Friday, April 3, 2009

Book Review: 4 Weeks to a Better-Behaved Child

4 Weeks to a Better-Behaved Child, Cristine Chandler, Ph.D. with Laura McGrath (2004)(*****)

For the past several months life with Micah has been extremely difficult. Winter is always hard, for him and for me -- Micah is a boy whose spirit can't be contained very well within four walls, and I suffer at least mild depression most winters. This means that life is generally harder for our family in the winter (Trixie and Julie fare better than me and Micah, but it's not their best season either). But this winter it got completely out of control. Although Micah was doing very well at school and with friends, he had become a monster at home, flying into a rage at the drop of a hat, screaming, hitting, throwing things. Anything at all could provoke a rage: if I gave him the wrong fork at breakfast, or if the shirt he wears every week suddenly felt "arm-pitty," or if I told him to turn off the TV, or do his homework, or get his shoes on. When he wasn't raging, he was whining, whimpering, bargaining -- and if that didn't work, then he would rage.

"No Micah, you can't have chocolate chips for an after school snack; you didn't even eat your lunch!"

"But listen, listen, I have good reasons, LISTEN!" he would demand, as I tried to stick to my guns. "YOU'RE TALKING OVER ME! You have to listen to my reasons!" (Thankyouverymuch, Responsive Classroom....) But when the whining and bargaining didn't change my mind, the rage was inevitable: his eyes would scan the room for something to throw -- my cookbook, a dining room chair, a shoe. I would inevitably explode, running around trying to keep things from being broken, yelling about how sick I am of this behavior, IT HAS TO STOP!

But I didn't know how to make it stop. Everything I know and believe about parenting -- about setting limits, about being cool and calm and consistent -- it all just seemed to escape me. I had successfully pulled myself out of a pretty significant depression last fall, and had established routines and disciplines at home that have made life feel much more calm and satisfying, but I was still at my wits' end with Micah. Micah has a fine-tuned social and emotional intelligence, so he can read a situation extremely well, and play it to best effect. Against my better judgment and all my best theories of parenting, I was letting him play me -- or, as we've come to describe it, I was feeding the Micah Monster. However you want to look at it, Micah was totally running the show, and our family life was becoming pretty unbearable, fraught as it was at every moment with the specter of one of his violent and destructive outbursts.

Now I know it might sound like I'm blaming Micah, but I'm not. He was doing what is perfectly reasonable for a kid with his particular sensitivities, temperament and intelligence to do to get attention and to get his way. The blame lies entirely with me (well, with me and Julie -- we are very much co-parents and a team, but I can only tell you my story, not hers). I was not only letting this happen, but I was actually feeding his behavior: I was nagging, yelling, giving multiple warnings and threats that I would not follow through on. I was getting angry and engaging in his tantrums out of anger, and then feeling remorseful and comforting Micah with affection and attention. I was coming up with systems of earning privileges and consequences for misbehavior that I could not keep track of and therefore wasn't being consistent with.

And the thing is, Micah was miserable too. Often his rages were cool and deliberate, but sometimes he seemed hysterical and even frightened by himself.  Micah didn't like his rages any better than the rest of us, but like me, he just didn't know how to get on top of them.  He was often remorseful afterward, and would apologize without being asked.

At some point I realized that if the little boy Micah is raging against me now, then the grown-up Micah is likely going to rage against other women later. I really felt that I had to help Micah get his rages under control not just for our family, now, but for his own family that he will create some day, with some other woman, when he is grown.  I needed to do something for my daughter-in-law as much as for myself.

Which brings me to 4 WEeks to a Better-Behaved Child. Let me tell you first, that I never thought I would be reading another parenting book, especially not one with such a cheesy title. On the whole, I hate parenting books -- everyone has an opinion, and they all contradict each other, just feeding the useless, stupid, idiotic mommy-wars: 

"Your child will suffer life-long sleep issues if you don't train him how to comfort himself to sleep by the time he's three months!" 

"No, no, your child will suffer life-long attachment issues if you don't co-sleep and nurse on demand until he naturally weans, even if that's five years old!" 

"Sticker charts! Time out! Carrot and stick!" 

"No, no, permissiveness isn't the problem, it's just the fear of permissiveness. If you just talk to your kids like people, they'll be fine!"

