Friday, January 20, 2012

We've Got Spirit, How 'Bout You?!

I am currently reading a book entitled, "How to Raise Your Spirited Child," by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. I bought this book because I assumed that my middle child was indeed 'spirited' and I needed suggestions. This is a term coined by the author in an attempt to find a positive spin for words like: headstrong, stubborn, emotional, finicky, persistent, argumentative, volatile, etc. She describes that not all 'spirited' children have all of these qualities but will definitely express several. Basically, a spirited child is a regular kid who is "more" of all those things than a typical kid.

After taking her quiz (which is not exactly scientifically based - it's a variation of an actual assessment used in the social sciences), answering for each of my three children, I discovered that I have not one but THREE spirited children. I can't say I was terribly surprised after reading her descriptions. I have friends who have very quiet, reserved children who will eat anything and it's a little bizarre to me, if I'm being honest. I am not accustomed to children who do not balk at new foods or run, yell, jump, and generally act like a human pinball machine. What was surprising is that both my husband and I fell in the Spunky range on her parent scale of spiritedness. That explains all the loudness in my house...

I LOVE that she distinguished being "spirited" from ADHD, since they are absolutely NOT the same thing. I love that it suggests accepting your children for who they were born to be instead of longing for the child you wish you had. I like that it points out that persistence = tenaciousness, which is an excellent quality in adults. That being finicky really demonstrates that your child knows what he wants. Also good. All of the qualities of the children she describes could be very useful, even if exceptionally annoying when we want/need our children to do something our way. My goal in buying this book was to learn new methods of discipline that would work with my spirited babies without damaging those qualities that make them uniquely, well, them.

And that's where we get to the parts of the book I don't like. I absolutely agree with the author in that traditional parenting advice DOES NOT WORK with spirited kids. The old adage "ignore the tantrum and they'll stop" - on the contrary. I have seen my son rage for so long that he vomited or passed out. Neither are good options, in my opinion. So when she said that a spirited child will continue and even get worse in the face of apathy, I was like, Right On Lady! She also says distraction doesn't work because spirited kids don't get distracted from what they want. Yep, too true. I live with it daily. She even cautions that their spiritedness is not an excuse for bad behavior. So far, so good. BUT the problem that I have is, so far, she's given me nothing useful. Just touchy, feely, 'embrace who they are' junk. And as much as I love them for who they are, I do want them to act appropriately. In her defense, I haven't finished the book yet. So if my opinion changes, I will be sure to let you know.

I tell you all of this, not to entice you to buy the book, but to preface my latest and greatest behavioral modification system. I got tired of waiting for this expert in parenting classes to give me something useful. It's a pretty long book and I only get to read for 30 minutes or so a day. And I needed something NOW before I ripped all my hair out or lost my voice screaming at the kids. Thus, the Tips and Fines jars were born:

It's pretty simple: the kids each have a list of 3 or 4 infractions (the ones that make me the craziest: whining, arguing, not following directions, not staying in bed, etc.) and a "fine" associated with said infraction. For example, if my oldest argues, she must pay the 'Fines' jar 25 cents. If she continues to argue after being charged the fine, the fine increases in multiples of 25 cents. (She's pretty tenacious, so we got up to a dollar fairly quickly in the beginning.) If my son commits an infraction, his penalty is 10 cents. The youngest just grabs whatever coin she sees first since she doesn't yet distinguish between them. I selected only a few behaviors to work on so that they would be able to remember them. The fines are based on the child's age (older child = larger fine.) I get fined as well. For yelling. (Side note: in almost 2 weeks, I have not had to pay the jar. Oh yeah.)

The 'Tip' jar is my attempt to balance our attention. I didn't want to only focus on the behaviors that I wanted eliminated; I also wanted to highlight the behaviors that are expected. When a child has followed directions or stayed in bed or acted in a loving manner to a sibling or eaten all his dinner - basically anything that we would like to see more often - they get what my son calls a "jewel." When the tip jar is full, we have promised to go to Orange Leaf.

As much as I would love to claim complete brilliance for this, it is all basic learning theory stuff. Like Pavlov did with his dogs. Stuff I have known since I was 20 and an undergrad in Psychology. Why it took me so long to apply it to everyday behaviors, I don't know. We used this method, a year ago and using only jewels, to get my son to stop sucking his thumb and it took one week.

So after two weeks of using this method, I am happy to report a dramatic change in my children. The 'Tips' jar had an unforseen side effect: They are working together better and holding each other accountable. They are passing out random hugs and "I love you's." They even complete chores without being asked, which earns them double tips. And my favorite example: I took the two little ones to TWO grocery stores yesterday. I was following the sales, which normally I would never, ever do. I'd rather pay more money than have to drag those two into multiple grocery stores. The first store was supposed to be a 15 minute, in-and-out, grab 6 items trip. Guess what?! It took 15 minutes. Crazy of all craziness. That has NEVER happened before. The second store was the bigger trip with the longer list and more time allotted. They were fantastic. I can't even describe it. They each held a reusable shopping bag, filling it with items as we shopped. We even got our free bakery cookie at the end of the trip instead of the beginning - with no complaining. They each got 5 jewels for this lovely behavior. So I have to say, I LOVE THE TIP JAR.

I am not ready to retire these jars, as our days are not anywhere near peaceful 100% (or even 80%) of the time. But I will say, we have had less yelling and more cooperation for almost 2 whole weeks. A good, healthy start. If you would like to implement this type of token system in your home, this method is easily modified to use what your kids value most or for when you need it most. Mine like money, so fines work for us.  But some kids don't care about money. When I implemented this last year for the thumb sucking habit, we had only one jar. My son received jewels any time I looked and he wasn't sucking his thumb and lost jewels if he was. When the jar was full, he got a new hot wheels car. For this one, I had to carry jewels in a baggie in the car and he took his jar EVERYWHERE we went since his thumb-sucking habit was worse when he was bored, like in the car. But like any successful behavior modification technique, in the beginning, you need to "notice" the desired behaviors a lot and reward them accordingly. If it takes too long to fill that jar, they will get bored and give up.

Happy parenting!

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