October 11, 2006

Punishment, Consequences, and Respect

For years, Mac's newsletter contained a section called "Ask Mac". This feature is now part of the blog. If you have a question for Mac, use the "COMMENTS" link below.

Dear Mac,
I can't find a way to teach my 13-year-old son Ben (name changed for privacy) how to respect others’ property. He will not leave his brothers’ and sister’s things alone. He uses their clothes, he eats their candy, he goes into their rooms and plays with their toys and does not put them back, he rummages through his father’s drawers and leaves a mess, he wears their mittens to go out and play, and he simply will not respect others property. His friends complain that he does this when he visits their houses too. Yesterday he even used his sister’s toothbrush!

I know that your Parenting with Dignity course teaches natural consequences rather than artificially created consequences. I think I agree with you, but so far with this issue everyone else is receiving the consequences except Ben. We tried using punishment and that failed miserably. It seemed that when we punished him all it did was to make him more secretive when he got into others things. Can you help?
Dear Distressed Mom,

It is true that we, in our “Parenting with Dignity” program, do not teach parents to rely on punishment (defined here as an artificial consequence created by parents in response to the inappropriate behavior of children). This is not because we are opposed to punishment, per se, but rather we are only opposed to punishment because we simply don't believe it works very well in producing long-term appropriate change in behavior.

Granted, punishment is quick and easy for parents to use. It is usually mindless for most parents. They don’t even have to think. All they need to do is just react! Therein lies one of the biggest problems; punishment is only reactive in nature. Punishment is based in failure! To use it you must wait for the child to do something negative or wrong in order to bring punishment into use. (Unless you are silly enough to suggest that you would punish a child BEFORE he does something wrong or inappropriate!)

Now, I will grant you, if the punishment is harsh enough and immediate enough, it may occasionally result in short lived behavior change… but rarely will it create lasting, life-long change. You even said it quite accurately in your letter; it often just makes kids "sneakier" in an effort to not get caught. Many Kids just seem to make it into a game and when it becomes a game, they usually win!
Lasting Change in Behavior

I am making the assumption that lasting change in your son's behavior is what you are seeking, so... I will try to explain what my thoughts are about your son's seeming lack of respect for the personal property of others.

First, a couple of general comments as a place to start -- my basic belief about all human behavior is: "The ideas in your head will rule your world!" And, I also believe the exact same principle is true for kids... "The ideas in kids’ heads will rule their world!" It does not matter whether the ideas are right or wrong, good or bad, happy or sad, legal or illegal, moral or immoral, and it does not matter where the ideas come from. An idea can originate from the pastor at church or some kid on the street; it can come from you, the TV, or the Internet. But, once the idea gets into a kid's head it will rule his/her world. So the only question of significance in shaping a child’s lasting behavior is, "What idea would you like to have rule the world of your child in this situation?"

When you answer this question, notice that your strategy immediately begins to take shape. And, once you have effectively TAUGHT that new idea, you will have changed your child's behavior forever! Since you now have given the child a new idea to rule his/her world, the change is permanent. (It took me about six years of classroom experience to learn that my actions did not qualify as teaching until the behavior of my students changed. Until that critical discovery took place, what I had done in my classroom did not qualify as teaching! It could be categorized as saying, explaining, showing, demonstrating, yelling, nagging, etc., but it did not become teaching until the behavior of my students changed!)
Being Persistent
Remember this difference between saying and teaching as you work with your son. Your goal is permanent change in behavior; and until you get the desired behavior change, you must keep trying.
In the case of your son I would like to ask you, “What is it you want him to do?” Notice that I did not ask "What do you want him to stop doing?" but rather I asked, "What do you want him to do?" There is a huge and critical difference between those two questions. The second one gives guidance about choosing appropriate behavior and the first just takes away one behavior without giving the child any idea of what to do to replace the negative action. (This is rule #1 in our curriculum.) Telling a child to stop doing something is like telling him to jump. If you don't tell the poor kid where to land, most often he will land right where he took off! This sounds exactly like what you are experiencing with Ben. Your son’s insistence upon repeating the exact behavior that you have told him not to do, should demonstrate to you that without a replacement behavior, he will continue to take, use, and abuse other’s people’s stuff!

