A couple months ago I was at my wits’ end about my daughter, age 3 1/2, and her aberrant toileting issues. She’d been potty-trained for 15 months and was as capable as could be of using the potty correctly; it had been over a year since she’d had accidents. But suddenly she started having them weekly, for this reason: she didn’t want to go to the bathroom when I told her to. It was a control issue for her. So this scenario repeated itself regularly: I’d ask her to go; she’d claim she didn’t have to. An hour later she’s suddenly wail that she had to pee, dash to the bathroom, and empty her entire bladder on the bathroom floor right next to the toilet because at that point she was full to bursting and could no longer hold it. It was infuriating.
I was commiserating with my wise next-door neighbor about the situation, expressing my frustration. She suggested I consider making the potty issue “her problem” instead of my problem. “Maybe you should tell her that if she wets her underwear because she waits too long, she has to clean up the whole mess herself and isn’t allowed to change right away out of her wet clothes. That scenario may be sufficiently distasteful to her that she’ll go when you ask her to.” Brilliant suggestion, I thought, and I immediately tried it. It worked amazing well, and the incidences of her waiting too long to pee and having an accident diminished from weekly to virtually never.
Prior to this situation, we intentionally utilized the tool of “consequences”quite seldom. Oh, we use the quintessential, “You won’t get dessert unless you finish your dinner” deal, which I guess counts as a form of consequences. And also the “You will lose your toys if you don’t clean them up” routine. But beyond these, we generally handle disobedience in a much more straightforward and instantaneous manner than consequences often call for. Because in our culture choices can often be wildly over-offered, as we see it, we’ve been careful not to use them too much.
But our success with the potty accidents, in combination with some really frustrating repetitive behavior issues, really got me thinking. Last week I dug out my copy of Boundaries with Kids and did some reading. It was eye-opening and extremely helpful. In the “Law of Sowing and Reaping” chapter, authors Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend write this: “True change usually comes only when someone’s behavior causes him to encounter reality consequences like pain or loss of time, money, possessions, things he enjoys… The goal is not to control the child and make him do what you want. The goal is to give them the choice to do what they want, and make it so painful to do the wrong thing that they won’t want to do it…. You are letting them choose, but making the Law of Sowing and Reaping have reality. If they sow to irresponsibility they will reap pain. And if they sow to responsible behavior, they will reap benefits and want to choose that path.”
A major frustration in my day-to-day mothering life are fits that my son, age 5 1/2, routinely throws to get his way. These are crying, protesting bouts that generally center over absurdly small issues like not getting the snack he wants or not wanting to go out for a walk when that’s what we’re about to do. The fits are never tolerated and I’ve been combatting them literally for months; however, the discipline that I administer for these (refute them; correct; outlast; provide timeout or the like) appears to be bearing no fruit whatsoever. I suddenly realized – these fits are my problem, and they’re my problem in a big, daily way. They aren’t his problem at all. He doesn’t mind them – in fact, some part of him likely enjoys them (which is why, at age 5 with ample self-control, he’s still engaging in them). And my correction measures are an insufficient incentive for him to utilize self-control to curtail them.
So the question was: how could I make the fits his problem instead of mine? I decided to try changing my tack entirely. I told him: “Your fits are taking a lot of my time during the day. From now on, if you aren’t happy about something and you’re starting to get upset about it, you will have a choice. You may go into your room and have your fit, and your bed time will become five minutes earlier. Or, you may stop your fit immediately and remain with us so long as you are pleasant. Either one is fine with me; it will be your choice.” The first day he had four fits and went to bed twenty minutes early. His sisters stayed up till the normal time, so he was the only one missing out on pre-bedtime play. By the second day, he got it. I’d remind him of the deal when he started winding up, and and he’d stop. It wasn’t worth it to him to have the fit; he’d rather get to go to bed at the normal time. In the three days that ensued, he’s had one fit resulting in one five-minute-early bedtime. And I am much, much less frustrated throughout the day.
This has got me thinking about what is motivating for a child. Not every child will respond the same way to correction; not every child will be motivated to change – to develop their character – by the same factors. Part of our job as moms is to study our children and prayerfully consider what constitutes incentive for them. What will reach their hearts? What will help them to effectively count the cost of their actions? Just as Jesus used different tools and styles to engage with different individuals, so we should work with our children in customized (while still consistent and loving) ways.