All About Time-Outs: Reservations and Guidelines

Waiting

First a disclaimer – I didn’t use time-outs with my own children. The preschool that I work at reserves time-outs only for when all else fails. As a formal approach, they haven’t used this in at least the last two years.

Not positive discipline – Time-outs are not considered positive discipline. It’s not included in most positive discipline books. If you are comparing it to positive discipline techniques, it’s most like logical negative consequences. The difference is, you aren’t supposed to marry time-outs with all the other techniques. When you use it, in the moment, it stands alone. Logical negative consequences are often used in conjunction with other techniques including empathy, positive intent and choices.

Behavior modification tool – Time-outs fall into another category of addressing behaviors. It is a behavior modification tool. This category includes rewards systems, token economies, behavior charts and 1-2-3 Magic. Several of the time-out guidelines below, I learned in a Behavior Modification course in grad school.

A position against – In No-Drama Discipline, Seigel and Bryson point out that discipline moments should be focused on teaching and connecting with a child. They report that often when parents use time-out it’s focused on punishing and disconnecting with a child. Their position is that the appropriate use of time-out includes “brief, infrequent, previously explained breaks from and interaction used as a part of a thought-out parenting strategy (with) positive feedback and connection with a parent” which can be an effective tool. Unfortunately, in practice, they see time-out more often used in an inappropriate way, which means it is “frequent, prolonged and done as a punishment (with) parental anger and frustration.” This misses out on the empathy and problem solving of positive discipline and can register to the child as rejection.

Maybe ineffective – There are studies on both sides of this. Some suggest it can be an effective tool, and others suggest parents using time-outs are treading water at best or making things worse. Here are guidelines to use it in a more effective way.

Guidelines

Time-out is meant to be a simple, consistent way to address behavior. It is an attention withdraw technique, meaning the consequence for the behavior is the withdraw of attention.

Define a spot – Before you get started, it is helpful to define a time-out spot in your house. This might be the bottom step of a stair case or an empty foyer. While it’s fine to have a time-out chair, you may have the added difficulty of the child sliding off the chair or pushing the chair around. The discipline isn’t sitting on a spot, it’s the withdraw of attention. Others caution against using the child’s bed or bedroom for time-outs. Some argue their bedroom is their space in the house and should have a positive connotation. Also, you want them to want to sleep in their bed. Some say it’s not the best place because their toys are there, and they’d enjoy playing during the time-out. I also get it when parents say, “our house is small,” or, “the bedroom is the only place we can contain him/her.” I’d suggest picking a boring spot. If the family lives in the kitchen, then the spot should not be there.

Target a behavior – Time-out works best to lessen a behavior, by targeting that behavior. This means you are using time-out only and consistently for that behavior. Parents who use it, tend to use it widely. They randomly apply it – pull the dog’s tail, time-out, hit your sister, time-out, spit on the floor, time-out. When randomly applied, it doesn’t tend to lessen any of the behaviors. Targeting means you pick one behavior, (maybe the worst or most persistent behavior) and you narrowly and consistently apply a time-out. You might decide hitting has gotten out of hand for this child so you decide, “we are going to use time-out for hitting, and only for hitting.” When hitting happens, there is a time-out. Not a threat of time-out or a countdown of behaviors towards a time-out, but hitting is followed by a time-out every time.

Three through ten years old – The books say three to ten years old. There’s a bullet point below on time-outs with younger children. I also tend to think the upper end is seven or eight years old. By ten years old, many children are thankful you are withdrawing attention.

One to two minutes per year and starting on the low end – With a four year old this means four to eight minutes per time-out. I’d start at the four minute mark, because when the timer dings, they need to be in the time-out spot and relatively quiet to get out. If not, if they are running around or screaming, you might set it for another minute. This can add up.

A timer not your watch – A timer is objective. Everyone can see it so there’s less debate. If it’s your watch, a child may worry that you will leave them there longer. If you are angry, you might. Your watch also drags you in to more debates. You end up having to say, “two more minutes,” and, “not time yet.” A timer, you can just point to.

Ten word rule – As a parent you are limited to ten words. This might be, “that hurt, time-out. Sit. Sit. No more, go play.” This means you don’t lecture on the way there or have big discussions immediately following. Time-outs are based on the withdraw of attention to curb behavior. All this talk is a lot of attention on the heels of the withdraw of attention which defeats your purpose. You shouldn’t have to explain why they are there, they are only there for one behavior. And, while you need to coach the wanted behaviors, (below) it’s best to do that out of the moment.

