Tuesday, March 27, 2001

Non-coercive parenting

I recently reported here about a small behavior management victory in getting my son to eat with a fork. I am happy to offer the update that, after a few week, the reward of a Capri Sun in his school snack is still sufficient motivation for him to "eat neat." The fact that this problem we have struggled and worried and yelled over for years has been resolved with a lousy bag of juice still boggles my mind, but it confirms my idea that, especially with neurologically compromised children, it's better to change what you're doing or find the right positive consequence than to struggle, worry and yell.

This past Saturday, I had what may turn out to be a breakthrough with my son's other big behavioral challenge, staying quiet in church. Like the eating, this is something he has legitimate trouble with; his sensory integration problems and basic impulsiveness make prolonged quietude especially difficult. But at Mass last weekend, I had him sucking on Jolly Ranchers candies through almost the whole service. As soon as the candy ran out, he started talking; when another candy went in, he stopped. We've tried candy before, but never so consistently throughout the hour. I think I may be on to something.

"Mothers with Attitude" reader Jean Z. of Boston, MA had a behavior management triumph of her own recently, and sent me the following e-mail to share the good news and talk about "non-coercive parenting." That certainly sounds like something useful, especially for parents of special kids for whom coercion is blazingly ineffective. Since she tells her story so well, and I'm too tired from two late nights to write much today, I'll let Jean take over here:

You might enjoy (if only for the wild contrast it presents to such things as "holding time" "ferberizing" "ezell method" "tough love") looking at the Web sites "Taking Children Seriously" and/or "Gentle Spirit."

Both talk about "non coercive parenting." I though I was fairly non coercive, but it made me realize I had a lot of communication habits (preaching, judging, dismissing, trivializing) with our son that were impediments to true communication. TCS really places a lot of emphasis on treating children like you would a respected friend, and thus trying to find out what's really "bugging" them and sometimes changing your own viewpoint as to what's really important and what you "can live with."

I was pleasantly surprised the other day after our son (age 4) yelled "NOOOO! I HATE THE DENTIST! They're STUPID! Everybody there is STUPID!" when he found it was the day for a check up. I consciously repressed the urge to say "We don't talk like that in this house" and "It's not a big deal, just a check up" and "A big boy like you will do fine" and "They have those toys and pizza certificates when you're through" and "OK, don't go, if you want your teeth to fall out of your head" and "Going is NOT an option."

Instead I did that "active listening" stuff that sounds silly when you read about it, and "fed him back the feeling." Like "Yes, the dentist can be really stupid ... and scary. I agree with you." The trick I think was taking him seriously, listening, and acknowledging the feeling (fear) which underlay the angry talk.

"Yes" he said "and I don't like the machine." Then, "When the chair goes back too far it hurts my neck." Then (this amazed me, the previous visit was 6 months ago) "And last time, I picked a little truck toy from the basket and Daddy said 'We have too many of those, pick something else' and I had to put it back. But it was different, it was a zipper pull truck, and I wanted it." Then, "The cover they gave me for the toothbrush was too small and I don't like yellow." And, finally, "And I picked the blue toothpaste but it was sting-y and I wanted the chicken toothpaste instead."

"Wait a minute" I said, "let's write these things down and tell Daddy too, and think of what would we could change at the dentist and what's okay."

We did, and talked a little bit together about asking for a little pillow for the chair, not censoring his toy choice, and asking for less tooth polish time with "the machine." Five minutes later he was getting dressed to go, in a good mood.

Seems like things always go better in our house when we talk about the feelings.

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