Blah blah blah. I've watched for over ten years now while all these so-called experts fan the flames of righteousness on the one hand (and there's nothing like the righteousness of a new mom, let me tell you, and yes, I do speak from experience), while paradoxically totally undermining confidence (because there's also nothing like the vulnerability of a new mom ... I sometimes think that righteousness and vulnerability are the two most potent new-mom hormones, and that they have some weird multiplying effect on each other). As a result, I'm suspect of parenting books in general, and I'm especially suspect of books with titles like 4 Weeks to a Better-Behaved Child, falling, as I do, more on the attachment parenting/gentle discipline end of the parenting philosophy spectrum.

So I never would have thought to read this book if my beloved and trusted therapist hadn't recommended it to me. Lisa has been my therapist, on and off, for over ten years. She's a lesbian, a mom, a person of faith, and for over ten years, when I'm anxious or depressed because I'm miserable in a job, or having multiple miscarriages, or if I'm perimenopausal, or my church is falling apart around me, or or or ... then I call Lisa, and even though her message says she's not taking new clients, she's always willing to seem e.  And she patiently tells me things that I pretty much already know, but still need to hear periodically from a dispassionate yet trusted person outside the circle of the rest of my life: take naps; be kind to yourself; let yourself cry; get exercise; breath; pray; be a big girl and ask for what you need. She's always right, and I almost always love her for that. Sometimes in the moment I hate her, because while she's always gentle and kind, she never pulls any punches. Last fall, when I started seeing her again, she was insisting that I need to do a better job of self-care, and was helping me brainstorm some systems to get me into better self-care habits. I was resisting, not my need for better self-care, but my ability to actually follow through: "But Lisa, I'm great at setting up these systems, but I'm just terrible at following through. I just don't know if I can do it consistently." She looked at me like a mother might look at a whining teenager (she's not old enough to be my mother, but she is enough older than I am to pull off that look) and asked, quite bluntly, and with just a tiny bit of pique in her voice, "How do you get your kids to school every morning?" I felt a bit peevish at that moment, but of course she was right.

Last time I went to see Lisa, about a month ago, I decided to talk about Micah.  While everything else in my life had fallen into a pretty nice place, Micah's behavior seemed like the one thing I just couldn't get on top of.  I described Micah at length, all the wonderful things, all the hard things.  I explained to Lisa what was going on, answered her thoughtful questions, and shared the one thing I felt I was doing right, the one thing that I thought was helping:  "I've told Micah that when he's in the middle of a rage, and he feels like throwing something, he can come and ask for a hug instead.  That seems to really help him calm down.  Sometimes it's hard for me to give him the hug, because I'm often feeling really angry or upset by his raging, but it's the one thing that seems to help cut the rage short."  

Lisa startled me with her response:  "That's exactly wrong.  Micah needs to learn how to control himself before he starts to rage.  That's something only he can do himself, you can't do that for him.  By hugging him in the middle of the rage, you're rewarding his lack of control in the first place."  This was one of those moments that I hated Lisa.  How can hugging your child be wrong?  That was the one thing I felt like I was doing right!  

"And you shouldn't give him a hug if you don't feel like hugging him.  If you are angry and upset, especially with all your own tactile sensitivity issues, you need to take care of yourself, and he needs to respect that," she continued.

"But sometimes he seems so frantic, he really needs me!"  

But Lisa would not back down.  "It's always hard to move on to the next stage of independence."  Now I really hated her.  I speculated (silently of course) that her boys were probably really easy, like Trixie, and that parents with easy kids like Trixie can afford to be smug (like I used to be, I'll admit).  Hmmph.  But after more than a decade of Lisa's kind but firm truth-telling, I suspected that she was probably telling me the truth once again.  

As we neared the end of our session, Lisa recommended Cristine Chandler's book, which I found on Amazon.  Chandler was a family therapist who practiced in Philadelphia for many years, and she and Lisa knew each other, whether as colleagues or friends or both, I'm not sure.  Lisa used Chandler's methods with her own now-grown boys (you know, the ones who would not last a moment, I'm sure, in a temperamental smack-down with my Micah!)  As Lisa described a little bit some of Chandler's techniques, I was dubious.  I shared with her, quite earnestly, that I'm not a big fan of behavioral modification methods of discipline, because it seems to me that children need to learn the intrinsic rewards of good behavior.  It is clearly a sign of Lisa's consummate professionalism that she listened to me say this with a straight face, and refrained from asking, "So, how's that working out for you?" Instead she pointed out that many things we need children to do -- getting their shoes on in the morning, for example, so that we're not late for school -- do not really have intrinsic rewards for the children, and that there is nothing wrong with children earning privileges and learning good habits at the same time.  In my middle age, I'm actually coming to believe that much of life's happiness stems from basic good habits, and that good habits really can be learned, so Lisa's explanation made good enough sense to me.  I promptly ordered and read the book.