Little parental emotion – In the same direction, a big emotional response is giving attention. Yelling, glaring, stomping around give the behavior that power. In the moment, time-outs are meant to be a calm follow through for behavior. It’s meant to be cut and dry.

If your child won’t stay – You might increase your physical presence. They won’t stay in the foyer, stand just outside the foyer with your back to them. They won’t sit on a stair, sit just behind them, hands gently on their shoulders. That’s about it. If you find yourself wrestling with a child to keep them in time-out, it is not working for you. They have your full attention.

Preconference – This is an important piece, and it’s when you really lose two-year-olds. The preconference is explaining all this to your child just before you start using time-outs to address a behavior. You might call a family meeting and explain, “hitting has gotten out of hand in our house. We are going to use time-outs for hitting. Here is where you sit. Here is the timer, and this is how long it lasts. When the timer dings, if you stayed here and are relatively quiet, you can get out.” Say all this to a two year old and they’ve forgotten by the next day.

As an informal approach – Several parents have said, “we do time-outs, but it’s not all this.” It’s more, “you need a break. Go take a time-out.” or, “go to your room. When you are calm, you can rejoin us.” I think taking a break to calm down, for the child to collect themselves is often a good thing to do. If you are using time-outs to lessen a behavior, I wouldn’t also call this time-out. You might also teach the other ways to calm.

Younger children – You lose most two year olds with the preconference. They are often, not good at staying put for the follow through. I think it can be fine to occasionally fall back on the guidelines if a limit is needed. If a young two year old bites your arm, I think fine to say, “ouch, that hurts!” set them down and walk away for a minute as a consequence. Remember the time limits, the ten word rule and little emotion. If you need better ideas for introducing positive discipline with young children, read The Discipline Book by Sears and Sears.

Time-in – I like time-ins. This is a period of time, maybe a minute per year of life, that you give empathy, connect and coach the wanted behavior. If your four year old just grabbed a toy, you might have them sit with you and say “I know it is frustrating to wait for a turn,” and then coach ways to ask, role play asking, give a puppet show to model or draw a picture of it going well together. It is good to remember to coach the wanted behavior out of the moment as well.

 

 

 

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It’s Okay for Your Child to be Frustrated

Little girl looking angry in the kitchen with mother in background

It’s okay for your child to be frustrated. It’s okay when your child is disappointed. This is not something for you to avoid or fix for them. It is something for you to connect with, and to help them move through.

A dad of a four-year-old questioned, “we have a routine when we run to the grocery store of stopping for an ice cream next door, and then the toy store to sit on a rocking horse, and then to get groceries. Some days time is tight and I want to just get groceries, but he gets upset so I feel I can’t. Do I have to get ice cream and visit the toy store?”

While it is a nice outing, it is life to have changes in routine. It’s better to help your child learn to cope, than to tip-toe around it and avoid the upset.

You might help by preparing them for the change. On the way, you might say, “I know you like stopping for ice cream and the toy store. Today we only have time for the grocery store.” You might then offer a choice, “would you like to pick the ice cream or the cereal?” or a challenge, “can you count all the items we put in the cart?” or a job, “I need a cart pusher,” to get them thinking about the grocery store rather than the ice cream or toy store.

For the upset that still may follow, it’s good to provide empathy; “I know it’s frustrating when we have to change our plan,” or, “I know you really like the other stops.” Often it’s good to connect with hugs or hand holding.

Out of the moment, it’s good to coach them on emotions and ways to manage when their triggers happen. Here is a link to a blog post which includes way to coach emotions and the importance of triggers: https://parentingbydrrene.com/…/preventing-tantrums-emotion…/

The idea is – prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child.

Getting a Three-Year-Old Out the Door in the Morning

Hi Dr. Rene,

I have a three-year and two-month old son. In the last month or so, it has been extremely difficult to get him to cooperate, so we can leave the house. He runs away when I try to get him dressed, get shoes and coat on, etc., and it is making it challenging to be on time for important things like picking his sister up from school. I try to leave extra time, but nothing so far has helped. If we are going somewhere he wants to go, it is a little easier, but he often says he wants to stay home and play, so it is very difficult when he does not want to go where we are going. Sometimes, if we cannot be a minute later, I have to force his shoes on and carry him to the car. It is very frustrating, and I know that he knows he has control over the situation when he runs away laughing as I follow him around with socks and shoes and a coat! How do I avoid making it a power struggle?  Also, if he refuses to put a coat on, and it’s cold out, should I let him go out without a coat? If I give him choices, he will tell me “neither.”  Thanks for any advice!

