Many basic parenting techniques reflect a consequence and rewards system for behavior. Johnny didn’t get ready for school in time and played with his chickens instead of eating breakfast. You know, every day situations like this one. Because of Johnny’s choice to disregard his duties in the morning, Johnny loses chicken time after school. The hope is Johnny will think before he strays from his morning jobs in the future when he thinks about the consequence he received. As Johnny’s parent, you continue allocating consequences and rewards throughout his childhood to encourage and discourage specific behaviors. And most often, this basic system is effective.
We assumed for many years that we would fall in line with reward and consequence training in our parenting. Between common sense parenting and Love and Logic training, we were armed and ready for all our kids would throw our way. Until we weren’t and we literally threw all of it out the window. Slowly and steadily. What our friends did with their kids wasn’t working with our joyful son. What the books told us to do didn’t feel true. What our “experienced” pediatrician claimed as parenting 101 felt backwards and unproductive for our family. Why? Because the way it should be for so many families just isn’t the way for families raising kids with special needs. It just isn’t. No one told us that and eventually we decided to own it as our truth.
Maybe your kiddo isn’t falling into the parenting box you’ve been assuming will be yours. Maybe you’re a teacher and your student doesn’t respond to all the tricks you keep up your sleeve. After 11 years of trail and error, we’ve learned a thing or two and unfortunately, we will have to continue to stretch and mold our knowledge as he matures and grows. A situation that happened in our mile high household earlier this week might shed light for you. This story speaks to what rewards and consequences look like for our son.
We had a heck of a Monday morning trying to get out of the house for school. Our daughter, in typical fashion, got herself ready for school with 100% accuracy and attention to detail, no questions asked. Our son, no longer responsive to the checklists we slaved over at the end of last year, did not. I had spent 3 hours with our ABA therapist putting together checklists for how to get ready, including an upstairs checklist, breakfast checklist and mudroom checklist. All broken down in one step directions, colorful and bright and as happy as can be. Tape was laid on the floor, outlying where he should be at certain times. Timers are in place. Visual images are posted. It worked – for 1 month. And now it doesn’t. Just like that. Such is the case with any sort of system. We start over and reassess more often than you can begin to imagine.
Moving on…After 48 reminders to do every step of the morning, we landed in the car (him in the van while I sat in the Nissan Leaf waiting for him to notice) and I was spent. It was 7:10am. I explained to him that instead of him earning a quarter for getting ready for relative independence, he now owed ME a quarter for all the work I had to do to get him out the door. His response,
“That’s okay Mom. A quarter isn’t so much money.” He meant that sincerely.
I then said, “Ok then. Yow owe me a dollar. Does that feel more tragic?”
He says, “Well, it’s ok. At least I can still play with my chickens.” He also meant that sincerely.
I then revoked chicken rights. He shrugged and said he would always have his grasshoppers to hunt for. Naturally, I removed the privilege of hunting for grasshoppers. Any hope of proud parenting or rationality at this point was far gone. He sighed and explained that he didn’t need to hunt for grasshoppers because he could ride his bike to a friends and hang out or play screens. Again, sincerely. You can see where this is going. I laid claim to the conversation with this mother of the freaking year statement,
“Son, you will do NOTHING fun after school. No chickens, no screens, no grasshoppers, no friends, NOTHING. You will read a freaking book or look at the wall!” I had won. All rewards or joy producing elements to the evening were banished.
He looked me right in the eyes at a stoplight, put his hand on my leg and whispered, “Well, it’s okay Mom. I’ll always have my imagination. And you should not say “freaking.”
Well SHIT. SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT. That’s all I had. So many shits. I screamed them in my own brain and asked him for silence for the rest of the car ride, which is not a reasonable request for a child that speaks every thought that enters his mind and forgets what’s going on around him 2 seconds later. He did continue to speak, with joy and sincerity about Pokemon and Harry Potter and when his sperm will become mature. I kid you not. These are our conversations, all within 4 minutes of each other. Every day.
Love and Logic didn’t prepare me for this kid. All the books and the advice and assumptions don’t hold a candle to the inner workings of this child’s brain. Consequences and rewards and systems and all the logical solutions do not work. And, in the rare instance they do, give it a week and prepare to move on. If you have a kiddo as magically unique as mine or work with kids you’re struggling to figure out, my advice is to throw out any assumption of theory you “think” should work and get into the brain of that little human. What motivates them? What makes them joyful? How do they walk through life? If they’re verbal, ask them. If they don’t speak, use a sensory experience that will awaken their spirit and pay attention. And if you find a system that’s working, soak in it while you can, but don’t assume it’s forever.
Keep those creative juices flowing and reach out for help, your child subject being first on the list. My son told me that if I eat M&M’s in front of him while he’s not focusing on his tasks he’ll be so jealous that he’ll get with the program. When I responded that I don’t want to have to eat M&M’s in the morning he said, “Fine, do Skittles then.” Right. Or he explained that I can hug him tight every time I have to talk to him because he’ll be able to hear better. They know what works for them, even if it seems ludicrous. I won’t eat candy in the morning, but what I might do is give him a small bowl of M&Ms each morning and take them away every time I have to remind him to do something. And it might work for a couple weeks. And he’s right, a squeeze would enact his sensory system and give him the ability to hear and process my words. It’s not reasonable, but he knows what he needs.
Taking away chicken privileges will never be our solution. For better or for worse.