My sisters and I sat around Saturday night stuffing our faces at a local yogurt shop. We were commiserating about motherhood and some of the specific parenting problems we are facing right now.
My older sisters both have teenagers and they are facing much bigger challenges than I am with my little guys. But at any stage, parenting can be so challenging!
Now by nature I am a problem solver. I don’t just want to complain and talk about it; I want to analyze the situation and find a solution. I want to try practices and ideas, even if they don’t work, because at least then I don’t feel helpless.
I learned 3 steps to problem solving / behavior modification back in my education days. They work for parenting too. I will show you what the steps look like in the classroom because that is where I first used them and then I will apply them to a parenting scenario.
Step 1: PREVENTATIVE PRACTICES
Whenever I am facing a parenting problem, the first place I look is in the mirror. I ask myself questions: What am I doing to contribute to this issue? Have I done everything in my power to prevent the problem? Have I controlled/changed what I can?
Take a teaching situation where the kids are being noisy, for example. I might ask myself, Is my lesson age appropriate? Is the lesson engaging? Am I prepared? Am I overly sensitive? Are there outside factors contributing to the noise? etc.
Now this is what preventative practices might look like in a parenting dilemma. Take a messy room for example. I might ask myself: Is there a place for everything in the room? Does the child know where everything goes? Is there too much stuff? Have I taught her the skills she needs? Am I expecting too much? etc.
The preventative practices are the things YOU can control and what YOU can do to facilitate change. It is trying to prevent the problem before it even starts.
Step 2: POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT
Basically, positive reinforcement is catching the child being good- making a big deal out of the good you see. It is letting them know when they are doing something right.
In a class situation, maybe the students get a tally mark or token for good behavior. I could write them a note, call home giving praise, or acknowledge good behavior by name.
In the messy room scenario, I might praise my child when her room is clean or I might say thank you. I could also put together a reward incentive. I could put marbles in a jar every time the room is clean and when the jar is full she earns a fun activity.
Positive reinforcement is one technique that can be done publicly, in front of others; and should be used as much as possible before Step #3.
Step 3: NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT
There comes a time when you have done all you can do to prevent the negative behavior and you have tried to positively reinforce good behavior, but there is still a problem. This is when you turn to negative reinforcement. This is where time outs and strikes and grounding come in. After time and effort have been spent in the preventative and positive camps, it is still sometimes necessary to bust out the negative consequences.
In a classroom, negative consequences might be a card getting pulled, a trip to the principal’s office, a phone call home, missing a recess, or moving a seat.
If the messy room persists, maybe she can’t play with friends until her room is clean. Maybe she has to pay you because you cleaned it like her maid or maybe some of her stuff that is left out gets taken away.
These are examples of negative consequences and they should be done in private as much as possible. The goal is to try to deter the behavior not humiliate the child.
I have used these 3 strategies when working with children over the past 15 years, but just in the last 3-4 years, I have added a crucial Step #4 to my parenting problem solving. And although it is labeled as #4 it is actually #1 on my list of problem solving strategies. When I was eating yogurt with my sisters and eiscussing their bigger problems, I realized how important step #4 really is.
Step 4: SEEKING INSPIRATION
Because every kid is different, we need to seek inspiration on how to deal with that particular child. And to be inspired means spending sufficient time thinking about the problem and trying to find guidance. Parenting inspiration can come through kneeling in prayer, counseling with your spouse, reading books or blogs, discussing with friends, pondering ideas, and trying different strategies, etc. But the answer/solution is generally not going to fall in your lap. It will take work and it will take time.
So back to the messy room scenario, my inspiration came with Elle to just go clean her room for her and then leave her a love note. (See this post.) That idea doesn’t really fit into my first 3 steps, but it was the right thing to do that day.
And the bigger the problems get, the more inspiration we will need as parents.
These 4 steps to parenting problem solving can be applied to any parenting dilemma. As the problems get bigger and more significant, the questions and answers are going to get tougher, uglier, take more time and more courage. And likely the situation will require more inspiration.
I hope these 4 steps help us all in someway as we navigate the rough waters of motherhood.