One of the many things I like about this book is that it is short, straight-forward, easy-to-read, yet still lays a theoretical foundation for the techniques that follow (I always like a little theory, sort of like a three year old who is always asking "WHY?").  That foundation begins with a discussion of anger, which Chandler calls "one of the most common pitfalls of parenting."(p. 11)  (check!)  According the Chandler, "The most serious negative outcome of anger is that it undermines a most critical lesson that parents must teach their children: how to manage their own emotions."  (pp. 11-12)  She outlines the four effects of anger:  1) Anger begets anger; 2) Anger impairs the ability to process information and think logically; 3) Parents' anger gives attention to children for misbehaving; and 4) Anger makes parents feel bad.  (p. 17) (check! check! check! check!)  So the first order of business is establishing a system of discipline that a parent can manage without anger.  So far, this made perfect sense to me: I was doing all the angry things she described, with all the bad results she predicted.  And I hated feeling so angry all the time, and so out of control.  

The next chapter discusses consequences as the foundation for discipline:
  • "If-then thinking provides children with the rational basis for understanding the consequences of their actions...."  a parents' "first goal is to help children understand the connection between their own behavior and the consequences that result from it." (pp 24-25)
  • "Consistent, clear, contingent consequences ... provide the framework for behaving with intention." (p. 24)
  • "In disciplining children, the most powerful consequence parents can use to influence their children's behavior is the way in which the parents give or withdraw their attention." (p. 39)
All of this also made sense.  I've always believed in natural or logical consequences (as opposed to arbitrary punishment), although being clear and consistent has often been my downfall, especially when my own life is feeling out of control (as it did last fall, and for much of the previous year and a half).  I also understand that my kids seek my attention above just about anything else, and that negative attention is better than no attention at all.  I can see that so clearly in the endless cycles of anger and rage with Micah, and even in the less fraught cycles of nagging and frustration with Trixie.

The next chapter is basically Behaviorism 101.  And I'll admit that this is where I got the most nervous, because the very very little that I admittedly know about behaviorism makes me feel like it's more suited to training a dog than nurturing a child.  I'm supposed to be all hippy and crunchy, right? Unconditional parenting and all that, right?  So before I launched into this chapter, I meditated for awhile on two of my daughter's best friends, a brother and sister, whom I've known since they were born.  Their mother, one of my best friends and absolutely my mentor and role-model as a mother and homemaker, is hands down one of the most devoted and loving mothers on the planet.  She is also, hands down, the most consistently -- unrelentingly! -- strict mother I know, and her kids' lives have included, at various times, sticker charts and rewards and time-outs and other behavioral sorts of techniques.  And they are two of the most intrinsically kind, polite, thoughtful, well-behaved, helpful, healthy, happy, and mature kids I know.  Hands down.  So I meditated on them for awhile, always a pleasant thing to do, and then I launched into Behaviorism 101:

The four fundamental ways to modify a behavior are:

 1) positive reinforcement -- encouraging "the repetition of a desirable behavior by following it with a reward, either tangible or social." (p 47) 
2) negative reinforcement -- reinforcing a behavior by following it with the removal of something unpleasant (p. 49) 
3) extinction -- the opposite of reinforcement, extinction decreases the frequency of a behavior by providing no response to it at all (p. 51 and 52); and 
4) punishment -- "following a behavior with a negative consequence" (p. 55)

Chandler than suggests several discipline techniques that help to apply some of these methods of modifying behavior.   The first two methods use positive reinforcement combined with clear, consistent, contingent consequences.  One of these she calls "Praise for the Expected" (p. 61), which is basically catching your kids being good, and letting them know you noticed with praise and affection.  I know some people object that we shouldn't have to praise our kids for being good, they should just do that because it's the right thing to do.  But I know that I like it when folks notice the good things I do, even when I'm just doing my job, and my kids are no different.  It's easy to just take our kids' good behavior for granted -- I do this all too frequently -- and only give them attention (albeit negative attention) when they are bad.  In behavioral theory, though, this extinguishes the good behavior (by ignoring it) and reinforces the bad behavior (by giving it attention).  Makes sense to me, so I'm working hard at quietly but consistently praising both Micah and Trixie for their good behavior, large and small.  Micah's sheepish, shoulder shrugging grin, and Trixie's redoubled efforts to be kind and helpful, suggest, at the very least, that this is not hurting.

