Read Life With Toddlers Online

Authors: Michelle Smith Ms Slp,Dr. Rita Chandler

Tags: #Parenting & Relationships, #Parenting, #Early Childhood, #Babies & Toddlers, #Child Rearing

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BOOK: Life With Toddlers
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Take the time to think about why your child is acting out.  Customize each response.  Think before you react and listen to what your child is communicating. 

Bribes, Rewards, Reinforcers, and Consequences

So I call Dr. Chandler all the time.  Yep.  My personal, on-call therapist (yipee!) always there for me as soon as my toddlers hit the floor in a heaping tantrum.  (By the way, did I mention this wonderful resource happens to be my very generous older sissy?  Ha!)  In the noble attempt to educate me, and rattling off a bunch of headache-yielding technical gibberish, my sister Rita (excuse me,
Doctor
Chandler) will generally have me snapping, “Slow down and speak English!”  You know girlfriend, your brain gets crispy fried having so many kids.  It really does freaking hurt to concentrate so hard.  To that she always replied, “But Michelle, you need to understand the difference between blah-blah-blah and yak-yak-yak.”  (Okay.  Are you weeping with me yet, people?)  Pul-
eze
, give me the bottom line on what to do!  Now!  Of course she’d just singsong reply, “If you knew the difference, you could figure it ooout!” 

Uh!  Sweet mother of mercy!  But all right, maybe she has a valid point.  (And really, she
is
nice enough to lend me her services for free.)  To approach discipline with our best foot forward, we need to have our little duckies in a row.  So let’s define
bribe
and
reward,
and tie it in with
consequence
and
reinforcer

Most everyone knows how to reinforce
good
behavior, but we’re darn clueless when reinforcing the unwanted stuff as well.  Time to stop!  Now, some of the terminology can get a bit confusing, so stick with me.  We’ll interpret my sister’s technical jargon into Mommy-ese and get groovin’, okey dokey?

Bribes
:  When you bribe, you reinforce undesirable behavior.  Example: Sweet pea howls for candy in the grocery store, and you pop a piece in her mouth to keep her quiet and refrain from embarrassing you.  That’s a bribe.  You’re bribing her to keep quiet, and reinforcing the behavior.  This action clearly tells your child that she gets her way when she howls, which is an undesirable behavior. 

Rewards
:  To promote good behavior, try something else; set up a reward system.  Have it in place ahead of time.  Before you step foot in the store, inform your little darling that if she cooperates by doing x, y, and z (remember, they need specific behaviors you
want
to see: “use a quiet voice, stay close to Mommy, walk slowly”, etc.), she may get a reward when you get back home.  It sounds like a bribe, but actually promotes and rewards good behavior.  Bribes promote and reward undesirable behavior.

A good way to distinguish whether or not you’re bribing is to look at
when
and
what
you offer as a peace saver.  A bribe offers exactly what your little dictator demands after the howling and tantrums start.  This “rewards” negative behavior.  Bad!  Conversely, a GOOD reward gives your child an incentive to cooperate before any yells fire up.  This promotes desired behavior.

To take the reward route:

  • Clearly state the expectations before hand, concentrating on what you want to see.
  • The reward must be something your child desires.  The more he wants it, the more powerful it is for you.
  • Before you hit the store, let Jr. know that we use a quiet mouth while inside.  If he cooperates, he will get “X”.
  • Do NOT tell him things like “no yelling”, “don’t be loud”, “no running”, “don’t talk like that”, or “stop arguing.”  First of all, those are things you don’t want.  Second, they are not specific. “Quiet mouth, slow feet, nice words” – that’s what you want.  It specifically states the behavior you want to see in terms your child can understand.

If you get in trouble and find yourself offering a bribe, turn it around.

  1. Tell Jr. he can have ‘Y’ when he has ‘a quiet mouth’.  Do NOT say, “when you stop crying”, “when you hush up”, or “when you don’t do that.”
  2. Do not offer the original “want” that started the crying.  We do NOT reward throwing fits!