Sincerely, Amy

Mom of two

Hi Amy,

This is such a common time of day to struggle with children. I think the only time that tops getting out of the house is getting them in bed. The first thing I would do is build a schedule. Start by deciding what time you need to leave, let’s say this is 8:00 a.m. in the morning. Then, make a list of all the things that need to happen before you can leave, and decide about how much time can go for each. Then add 10 minutes, work your way backwards from 8:00 a.m. to figure out what time you and the kids need to get up and moving. That extra 10 minutes is time for him to work towards and you set it aside for him to play with legos, look at books or play with his trains. This way you can remind him, if you are getting dressed quickly you will have time for trains. It also give you a bit of a buffer, if the morning isn’t going well you have 10 extra minutes built in.

Really think through the order and logistics of things. If you are forever chasing him to get shoes on at the last minute, have his shoes on as part of getting dressed or shoes before breakfast. If you rush around each morning to pack his school bag, make packing his school bag part of the evening routine instead.

Once you have your schedule, work with your child to make it visual. Take pictures of him going through the process, find pictures online of the activities or help him draw the pictures, and then make a poster of the steps. Give him choices, if you can, about the order of the morning or of activities for how to spend his 10 minutes.

Then think job and choices. Jobs are making him the shoe picker or the cereal pourer and the light switcher on the way out or the car key carrier to unlock the door and let everyone in. These are easy and fun ways to help him buy into the behavior. An individual job may only be interesting for a day or two while others may be interesting for a few weeks (like the car key carrier or radio tuner). Choices are asking does he want to get dressed on the bed or the floor, does he want cereal or oatmeal or does he want his red coat or blue. Choices work because they share power. When he says “neither” to choices, you can reply, “you can choose, or I will choose for you.” If he participates then, fine. If not, you can choose for him and move on.

When all else fails, consequences are fair game. It is fine to say, “if you don’t have your shoes on, your feet might be cold,” and then swoop him up and go, putting the shoes on later. Hopefully, if you can accept this as just a part of the plan, it will be less frustrating when you use them.

Sincerely, Dr. Rene

 

 

Calm Parenting – Shift Your Responsibility

Staying calm when your child is misbehaving can be a difficult thing to do. I think part of the answer lies in where you place your focus. Often parents feel responsible for their child’s behavior. The misbehavior feels like a direct reflection on you. If you think other’s are judging your parenting based on the child’s behaviors, it is easy to lose your cool. To calm, shift your focus. Think of being responsible to them rather than for them.

For example, you and your three-year-old are having lunch together at a restaurant. They are busy eating their mac & cheese when all of a sudden, they fling a forkful and hit a person at the next table. You are not responsible for them throwing food. You didn’t arm and aim them. You are responsible to model, teach apologies, to address and curb the behavior. You are responsible to teach them how to behave in restaurants moving forward.

Another example, your eight-year-old decides to skip spelling homework and studying for a week and gets a poor grade. You are not responsible for the grade. It is not your homework. You are responsible to help them understand the importance of homework and studying moving forward. You are responsible to check their homework completion in the next few weeks while they get back on track. You are responsible to sort out whether this was truely a dip in effort or a bigger learning difficulty.

Overall, this means to focus your efforts on what you can control. If you are so narrowly focused on changing their beahavior, you are likely to feel frustrated. Focus on the piece you can control. Rather than focus on changing their behavior, focus on changing your reaction to their behavior. Focus on building skills to better address, manage and teach about behavior.

How Choices Work in Positive Discipline

Child looking for direction

When offering choices in discipline, the goal is to offer two positive choices for the child that both meet your goal in parenting. These choices can focus on the how, what, when or where. Let’s say you need to have the playroom cleaned up. Offering choices about how could include, “would you like to start by yourself or with help?” or, “would you like to throw the balls or drop them in the basket?” Choices about what may include, “would you like to start with the blocks or the balls first?” or, “would you like to start with red toys or blue toys?” A choice about when would be, “would you like to clean before bath or before bed?” A choice about where would be, “would you like to start on this side of the room or that?”

