This is how Sam wakes us up nearly every morning. It’s a huge improvement over “I SEE THE SUN. IT IS MOWNING TIME!” Although he was eighteen months old before he got there, once Sam started sleeping through the night, he was pretty good about it. For a year. Then, he discovered that his big boy bed was not the same kind of prison as his crib, that he could, in fact, bounce up and come find me at will. All. Night. Long. We tried several methods of stopping this, from the gentle “stand-at-the-door-and-wordlessly-return-him-to-bed” (he once jumped back up a hundred times, thought the whole thing was a game, and completely wore us down) to the slightly less polite lock-the-door-from-our-side (he just screamed –once for an hour), to the completely draconian unplugging-his-nightlight-routine (that one worked, but had to repeat it every single night, and we hated it.)
And then we found the solution completely by coincidence.
It actually started with some behavior problems Caroline was having. She was acting out in school and at home, forgetting to use her words and hitting, pinching, and sobbing instead. She went so far as to yell at a teacher without even knowing why she had done it. (All the teacher did was say “OK class, go ahead and put down your pencils and markers so we can move on to spelling.” Caroline bellowed “NO! I WON’T” in response.) While we implemented consequences for these actions when needed, most of them were related to the autism and required a different approach. Besides, punishment-based parenting has never worked with Caroline. She has trouble making the connections between events in her life anyway, and so punishing her in response to a behavior just baffles her. All she really gets is that she’s disappointed us in some way.
Scott and I actually took a class in peaceful parenting a few years ago called “Redirecting Children’s Behavior”. I’ve since declared myself something of an unofficial spokesperson for the method, because it totally works. It’s absolutely filled with corny stupidity that makes me squirm and would have turned me off as a kid. But it’s also got a lot of fantastic ideas which, when stripped of the syrup, work extremely well for both Caroline and Sam. One of the points made in the class is that kids work harder for positive reinforcement than for negative reinforcement. There’s also a discussion of how positive reinforcement helps parents focus on the best parts of their children. Punishment based parenting is essentially negative reinforcement. The objective is to eliminate the negative rather than to increase the positive. The parent focuses on a negative behavior and then highlights it by punishing it. I’m not knocking it. I mean, putting up an umbrella in the rain is technically also negative reinforcement, but nobody is suggesting we all go get soaked in a storm. For some kids, Sam included, this method works well. However, there’s the danger of always looking for the negative when following this path.
And Caroline needs positive reinforcement. A lot of it. RCB methods are based on the idea that kids want to do right and want to be part of a happy cooperative family. So parents try to encourage good behaviors so that they’ll repeat. For us, in this situation, that boiled down to the need for a reward system. We didn’t really have to worry about over-rewarding Caroline, either. She has entitlement issues related to routines, not to behaviors. In other words, she’s not the kind of child who will expect the same reward every time she acts in a certain way. Thus, if there is no challenge to behaving well, we can up the ante to include something new (a longer time period without problems, for instance) without much flak.
So we filled a treasure chest with dollar store junk and told the kids they could earn prizes for acting right. Since I couldn’t very well implement it with one kid and exclude the other, we included Sam in the process. We couldn’t figure out a way to make it totally positive, still haven’t as the matter of fact, but we do have the system set up so that we don’t seem to expect perfection and we reward them for continued good behavior. Either or both of them can earn the treasure chest in a given period, and neither of their earnings potential is based on the other’s behavior. All they have to do is avoid getting three strikes in a given time period, and they know clearly what kind of behavior will get them strikes. Essentially, we’re rewarding them for being nice to each other and not driving us completely insane, both of which have been serious problem areas in our family. [OK, so that second one is a stop-the-bad-behavior-thing. Whatever.]
In addition to helping with Caroline’s problems, it also helped Sam treat his sister better, and it has strengthened their already-fairly-hearty bond. We’ve gotten to the point where they have to be well behaved all day (i.e., not get three strikes over the course of the day) to earn the treasure chest at bedtime.
At the same time as we were working this out during the day, Sam was getting more and more impossible at night. We were calling him “poptart” because he jumped out of that bed as often as a piece of bread in a toaster with broken springs. And then, one morning, we told both kids, “If you stay in bed all night without getting up except to take yourself potty, you can earn a morning treasure chest visit.” Caroline already did this, but I was honestly just hoping it would encourage Sam to start trying. Just as in the daytime, we gave them three strikes, and I figured Sam would run through his fast the first few nights.
But it was like we’d thrown a switch. He immediately stopped playing bound-out-of-bed and started just going to sleep. He wants to earn that treasure chest. We’ve modified Caroline’s requirements slightly. She already slept through the night. Indeed, she slept a little too well. Like her parents, Caroline is not a morning person, and she was waking up cranky and uncooperative every day. While sleeping through the night is a big deal for Sam, it’s not much of an achievement for her. So we adapted. She has to get up, eat quickly, and get dressed within a specific time period without getting three strikes for dawdling or arguing in order to get her morning treasure chest.
And it works. For both of them. We’re no longer listening to hours long choruses of “I need you to fix my bed” and “I need anothuw dwink of watuw” at bedtime from Sam. Nor are we dealing with “I’m too busy sleeping to get out of bed right now!” from Caroline in the mornings. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s effective.
And like every other parent on earth, we’ve long since learned that parenting is all about the small victories and slow, steady, progress in the right direction.
Jessie Powell is the Jester Queen. She likes to tell you about her dog, her kids, her fiction, and her blog, but not necessarily in that order.