The second of the methods combining positive reinforcement with clear, consistent, contingent consequences is a "Learned Reward System" using a marble jar, a system "designed to help children learn new tasks or encourage them to become more consistent and independent in performing chores they already know how to do." (p. 65)  Now I'm the queen of systems, but as previously noted, I often have trouble following through with them, largely because they are too complicated.  Several months ago I created and laminated charts for earning privileges and allowance through chores and good behavior that were so complicated, we had to abandon them after just a few days!  The marble jar system is not that different from what I was trying to devise myself, except that it has the obvious advantage of being simple and easy to administer.  

In a nutshell, the kids each have four "jobs" that they are working on perfecting at any given time.  Each of the jobs, and precisely what it means, is agreed upon ahead of time.  For each job that is performed according to specifications, they earn 15 minutes of TV or computer time each day (double on the weekends, because I do looooovvvvveeee to muck simple things up and make them complicated!).  (This amount can vary family to family, depending on your own screen-time rules and habits, and she does have some suggestions for folks with no TV/computer.)  Once they have made a habit of those jobs, they must continue doing them, but we will switch to new jobs for which they can earn marbles.

So, for example, Micah's jobs:
  • sleep through the night without waking the mamas
  • get dressed (I lay out clothes), including socks and shoes, brush teeth, wash face, and get to breakfast by 7:30 with no more than two warnings about the time;
  • after school, put shoes on the shoe rack, hang coat, and put lunch box in the kitchen
  • do homework
Trixie's jobs:
  • feed cat and scoop cat box daily
  • practice piano daily
  • after school, put shoes on the shoe rack, hang coat, and put lunch box in the kitchen
  • get one hour of exercise daily (most days she gets this walking to and from school)
Why TV and computer time?  Because it's something kids like (at least mine do), but it has very little redeeming value, so there's no harm done if they fail to earn marbles.  Story time, or play time with friends, or bike/scooter/playground/legos -- that's all valuable, and should not need to be earned.  Now, I'll admit, an hour a day of TV/computer time is a lot to me, more than we've normally allowed.  On the other hand, in the past Julie and I have been really inconsistent -- unfairly so -- about how much and when we let the kids watch -- we set up strict rules and then start making exceptions left and right, mostly for our own convenience.  So in the end, I bet they are not watching all that much more TV under this system.  And truth be told, in the good weather, they often would rather be outside playing with friends, and sometimes don't even cash in all their marbles.

So, is it working?  Well, Trixie is a fanatic about accumulating marbles, even if she can't possibly use them all, and now she sets her alarm early enough to practice piano every morning, and NEVER forgets to care for her cat.  That's the kind of kid she is, a little bit of a hoarder (she does the same thing with her allowance -- squirrels it away, rarely spends it and then only on books).  But she's also dreamy and absent-minded, and often forgot to take care of chores.  So I would say, with Trixie, so far so good.  Micah has taken a little longer to get with the program (we've been doing this about two weeks now) -- he still asks for a marble for everything he does.  

"I cleared my plate, can I have a marble?"  

"I was nice to my cousin, can I have a marble?"  

"Micah, what are your four jobs?" And we go through them.  Now he stops me with a knowing "Yeah, yeah, I know."  

And mostly he's working his program (because that boy does love him some Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles):  I haven't been woken at night in over a week; he is now perfectly in the habit of putting away his stuff after school; and mornings and homework are not perfect, but soooooo much less fraught, it's like night and day.  I even allow them to use marbles in the morning (they each can earn two before breakfast), as long as they are completely ready to walk out the door the minute I say it's time to go.  This morning they were ready to go and started a movie half an hour before it was time.  I sat on the couch sipping coffee, feeling calm and quiet and amazed.

Praise for the Expected and Learned Rewards are techniques "designed to increase the repetition of desirable behaviors" (p. 101).  In contrast, the second set of discipline techniques Chandler offers, No Reply and Cool Down, are "focused on eliminating unwanted behaviors."  (p. 101).  No Reply basically extinguishes undesirable behaviors such as whining, begging and bargaining by simply ignoring them.  To your whining child, you say something very simple like this: "As long as you keep whining, I will not pay any attention to you." And then you mean it.  This is a technique I use already quite a bit, and as long as I am firm and consistent, it often works well.  It only works, of course, for behaviors that can be ignored, which do not include violence, aggression, or defiance.  For these sorts of behaviors, Chandler offers a modified version of Time Out, which she calls Cool Down (we still call it Time Out, but follow her model pretty strictly).