Choices work because the child gets to have some power. Choices elicit cooperation; the child willingly does what you want her to do because she gets to make a decision. This is especially true for young children under five years old because they have very little power in their day. They are often told where to go, when to go and to be quiet while they are going there. If you ask a three-year-old who is hemming about having to take medicine, “would you like it with a spoon or a dropper?” and they reply, “dropper,” they are more willing to take the medicine because of their newly found sense of control.

The choices don’t have to be important ones. For that child who is hesitant to take medicine, you could offer, “would you like it with juice or water?” The next night ask, “standing or sitting?” The next night ask, “in the kitchen or in the bathroom?” None of these choices are terribly important in the process, but they tend to gain compliance for the parenting goal of downing the medicine.

To be fair, both options must be good for the child. Steer clear of offering one positive and one negative option. I think of Alicen, who makes a lot of noise throughout the day; she hums, whistles and sings. By the end of the day, it can be a bit much. When we are all in the kitchen getting ready for dinner, I might say, “you can do that in here very quietly or out in the foyer loud.” Neither of those options is particularly bad. If I offered one positive and one negative, I might say, “you can do that in here quietly or go to your room.” In this case, my language is manipulative. I am saying, “here is a bad and here is a good; now which do you want?” Children typically understand this and think, “well, duh! Nobody wants the bad.” They are forced to choose the one you want them to choose. That is not a choice; it is a consequence and should be stated as such: “If you do not quiet down, I will send you to your room.” When there is one positive and one negative, it is a given what will happen; it is not a choice. Rather than provide a false choice that is actually a consequence like “you can mow the lawn today or be grounded; which do you want?” parents will get better results by stating the cause and effect clearly, “if you do not mow the lawn, I will ground you.”

In most discipline, choices come after any needed “I” messages or empathy but before consequences. As you enter into discipline, it is best to address emotions first. Help yourself and your child to calm and manage emotions before you try to discipline or to fix the situation. Once that is done or if that is not needed, think choices before consequences. Choices work because they elicit cooperation. Children are often happy to do the thing you want them to do. Negative logical consequences work because you are putting your foot down. Children are often resentful of the process or angry that you just trumped them. The order of response would be to lead with the choice.

First: “Do you want the red or the blue sweatshirt?”

And then, if necessary, follow that up with a logical consequence.

Second: “If don’t get dressed now, we will lose our time for the playground.”

This puts the happy option first and follows up with the less agreeable way if happiness fails. The other order – consequence first followed by choice – is usually less effective. Children will be less willing to choose if you were just firm with them. An example would look like: “if you do not get dressed right now, we’ll lose our time for the playground. Now which do you want the red or the blue sweatshirt?” You already put your foot down, so it is far less attractive to take you up on a choice. Choices should come first because they are flexible and open. Consequences are closed; there is a built-in outcome.

There are a few exceptions to the “choices first” guideline. Aggressive behaviors tend to go straight to consequences. Hitting, kicking, biting and screaming in someone’s face are behaviors that do not have choices available; they just don’t. In those cases, I tend to think consequences first after attending to and offering empathy to the “victim.”

There are a few expected stages in development when choices can be especially effective.  At various ages, many children are driven to gain independence in particular ways. Around two to three years old, most children are driven to do things for themselves. Parents of toddlers and preschoolers often hear, “I’ll do it myself.” It is helpful if parents can offer choices such as, “would you like to do it by yourself or with help?”

Around six years old, children tend to push for more control over their schedule and routines. It can be helpful if parents offer choices such as, “would you like to read books or color now?” or, “let’s invite a playdate. Would you like to call Lindsey or Emily to play?” Around eight years old, children may push for more physical independence.  Choices such as, “would you all like to sit with us or a few aisles away?” can be helpful.  In the pre-teen years, children tend to need more privacy. Parents can offer choices such as, “would you all like some time alone in your room or in the basement?” If children feel thwarted in their push for independence, they may become evasive in their efforts. If you feel struggles happening over these pushes for new independence, it is most helpful to examine the amount of control you are exerting over your children.

