Improvising discipline for my button-pushing 10-year old son was exhausting for me and confusing for him. So I wrote down a simple playbook that works for 80% of daily life. Everything got easier.
For Grammar School-Age Kids: Friendly, Firm and Fair
“Can I have your attention, please?” Unless he is making eye contact with me, there’s a 99% chance he’s playing or working and not truly listening. A social cue to prepare his brain to receive important information. Implied is his power to control the focus of his attention. A gentle, consenting beginning of an interaction.
“What’s your job right now?” He usually knows. Echoing it helps him re-focus. Yet, it informs me when he honestly doesn’t know his job.
“Do you need a Free Repeat?” For instructions he may have missed. It’s safe to be confused. This encourages him to ask for help and reorient himself. (“Free” means anger-free. There is no anger penalty for the do-over or repeat.)
“What is your response?” He must verbally reply when addressed. Every time. It confirms to all that he knows his job.
“OK, let’s have a time-out, please.” If a time-out remotely enters your mind, or if you feel your blood pressure rising even a smidgen — he definitely needs a time-out. =) It doesn’t hurt to give too many, but too few make everyone’s life difficult. After two or three time-outs, he is a different boy.
“Where is the second hand?” …. “OK, one minute, please.” It’s his job to watch the clock’s second hand rotate once for his time-out and then return to his job. It’s just enough time to recalibrate his mind, but not a punishing time-waster. Concentrating on the clock has a grounding effect.
“Hands in lap. No playing. No talking, please.” Time-out isn’t angry, but it’s not fun either. No ‘payoffs’ are allowed.
“If I ask you again, you’re getting a time-out.” He must comply on the first request. Every time. Second or third chances lead to bad habits. Not all situations get this discretionary warning. This is a probe to determine if a string of time-outs is inevitable or if he merely needs a nudge to stay on track.
“What is the correct answer I’m looking for?” “Yes, Daddy, right away” is the only correct response to a directive. No backtalk or negotiating is allowed. Nuanced discussions can only occur as he’s complying. (Arguing over a time-out automatically triggers an additional 60 seconds.)
“Could you ask your ‘happy hands’ not to do that, please?” His energy is a blessing; using the third-person voice allows him to safely recognize and manage his boyish impulsivity. I also praise his happy hands and happy feet when he does positive things.
“This is my direct voice.” When he is on thin ice, I use my ‘direct voice,’ which is slightly more pronounced, animated, and clear. It is not a mad or frustrated voice. It is direct, firm, energized, and no-nonsense. It’s a social cue to him that he’s about to get a time-out.
“Talk to my face, please.” No talking or yelling between rooms. We value good communication. We deserve each other’s full attention. Face to face.
“It’s just a spill.” This frames any accident as a safe and simple training exercise, not as a punishment situation. Clean-up time. He cleans his own messes, just as I do, i.e. no helping, though training commonly occurs. Our goal is not perfection, but to teach skills, forgiveness, calm, and responsibility.
By the time my son entered grammar school, and began testing the world — and me — it was clear that me spontaneously improvising my parental interventions wasn’t going to work.
As a new parent, I was pretty good at observing kid situations and thinking up new responses that were patient, teaching and loving. Every day was a new challenge and it was exciting for the first few years.
But as he got older and more complex, responding effectively to him become a real challenge. I got flooded. Each day, the situations I was reacting to were increasingly complicated and seemingly non-stop.
Kids need lots of repetition (they don’t always learn lessons on the first try) and explaining (situations similar to parents can seem completely different to kids). “Why can’t we have ice cream today when we had it yesterday?” Explaining the world to him is fun, but it’s time-consuming and takes a lot of energy.
Meanwhile, his daily behavior stuff was grinding me down. Even when I invested a maximum of effort, I was still batting 90% on a good day; inevitably I’d say something wrong or inconsistent. Or just go brain-dead when I hit the wall.
So I decided to write down a playbook, a script, a cheatsheet, a series of solid, thoughtful responses for our most common and repetitive situations. No more improvising!
The goals were clear. Each response had to be short (so I could remember it easily) and sweet (so I could bear repeating it over and over) and generic (so I could use it in a variety of situations).
Initially, my son thought I was playing a trick or robot joke. But by my becoming extremely predictable, his ability to triangulate social situations increased rapidly. He liked the consistency because it enabled him to quickly detect and parse How is this the same? versus How is this different?
It’s ironic that as parents our goal is to teach rules, yet we sometimes act in ways that make us unlearnable or mysterious. Discipline isn’t punishment. It’s structure. It’s cause and effect. It’s teaching kids the rules of how things work. How people and situations work.
Now, because I don’t spend new energy on old challenges, I have lots of energy to spend on explaining why we’ll have ice cream tonight but not tomorrow. =)