willingly give up his right arm for one, so I have a feeling that will get him going. The top line is a new toy. I figured we’d have a box with small toys designated just for this arrangement. After a little measuring, I figured it will take him about 3 days to earn his first reward. My husband and I also agreed that he could earn extras if we catch him doing something particularly impressive.
Overall, I can’t believe how much effort I had to put into making freakin’ jar with some stars in it. Here’s hoping it works!