Children benefit from practice at making decisions. Kohn states that children “learn to make good decisions by making decisions.” Ideally, you are offering these choices throughout the day, not just in discipline. Asking questions like, “would you like peanut butter or ham and cheese?” or, “do you want to play blocks or balls?” provides children with safe opportunities to practice making choices. These opportunities are out of the moment of discipline. There is less hanging in the balance. The better children get at weighing the options and making decisions when the decisions are not weighted with importance, the better they’ll handle choices within discipline. When my children came to me at seven years old and asked, “what should I do about this?” I wanted to be able to give it back to them by asking, “what do you think you should do?” To gain experience problem-solving – to come up with and weigh options –  children need practice.

As a general guideline, when children are under five years old, provide only two choices. If you open the closet and ask a three-year-old, “what would you like to wear?” the choices can be overwhelming. Children will let you know when they are ready for wider choices. You might ask, “do you want the red or the blue sweatshirt?” If they reply, “how about the green,” they are likely ready for more options. By all means, if green is another sweatshirt which meets your parenting goal, it is fine. If the green is a party dress, and you are headed to the muddy playground, you might say, “I really like the green too, but today it is red or blue.” It is fine to reiterate choices. If this strategy still doesn’t work, you can choose for them, but you have to let them know that is coming. You could say, “this is taking a long time. You can choose, or I will choose for you.” Most kids will choose immediately because they don’t want to lose that power. This shift should not sound like, “okay. This is taking too long; I choose the blue.” If you swoop in and take their power without warning, you will surely be met by upset or tantrums.

While choices often work, sometimes, they just don’t. You warn children to make a choice, and they fall to pieces. Or, they do make a choice, but then throw it down and run from the room screaming. When choices fail, you can fall back on consequences. Moving to consequences also prevents you from being bogged down by choices. Occasionally, we have a parent who says that choices don’t work because, for example, “my child says ‘no’ to the initial offer, so I come up with other choices, and she just refuses every option,” or, “we go in circles all day because he’ll pick something and then change his mind and fight for the other.” In these scenarios, the child has led the use of choices into a power struggle. The idea is to offer one set of choices, encourage a decision, and then move forward. If choices break down, move to consequences rather than join in the struggle by offering a series of choices. If the choices initially work and then a bit later the child starts to lose interest, it is fine to offer a second set of choices to keep the momentum going. It is successful if you are cleaning the playroom together and initially offer, “would you like to start with the blocks or the balls?” and the child chooses and starts picking up the blocks. If interest fades six minutes later, you can offer another set of choices, “do you want to finish the blocks by yourself or with help?”

Another possible challenge with choices, is when a child will choose one, but then push for the other. Let’s say you offer, “would you like cereal or oatmeal?” The child chooses oatmeal, you make it, and as you set it on the table the child says, “no! I want cereal.” At that late point, if you then make the cereal, the child will push for the second option often. There is more power in getting you to make two. If you want that push to end, offer empathy around the first choice, but stick with it through the upset. Say “I know you like cereal. I am sorry, but I’ve already made the oatmeal, and that’s what is for breakfast. You are welcome to cereal tomorrow.” It may take a few times of sticking with the first choice, but if you are consistent, the push for the second thing should lessen. If you have a child who does this often, you can confirm before making the oatmeal. After you have offered and child chooses, you can say, “I heard you, you picked cereal. I am going to make it, and we are going to stick with it. Do you understand?” At least then you’ll feel better about sticking with the first choice.

Choices are flexible and work because they share power with the child. They also teach decision-making and often result in a more peaceful exchange than consequences.

Helping a Child Be Resilient

Hi Dr. Rene,

My two-and-a-half-year-old is going through a lot of the typical two year old stuff. He has a growing imagination, talks lots, tests boundaries and is experiencing new fears. I am taking this all in stride, but I do find myself thinking that he doesn’t seem very resilient. He seems so sensitive to small pains, slights and annoyances. He is also pretty tuned in to loud noises, new tastes and textures. I don’t expect him to manage on his own or become resilient overnight, but I’d love tips on how to help him better weather the little upsets.

Sincerely,

Diane

Dear Diane,

Thanks for the question. It’s a big one. There are many ways to help build resiliency across childhood. I apologize for this list, most of the bullet points represent what should be a whole book of content. For now, give lots of empathy and teach problem solving at every turn. When you can, focus on problem solving in the moment. If he is too upset, remember to go back later and discuss or brainstorm what could have happened for a better outcome.

