Friday, January 07, 2011

The Art of Disciplina

As a parent, I've found it invaluable to remember that discipline is first and foremost about teaching and learning, not punishment (discipline comes from the Latin disciplina, meaning "instruction given, teaching, learning, knowledge"). Which is why I'm delighted with how well our Nurtured Heart Approach has been working out. Here's an update (first post on this topic here).

One optional part of the Nurtured Heart Approach is a points system. It helps to formalize what you're doing, and kind of takes the whole thing up to the next level. We opted to implement this for Jaybird -- and her older siblings, both to avoid jealousy and to create buy-in from them.

The picture above shows Bear during our end-of-the-day "conference" (we don't actually call it that -- we say "we're doing points now!"). We work from two sheets, one labeled, "Ways to Earn Points" and one labeled, "Ways to Spend Points."

The kids can earn points by doing or not doing certain things throughout the day. The "Earn" sheet is divided into three parts: rules, character bonus, and responsibilities. "Rules" are the bare minimum, and are stated in negative terms for the sake of clarity: no hitting, no yelling in anger, no disobeying parents, etc. "Responsibilities" are things they are just expected to do: picking up after themselves, getting downstairs by 7, in the car by 7:25, remembering to bring everything needed for school, playing with Mudpuppy, etc. "Character bonus" is "above and beyond" territory. Here we have "being grateful instead of jealous," "saying sorry," "forgiving someone," "smiling a lot," etc. Don't those sound like wonderful behaviors to have around the house?

Each of these items is assigned a certain number of points: 1, 2, or 4. At the end of each day, we review the day with each child. (The other children are off brushing teeth or reading; we've learned to do them separately to minimize "help" from siblings.) If a child was successful on a certain task, she receives the points available for that task. A child may earn partial credit for the bigger items if she was mostly successful on it. For example, "no yelling in anger" can be hard to be consistent on the whole day, but if the child was good about it for most of the day, she might receive partial points.

We keep track of the points by using candy as counters. We find that candy adds a little interest. Plus, they can eat the candy -- although doing so costs them points. We limit how much they can eat.

On the "Spend" sheet is all sorts of ways to spend the points. We list anything that is a privilege, from snacks to screen time to visiting friends, etc. "Normal" privileges cost very few points. "Extra" privileges that go beyond what they are normally allowed cost extra points. They can buy a 10-minute delay in doing a chore, or an extra half-hour of reading time before bed on non-school nights, or a half hour shopping trip, or choosing the meal for one day in the coming week, or chocolate milk, or a fun bath, or an extra half-hour of screen time, or chauffeur service (typically getting picked up from school). The hands-down favorite from Jaybird and Mouse has been sleeping downstairs on the couches, which we allow them to do for 15 points on non-school nights.

The point of all this (no pun intended!) is to be intentional about recognizing kids' behavioral successes. The basic assumption of NHA is that most kids want to be good, and that most kids respond to discipline more effectively when we put as much energy into recognizing their successes as we typically do into recognizing their failures. This was key for me -- realizing that a lot of my parenting energy was directed at deterrence and negative comments about what was going wrong. The idea of putting all of that energy into recognizing and reinforcing what was going right really appealed to me.

What the point system does is to create a time and place to be very intentional about recognizing the kids' behavioral and character successes. Just like in their video games, they earn points for following the rules and achieving certain goals. (And just like when they play a game, they sometimes pump their fist or say, "Yes!" when they get a lot of points.) Besides providing a strong incentive for good behavior, the privileges give the kids a certain degree of control and freedom. If you think about it, a lot of misbehavior is about kids fighting for that control. By providing a structured forum for them to "bend" the rules and earn privileges, you're providing an outlet for all that.

And when things don't go well? When someone's disobeying, or not fulfilling responsibilities? We get to impose a spending freeze on the points. Very simple, very straightforward; no long lectures or explanations, 'cause all the rules and expectations are already laid out. We just say, "OK, that's your choice. But your points are frozen until you ___." Every single privilege costs at least one point, so freezing points is like a super-timeout or grounding, without all the fuss and hysterics. One sentence, delivered in a very matter-of-fact way, then we walk away. No yelling required. I love it.

Keeping track of these points is a lot of work -- although we've figured out some tricks for streamlining it, like keeping the number of points as low as possible (less counting out candy) and doing all the accounting at once at the end of the day. Still, we spend half an hour, at least, going over this with all three kids at the end of the day. We have been doing it for about three weeks. My mom had said that it would be hard to maintain, and I can see why. Ideally, this will not be a "forever" project; ideally, as all of this becomes habit, the idea would be to take the training wheels off. For now, though, we've seen some great results -- as well as some unexpected side benefits.

In the results category, we've seen much better compliance with the basic rules. Yelling and arguments are not completely extinct, but on more days than not, we're awarding each kid full points for not arguing with their siblings. Hitting, which used to be an every-other-day sort of thing with the girls, has pretty much disappeared.  Big blowups from Jaybird are also becoming quite unusual; she still "loses it" occasionally, but since we've been ignoring them as well as praising her when she stops on her own, these tantrums have been getting shorter and less intense. The kids get 13 points for following all the basic ground rules; most days, they're getting all 13.

Positive behavior has increased, too. Since "gratitude" went on the list, we've been hearing a lot more "thank you's" and words of appreciation. The kids are also much more ready to say they're sorry and to forgive one another; after all, at the end of the day, they get four points for saying sorry, four points for forgiving, and lots of praise from us.

When Jaybird falls short on an item, she sometimes has a cute reaction. "Did you stick out your tongue at anyone today?" we'll ask. She'll pause to think about it ("ummm..."), then grin, hold up her index finger, and say, "Still working on it!"

Going over the list at night acts as a sort of examination of conscience for the kids; it teaches them to reflect on their actions. (A next step for us could be to link this explicitly to prayer, by asking the kids if they want to  pray for grace for anything they're "working on." We could also ask them whether they have anything they want to pray for forgiveness for.)

The list is purposely skewed to be positive; for instance, one of the items is "Smiling a lot during the day," something that Jaybird does most days. That way, even if she had a bad day in other areas, there's something positive to talk about. And that's another unexpected benefit: It's great to end the day on a positive note. The kids are visibly proud and happy about their successes.

One last unexpected benefit. Truthfully, at the end of the day, Starling and I are both tired, and usually cranky. Let's face it, kids are not adults; they don't know how to give space or not be annoying. They're needy by nature. So at the end of the day, sometimes, you just want them in bed. But then, when we go over that list, it's sometimes a revelation for us -- "Gee, these kids really hit most of these targets . . . they really were good today!" It causes a real attitude adjustment for us as parents when we realize that there were no arguments, no hitting, no yelling all day long -- and they were helpful, used kind words, had good table manners, or whatever else they did.

But cleaning their bedroom floor? They're still working on it. :)