If he starts howling because he wants chips, offer some raisins or a bite of bagel instead.  I know this sounds lame, but if it’s in a cool package, he won’t care.  This is okay because it gets you out of the technicality of a bribe.  Just don’t make it your norm or you’ll teach Jr. that crying still ultimately earns him a reward. 

When your child cooperates, give the reward you promised.  As far as what to give, the sky’s the limit.  Here are some examples of rewards.  Pick a category in which your child responds best.

  1. Sensory: brush hair, play makeup, scratch back, pleasant sounds, smells, or food
  2. Tangible: stickers, books, non-food
  3. Privilege: T.V. for 30 minutes (when otherwise off limits)
  4. Generalized: Token system; money, marbles in a jar
  5. Social: get to play at a friend’s house or invite a friend over to make cookies

You can set up a chart of stickers, marbles in a jar, or whatever your little precious desires.  The theory behind the sticker and jar (token) system is this: each time your toddler cooperates with your requests, they get one sticker on their chart or one marble in a jar.  When the chart or jar is full, your child gets some big prize such as a trip to the toy store, zoo, or favorite hamburger joint.  The only down side is that you have to be consistent, and even then, the novelty could wear off and the kid could end up being about as motivated for the reward as you are for a colonoscopy.  To avoid this, make the ultimate reward quick at first.  Three marbles or stickers and they get a prize.  Then start making them accumulate more tokens before cashing in for a reward.

When a chart or jar of anything other than acetaminophen sounds like too much trouble, promise an extra book and cuddle (tangible and sensory), a movie with your undivided attention (privilege and social), or whatever motivates.  This technique really works.  Kids get very excited at the promise of, say, popcorn and a favorite movie if they’re cooperative in the store.  (This does, of course, go under the assumption they’re not in front of the darn tube all day anyway.  That’s a “bad”, my friend!)  While you shop, keep her motivated with reminders of the reward and praise for good behavior.

If by chance, your dumpling decides to ignore your generous offer and howl because it’s always worked before, DO NOT give in.  You can pack up and leave right away, or take her outside, let her finish the tantrum, then go back in and continue your shopping.  Whatever happens, do not give her the piece of candy or whatever started the howling.  Be brave and consistent.  Hold your ground.  You will have to deal with this at some point or another, and if you give in, you’ve lost the battle.  DO NOT WIMP OUT! 

As a lovely coincidence and example, one of my own children once threw a MONSTROUS fit, which I unknowingly set up. Poppy asked to ride in a special cart at the grocery store.  I said, “Sure!”  She was jazzed and happy until I realized I couldn’t get her in it – I had two smaller kids with me and they couldn’t walk.  They had to go in the cart, and she had to toddle along behind.  Trying to appease her was futile; she wanted to ride in the car-cart like I promised.  Holy Moly Gazoly, I caught hell.  Screaming, screeching, scratching, kicking, knocking things over kind-of-hell.  I’m frankly surprised a bomb squad wasn’t called in, so awful was the entire scene. 

Two lessons here:

  1. I crushed her expectations.  This could’ve been avoided had I thought ahead.  Instead, I told her one thing, got her excited, then changed plans.  We can’t do that, girlfriend.
  2. Even though it was my screw-up, I held my ground and didn’t give her what she wanted.  By the end of the horrendous ordeal, she was exhausted, I was thoroughly embarrassed and scarred for life, but she was cooperative.

The less experience your toddler has with yelling to get what she wants, the less time it’ll take her to realize you mean business.  If the behavior is chronic, it’ll take more effort and endurance on your part.  Stick to your guns and don’t give in to the tantrums and demands.  Remember girl, I feel your pain.  If I can do it, you can do it.