  • Model and Encourage Optomism – If you are an optomistic person, this is an easy one. Unfortunately, if you are a pessimist, this can be near impossible. The idea is to model looking on the bright side, focusing on solutions and having faith things can be resolved.
  • Use Descriptive and Avoid Evaluative Praise – Evaluative praise to avoid sounds like, “good job,” “you are such a good boy,” “that was great,” “thank you so much,” “I really like that,” “I like the way you…,” and, “I am so proud of you.” Descriptive praise to use sounds like, “you handed a block, that was helpful,” and, “you waited while mommy was speaking, that was patient.” This means to describe the behavior, and then give it a related label.
  • Focus Your Discipline on the Behavior NOT the Child – This means using ‘I messages’ and avoiding ‘you messages’ as you enter into a discipline exchange. When a child runs through the living room and knocks over your lamp, it’s saying “I’m angry, my lamp is broken,” or, “I’m frustrated, people are running in the house.” It’s avoiding, “I am mad at you, you broke my lamp,” or, “I’m frustrated, you always run in the house.” I messages label emotions and blame the behavior or the situation not the child.
  • Learn Scaffolding – Scaffolding is the language of problem solving. When you help a four-year-old with a new puzzle, or a fourth grader working on hard math, your language and approach is your scaffolding. There is a review of effective scaffolding guidelines in this previous post: https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/?s=scaffolding.
  • Avoid Rescuing – This is a difficult one to practice when your child is a toddler, but it’s important to keep in mind as they grow. If they steal a trinket from a store, have them return it rather than doing it for them. If they purposefully break a toy, avoid replacing it.
  • Teach Decision Making and Offer Choices – Allowing greater decision making is a gradual process. At two years old they might decide what snack to have, at four years old what toy to buy, at six years old what clothes to wear, at eight years old what sports to play and at ten years old what instrument to learn. Of course, you are providing guidance as needed, but focus on teaching them how to make decisions rather than making decisions for them.
  • Positive Attitude Towards Learning and School – The idea is to build a “home-school connection,” so the child grows up feeling my parents value my school, and my school welcomes my parents. Read to them everyday, know what they are learning about in school and participate as a room mom and in extracurricular activities. Check their homework, teach them to study and meet their teachers.
  • Check and Build Social Skills – A child’s sense of social connectedness and acceptance from others is a big part of their developing self esteem which overlaps strongly with resiliency. In childhood, social competence is defined loosely as the ability to play while keeping friends. If play isn’t going well on a regular basis for your child, step back and check their social skills. Work together to improve as needed. This includes their conflict resolution skills. Friends also provide a social network to cushion the blows of life.
  • Focus On and Develop Talents – A second foundation of self esteem is a child’s growing sense of skills and abilities. Look for their strengths and provide opportunities to build their talents.
  • Provide Downtime – The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests children have a minimum of an hour of downtime everyday. Downtime is truely unstructured, go play time. This can be with other children as long as it’s by choice and child led.
  • Sense of Faith or Spirituality – Not one better than another, but children raised with a sense of faith or spirituality tend to be more resilient in the face of life stressors.

As a side note, your descriptions, “he seems so sensitive to small pains, slights and annoyances. He is also pretty tuned in to loud noises, new tastes and textures,” lend themselves to possible sensory concerns. This could easily be well within normal limits and not an issue. If this continues to be the pattern or seems worse overtime, you might read The Out of Sync Child by Kranowitz, or take a consultation with a pediatric occupational therapist. Either will also give you additional ideas about resiliency more related to sensory processing. Please let me know if you have additional questions about this.

Please enjoy this link to an article about building resiliency written by the American Academy of Pediatrics: www.healthychildren.org.  –  http://www.healthychildren.org/english/healthy-living/emotional-wellness/pages/Building-Resilience-in-Children.aspx?nfstatus=401&nftoken=00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000&nfstatusdescription=ERROR%3a+No+local+token

Sincerely, Dr. Rene

Curb Tattling

Tattling is a common behavior particularly for children four to seven years old. It is also an unpopular behavior particularly with classmates and older siblings. My Claire was about five years old when she started tattling non-stop on her older sister. It took about a week for Alicen to have enough. Claire was telling on big things like, “she is hurting me,” and little things like, “she is almost touching me.”

