What do you do when counting to three no longer works its magic? What is your next step when you talk and your child listens and you listen to your child’s talk and bedtime is still a struggle?
Make a chart!
The use of charts is not limited to the issue of bedtime. Charts may be effective in addressing many issues parents have with their children.
Charts are effective when they are used appropriately and properly. They fail if those two criteria are not met.
When is a chart appropriate? When a child understands what is expected of her and she is capable of meeting that expectation. If a child does not understand the expectation or is not capable of meeting it, a chart will be useless.
How do you make sure your child understands each expectation? Use CPR. Not the medical kind of CPR. Not the NYPD version of CPR although Courtesy, Professionalism, and Respect should be a part of any interaction.
Your child will understand and be more likely to meet each of your expectations when you use this form of CPR: Make sure each expectation is Concrete, Positive, and Realistic.
Concrete, not general. Say: please put your clothing on hangers, rather than saying clean up your room.
Positive, not negative. Say what you want, not what you don’t want, e.g. please keep your feet on the floor rather than saying don’t put your feet on the chair.
Realistic for that child at that time. Is he tired, hungry, upset? Be sure you take into account the child’s physical and emotional states when you determine whether your expectation is realistic. Those states change for your child over the course of the day, just like they do for you.
Making sure your expectation is realistic may also include considering how soon you want your child to meet this expectation and for how long.
We’ve looked at the first criterion for charts, that the chart be appropriate. A chart is an appropriate way to help a child when the child understands the expectation and is capable of meeting it.
The second criterion is that the chart be done properly. This refers to the way the chart is used, not how it is designed. Let’s look at what happens when a chart is used improperly, and then we’ll look at the proper alternative.
I set up a chart to keep track of how often Chavie is in bed on time. We began on Monday. On Thursday, Chavie informed me that I owe her three stars. I didn’t remember whether or not she’d been in bed on time over those past three days.
I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt and put three stars onto her chart.
Chavie then informed me that I should have put the stars on her chart each morning and then I wouldn’t have forgotten if she’d been in bed on time the night before.
My morning routine is hectic enough without my having to remember to put stars on Chavie’s chart. Besides, sometimes her father puts her to bed and I don’t know what time she got there. This chart is not working!
The reason it was not working is that it wasn't meeting the criterion of being done properly. This chart was being done by the parent. A chart is properly done when it is the responsibility of the child to see that it is done.
When parents sit down with a child to express their expectation and set up a chart to record their child’s success at meeting that expectation, they need to explain the mechanics of chart keeping, too. Chart keeping is not one more thing for parents to juggle during an already hectic morning, evening, or any other time. Chart keeping is the child’s responsibility. Explain to your child that she is to come to you when she has completed an expectation to ask you to put a star onto her chart. Make clear to her how much time she has before it will be too late to get a star this time. I would be flexible about this to some degree.
Remember, charts cannot help a child to become capable of anything. If a child is not capable of meeting an expectation no chart will change that. Charts can only help a child who is capable and needs some incentive to become willing.
A chart is a means to an end. That end for parents is a child who was unwilling to meet an expectation to become willing to meet the expectation. For the child, the end is something she has earned for her compliance.
But Rabbi Ackerman, why does my child have to get something, or as you call it, earn something, just for doing what she’s told?
She doesn’t have to earn something and you don’t have to give her something. You can keep counting to three and talking and listening to each other until she complies with something you want her to do that she doesn’t want to do. When she still doesn’t comply after extending counting or talking, you might be able to somehow force her to comply.
You would then be teaching her the principle kal d’alim gvar, whoever is stronger prevails. (Baba Basra 34b) That principle has narrow applications. Parenting is not one of them because your child will learn it from you and not know when to apply it.
The alternative is to move your child’s ratzon rather than overriding it. That is accomplished with incentives. Incentives can be material things now taken for granted that will need to be earned, time and attention your child craves, or whatever works for you and for her.
You will be charting a course for your child’s growth and your nachas.
Rabbi Yitzchak Shmuel Ackerman is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor with specialties in marriage, dating, and parenting.
He is the author of Confident Parents, Competent Children, in Four Seconds at a Time Available at bookstores and on Amazon.
He can be reached at 718-344-6575.