Many a child can relate to that classic scene in A Christmas Story, where Ralphie fantasizes about going blind from soap poisoning as he’s being punished for cursing with a bar of soap in his mouth. The idea of revenge can be appealing. Faber and Mazlish, authors of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, provide Dr. Ginott’s explanation for this reaction: “Instead of the child feeling sorry for what he has done and thinking about how he can make amends, he becomes preoccupied with revenge fantasies.” This way of thinking – that punishment can be a distraction – is new to a lot of people.
Instead of punishment, Faber and Mazlish suggest the following:
· Express your feelings strongly – without attacking character, such as “I’m furious that my new saw was left outside to rust in the rain.”
· State your expectations, such as “I expect my tools to be returned after they’ve been borrowed.”
· Show the child how to make amends, such as “What this saw needs now is a little steel wool and a lot of elbow grease.”
· Give the child a choice, such as “You can borrow my tools and return them, or you can give up the privilege of using them. You decide.”
· Take action, such as answering “Dad, you’ve locked the toolbox” with “Do you know why?”
· Problem-solve, such as “What can we work out so that you can use my tools when you need them, and so that I’ll be sure they’re there when I need them?”
Avoiding the blame-game and talking about feelings can be difficult skills to acquire, but I think the hardest part about Faber and Mazlish’s problem-solving process is the follow through. “The danger here is getting so carried away with your good feelings at having come up with a workable solution that you don’t bother to make a specific plan to follow through.” It’s important that children experience the consequences.
A couple of years ago, on a trip to Ben Franklin’s Arts and Crafts store, I announced that my daughters could pick out one small treat. As this was a rare occurrence, their excitement made it difficult for them to choose; however, eventually, they did. Then, while waiting in the checkout line, my youngest spotted something else she wanted and declared she was getting them both. When I asked her to choose, she pitched a fit. I explained if she didn’t select one she wouldn’t get anything. The crying continued; a crowd gathered; but I didn’t cave. Ultimately, we left the store without her treat. As I loaded the kids into the car, an older woman approached me, “Good for you for standing your ground. I know it was hard to do, and I don’t see it often enough.”
In the parenting world, this kind of praise is even rarer than a treat at the store. While I was embarrassed by the scene my child caused, just like Faber and Mazlish argue, my daughter benefitted from experiencing the consequence of her choice. Since there’s always another checkout counter to tempt tiny consumers, there’s also always another chance for her to succeed and for me, the parent, to practice alternatives to punishment.