“WHAT SHOULD HE DO IN THOSE SITUATIONS?” (Answer that question in detail and you are well on your way to creating a change in his behavior!) “WHAT IDEA OR IDEAS DO YOU WANT HIM TO USE TO GOVERN HIS BEHAVIOR IN THOSE SITUATIONS?” (If you cannot state these ideas precisely and in behavioral terms, which he can understand, how can you expect him to use any of these new ideas to rule his world?) Do you want him handle only things belonging to him? Do you want him to replace items he uses? Do you want him to ask before he touches anything not belonging to him? I cannot answer these questions for you because it is not clear to me, from your letter, exactly what you want him to do, but in order to teach him what you want him to do, you must be precisely articulate your expectations to your son! If he is like most creative and intelligent kids I have taught, you must also be able to answer "Why?"
Being unarmed to answer that question, you will leave yourself open for argument and further inappropriate behavior.
Devising New Strategies
Next, “What strategies will you use to teach this new idea to him?”

First of all, let's avoid even talking about consequences for inappropriate behavior for a while because it is much more important to discuss what strategies you will use to structure appropriate behavior. Then, once we are done with that I will briefly discuss some of the reasons that consequences often fail. (It seems appropriate at this point to make the observation that it is extremely common to hear parents worry about the consequences of inappropriate behavior before even considering an attempt at teaching the or desired appropriate behavior!) My first eight years of teaching I was caught in this exact trap. One day it dawned upon me that if I could identify for kids exactly what was the desired behavior in a given situation, and if I could express that behavior in language that they could understand, I could drastically increase the chances of getting them to do it!

In most cases we parents have an idea in our heads that the first thing we must do when kids misbehave is to jump immediately to consequences. Consequences ought to be our last thought and our last action! It seems to me that when we resort to consequences, we are admitting our attempts at teaching have failed!

Here is your immediate problem: ever since Ben was old enough to pick up things, he has taken other people's things without asking. Did you ever teach him how to make that decision? Did you ever even attempt to word a description of what you would like him to do? Did you tell him what to do in the presence of others’ belongings? Or did you just tell him what not to do, without any suggestion of what to do?

It is never too late to teach a new idea.

He either uses it all up if it's a consumable product, or he doesn't put it away. Then he forgets he has had it so when we ask where it is, he says he never had it. (I believe that he actually doesn't remember because about 1/3 of the time
he knows where he left it and will get it for us).I have grounded him, taken the TV away, taken his property away; hurt him, talked to him about how it makes me feel, scolded him, and had him agree to ask before he takes things. Nothing
has worked for long. Usually when I run into a problem with Ben, if he can feel what it is like to be on the other end, he gets it. However, when I took his stuff and hid it, it didn't faze him because he loses his own stuff so much that he didn't even realize that I had taken it.

Well, this simply proves my point that consequences, (especially ones that you create) don't work very well to change behavior nor do they work for very long when they do! So, at this point I would again ask, "What do you want him to do?" When you have answered this question in detail, stating exactly what it is you desire for him to do at the very moment he is about to use someone else’s property; I would ask the critical question. "Now, how can you best TEACH him to do that which you have described?"

The Worst Time to Teach Is During the Negative Act
It would be impossible for me to teach you how to run a video camera in the middle of your son's first baseball game or his first birthday party. You couldn't focus on the camera or the task of operating it. Kids can't focus at stressful times either. Yet, that seems to be the time when so many parents most often try to teach a lesson to a kid... right in the middle of misbehavior. Don't let yourself get caught in that trap. Pick a time when you both are calm and there are no distractions and then proceed to TEACH him what he should do when he is contemplating "borrowing" another’s property.

