Dear Dave

Wednesday 17 February 2010

Crime and punishment

Dear Dave,

I miss owning a cage.

I suppose that technically it was a play-pen but that's just marketing spin. It was a cage. When the kids were small, I could simply banish them to the cage whenever they were acting up. A few minutes of sulking or yelling in there and they soon calmed down. As a bonus, while incarcerated, they were much less of a danger to themselves, me or each other.

If they attempted escape, I could lift them back in. If things got really bad, I could leave the kids loose and climb in myself, curling up for a quick doze, safe from the screaming horde. (Ours had a nice padded base - soft, warm and machine-washable. Bliss.)

Merely the threat of a quick stint behind bars was often enough to cool any situation. As they got bigger, though, toddler prison became less convincing (and, besides, we needed more floor space to cope with the piles of LEGO and Pokémon). The play-pen went the way of the crib, cot, and high-chair.

Now the kids get sent to their rooms when they've been misbehaving. This is OK but not the same. Their rooms are too full of fun stuff to act as successful penitentiaries. It's like open prison compared with the high-security lockdown of the play-pen. There's no saying they'll actually want to leave when the five minutes is up.

Also, Marie and Lewis share a room so if they get both get banished at the same, the resulting pandemonium can be worse than whatever went before.

I'm actually finding it quite hard to think of ways to encourage Marie to behave. My boys aren't too fussed about being sent to their rooms but it's usually enough for them to get the message. Marie, however, can be completely unfazed by the experience. Even when her bed is emptied of its normal 507 toys and she's told to sit on it until she's willing to comply with household regulations, there's no guessing how long she'll stubbornly hold out. Sometimes she'd rather whine for two hours than say sorry.

Another example of her resistance involves breakfast. On school days, the kids have to be done with their toast by 8:30 or we're struggling to get to school on time. When Fraser was in Primary 1, he struggled with this concept, no matter how many times I told him to hurry up. He overran almost every day. Then I told him he wouldn't get to take a snack with him if he wasn't finished on time... I still had to goad him on but I only had to follow through with the threat a couple of times. The possibility of missing out on his Coco-Pop bar was sufficient incentive to eat quickly.

Marie doesn't care. She happily goes without her tub of raisins every other day. If some different misdemeanour means she doesn't get her tea-time dessert, she just shrugs. If her behaviour costs her a treat or some stickers or a trip, she knows there'll be another day. In the meantime, she's deriving too much satisfaction from digging in her heels and shrieking.

She can be hard work.

Of course, the way to virtually guarantee cooperation from the boys is to suggest they're jeopardising their computer game privileges. The prospect of a day or two devoid of Mario can bring them into line almost instantly. I don't invoke the possibility frequently, though - things have to be pretty desperate before I'm willing to risk a couple of days of having to entertain them without the aid of an implausibly acrobatic Italian plumber and his pals. Like the nuclear deterrent, it's only going to lead to mutually assured destruction.

I did decide to try the tactic on Marie at the weekend, however. She's been showing some interest in the Wii and DS since Christmas - nowhere near as much as the boys but enough to make the threat of their withdrawal worth a shot. She'd gone into meltdown at the mention of putting on her shoes and wasn't responding to any other bribes or cajoling, so I thought I might as well give it a go.

No dice. The tantrum didn't abate and she brought down 36 Nintendo-free hours upon herself. She didn't care... first.

By the following afternoon, barely ten minutes went by without her saying, "Can I play computer games yet? I've been really good." I stuck to my guns. She didn't get to play until the next morning. She wasn't sweating and shaking by then but it may have been close.

That evening, she started a strop when told to get ready for bed. I casually mentioned another computer game embargo. To my astonishment, she instantly leapt up and scurried off to locate her pyjamas.

It's still not as good as a cage but it's getting there...

Yours in a woman's world,


PS A couple of discipline points that have come to my attention recently:
  • After my kids have served their time, I always ask them, "Do you know why you were sent to your room?"

    They always reply, "Yes."

    On cross-examination, however, they never do.
  • When I want the children to do something, they hardly ever do it immediately. I find giving them a count of five in which to obey works well. It allows them time to argue and whinge but sets a definite deadline. I can also speed up and slow down the count to chivvy them along or give them some leeway.

    Unfortunately, they do have a tendency to leave compliance to the very last moment. I end up counting, "One... Two... ... Three... ... ... Four... ... ... ... F... F... Fi-nally." They come within micro-seconds of punishment. To my mind, this is leaving things a touch too late.

    It turns out this may be down to miscommunication rather than brinkmanship, though. I discovered yesterday that when Sarah's in charge, she counts to six.

    This explains a lot.

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