Preschool Lesson #3: Positive Reinforcement Actually Works Better than Bossing People Around

November 19, 2009 at 5:08 pm , by

3194508218_7528b77215OK, if you can bear it, here’s another Important Life Lesson I’ve recently had pounded into my brain thanks to my three-year-old son’s preschool experience. Drumroll, please: If you try to control people through criticism and intimidation, you’re likely to make them depressed, unmotivated, angry and rebellious.

When we last left young Scott, he had turned into the Tasmanian Devil due to stress, lack of exercise, and sleep deprivation. In my blog entry about it, I didn’t mention the main reason behind his behavior change: a strict but inexperienced preschool teacher who maintained classroom discipline by issuing constant, sharp reprimands.

Discipline & punish
Within literally the first hour of his first day of school, Scott had been reprimanded multiple times and had been given two time-outs (for not sitting properly in circle). Another boy had been given a time-out, as well. A girl who shouted out, “sunny!” when asked what the day’s weather was like was immediately corrected, on two counts: one, raise your hand first. Two, use your indoor voice. Yes sir, sir!

Indeed, as preschools go, it was not unlike boot camp. But the teacher was sweet and pleasant in other ways, and I figured, well, he has to learn these things at some point. Spare the time-out and spoil the child, and all that.

Another mom had a different take on it: She was so horrified by what she saw, she pulled her kid out of the class after day two. I thought she was totally overreacting and probably was one of those hippy-dippy, “whatever you want, dear” parents who let their kids scream and run wild in restaurants.

One month later, my kid was spoiled, all right, but it wasn’t permissiveness that did it. The continual no’s and don’ts and punishments had quite rapidly changed him from a happy-go-lucky boy who was up for anything and consistently played well with others to a detached, depressed, angry and hostile little terror. The transformation was astounding and heartbreaking.

A  gentler approach
Here’s the good news: Two weeks ago he was switched to another class with a more experienced teacher who had equally firm requirements regarding behavior (Montessori preschools have exponentially more rules than typical preschools, I’ve learned—who knew?).

There was a big difference, however. The new teacher inspired that good behavior by engaging the kids, accentuating the positive, gently educating them about her expectations and being sure to notice and remark on it when the kids did the right thing. Consequences, when necessary, were meted out without negative emotion or judgment, the way a cop might say, “Here’s your ticket, ma’am.”

I’ve been attempting to do the same thing at home, after reading an excellent book on the topic: Transforming the Difficult Child by Howard Glasser. I can tell you, it doesn’t feel as natural as just handing out old-fashioned reprimands and punishment. But it’s vastly more effective.  The new teacher had no problems with my son, and within a few days, Scott’s stress level plummeted, his behavior at home improved, and his sunny personality started to peek out again.

The “duh” factor
In the business world, this clear-expectations-plus-positive-reinforcement thing is Personnel Management 101. In the self-help world, it’s Relationships for Dummies. There are a million experts out there peddling books that basically tell you that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. But the reason there are so many people running around making their living off this simple advice is that it’s so easy to forget and often so hard to do. Read more

Dad vs. Mom: Who’s the Real Parent?

October 8, 2009 at 10:16 am , by

truitt“Dads are parents, too,” insists my new pal Steve Truitt. Steve (that’s him at the right) is a self-help author (Stop Waiting For Permission!), life coach and TV host who became the main caregiver for his two daughters, ages 1 and 4, after he lost a major daily radio gig. I got in touch with him after reading his recent post—on Maria Shriver’s Women’s Conference website—about how women can support their husband’s efforts to be hands-on dads.

I didn’t need to ask Steve why he felt the need to defend the idea of dads being “real” parents. I was pretty sure I knew why. As a new mom, I was amazed and horrified at the extent to which parenting, especially parenting small children, is all about moms. It’s like dads don’t exist—and even more than that, that they simply aren’t welcome to become part of hands-on parenting. It’s “Mommy and Me” this, “Mommy-Baby” that, new mom groups and mommy websites. At the time my son came along—three years ago—even Parenting magazine corrected their own gender-neutral name with the tagline, “what matters to moms.”

It made me angry. I became a single mom by choice, it’s true, but that choice didn’t have anything to do with my feelings about fatherhood. For the record, I’m for it. I think it’s extremely important for kids that their dads are hands-on parents too, and I hope my son will be a great dad someday.  But the pressure for men not to be too nurturing starts early. My son’s a very masculine, rough-and-tumble boy, but he also loves his little-boy doll. My mom, looking a bit horrified, asked me why I’d bought it for him. “So he can learn to be a good daddy,” I answered. Duh.

