“Tyler, can you put your clothes away, please?” I ask, although I don’t know why I even bother. I know the clothes will just stay there right in the nice pile on the bed where I left them folded, until ultimately they wind up getting knocked to the floor where eventually, after a day or so of walking past and sighing, I will pick them up and put them in his drawers.
For years, I convinced myself they were too young to really understand responsibility. I excused their behavior, and fell victim to the ultimate mom mistake. I would just do it for them. At the time, it definitely seemed easier.
But then I had a few wake-up calls.
It started years ago, back in Kindergarten with Tyler. When the teacher told him he needed to zip his own coat, Tyler responded, “But you do it so much better.”
When I wanted Michael, my 7 year-old, to accompany me into Target to pick out a bean bag seat that he lobbied for, he barely glanced up from his Kindle to remark, “You do it. I’ll just stay here.”
When I asked Julius, my 5 year-old, to do anything at all… such as to help me to pick up the toys that he had scattered from his room all the way to the neighbor’s yard, he lay on the carpet and moaned, “But it’s going to take soooo looooong,” until the job was pretty much done. He’s a smart one.
They all are. So how come they have such a dumb mother? For years, I made their irresponsibility okay by putting on their shoes because they were lazy, putting their dishes in the sink because they were busy, picking up their crap, waitressing them snacks, finding their lost school books, packing their back packs, reminding them to do their homework, buying them new hats, gloves, sweatshirts, lunch bags for all the lost ones… you name it, I nagged about it and then did it.
It wasn’t like I totally just gave up the ship. I tried. I mean I initiated a number of highly praised reinforcements for positive behavior. There was –
The Responsibility Chart – The Melissa and Doug magnetic board looked perfect hanging in our kitchen. There were all these cute magnets for brushing your teeth and feeding the cat. Some said, Help Mom and Share. Aw. This worked fantastic as a toy to play with the magnets. Or as pieces to lose, chuck or step on.
The Ticket system – I got this idea after visiting Chuck E. Cheese. You get tickets for doing good things and then trade the tickets in for prizes. It was all about positive reinforcement. I got a roll of tickets from Party City and it was on. I started dolling them out for every marginally positive thing they did. You used a fork instead of your hands? Ticket! You used a tissue instead of your sleeve? Ticket! I was trying to encourage them, but by my fourth trip to Game Stop I realized they were playing me.
Allowance – This was suggested by my two older boys with the peanut gallery approval of my youngest chanting, “Money! Money! Money!” Here, they would each do their responsibilities, seemingly simple tasks like, waking up for school, getting themselves dressed, and brushing their teeth. Yeah, it’s that easy to earn a buck in my house. And yet, they couldn’t pull it off. Hmm.
“Be a Star” – In this chart, each child is a different colored star that moves up or down according to behavior. When you reach the top, you receive a ‘reward’. If you reach the bottom, you receive a ‘punishment’. On your mark, get set, GO! Will Michael act better than Tyler? Will Julius tell on Michael? Competition was the star here. Who would get to the top first? Who would be crying first? Answer: Me.
Points! – Our latest, conceived by Tyler. An intricate system modeled after one of his video games where points are given for certain tasks and good behavior. Again, if you get enough points, you win something. Here, there is also the possibility of a ‘knock out’. If you do three bad things, you lose your points for the week. On paper this was great, but it failed in action. There was a lot more fighting over how many points would be attributed to what tasks than actual task doing.
Nothing seemed to work. Except, me that is. I assessed my attempts and realized that all those systems are really just bribery prettied up to seem psychologically and socially acceptable. Cause, saying, “Kid, clean your room and I’ll give you 5 bucks” doesn’t play well anymore. It’s not the 70’s. Sigh.
And that’s when it hit me. A belt slap straight from the past.
Why was I asking my kids to clean up? Why was I asking them to do anything? And what was with all those rewards?
So, here’s the new system in our house. In action.
“Tyler, put your clothes away.”
No bells or whistles. No prizes or points. I no longer ask. I tell. And guess what? It works.