Q: I feel very overwhelmed by my many responsibilities and find it difficult to follow through on punishments and rewards with my children. Making a chart and filling it in is a major ordeal for me. My children end up writing in their own points because I don’t remember to do it. And punishments have become a joke — I forget exactly who did what, and what the consequences were supposed to be. What’s a busy parent to do?
A: One cannot overestimate the importance of attempting to create a sense of consistency for children, especially young ones, who need to feel secure in an ever-changing world. If children generally know what to expect in a given situation at home, their view of life and the world at large is more solid, even at an early age.
Many parents complain that their complicated schedules cause them to be forgetful (“I forgot the punishment/reward that I promised”), and give up even trying to be consistent. While a parent needs to make the attempt, she must also maintain a sense of dignity and flexibility, allowing her to respond differently to her child when the situation warrants change. This is similar to the Asian concept of “saving face” when a situation changes beyond one’s control.
An example of this would be putting off a “time-out” to a more workable time (due to an unexpected guest, for example, or an impending appointment). Though a parent may worry that she will forget to “dispense the consequence” at another time, a child needs to see some attempt at consistency — even having the parent post a note on the refrigerator to remind herself to follow through later.
If appropriate, a parent may verbalize the need to be flexible (clarifying that this not inconsistency!). She can say: “I’m not going to lose out on time today because you have to go in time-out. That would become a punishment for the whole family. But when we go out today, you will not get the prize that everyone else is getting. There are consequences for everything that we do.”
One way of “saving face” is to have a list of possible negative consequences available (either in your mind, or written on paper), to be able to use with your children when your desirable “consequence of action” is unworkable. A creative example of this is utilizing “cleaning time.” A child can owe his parent “cleaning time” to do extra household chores as a consequence of negative behavior. A parent can figure out the amount of time spent as a result of the child’s aggravating behavior, and charge cleaning time, by the hour. “You caused me to not be able to complete things in the house. The cleaning lady now has to do it. That’s ten dollars an hour that you owe me, for an hour and a half of non-completed work.”
In terms of positive consequences, a parent needs to formulate a system that is simple enough to avoid the pitfalls of having a complicated behavior modification system. Points should only be earned, not taken away. This already makes the chart simpler.
If a child fails a given task, the consequence of action needs to be in a different category — not points. For example, if a child earned points for cleaning his room or completing homework and then hits his sister, he wouldn’t lose the points that he honestly earned. Instead, perhaps he will not be allowed to watch an Uncle Moishy CD with his siblings. In this way, the behavior chart doesn’t need to be contested and argued over, and it becomes less overwhelming.
Having a list of positive consequences also (be it on paper or in one’s mind) is helpful. As a child learns the possible rewards (it can be playing a game with a parent alone on Shabbos), he knows what to expect in a positive manner as well.
Being consistent is not necessarily being rigid, but can be a creative endeavor.