Don’t worry if the behavior gets worse before it gets better.  In fact, expect it if your child is used to getting her way.  When you suddenly change the rules, your determined toddler will persuade you to admit defeat by pumping up the volume and getting in a few more karate chops.  If it has always worked before, she’ll have no reason to believe cranking it up a notch won’t work now.  It may take some time, but once she realizes you aren’t kidding, life will be a whole lot easier.

Consequence:  As we learned in TAG, a consequence is the event that happens after a behavior.  It can be yelling, a time-out, loss of a privilege, or as simple as the reaction of a caregiver.  Consequences serve to either reinforce (R) or punish (P) behavior.  For example, if little Jessica spits, her Mommy can react in any number of ways.  Mommy just has to look at whether or not her response works in stopping the behavior.  Then she can decide if the consequence is a reinforcer or a punishment.

When the response works and the spitting stops, the consequence is
P
.  If the spitting does
not
stop, the consequence is
R. 
 If Jessica’s goal in spitting is simply to get Mommy’s attention, then any attention is
R
.  In order to curb the behavior, Mommy would do well to just ignore the spitting.  But, if Jessica spits only because she saw another child do it, Mommy’s negative reaction (consequence), is not Jessica’s goal.  Here, Mommy could deter the behavior by simply telling Jessica, “We do not spit.”        

Review of Reinforcers:

Remember: If an undesired behavior increases or remains consistent, your reaction is a reinforcer (
R
). 

Here’s another example:

A
= child is eating lunch in highchair

B
= child stands up in highchair

C
= you can:

P
= make her sit back down

R
= yell at her to sit down

By yelling or giving attention to the behavior, you are reinforcing.  Little Joanna toddler will quickly demise how cool it is to get you all keyed up, and continue to stand for attention.  Communication could be another motivator here.  Standing in the chair could be her signal that she’s finished.  Instead of yelling and reinforcing, simply make her sit back down.  Instruct her how to use gestures or words to tell you she’s finished. 

Reinforcing negative behavior is tough to avoid.  There is something called
differential reinforcement
, and it’s extremely important because we can unknowingly reinforce an undesired behavior when we think we’re actually teaching a positive.  Example: A child screams to get a cookie and you want to teach him how to ask appropriately.  You instruct him to say ‘cookie’ (or show you a picture of a cookie), and he gets the cookie when he acts out the desired behavior. 

Here’s the clincher:  Even if he shows you the picture just as you instructed, he has to
stop yelling
before you give him the cookie.  Otherwise, you’re reinforcing a
paired unwanted behavior
– the screaming.  Technically, you have to wait until he stops screaming AND performs the desired/appropriate request before he gets the cookie.  I know, it seems terribly unfair!  The best thing to do is wait for the moment he catches his breath.  If he stops screaming long enough to scratch his nose, as long as he’s doing some part of the desired behavior, give him that cookie!  

Chapter One Review:  What Did We Learn?

The Five Basics to promote positive behavior:

  1. Structure
  2. Communication
  3. Limits
  4. Consistency
  5. Guidance

How to figure out your child’s recipe.

Discipline must be delicate, firm, and consistent.

How to assess Needs.

11 basic Needs and why toddlers act out.

How to customize our responses and stop reinforcing negative behavior.

Bribes, rewards, reinforcers, and consequences.

Five examples of rewards.

The no-no’s of differential reinforcement.

* * *
Chapter Two
Stop Being a Ninny!

I have this theory that everything revolves around the behavior of your children.  Think about it.  Say your day starts off okay.  Breakfast, dishes, laundry… you’re rockin’ and getting it done.  Then, the gods of ill fortune conspiring against you, things go downhill.  You walk into the living room to discover that the cat, who wasn’t supposed to be inside in the first place, has thrown up all over the cream colored carpet.  Your curious toddler is about two inches from maximum inspection.  Luckily your screams of “NOOOO!” divert the little one’s attention and you get to the scene of the crime before those chubby fingers squish the goo, giving him the bright idea to feed it to baby sister. 