To me, there’s an obvious connection. I had a friend growing up, Ginny, who literally didn’t know how to cook or clean—didn’t have a clue—because her mom never showed her how or included her in the housework, and in fact discouraged her from becoming involved. Same kind of thing. Somehow Ginny’s estrogen levels didn’t entirely compensate for her lack of home training.

What I saw very clearly as a new mom was that men get (often justly) criticized for not being more hands-on as parents, while at the same time there are constant cultural messages that childrearing is women’s work, and that men should butt out.  It kind of seems like the guys can’t win for losing.

“It’s fascinating, the world you enter as a parent,” Steve agrees. “It’s so momcentric.” And as a life coach, he had found that many of his clients who were fathers were grappling with the feeling of being left out of the parenting process from Day One.

Then Steve lost a major part of his income due to the recession and found himself home, taking care of the kids. It was a harsh transition, and one that many men are dealing with right now, he says—he sees plenty of guys like himself in his life-coaching practice.  They are good guys, and they love their children, Steve says, but as traditional men, they—like he—had placed their identity in their jobs and in their ability to be providers. This hands-on parenting while the wife brings home most of the bacon can be incredibly hard on their self-esteem, and that’s not something they generally feel safe talking about with anyone.

These men are struggling, Steve says, but here’s his exciting theory: Steve thinks that this recession has created a de facto men’s movement that may finally change parenting roles the way the feminist movement hasn’t quite been able to do.

“It’s a reluctant movement, forced by the economy,” he concedes, “but I think something really good is going to come out of it. Men who have lost their jobs are not just trying to help raise their children—they’re learning to enjoy it.” Steve sees this as potentially having the kind of profound effect on men’s roles that World War II and Rosie the Riveter had on women’s.

To me, other than the economic loss that’s causing it, this situation is win-win. Men get to experience the joy of hands-on parenting, and kids get to have the pleasure of a really involved dad.

In any case, for Steve it’s been a growth experience. “First of all, it’s given me a tremendous amount of respect for women,” he says. “It has also taught me great patience. I’ve complained a lot less, and reached out a lot more.”

So, what do you think? Are men are parents, too? Are we women ready to share our role as M.I.P. (Most Important Parent)? Or is men’s lack of involvement something we bitch about, but don’t really want to change?

Categories: Family | Tags: , , , , | 55 Comments

True Confession: I Loved Having a Newborn

September 10, 2009 at 10:17 am , by

IMG_0336Here’s what I want to know: Are happy new moms just lucky, or are we also a wee bit simpleminded?

These days, it seems like all the cool new parents complain—bitterly and hilariously—about having an infant. In memoirs, essays and blogs, they debunk the cruel myth of that blissful first few months with a cooing, snuggly bundle of joy. That’s Hallmark-card hogwash, they say to their relieved readers, who find their honesty refreshing. These writers adore their kids, but let’s get real, they write: A newborn means being in a 24/7 state of extreme worry and panic, plus crushing boredom, plus guaranteed post-partum depression and the most searing pain you can imagine when you attempt to breastfeed. Miracle, yes, but also…nightmare!

The latest book I read on this topic was American Parent, a memoir and cultural history by my neighbor Sam Apple. As Sam wrote wittily about the extreme terror and tedium of being a stay-at-home dad with a colicky kid, I laughed out loud. I also recently devoured the beautifully written parenting memoir Waiting for Birdy, by self-described “catastrophizer” and LHJ contributor Catherine Newman, laughing so hard at one point that the other people in my doctor’s waiting room started edging away.

I have a shelf full of other great books that smash the oppressive myth of maternal bliss, like Mothers Who Think, Mommies Who Drink, The Bitch in the House and Perfect Madness. Never mind the many excellent blogs—shout-out to my internet buddy Tertia Albertyn, author of the hysterical and heartbreaking infertility memoir So Close, who now writes lovingly but often crankily about her newborn and her 4-year-old twins on her popular blog.

There’s one problem. I enjoy this kind of writing. It’s funny. But I don’t quite relate to it. At the risk of becoming America’s Most Hated Mom, I have a confession to make: I actually loved having a newborn.

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