026 – Chapter 4, Part 5

Step 1: Specify Your Expectations to Your Child (continued) 

Write Well-worded Success Statements (continued)

2.     Ensure that your goal statements are worded positively

I have already discussed the importance of focusing on behaviors that you do want, including those selected because they are incompatible with behaviors that you don’t want. This idea is so important that it warrants restatement as one of the prime characteristics of well-written success statements.

Since it is so natural to focus on the unacceptable behavior that you wish to eliminate, it is very easy to allow negatives to slip into your statements of expectation.

An earlier example considered the item:

Dwayne, you are successful when you don’t fight with Latisha.

That wording seemed to demand perfection and therefore was asking too much. To make the statement more realistic, the item was amended to read:

Dwayne, you are successful when you don’t fight with Latisha for an hour.

While this change does respond to the need to be realistically reachable, it focuses attention entirely on what Dwayne is not to do while completely failing to define the desired behavior. Fortunately, it is pretty simple to fix this with a statement that is both realistically reachable and positive, such as:

Dwayne, you are successful when you get along with Latisha for an hour.

Because giving attention to a behavior that you wish to eliminate works against your intended goal, it is important to follow this example to define what you do want your child to do. Think about the failure of the teacher to stop the little boy from pulling the hair of a classmate and the success achieved once the focus changed to making it good for him to sit at his desk. As in that situation, a positive focus sets the stage for your child to succeed.

3.        Ensure that the criteria of success are very clear

Write your statements of expectations so that both you and your child will know exactly what is expected. Achieving this will make it clear to your child that there is nothing to be gained from haggling with you about whether or not your expectations have been met, freeing the child to focus on the task itself.

Each day when a mother told her son to take the trash out, he would respond, “in a minute, Mom.” When a few minutes later she would tell him more sharply to “take the trash out,” he would reply, “But Mom, I’m in the middle of my favorite TV program.” Still later she would yell at him but take no action, a pattern that would continue for a couple of hours. You might ask, “Why would either of them waste two precious hours to avoid a few minutes of work?”

The likely answer: it appears that after the first few minutes of each interchange, the issue evolved from the trash to a power struggle over who was in control. Sadly, nobody could win in this situation. Even when the mother gave up and her son didn’t have to take the trash out, he felt bad about the conflict with his mother, and he had wasted time that he could have spent with friends. On the other hand, even when the boy finally gave in and took the trash out, the mother was left still frustrated and feeling like a poor mother, and she also had wasted a lot of time.

A home program with clear focus on the mother’s exact expectations could have avoided this unhappy interaction and fostered a warm and cooperative family environment.

The necessary elements for clearly stated items include who, what, how much, by when, and how you will measure success. (I might note that the same elements are included in many constructive human interactions, such as when skilled managers give assignments to members of their staffs.)

Including these elements assures focus and energy on the successful behaviors, in the process eliminating bickering and badgering about whether the child was successful. Here is an example of an item with clear criteria:

Alejandro, you are successful when you have the trash out of every room in the house by 5:00 p.m. on Tuesdays.

  • Who?                             Alejandro .
  • What?                         . . . have the trash out . . .
  • How much?              . . . from every room in  the house . . .
  • By when?                  . . . by five o’clock on Tuesdays.

Measure of success:      Checking the trash cans and the clock.

In order for this – and pretty much any other approach to parenting – to succeed, it is essential that you mean exactly what you say. Thus, if the criteria include being done “by 5:00 p.m.” and your child gets done at 5:10, I urge you not to accept that the task has been successfully completed. This is based on the certainty that if ten minutes late is okay today, the next time it is likely to be 20 minutes, and then 30, and so on. No matter how easy-going you are, there is likely to come the time when the delays lead to frustration and an argument. At that point your child may, ever so innocently, ask, “Why the big deal?” since being late had been okay before. And the child would have a point: how can the child know what you really expect if your expectations are fluid? Avoid teaching your child that it pays to fudge, badger, or negotiate, by meaning what you say – this time and every time – and by acting accordingly.


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