The Lion or the Fox?

“Katie, go clean your room”, I tell her.

“Okay, Mama.  Will you set the timer?” she responds.

“Yes,” I assure her. “I will set it.”  She heads up the stairs to clean, but I do not set the timer.  I don’t need to.

It all started about a year ago when Katie, my youngest, went on a bit of a strike about picking up her room.  Like many parents, we started off when she was tiny by cleaning up the room with her, praising her often for her efforts.  Then we moved to directing her while we supervised, coaching her on where to start and what comes next.  In the next step, we gave her a place to start and left her on her own, checking on her frequently, until we could loosen those reins, too. Eventually we came to the place where we could tell her “Katie, go clean your room,” and she could pull it off without us for the most part.  The whole process took years.

But after about six months of being a proficient room cleaner, Katie began to lose herself in the task, playing instead of working, spending longer and longer to get the task done until it wasn’t getting done at all.  We took a step back in monitoring her and gave her more direction, but her little rebellious streak was such that unless she was told exactly what to do and was watched carefully to see that it was done, she would just start playing again.  We cajoled, we bargained, we praised and micromanaged.  But she did not improve.   I knew that she was big enough to handle the simple chore on her own, but was choosing not to.  Finally, on a night when she had been “working” for thirty minutes and making zero progress, I went hard core on her.

“Kate, I am going to set the timer for fifteen minutes.  If your room is not clean when that timer goes off, you are getting a spanking and going straight to bed. Do you understand me?”

She looked at me with wide eyes.  As a pleasant, mild child, Katie rarely has to face my displeasure, and certainly nothing on this scale.  “Yes, Mama,” she whispered and went to work.  She knew I was serious.  I subscribe to the “measure twice, cut once” method of parenting.  Measure twice- think carefully about how you handle your child, especially when you are frustrated.  Do not make a threat that is not effective, not just, or that you cannot follow through with.  Cut once- once you make a threat, you have to follow through.  If you always make good on your follow through, you don’t have to threaten very often.  And if you threaten but do not follow through, why bother?  Your kid already knows you aren’t good for it.

The room was done in under ten minutes. (Which I knew all along could happen-it was one of the reasons that the problem was so frustrating.)  She came skipping down the stairs, proud of herself.  “Mama!  I’m done!  My room is clean!”

The next night, when it came time to clean rooms, I looked at her with a serious face.  “Katie, it is time to clean your room.  Do I need to set the timer again?”

I fully expected her to tell me no, but wanted to reinforce the lesson from the last night.  To my surprise, she answered “Yes, Mama, please!”  Ever since then, when it has come time to clean rooms, she has asked me to set the timer.  After the first week or so, I didn’t actually set it.  I didn’t need to.  I still don’t.  Most days, the room gets clean within a reasonable amount of time.  Napoleon Bonaparte said “I am sometimes a fox and sometimes a lion.  The whole secret of government is knowing when to be the one or the other.”  I think this applies to some of parenting, too.

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