Usually the worst way to teach anything is through words. Think about how you learned to ride a bike... by getting on a seat and grabbing the handlebars. Nobody learns to ride a bike by reading a manual or by listening to parents talk about it! Do the same here as you teach respect for others’ personal property. "Put him on the seat and give him the handlebars!" Tell him, "When you see some M&M's sitting on the table, it is appropriate to find the owner and ask if you may have some. As a matter of fact when you ask, you should also find out how many you may have. So, here are the M&M's. Now, you show me exactly what you will do the next time" and then let him do it! Let him actually ask you if he may have some and have him ask you how many he may have.

Wait and watch while he does just as you suggested. Do not leave the teaching situation until he does exactly as you have requested. If he does not do it exactly as you wish, make corrections and have him try it again. Wait a day and do the exact same exercise, only this time, do it with one of Dad's tools.

Then, a day later, do the same thing with another item that he might be tempted to "borrow." Remember, it took you a couple of repetitions to learn to run a video camera or to ride a bike so it will naturally take him a few repetitions to learn to ask before using another’s property. Keep repeating your detailed expectations until he does it without any coaching or reminding from you.

All the while it is important to get him to self-reward for his newly developed behavior. By this I mean you continually point out to him how good it feels to do what is right and how good it feels to respect others’ property and how much others appreciate his thoughtful efforts and how proud you are of his new behavior!
Here are some examples of his behavior:
Last night my husband was looking for his black hammer. Does this hammer have a specific place it belongs? Does your husband ever leave it out without returning it to its' proper place? It is harder to ask a kid to do something if you don't do it yourself. He asked the kids and I if we had seen it. No one had seen it but Dad found it in Ben’s closet. I never have any tape even though I bought Ben 4 rolls of tape for X-mas and 4 rolls for his birthday. I have even written “MINE, HANDS OFF!” on my tape, but it is gone the next time I want it.
Like I said earlier, telling him what not to do resulted in his failure to do what you wanted. What should he have done in that situation? What should he do the next time he needs tape and he can't find any? He seems to need help in putting his stuff where he can find it. Do you want him to be better organized? Do you want him to ask permission? Do you want him to scrap the project he is on? You will have to answer these and other questions if you are going to have him make a positive change in his behavior.

The remote controls are always missing because Ben has carried them wherever he is going - the kitchen, bathroom,
refrigerator, under his bed, under the couch.
Man, I used to do the same thing all the time. I would get up with the darn thing in my hand and then later I would find it on the stove or in the refrigerator, or on the counter in the bathroom. It was not until I finally developed a habit of putting it in one spot that I could ever find it. Man, I would get angry and frustrated and accuse everyone else of losing it then I asked myself, "What do I want?" I wanted to be able to find it and I could drastically increase the chances of that if I always put it in the same place! I identified what to do! I changed the idea in my head and it changed my behavior.

I had two umbrellas - one I carried in my briefcase and one in my trunk. I took them out and let the kids take them to school one day. I haven't seen them since even though Ben swears he never took it, and Sarah swears she brought hers home.
When you give him the umbrella tell him exactly where it goes when he is finished using it and then before you give it to him have him model for you exactly what he will do with it when he returns it. Do not make the mistake of thinking he has heard you simply because you have explained... make him show you. (This is Rule #3 in our curriculum) If you tell him what you will do to him if he doesn't return it, the idea you have just planted in his brain is a very clear picture of failure! Don't go there! Simply tell him the desired behavior.
Last summer when we were building the back fence, I found my husband Steve's miter saw that had been missing for a
year. It was bent and rusted and stuck between the steps of the playhouse, but when asked, Ben claimed he hadn’t used it.
Take him to the shop and show him where things belong and how to put them there. If he says he knows where they go, tell him you are going to show him just to make sure he knows. I had the same problem with one of our sons and when I showed him where I kept tools in my shop a surprising thing happened... he proceeded to point out to me a much more logical way to organize and together we really put things in order!

