Step 1: Specify Your Expectations to Your Child (continued)
Write Well-worded Success Statements
There are three characteristics of well-worded, effective success statements:
1. Ensure that your expectations are realistically reachable
When defining your expectations, consider carefully what is realistic for your child, taking into account such factors as your child’s age, abilities, and past successes. While this may seem obvious, in practice it isn’t always so simple.
Suppose you are concerned that “Dwayne and Latisha fight all the time” and that in your home “all the time” means, on the average, hassles occur between them twenty times a day. To address your concerns, you could consider including this item in Dwayne’s program:
Dwayne, you are successful when you don’t fight with Latisha.
However, when you think about your children, you realize that for Dwayne ever to reach that standard he would have to stop fighting with Latisha completely, an immediate change from 20 hassles a day to none. Since this does not seem at all realistic, you could rewrite your item to read:
Dwayne, you are successful when you don’t fight with Latisha for an hour.
Whether this will turn out to be realistic for Dwayne is uncertain, but clearly it is more likely he can avoid fighting for a hour than that he will never fight. Even if the two of them bicker several times during the day, Dwayne might be able to avoid fighting for an hour or two and he can start building up successes. Nonetheless, the expectation may have to be lowered even more for Dwayne to be able to succeed. For children who are used to fighting at least a couple of times each hour that they are together, the time frame may have to be reduced to just a few minutes for one success at the beginning.
The need to define expectations carefully can be discouraging for busy parents. Still, if you don’t make the necessary effort to tailor your expectations to your child’s own capacity, chances are that you will continue to be dragged into the conflict many times a day. On the other hand, if you start small enough to assure that your child can be successful in this program, you can work toward longer and longer periods free of fighting.
Fortunately, parents’ instincts tend to be very reliable with respect to their children. If you are realistic rather than wishful when you ask yourself how long your child can be expected to do a certain thing, chances are you’ll be pretty close with your answer. Thus, when you first decide on a time frame, ask yourself if you can imagine your children going without fighting for that long. If your reaction is “no way,” then adjust your expectations downward until you can say, “Yes, Dwayne probably can do that.”
You have probably recognized that keeping track of frequent successes can be very demanding to manage. Fortunately, there are ways to reduce the burden with a simple timing device.
Imagine that you are busily working on your taxes while your two kids play across the room. In your program, they are each successful for every half hour they play together nicely. You begin work knowing that any hassles will catch your attention but worrying about remembering to reinforce the kids each time they have done okay for a half-hour. As you get deeper into the paperwork, you suddenly realize that you’d forgotten the kids and the stress of trying to keep track of two important things at once builds up. Still, gradually the demands of the forms consume your attention entirely. A half-hour and then 40 minutes come and go and you don’t notice. Finally at 45 minutes the children begin to complain loudly about each other’s unfair play. You perk up and a glance at the clock tells you that you have failed your part in the program.
What do you do now? The children had succeeded at 30 minutes but if you reward them while they are bickering, you reinforce their misbehavior. Recognizing your failure, you likely feel guilty, an awful feeling that you may set about avoiding by focusing on the children’s failings with comments to yourself like, “Darn it, those children are old enough to be able to get along. It’s their fault we have to mess around with this dumb program, after all!” With your guilt converted to anger, you may lash out and likely will consider dropping the whole program.
Fortunately, with some planning a simple kitchen timer or an inexpensive wristwatch with a built-in timer can be set to alert you when the established time has elapsed. You set it, get on with your business, and respond only to misbehavior or when the timer alerts you.
In this example, when the timer goes off at 30 minutes, you go to the children, praise their good play together, comment on the credits they have earned, reset the timer, and go back to what you were doing. Both in this example and in general, the whole interchange after the timer rings is likely to take no more than a minute or so, freeing you to engage fully in other activities.
The general point here is to find ways to minimize unnecessary intrusions from the program and its demands. While this may seem to be a little thing, I have seen it make the difference between parents giving up and parents continuing a very effective program.
This illustration points to another very useful rule of thumb:
Set the goals for your child as high as you can (that is, don’t greatly under-challenge children), but as low as you must in order for the child to be successful no less than about a third of the time.
While this is a useful standard, in practice if you underestimate your child and success comes easily most of the time, you may find you are so pleased with the results that you won’t mind that you are providing more reinforcement than might have been required. On the other hand, if you set the standards too high, things won’t go so well but you can take comfort in knowing that there will be plenty of opportunities to refine your expectations to assure success.
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What’s a good investment? Go home from work early and spend the afternoon throwing a ball around with your son.
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