No sooner do you get the mess cleaned up then you’re off to the next spill zone.  You find your future artist making a magnificent masterpiece on your white bathroom cabinets with your favorite magenta lipstick and forty-dollars-a-bottle liquid foundation.  Eight hours later, you still haven’t showered, you’re out of milk, the baby’s got an ugly rash, and your toddler’s normal two-hour nap was shortened by half after waking up with a poopy diaper.  Heaven forbid he actually go back to sleep after you change him.  Noooo, no.  No can do. 

By six p.m., Junior’s wailing his head off, fighting the fourth time-out of the day for attempting to flush the very-much-alive-goldfish down the toilet.  Now, one scenario is that you’re all alone.  Your spouse could be working, traveling, golfing, or off with his new wife and new freaking kids.  The other scenario is that he IS home but uninterested, or he’s about to
arrive
home and get a wild-eyed, over-tired, and downright frightening stare-of-a-greeting.  Do you think he’ll sympathetically rush to your side, offer an immediate comforting hug and ask you to tell him all about it?  Ha!  Not in this lifetime.  He’s got his own problems, and besides – who the hell wants to walk home to that?!  So it’s bad-mood-ville for everyone involved.  I’m telling you, the kids rule the roost when it comes to setting the mood for the evening, morning, and whole course of the day. 

You’re Not the Boss of Me!

So, do we just throw in the towel and accept our destiny?  Do we let our kids determine the mood for the day until they decide to move out and (please God) go to college?  Do we hold our collective breath and hope to heaven our kids don’t wear us flat by pouring bleach all over the couch and kick us every time we’re in range?  Good gracious, NO!

Okay Mommy, brace yourself because this is where I get callous and tell it like it is.  Here’s the bottom line:

YOU ARE THE BOSS!

Yep, that’s it in a nutshell.  You alone have the power to turn undesired behavior around.  The discipline ball is in your court.  You are the one who sets the stage for the entire day, ensuring your kids are happy, in control, and pleasant to be around.  When the mood heads down the tubes, it’s your job to assess what to do differently. 

Ever hear a parent say, “Jr. just wouldn’t let me take a shower or eat this morning”?  Well, forget that.  Wimp!  Kids don’t “let” you do (or not do) anything. 
We
let our kids.  We let them order us around, make us feel guilty, and tell us when we can bathe.  This is not okay!  For you rather lenient Mommies, this means (I will be very politically incorrect and give it to you straight)
stop being a pansy! 
Get tough and consistent!

Now wait a second!  Don’t light this book on fire just yet.  I’m not here to be judgmental of your parenting skills.  Spineless parental inaction affects us all – even me.  This does NOT mean you have to become some heavy-handed monster.  Rather, you must simply take the initiative, be firm, and turn things around.  Not so easy for some of us. 

Isn’t it second nature to look into the doey eyes of our greatest accomplishment on Earth and excuse every tiny thing that secretly drives us to exhaustion?  How can we Mommies not give in when our little patootie asks for a third helping of chocolate pudding?  “He looks so darling with chocolate all over his face” you say, “and he posed so nicely for the thirty pictures I took.  Sure, he’s starting to throw pudding on the floor and wall, but you know what?  It’s been a tough day.  He got into a scuffle at Mothers-Day-Out.  Some little heathen decided to hit him over the head for a toy, and that’s the only reason my little trooper bit that awful monster.  He’s also been very upset that Grandma hasn’t been by to see him today…” and on it goes. 

We’ve all done the excuse thing too many times to count, having every justification in the world as to why our children would never act like “that” under normal circumstances.  But guess what Mommy?  LIFE is normal circumstances.  It consists of glitches, hiccups, adversity, and hurdles.  Schedules continually change, kids get sick and stay sick for what seems like half their toddlerhood, and Grandma misses a few visits here and there. 