The first round of defense is to teach children the difference between tattling v. what we call helpful telling. Helpful telling is when they come to tell you something that you want or need to know about. This includes when someone is hurt or in danger or getting their feelings squashed. Define this with children and give them examples. Helpful telling would include, “she hit me,” “her chair is too close to the stairs,” and, “they are calling him names and he is crying.” These are things that need an adult’s intervention, children are showing they aren’t yet able to handle the situation.

Once children understand the difference, it is on the parent to consistently respond. Parents should intervene when it is helpful telling and not when it is tattling. When the child says, “her chair is too close to the stairs,” a parent can say, “thank you for telling me, that’s helpful,” and intervene. When the child says, “she is looking at me funny,” a parent can say, “is anyone hurt or in danger? I think you can handle this, go tell her to stop.”

Done consistently, this should start to curb tattling. It makes tattling ineffective. If it’s still happening too often, parents can add a logical negative consequence to make tattling costly to the complaining child. The answer is to have the tattling child say something nice about the child they just told on. In our house Claire said, “she is breathing on me.”  I responded, “is anyone hurt or in danger? I think you can handle this, but first, tell me something nice about Alicen.” This was painful for Claire, it took her a few minutes of saying, “I can’t think of anything,” before she said, “if I have trouble with the tv, she helps me change the channel.” I said without laughing, “good enough, go.” Children do not want to say something nice about the child they came to tattle on. Done consistently, this really dampens the behavior.

Mantras in Our Family

  •  Avoid Creating Work for Other People – Maybe this comes from waiting tables through college, or from how hectic our careers feel now, but I’m reminding the girls often to not create work for other people. In little ways, this means checking under the table at restaurants to be sure we’ve not left a mess. In big ways, it means being prompt with letting people know where you are and what’s your plan, so they are not left to work or worry around you. It’s being responsible for your own stuff.
  •  Different Families Do Different Things – I have answered so many questions and started so many conversations with my children by saying, “different families do different things…” This has ranged from other families living in bigger houses and other children not having a set bedtime, to other sets of siblings slinging horrible names at each other going unchecked and a mom friend who slapped her then 4 year old during a playdate at our house. This works in both directions. Sometimes it’s nice to be in our family, sometimes they are wishing they could stay up nightly til they just conk out. In either direction, it brings them back to the focus on home and who we are.
  • Grow Up Slowly – While I understand they can’t really know this til they know it, I want my children to recognize that it goes by fast. That there’s no need to be in a hurry to be on top of the ticking clock. I want them to hold on to being a kid for as long as they can. We’ve made a great effort to enjoy things with them and talk about how even daddy’s not too old to enjoy an afternoon spent on mastering the Slip’n’slide. He notes The Wiggles as one of the best concerts he’s seen, and he’s seen many big acts in the last 30 years. We’ve put effort into putting off getting ears pierced, wearing make-up or having cells phones until they are following their friends rather than leading the charge.
  •  Enjoy Where You Are – I am still learning this one myself, so the mantra brings me back as much as them. For my 14-year-old, this is actually turning off her phone when we are at lunch with Grandma and Grandpa, so she can be fully engaged in the conversation. For me, it’s watching an entire gymnastics practice rather than taking the time to get caught up with work.
  • Move Forward in Peace – Okay, this is just mine.

Teaching Them How to Share

I think learning to share starts with learning to take turns. Taking turns is more concrete than sharing. The child knows, “I have this to myself. When the timer dings, or you tell me, it will be their turn. If I ask nicely and wait, I will get another turn.’ This can make sense as early as 18 months to two years old. Sharing is, ‘we might all touch it at the same time. I may not get this to myself.’ This can be a more complicated issue and can be managed more easily as children get to be three or four years old. At any age, if they have difficulty with sharing, focus first on turns. When there is difficulty, think of empathy and coaching before discipline. This is a social skill that can take a lot of time and practice to learn. It’s more than a specific behavior.

