Photo courtesy of www.BusyToddler.com
I am a firm believer in positive-reinforcement, especially for those younger than 7 years old. Think about it...as an adult, how do YOU work best? Don't you find yourself more frustrated and maybe even ironically less-motivated when you hear that lay-offs are coming down the line? Maybe you find yourself thinking "I don't want this job anyway," or "I'm not even really happy here." You justify your lack of motivation with faux-empowering statements that will make you feel a little at ease in case you're next on the chopping block. However, don't you feel a bit more motivated if you have an encouraging boss who's tipped you off that bonuses might be a bit bigger this December if you keep up the good work? My guess is your answer is "yes," because that is how the human brain works. We are naturally positive beings, and we work best when working towards rewards, and not so great when fearing punishment.
Contrary to popular belief, children are not just "tiny-adults." Children feel things differently, hear things differently, and internalize things differently. Their brains are nowhere near fully developed at 5, 6, 7 years old. They have much more learning to do and much more growing. However, that positive mindset that us humans work best with? They have that, and they have it in a very magnified way. Their goal in life is to please their parents, while also coming into their own and testing boundaries and finding their place in the world. Being a child is not just hopscotch and jumprope. Children are undergoing severe stresses these days, and it's your job as mom & dad to provide a safe, loving, and accepting place for your child. Letting them know you are proud of them, that you love them, and that you embrace their differences while also REWARDING their ability to adjust to societal norms, such as using manners and maintaining a regular routine throughout the day (including the ever-dreaded bedtime!).
Recently, a friend of mine approached me with some issues she was having with her 4 year-old daughter. Her issues were pretty basic, but as we all know--epic tantrums, melt-downs, and direct (often public) defiance feels anything but "basic" when it's happening to you, and instead it feels a bit more tragic, concerning, and incredibly embarrassing. The ever present mom-worry and mom-guilt creeps up, and we are all left wondering "am I doing enough?" Social media displays all of our "friends" as having seemingly perfect lives, with perfectly manicured yards, professionally decorated playrooms, Pinterest-worthy playdates...and look at those perfectly well-behaved children. It leaves everyone wondering, "is it just me?" and more devastatingly, "is it just my child?"
If you walk away with nothing but this, I will consider it a win:
IT IS NOT JUST YOU.
IT IS NOT JUST YOUR CHILD.
We are all perfectly flawed.
So what's the solution? Well, it's different for everyone. It is never going to hurt to seek out the help of a professional (I know a good one...wink wink). But, if you'd like to try and sort this out on your own a bit before taking that next step, I'm here to give you my FAVORITE behavior management technique. It is almost always my first suggestion for parents seeking my advice, and I've received some pretty amazing feedback, from clients and friends alike. The friend of mine with the 4 year old daughter? She made a Facebook post about her great success with what she calls her "miracle jar," better known to me as a "Warm Fuzzy Jar," and there was such a demand for more details, I decided to make it my first, long-overdo, blog post. I didn't name it, I actually think I owe that credit to a co-worker from long ago (Thank you Kara!). And I am not the first to come up with an idea like this (Google will tell ya). However, pay attention to the rules. My internship during grad school was with a school for those with hearing and speech disabilities, working with children with a wide range of behaviors and diagnoses (Autism, Selectively Mute, Cerebral Palsy, Deafness, TBI, etc). Many of these diagnoses were almost completely unrelated to each other, but all of these children had something in common--they responded well to POSITIVE reinforcement. It was amazing to watch. It molded the way I parent, and it branded who I am as a therapist. The language I suggest you use during this process is 100% a credit to that internship many years ago.
So...get on with it.
Let's make a Warm Fuzzy Jar!
What's the recipe?
*A clear jar (plastic is best, and they have a range of sizes at the dollar store. I recommend strarting with a smaller size, like that of a mason jar).
*Pom-pom balls (Amazon has a bulk bag with a range of sizes for less than $5! Here's the link: https://www.amazon.com/Pepperell-Assorted-Poms-Colors-Package/dp/B004HJ2GJI/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1505443631&sr=8-4&keywords=pom+poms).
*A picture of the prize your child would like to earn (this should be near the jar or taped to the jar).
Fill the jar, earn the prize!
1. NEVER REMOVE POMS FROM THE JAR! If once upon a time they earned that pom, it's theirs for keeps!
2. It's very important that you choose the prize ahead of time and have it on display - don't skip that step! Consider using a prize that involves a special date with you, especially if there are siblings in the home. Earning one-on-one time with a parent can be a really great incentive. Maybe ice-cream? Mini golf? Date to the playground?
3. Get small "fuzzies" AND big ones. Give the small ones out like candy at a candy shop. Really...you can't give out too many. Keep some in your pocket for moments like the checkout line at Target, when you need to remind them what they are working towards. They said "thank you" on their own without being reminded? Have them "put a fuzzy in the jar!" They are playing nice with their sister? Have them "put a fuzzy in the jar!"
4. At the end of the day they can earn three big ones for OVERALL daily behavior--1 for being SAFE (no hands on anyone else, not running in the street, etc…), 1 for using KIND words (no nasty attitude, speaking disrespectfully, etc), and one for being READY (for school, for homework, for bed). You should change this language to include the main behaviors you want to see change with your child.
* You should also let them earn 3 at the end of big things too (like school, playdates, etc…but keep the same language of "safe, kind, and ready"). Suggestion: find a way to give at least one at bedtime, or they'll be ending the day on a sad-note, which only makes things worse.
*Child cannot lose more than one fuzzy for one action. For example, hitting a sibling is not safe, kind, or ready. But only one fuzzy should be withheld per bad behavior--pick which one suits the behavior best, in this case likely NOT KIND. And again—fuzzies should never be removed from the jar. Once they're in there, they're in there. This is all about positive reinforcement.
*You can tweak this!! If they do something over-the-top that you were super proud of—let them put a handful in, or give a bonus BIG one every once in a while.
When the jar is FULL of fuzzies, the prize is earned!
Here is an example of how the conversation should go at bedtime:
Parent: WERE YOU SAFE?
Parent: Yes, you were safe. I saw you make good choices, especially when you looked both ways to cross the street, and didn't walk until cars were done passing. (hand a warm fuzzy to child)
Parent: WERE YOU KIND?
Parent: Actually, no you struggled sharing with your sister all day, and not sharing is not kind. We will earn this one next time! WERE YOU READY?
Parent: YES! You were ready. You got your shoes on without me asking more than once, you got in the car and got strapped in right away, and you did a great job getting ready for bed! I'm proud of you! (hand a warm fuzzy to child). Put those both in your jar, and next time we will aim for all 3!
Yes, it seems overwhelming, but it really is simple. Like I said, every child is different. Every family is different. This won't work for every child, though to be honest--I haven't had it fail me yet. And yes, I've even used it for potty-training. If you are questioning the technique or feel you want help beyond this method, or maybe want your child assessed by a professional before you start any type of system, please do! Trust your gut. And if you find this method is worth a shot, I'll be wishing you the best of luck from this side of the computer.
And...you're welcome in advance. ;)