So let’s stop being mushy about behavior.  Our kids aren’t always as well behaved as we would like.  Big deal.  Stop assuming you’re a crappy parent if you admit your child’s behavior drives you batty.  Quit making excuses for being a punching bag!  Behavior that drives you crazy is just that, and we’ve all been there.  It doesn’t mean you love your child any less.  You’re a great Mommy, so get over it.   

What Exactly Are “Undesirable” Behaviors?

The subjective nature can be complicated.  A good rule of thumb is that undesirable behavior is that which puts too much strain on you, your family, or your relationships.  And you have to pay attention here, because other people see things Mommies do not.  We tend to wear rose-colored glasses, getting very defensive where our offspring are concerned. 

None of us live in a box, and we all know a child we’d describe as spoiled rotten or hateful.  The parents, be they good by our standards or not, may acknowledge a particular behavior is present, but if it doesn’t put enough of a burden on them, the child’s behavior is acceptable – at least to them.  This is a topic of curious debate in my monthly Poker Group.  (We don’t actually play poker, but it started out that way, so the name stuck.)  My “Poker Mommies” as I call them, are a lovely group of ladies who share my fondness for toddlers.  Presently we have a combined total of twelve kids under the age of six – and heaven help us, they just keep coming.  My Poker friend Carey is perplexed as to how much behavior you can let go before you become a brat-maker.  For instance, do you let your one-year-old throw a crayon across the room in frustration or do you nip that throwing business quickly?   

Here are the general guidelines for unacceptable behavior:

  1. The behavior wears your nerves
  2. It disrupts or strains interaction with others
  3. It causes emotional or physical harm to any person or animal
  4. It causes destruction of property or objects

Keep in mind that behavior you think is okay may not really be okay.  It’s not okay for a child to endlessly scream in a public place.  Even if your ears are numb and you no longer hear the wailing, it’s disruptive to others.  You may be too much of a pushover (I know, I’m harsh) to address the behavior, but other people and kids won’t let you get away with it for long.  You need to be considerate of others and pay attention.  Otherwise, Aunt Muffy will stop coming by, former best friend Ashley will avoid you at all costs, and
your
little angel (unbelievable as it sounds) will be labeled a downright unpleasant child at preschool.  Yikes!        

Why We Give In and When to Stop

At the expense of being a squealer, let me enlighten you on a secret that no toddler or child would dare reveal for fear of being a traitor.  When it comes to saying “no” or denying kids a ‘want’, they don’t care nearly as much as they let on.  Sure, it’s a true sting to the soul to be denied chocolate, high heels, and a life-sized jeep, but toddlers have a short attention span.  They’ll forget all about it once you let them stir cake batter or spread jelly on bread.  Don’t believe a word of the moaning, groaning, griping, and growling when they don’t get what they want.  I promise they’ll get over it. 

Why is it we cave to demands and get our kids so much
stuff
?  Is it some secret addiction we have to toys?  Even if you’re able to suppress your own squeals of delight when you hit the toy isle, you have to admit there’s a certain cerebral high to loading up a basket full of doll clothes, snow cone makers, and dump trucks.  And what about guilt?  It can drive us to get our kids whatever their little heart desires.  It’s really no wonder when the yelling escalates to the point we’re sure we were never meant to be parents.  And those of you working 10 hour days with no extra time to give your children?... good grief.  May as well hit that guilt button with fury!  How could we shout at our kids like that?  Why did we stay late at work and miss that gymnastics class?  What kind of parents are we?! 

Caregivers give in to a wide range of undesirable behavior.  We’re sappy, tired, divorced, stressed…the list is never ending.  My husband frequently mentions that fighting is the last thing he wants to do with our girls when he has so little time with them as it is.  As a weary and rushed parent, he sometimes feels it’s easier to relent and give the little chick-a-dees what they want just to keep the peace.  I beg to differ when he’s getting fairly hacked off at our kids for drenching him with all the splashing in the bathtub.  Is he having fun?  Where’s all the peace he keeps talking about?