Turn Taking

If your child is having difficulty with turn-taking, you might more actively practice. If he is playing at the train table when you come in the playroom, you could pick up an unused train and say out loud, “wow! The green engine. I am going to take a turn with this train.” If he wants the green one immediately, you can say, “oh, you would like a turn? I am taking a turn, but will be done in just a minute, and you can have the next turn.” Role the train for just a bit longer, and then say, “I am done; you can have a turn now.” You might add, “when you are done, can I have another turn?” Then when he is done, if he remembers to give it back you, gush a little, “you remembered I wanted a turn; that was thoughtful!” If he forgets, you say, “Oh, remember I want the next turn,” and prompt him to hand it to you. If he does, gush a little. Again, this can take some time. (this paragraph from a previous post)

Talk them through these steps with similar language every time they are in a situation of turn taking. Turn Taking may be easier when it is about an activity like waiting to bat in a t-ball game or waiting for a turn on a slide. Use similar words to talk through these times. Also, talk about it when you are waiting for a turn at the grocery store or at the doctor’s office.

Playing board games, even cooperative board games, is a nice way to introduce and practice turns. Cooperative games like Snails Pace Race and Things In My House give an opportunity to practice turn taking without the added pressure of learning to lose.

Sharing

Again, talk about sharing whenever you see it. Talk to them about how we share pool toys with neighbors and how we share a metro ride with strangers on our way to the zoo. Talk about how well they shared the sandbox at the park. Work to share something with them everyday such as a bowl of ice cream or space in the chair when you are reading to them. The idea is to make sharing a common event and highlight the times it is going well.

It’s often more difficult to share things such as a shovel in the sandbox or a puzzle task with classmates. When you can be proactive, prepare them for the sharing that’s about to happen. In our preschool, before we take out a big floor puzzle, we talk to the children about how we are going to all work together to share the task, how we can ask each other for pieces and should listen to others’ requests. We end up reminding them to share the pieces and the space throughout the activity.

It may be a good idea to have a similar conversation about sharing before playdates. Let your child know that friends are coming over, and they will be sharing their toys. If this is difficult, you might allow your child to put away a few toys that they are not ready to share with the understanding that what is out is for everyone to use. Be ready to give reminders throughout.

Read About It

  • The Mine-O-Saur by Quallen
  • Mine, Mine, Mine by Becker
  • Rainbow Fish by Pfister
  • Share and Take Turns by Meiners
  • Sharing is Fun by Cole
  • The Boy Who Wouldn’t Share by Reiss
  • I am Sharing by Mayer
  • It’s Mine by Lionni
  • One for You, One for Me by Albee
  • Martha Doesn’t Share by Berger

Four-Year-Old Goes to the Park Alone

Hi Dr. Rene,

Early this morning, I was awakened by knocking at my front door. There stood my neighbor with my four-year-old that she had found playing by himself at the park down the street. We have rules that he can’t go downstairs in the morning without telling us, he can’t go outside alone and such, but he obviously ignored them. He scales babygates like a pro and knows how to open the locks on our doors. I am looking for ways to drive home the seriousness of what he did. I showed him how scared I was and am, but he just countered with, “but we know her, and she was nice, and look, I’m fine.” I called his dad and together we told him there are some very bad people who like to take children away from their parents and hurt them. Any advice on how to drive this home? Is talking enough?

Thank you,

Ellyn, scared mom

Hi Ellyn,

There are several answers here. I think in the moment you were absolutely right to show him how scared you were. Most parents, when they feel scared show anger which doesn’t tend to stick. Your children see you angry often, but they rarely see you scared, so if you can keep it that true emotion, on your face and in your voice, it will likely have a biger impact.

I would then review the rules of telling before going downstairs in the morning and getting permission before going outside. Since this was in place and ignored, I would have followed up with a related consequence something along the lines of being inside for two days. I get this may seem like a big response, but it is a big and depending on where you live (busy streets) potentially dangerous one. As a parent of a four-year-old boy who has already bypassed the system, I would go ahead and install an alarm system. I don’t mean to be dramatic here, but for sanity’s sake put one on the doors to be used overnight or at least new key-only locks.

In a whole other area, I would get and watch The Safe Side: Stranger Safety by John Walsh (America’s Most Wanted) and Julie Clark (Baby Einstein) with him http://www.thesafeside.com/. It is a DVD that teaches children the difference between ‘safe side’ adults, ‘kind of know’ adults and ‘don’t know’ adults with rules for each. It is informative without being scary and well done to keep the children’s attention. For yourself, I would also read Protecting the Gift by Gavin DeBecker https://www.gavindebecker.com/index.php/resources/book/protecting_the_gift/. It is a book written to guide you through teaching your child about personal safety.

I hope this helps.

Sincerely,

Dr. Rene

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