Thursday, March 15, 2001

Small victories

Alright, I'm feeling kind of smug today, so at the risk of inviting a jinx, I'm going to talk about my latest small victory in the behavior management arena. I realize that whenever I talk like I know what I'm doing, my son immediately proves otherwise, but I'll take that chance.

I've written here before about my son's grotesque eating habits, which mostly involve grabbing great fistfuls of food and shoving them into his mouth, then doing his little tic-like hand-shake thing and strewing bits of rice and vegetable all over the kitchen and sometimes into Mama's hair. I've also written about the recent behavior management seminar I went to that advocated changing behavior by changing the antecedent or changing the consequence. Easier said than done, I concluded, and what a pain to have a constantly full bag of tricks.

My particular magic bag had run out on the eating issue. My husband thinks I'm too understanding, but I do know how hard it is for this boy to wield a fork. With his much-delayed fine-motor skills and low muscle tone, it must seem to him a ridiculous way to get at that food he wants so much. Part of his stuff-and-run strategy must be to get as much food in his belly as he can before someone gives him a time-out. I try to explain to my husband that he would probably do the same thing if he had to eat with chopsticks every day. But the fact is, the boy is almost 8, and really, he's got to start eating neat.

I tried changing the antecedent by ordering some "plate bumpers" that attach to a normal plate and give an insecure fork-user a place to push the food against. While waiting for them to arrive, I thought about consequences. What possible thing could this kid want that would override his deepseated antipathy to flatware?

Then it hit me: Capri Sun Coolers.

Those are three words I hear daily, hourly, constantly. My son wants them, bad. He wants them for the cool foil pouch. He wants them for the tasty juice inside. But mostly, he wants them because all the other kids in his self-contained class have them, and when snack time rolls around he's way jealous. Every time a Capri Sun Cooler commercial comes on, every time we go to the store, every time I make his snack, I hear it: "Mom, can we get Capri Sun Coolers?"

And my answer, consistently, has been no. No way. They're loaded with sugar, and frankly, giving an impulsive boy juice in a squeezable pouch sounds to me like a recipe for disaster. Plain old square 100-percent juice boxes for you, bucko.

But I've come to realize that this is the perfect positive consequence: Something the child wants badly and the mother would just as soon he not have. Too often, positive consequences are more important to parent than child, and negative ones more punitive to the parent. But this -- this is perfect. And so we made a deal. If he eats with his fork and not his fingers at dinnertime, he gets to put a Capri Sun Cooler in the fridge for his snack the next morning. If he earns one for his snack at dinnertime, he can earn one for his lunch by being quiet during prayers and helpful in the morning.

So far, it's working pretty well.

We started Sunday night, and he got his cooler on Monday, Wednesday and today. Monday dinner did not go so well, but better than in the past. He's definitely trying. And just the trying, even if it's not followed by succeeding, is a big step forward.

Well, maybe a small step. A small victory. Every little bit helps. We hope he'll learn that the fork is his friend, and in time he won't need bribes. More likely, he'll decide that he doesn't like Capri Sun Coolers all that well after all, and we'll be back to watching him strew food about. At any rate, I'm going to bask in progress while it lasts.

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