When you feel irritated or resentful, take it as your clue that you’re giving in too much and STOP.  Toddlers are inspired and eternal optimists.  They’ll find creative avenues to get what they want and push you six ways from Sunday to get there.  It’s your child’s lot in life to ask for more and poke around for limits.  Give him some!  Children need to know their boundaries.  It gives them security and teaches respect and appreciation.         

Personality Types and The Five Basics

All children need The Five Basics.  Some kids just require more hands on help and time than others.  For our purposes, we’ll focus on the personality types that lend themselves to perceived behavior problems. 

The Active/Energetic
 Child:
  So here we go.  Raise your hand if you describe your love bug with terms like “lively”, “energetic”, or “active”.  That’s code for wild.  You and I both know it, so forget trying to fake me out.  By nature of their need to be everywhere at once, active kids have a propensity to get overloaded and provisionally out of control.  Sometimes this may necessitate one hundred percent of The Five Basics.  I won’t hoodwink you into thinking dishing out that much hands-on guidance is the easiest thing in the world, but it’s not a monumental task either.  You’re putting in a gargantuan effort right now anyway, right?  So let’s utilize The Five Basics and make your life a heck of a lot easier. 

If you’re reluctant to address a behavior because (a) you don’t know if it’s normal for an active child and (b) you don’t want to crush the incredible will of this type of personality, then determine if the behavior is something that’s seriously wearing your nerves or causing you anguish. 
Be honest
.  Listen, I’m a supportive and agreeable gal, but if you start giving me a bunch of bogus excuses when you’re clearly as strung out as a ball of yarn the cat just barfed up, you’re not about to get a sympathetic ear.  I’ll simply nod and smile.  Uh huh.  Whatever.     

The true active child is one that many consider to have special spirit.  Being active does not automatically equal inappropriate or out of control.  It just means that by nature of the need to skip around your house on a mission of destruction, active kids get out of control a bit quicker than your average kiddo.  If you happen to have the liveliest child in the neighborhood, don’t confuse the busy nature with behavior you find unacceptable.  When a certain behavior pushes the brink of inappropriate, address it.  You will absolutely not crush your child’s special spirit.  You will, in fact, give your toddler more security by giving her boundaries. 

By and large, active kids need strict, consistent boundaries.  But providing limits and being in control of the active child does not mean smothering - unless you want your batooty kicked.  It’s a losing battle to put an active child on a tight leash, so don’t try.  Just let the child know his boundaries (constantly, honey) so he’ll feel secure.  Pick your battles and remain consistent.  Address and correct the most bothersome or disruptive issues.  Give him a little more space on some of the less pressing (yet still annoying) behaviors. 

Say your Pooh Bear likes to kick a ball in the backyard and get a little wild and aggressive.  Let that be.  Just make it clear that your backyard, by himself, is the ONLY time he can “kick the ball hard,” or “yell at the ball.”  (Remember to give specifics on what is okay and not.)  He needs to get that out of his system, but you need to make it clear that his boundaries are the backyard, alone.  Starting to see?  Allow the stimulus and expression of free spirit that active children need, but absolutely provide boundaries.    

Active/Curious
:
  These children aren’t quite so hyper and destructive, but they still need constant activity and engagement.  Often getting reprimanded for things like flooding the kitchen or setting the bed on fire, they seem to be quite the troublemakers.  Probing and inquisitive, they ask five billion questions a day and talk nonstop.  Or they may frequently engage in activities that are messy, dangerous, or all out nerve-wracking.  This is just their way of learning.  To keep them in control, they need guidance, consistency, and limits.  Generally great kids, it often works well to talk them through points of curiosity.  It may beat you to hell to answer “why does the sun shine?” questions all day long, but if you can muster up the stamina, engage them.  Communicate your limits on answering questions and cleaning up after them.  Make them respect those boundaries.  But overall, try to embrace this personality type and go with the flow of their development.               

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