Sunday, September 27, 2009

Time Out!

I’m so sick of there being a right way of doing everything. And that that right way changes on a week-to-week basis.

Currently, there is a strong backlash against behaviorism, and I have to admit, it’s throwing me into a bit of a tizzy. Mostly, because I, a self-proclaimed behaviorist, agree with a lot of what is being said against the practice of time out, rewards and punishments. But not all the time, not with all kids, and not under all circumstances.

Alfie Kohn, author and progressive education advocate, wrote what turned out to be a very provocative essay in the Times last week, “When a Parent’s ‘I Love You’ Means ‘Do As I Say’.” His main point was: you should not make your love for your child conditional, that is, contingent upon whether or not your child exhibits behaviors that you consider to be appropriate (giving praise when a child does something the parent considers to be good and withdrawing attention, e.g. “time out” when your child does something you perceive to be “bad.”) He cites research that this “love withdrawal” does not lead to compliance, instead it breeds resentment (we won’t delve into the quality of that research here). Kohn suggests that parents should "take a stance of unconditional acceptance accompanied by 'autonomy support'", i.e., giving rationales for your requests, allowing your children to make choices, being supportive but not manipulative, and seeing situations from their point of view. In a follow-up column, Kohn makes it clear that simply saying, “I love you, but not your behavior,” (something I have always said to kids) is not as easily separated in the mind of a child. How does a child address the philosophical question, who am I, outside of my behavior?

I agree with Alfie in spirit. I am a firm believer in what I’ll call proactive parenting. If Sophia is having a meltdown, gets into trouble, or does something “naughty,” I pretty much consider it to be “my fault.” Not in a masochistic, guilt-ridden way, but in a should have saw it coming…I’ll know better next time kind of way. For example, if I’m trying to get her shoes on to get her out the door and she’s resisting me, begging to “play downstairs,” but I haven’t explained the necessity of getting out of the house ASAP to make it in time for (insert activity) I have no right to get angry with her or punish her for her “resistant behavior.” She doesn’t understand my concern about being late. She doesn’t feel the need to be doing anything other that what she wants to do right now. I immediately see a need for "behavior modification"—but not of her behavior, of mine. I need to change the antecedent…the thing I did that preceded her resistant behavior…instead of asking her to put her shoes on, I needed to explain what is going to happen next and WHY she needs to put her shoes on. This is not indulgent; it is considerate.

(Not to mention it takes a lot less energy to engineer for calm than to later deal with the storm. I would rather explain than yell at Sophia, give her choices than have to follow through with imposing an undesirable option, and empathically soothe her frustrations than withdraw from her, frustrated.)

However, I do believe that with some children who do not or cannot understand your rationale, either because they do not have the language or the cognitive ability to make sense of it, that rewards and punishments can be helpful until they do get it. And then, you fade back those rewards and punishments back just as fast as you possibly can. Case in point: I had a wonderful non-verbal preschooler with autism who came to me with all sorts of maladaptive behaviors—biting, hitting, spitting. He resisted any demands that were placed on him (get dressed, eat, come here, etc.), and he lacked both the receptive and expressive language for me to be able to communicate my expectations. I started off concretely and slowly with him. I lined up a set of pictures that alternated images of what I wanted him to do and what he wanted to do. The intervals of what I wanted him to do were short and the ones of what he wanted to do were long, but gradually…almost imperceptibly…I reversed this. And once a mutually respectful relationship was established (this is key), I was able to teach him language, which came more quickly than I ever could have predicted. And then I was able to give him choices. And when he flipped out, which he still did, I gave him a time out, letting him rage until he calmed and then we went back to whatever it was we were doing. You can do this with love. You can communicate “I love you, but I don’t love it when you hit me.” You can give particular children, under certain conditions a time out to calm down…and not have it be a withdrawal of affection, but a withdrawal from unproductive engagement until you are both ready to try again.

Sometimes, my husband and I take “time outs” for this very same reason.

So far, I have not found a single reason to time out Sophia…or yell at her for that matter… and, to be frank, I have a hard time picturing one. I’m not ruling out the possibility, but for me, right now, the most important thing to remain mindful of is that her behavior occurs in the context of our relationship. The regulation of her behavior seems inextricably bound up with the regulation of my own.

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