We’ve heard it often enough: How we are as mothers, including our voice and behavior, would become a child’s inner voice when he/she grows up.
In the effort to get my kids to do everything they need to finish throughout the day, I worry that, one day, their inner voice will sound like that of a drill sergeant.
It’s not that I run my home like a boot camp. Far from it. And though my kids think I am “so strict,” I’m really just trying to get everything done.
Unfortunately this means I am usually focused on what’s not working properly; who is not doing his/her task; and who is not listening or behaving.
But, to be fair, I always acknowledge and show gratitude whenever one of the kids brings home something from school— an artwork, medal or the occasional rock. Sometimes, they do something really special which earns them extra praise.
Other times, I make an effort to say something good about whatever they had done.
On one hand, we know the benefits of giving our children the positive validation they want to hear from us. But on the other hand, I don’t want to overdo it, so much so that they expect a shower of praises over nothing. I try to do it consistently but in moderation, although deep inside, I know I don’t do it often enough.
Doing good instead of bad
Last week, I came across an article online: “How to discipline a child—the rubber band method.” It’s a fairly simple concept. Place three rubber bands on your right wrist, and every time you catch your child doing something good, acknowledge and appreciate your child’s behavior and move one rubber band to your left wrist.
The goal is to have all three rubber bands on your left wrist before the end of the day. Ideally, in “catching” your child doing good instead of bad, the child will learn to have the discipline to do good because he/she gets validation from the parent.
To be honest, while I have always liked the idea of positive reinforcement as a way of instilling discipline, it doesn’t always work for my kids. Believe me, I’ve tried it many times.
Maybe I’m old fashioned, or perhaps it’s not the way my kids are wired, which means that discipline in our home is still enforced through the threat of punishment, usually in the form of a privilege being taken away.
But just the same, I decided to give this rubber band method a try. I wasn’t sure if it would work, but I liked the process and was curious how it would turn out for us.
In hindsight, I was always on the lookout for the negative in order to nip unacceptable behavior in the bud, such that I may be overlooking a lot of things. Maybe, if I have a physical reminder on my wrist, I will be able to see more.
So, first, I decided on what I wanted to tell my kids. I did not want to throw meaningless compliments and empty praises around. If all I had to say was “Good job,” those three rubber bands would be gone in a heartbeat. If I wanted my messages to have value, they had to be genuine, sincere and more powerful, to have a deeper effect.
On my first day, I had a few hours alone to practice on the younger one, my 4-year-old son Juanmi. In the morning I asked him to get me water downstairs from the kitchen. He immediately went and did as I asked.
I thanked him and added how much I appreciated his prompt obedience to my request. I didn’t know what I was expecting from a 4-year-old, because he just looked at me and nodded his head before going back to fixing his toy.
What followed the rest of the day was, more or less, the same reaction from him. I wasn’t sure if the things I was saying and pointing out to him were getting through or having any effect; but by the time I picked up his older sister from school that afternoon, I had already successfully transferred all his rubber bands to the left hand.
I also had to ask Juanmi to finish eating his vegetables (unsuccessfully) and his homework (successfully); to some extent, I felt like I was just up by one point—it seemed that for the three praiseworthy actions, there were also two nagging points that probably canceled out whatever good I had told him.
As I returned the rubber bands to my right wrist for my daughter’s turn, it seemed like I would have the same experience. However, the first day alone was an eye-opener.
I was about to put her to bed but I still had all the rubber bands. And I was still barking orders as it was getting late, and she was still wide awake.
Reflecting on where I had gone wrong with the rubber band method led to the following realizations:
My daughter and I have less time together because she comes home from school later in the afternoon. But she has more responsibilities such as homework and tests. Which means more pressure every minute.
And because she is the eldest, I also have more expectations from her such as better behavior. Rather than praising her, I take for granted many of the things she says and does.
While I was happy to find three opportunities to “catch” my son doing good, I wanted to take things a step further by making the ratio of my kids doing good versus bad, at the very least, equal. Ideally, doing good would be higher in ratio, but for now, I was content with baby steps.
Changing the rules
The next day, I changed the rules of the rubber band method a bit:
For every positive statement, I would move a rubber band to the left wrist, but for every sermon, I would move it back to the right and find another opportunity to reinforce a positive action.
I also made a pact with myself to appreciate my daughter’s actions more and take a closer look at the things she was doing.
As expected, the rubber bands went back and forth on my wrists; and within a few hours, I was already confused on whose rubber band was whose (now they are color-coded).
But the bigger realization was that I had been so busy trying to mold my daughter’s behavior according to how an older sister should be acting, it’s heartbreaking how much I had overlooked. I was suddenly reminded of an old saying on raising children. I don’t remember the exact words, but it was something like, “Thunder, no matter how loud, doesn’t make flowers grow; sunlight and water do.”
Admittedly, when my kids don’t listen, the “thunder” gets loud and the sunlight and water disappear. Sometimes I forget that.
It’s been only a few days with the rubber band experiment at home. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do positive reinforcement solely to discipline my kids, but it’s a good reminder that discipline doesn’t always have to be taught through punishment.
In essence, discipline is about teaching a person to “follow a code or conduct of behavior” and molding a person’s character for the better. If, apart from punishment and loud voices, there are other ways to make it happen, then I am happy to give them a try.
The “drill sergeant” in me is still in action, but I believe there is less thunder at home and more sunlight. Hopefully, this gives the positive messages a stronger voice.