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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Breaking the nagging cycle

Most of us have had the experience of telling a child to stop doing something over and over and OVER again.  It can be maddening when we KNOW the child knows that their behaviour is outside the boundaries, but they still keep testing us.

Now, remember that very young children- toddlers and younger- generally haven't developed a sense of right and wrong yet. I'm not talking about them; I'm talking about children who are old enough to have realised that certain behaviours are outside the rules. (This seems to develop somewhere in the 2- to 4-year-old bracket, but it depends quite heavily on individual environmental and developmental factors.)

The most common approach to repeated misbehaviour in this preschooler-and-beyond age group is to keep repeating the boundary message, in the hope that the child will respond. We hope against hope that we won't have to go further- give that threatened punishment, administer a smack, withdraw a privilege, shout- whatever our standard disciplinary approach might be. So we descend to nagging, even though we know from experience that it doesn't work.

My standard line on this is 'if it's not working, stop doing it'.  Let's face it, even adults do stupid/wrong things now and then for fun, whether it's inviting an instant coronary by eating a whole pack of Tim Tams or base-jumping off Mount Rushmore, and having someone tell you repeatedly that it's wrong just makes you irritated and rebellious.

So what else can we do?

The other day some boys in the preschool yard were playing superhero games with sticks. Now, the centre rules demand that sticks be thrown over the fence. These boys have been reminded of the 'no sticks' rule till the teachers are blue in the face. They simply throw the sticks over the fence while you're looking at them, and then find another stick the moment your back is turned.

How did I solve the problem? 

Well to start with, I didn't remind them of the rule, because I knew they KNEW the rule.  When you're in a rut, you need to do something different; you need to surprise the child out of their usual role in the exchange. These boys were having fun, and they were subject to strong peer pressure (yep, even at 4), while I was being a wet blanket.  In the children's minds, I had the role of saying 'no', and they had the role of nodding and subsequently ignoring me.  The only way to be heard was to change the script.

So I said, 'Boys! What am I going to say?'

That immediately made them change the script.  They had to say my line.

'Throw the sticks over the fence.'

Now I changed the script myself.

'Actually, no. That isn't what I was going to say. I was going to ask you WHY we have a rule about sticks.  Can you tell me?'

Of course, they knew the answer to that too, and again they had to take over the lines in the script that usually belong to the teacher. By now I had all the boys' attention, because this wasn't going to plan at all.

'They might hurt someone because they're sharp.'

That's where many people would try to talk about empathy for friends, blah blah. (What 4-year-old boys hear when you interrupt their superhero game to talk about empathy is 'blah blah'.) Instead I swerved around their expectations again and invited them to talk about their 'weapons'.

'So, look at this stick.  Can you see any sharp bits?'

They immediately pointed to the end of the stick, which was actually quite thick and blunt- no more likely to damage anyone than some of the pieces of their construction kits, which they also use as 'swords' on a regular basis.

'That's not the bit I was looking at.  Look at this bit.' I pointed to a very jagged broken branch on the side of the stick.  Immediately all the boys wanted to touch-test the sharp bit of the stick to confirm that it was, indeed, dangerous.  (It was.)

I continued, 'This is the bit that can poke someone's eye out if it hits them.  If you poke out your eye, that's it- your eye is gone.  So how are you going to solve that problem?'

Various solutions were put forward, and eventually the boys themselves solved the problem without me doing any more 'directing' (read 'nagging') about throwing the stick over the fence.

How they solved it is irrelevant; the points I want to make are that (1) I didn't have to nag them, (2) they didn't immediately take a 'selectively deaf' or contrary position (in fact they were interested, engaged and learning) and (3) they stopped doing the genuinely dangerous thing of their own accord and in their own way.

Is that a win?  I think so.  It stopped them playing with a particularly dangerous stick in a particularly dangerous way in the short term; it won't stop them playing with sticks in the long term.

But it might make them examine their weapons next time.

If you can startle a child out of his usual 'part' in the drama and then engage him or her in the solution, you are much more likely to get a happy ending.  The question 'what am I going to say?' is really, really effective for starting a more productive discussion.

My message is simple. If you hear yourself nagging,  change your script.


  1. I love this post. Your question (what am I going to say?) is a great one and changing the script is a great way to think about it. Thanks for more great thoughts Annie.

  2. Thanks, Scott- you know, often I don't realise WHY something worked or WHAT I did differently until I start to reflect and then write about it. Then it becomes a strategy which I can use over and over. Isn't blogging great? :D


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