Wednesday, May 11, 2011

What We Say, What They Hear

Years ago, FAR SIDE cartoonist/genius Gary Larson drew a cartoon in which a man was talking to his dog Ginger about her habit of rifling through the garbage.  The cartoon was captioned, "What We Say To Dogs" and "What they hear."  The man went on about how Ginger had better not get into the garbage again, or else, but all the dog heard was, "Blah blah blah GINGER, blah blah blah GINGER."  (You'll find the cartoon here.) But you can already guess my point:  this is pretty much how six-year-olds hear their parents.

Or at least, it's how MY six-year-olds hear myself and Late Blooming Dad, whenever we're asking them to do anything they're not interesting in doing, like, say, get dressed or get undressed; pick out their clothes for tomorrow or pjs for tonight; or, god forbid, actually finish breakfast so we can get them to school on time.  For some reason, this latter request falls on completely deaf ears.  Either that, or what Thing 1 hears is this:  "Go ahead,take a single bite of the pancake lovingly prepared for your consumption, decide you don't like it, and spit it out but be sure and get some of it on the floor, and the rest on your shirt.  Oh, and while you're at it, pick a fight with your sister."  Meanwhile, Thing 2 has a completely different interpretation of what she's been told:  "You might as well take twenty minutes to masticate that vitamin, and feel free to ignore all requests to finish it and brush your teeth until you've ensured beyond a doubt that Daddy will be late to his nine o'clock meeting after dropping you off at school."

Recently, the unerringly accurate daily comic strip BABY BLUES(by Rick Kirkman & Jerry Scott) had a whole series on this "what you say/what they hear" concept.  You'll find a good example of it here.  The parents, Wanda and  Darryll, are just as exasperated by their spawn's selective hearing as the rest of us frustrated parents.

Back in the fall, I attended a free parenting workshop at my kids' school, taught by a psychologist.  This lady was also a mother of two now-grown children, so presumably she knew what she was talking about from personal as well as professional experience.  She asked if parents were having trouble getting their kids to do what they're supposed to do in the morning before school, to get ready, or at bedtime.  Duh.  Then she informed us that our kids already know exactly what they're supposed to do by now, since they're in elementary school.  They've been getting ready for school in the mornings since preschool, and they've known all about what they're supposed to do at bedtime for even longer than that.  So why don't they cooperate? 

The psychologist said they've got lots of more interesting things to do, but that's not the only issue.  We keep telling them what to do.  A longtime dog owner, she brought up the subject of dog training, and asked, "If you tell a dog to do something six times, but there's only a consequence the last time you tell the dog to do it, what does he hear?  That he only has to take you seriously the sixth time you say it.  Why should your kids' reaction be any different?" 

Okay, I was with her up to this point.  But then, when it came time to figuring out some solutions to get our kids to actually do what we want them to, she lost me.  She said we could tell our kids to do something once, and once only.  And if they didn't comply, we should stand over them, arms crossed, looking firm, until they do it. 

When that fails (and boy, does it -- believe me, I've tried it), she suggests doing things like letting a kid come to school late, with the stop in the office for a late slip and the coming-in-late-to-the-classroom walk of shame that will embarrass them so much they won't want to repeat the experience.  Maybe that works.  But we've never quite managed to find out because somehow, when we've suggested to Thing 1 or 2 that they're going to be late, the errant child in question reacts by throwing a fit, thus even further delaying our departure -- yet somehow not quite enough to qualify for that walk of shame.  We always manage to make it in the nick of time.  By then, however, Late Blooming Mom and Dad are in foul moods that color our entire mornings at work, churn up mom's acid reflux or put dad's lower back into spasm, and make us hate ourselves as parents because, of course, we lost our tempers at the little manipulators, and threw our own fits.

My solution to the get-to-school-on-time problem has been a sticker chart, which worked decently for about a month and a half, but has now gone off the rails.  It was meant to be all about positive reinforcement:  you get ready for school by 7:45, you earn a sticker, and if you earn 20 stickers, you get to shop for a small toy.  The 20 stickers were earned in that month and a half or so, and toys were selected and dutifully purchased.    But since then, the thrill of earning stickers seems to have gone, and the taking away of stickers has become the consequence of choice when Thing 1 or Thing 2 misbehaves.  This has resulted in several unintentionally comic races to the sticker chart, where the misbehaving child tries to shield the aforementioned sticker chart with his or her body, so that the sticker(s) cannot be removed by the determined parent.  The determined parent nevertheless prevails, but the tears come too.

Variations to the sticker earning process have been introduced:  unpack your lunch box and wash your hands within five minutes of coming home, and you earn a sticker.  Get ready for school by 7:30 instead of 7:45 and you earn a whopping TWO stickers. 

But misbehavior -- and more sticker removal -- continues.

I remember the psychologist at the meeting back in the fall discouraging physical rewards for doing what kids are supposed to do anyway.  She referred to that system as "a token economy."  Instead, she encouraged rewards like, "a special lunch out with mommy," or "book time with daddy," but those rewards aren't immediate, and they don't seem to get the kids' attention nearly so much as something shiny and plastic and made in China.  

To bastardize a phrase of Winston Churchill's, our sticker chart is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

Something tells me that whenever Churchill's Brooklyn-born mother Jennie  told young Winston, "You mustn't," he heard, as they say in Brooklyn, "fuggetaboutit." 

He turned out all right.  But I'll bet it was no fun being his mother.


sibi said...

Very interesting! Keep blogging!!

Astrid said...

Just bumped into this post. Very well written, and so comforting to know we're not alone!