You might create a powerful idea in his head by asking for his help in creating order in the shop.
Artificial Consequences

Now, for a brief comment about consequences: I believe they should be a last resort and only used when all else fails. This does not mean that I, in any way, am advocating leniency. Be firm, direct, and demanding with regard to your son's behavior. Always let him know exactly what you expect him to do. Say what you mean, mean what you say, and always do what you say you are going to do! No exceptions! If you do create consequences be certain to make them fit the offense logically. If he takes his sister's things without asking, then her room becomes off limits to him. If your tape disappears then he can't use your tape, ever. If necessary, put it in a locked drawer.
Keep the Anger Out
Do not lecture him or “brow beat” him, just do what you say you are going to do. Always explain the ground rules of this last resort before hand: it is not reasonable to dish out artificial consequences without spelling them out in advance. If you do decide to resort to consequences, please remember what happened to me as I was growing up. I was sent to my room at least 1000 times for teasing my sisters. While suffering the consequences of my inappropriate behavior, I never one time held an idea in my head that my parents wanted to rule my world. When I went to my room the ideas that filled my head were: 1. that I hated my sisters, and 2. that my parents weren't fair. I vowed over and over that as soon as I got out of my room, I would get my sisters out behind the barn and hold their heads in the watering trough for tattling on me. And as I sat in my room fuming with anger about how much I hated my folks, never did I think about how I would treat my sisters in a reasonable manner because nobody ever gave me a suggestion of what I should do in place of my inappropriate behavior.
This is driving my husband and me nuts. It makes our daughter scream when her stuff is found out of its place used, empty, abused, and tossed wherever Ben was when he started on the next idea/project. He is extremely creative, and usually takes others' property when he is making something.

HELP! What would you do? I would appreciate your advice. Thank you for your time.


Distressed Mother
Being creative is praiseworthy! But... it is no excuse for abusing other family members' stuff. Have your daughter teach him where her things belong and have her express to Ben how important it is to her to have her things in their place. Absolutely, do not let her wait until he has taken her stuff to give him this instruction. Remind your daughter to do this teaching at some time other than when he has just violated her personal property!

I might even suggest that you hold a family meeting to discuss the ground rules of respect for personal property in your home. Do not make this a “family vs. Ben meeting" but rather make it a meeting where all are discussing the “family rules” and allow Ben as much input as everyone else.
A Final Thought
One final thought. This problem is really not one of "stealing" or even of "dishonesty". Rather it seems to be only a problem of a son viewing things in the home as sort of a big pool of common property. Teach him in that context... that you are simply defining the limits and boundaries to personal property inside your home. Some property in the home belongs to all and some is private property.

Now, here is a sobering thought for you to ponder for just a moment: don't worry too much about further disturbance of your own private stuff... because most likely you are only looking at about 4 - 5 more years and then Ben will be gone from your home! Then you will have your tape and saws all to yourself! Please be sure that you delight in his random creativity while it is in your home... because soon enough it will be gone.

Good luck and I will be interested in your reply.


Mac Bledsoe


Anonymous said...

I am wondering if I can get more information on this kind of problem?

Mac said...

Yes, as a matter of fact, you can get more information on these techniques by going to our website: www.parentingwithdignity.com and ordering either of my books, Parenting with Dignity and Parenting with Dignity for the Early Years or ordering a set of our 9-week DVD Parenting with Dignity Curriculum.

Jennifer @ Natural Parents Network said...

I have been looking high and low for how to deal with actions without clear cut natural consequences! This is a very direct explanation of just that idea, I am glad to have it.

Mac said...

Dear Jennifer,
When thinking about natural consequences, a great model to keep in mind is that of how we teach Bicycle Riding (we Americans are very successful at this one teaching endeavor; almost every American has been taught to ride a bike!)
How many of us were taught to ride a bike by listening to someone talking to us about it? None.
How many of us learned to ride a bike by watching another person ride a bike? None.
How many of us learned to ride a bike by reading the instruction manual? None.
How many of us learned to ride a bike when someone put the handlebars in OUR hands and OUR butts on the seat. Everyone!
Most things we learn by doing... experiencing and correcting our mistakes and moving on.
Too many parents seem to want to protect their children from experiencing any of their own mistakes. What a disservice to their kids!