Chandler devotes a lengthy discussion to Cool Down and how it contrasts with the way many folks use Time Out, but in a nutshell, Cool Down is pretty straight-forward.  It is important to explain all of this to the child before you begin using the technique, so the child knows precisely what to expect:

1.  You give your child a command, either to do something or to stop doing something.
2.  If the child does not respond, within thirty seconds you give the child a warning in a firm but not angry voice:  "This is your warning.  If you do not [do, or stop doing, X], you will be in Cool Down."  If the child's misbehavior involves violence or destruction (or anything else you consider that serious), you skip over this warning step.
3.  If the child does not comply within another 30 seconds, you direct the child to his Cool Down spot -- the most boring place you can find (half way down the basement stairs is ours), and set a timer for ten minutes.  During these ten minutes, you do not interact with or respond to the child in any way, except if he leaves his spot.  Then you say, again firmly but without anger, "You left your Cool Down spot, so I am going to add five minutes to the timer." And then you do, and continue to ignore the child.
4.  The child may leave the Cool Down spot when the timer goes off if he has been calm for at least 30 seconds prior to the timer going off.  If he is not calm, you add five more minutes.  (p. 111)

"Using the Cool Down technique has two goals.  The first is to change the child's initial defiant behavior for which he was reprimanded.  The second and more important goal is to end the spiraling angry interchanges that often follow reprimands."  (p. 105)  From a behavioral perspective, Cool Down uses three of the four methods of changing a behavior:  punishment (the negative consequence of ten minutes in Cool Down after bad behavior); extinction (not responding to the child's bad behavior, both prior to and while in Cool Down); and negative reinforcement (removing the negative consequence of Cool Down once the child gets himself under control for at least 30 seconds before the timer goes off).  (pp 106-107).

When we introduced Cool Down (we still call it Time Out) to Micah, I had some trepidation about whether it would work.  Would he go to the Time Out spot? Would he stay?  Would I be able to keep my cool?  Would I be able to ignore him?  Chandler addresses all of these FAQs and more in her Cool Down chapter, but still I was dubious ... but willing to give it a try.  The way I explained it to Micah was that it felt like there were two Micahs:  one, the real Micah, that his teachers and his friends always get to see.  This is the nice and kind and funny Micah, the one who is polite, and does what he is supposed to.  Then there is the Monster Micah, the one we see so often at home, who is mean, and ugly, and violent.  I told him none of us liked living with the Monster Micah, not me, not Julie, not Trixie, and not even the real Micah -- and he agreed.  I also told him that I had been trying to help him put the Monster Micah in the cave where he should live, rather than in our house, but I had finally realized that the real Micah was the only one who could put the Monster Micah in the cave.  I can't do it for him, I can only give him some space and some tools to do it himself.  This seemed to make a lot of sense to Micah, and the overwhelming sense I got from him was one of relief.

Which is not to say that suddenly Monster Micah is permanently cave-bound!  But let me tell you, life around here is so much better these days -- and we're only two weeks in.  I don't feel angry and out of control almost ever -- having a simple script that keeps me disengaged has really helped me keep my anger in check.  Micah, of course, still disobeys, he still has fits, he still even throws things occasionally -- but it's so much less frequently, and so much less ugly, and it feels very much like his best self is continuing to emerge.  We're all feeling hopeful and relieved -- and no one more so than Micah, I think.

So I give 4 Weeks to a Better-Behaved Child five stars, and would definitely recommend it if you are open to this sort of model of discipline.  I know it's not for everyone, but it definitely seems to be what we needed.  Truth be told, though, the only key that was really missing before was my ability to be consistent.  And the only reason I can do that now is because I've got my own life under control, and I'm taking good care of myself.  So moms and dads, remember to put your own oxygen mask on first, but then if you still need some help (like I did!), this book might be a useful tool in your box.  


Joanna said...

I think I will be needing this book about the time you're done with it.

It sounds great -- like a slightly older-geared version of _Setting Limits with You Strong-Willed Child_, which is a big help around here.

Claire said...

Marta, you are a beautiful, inspirational parent. I'm glad you shared this -- your experiences loving Micah and helping him develop the great beauty he so often radiates as well as your review of this book. Just like you say, I would never have even given a book with this title a second glance, but it sounds really helpful.

Asher is on the easy spectrum, mostly. but it's that mostly that gets us every time. we have absolutely no consistent or effectual way of reacting to bad behavior, and lately at preschool there have been some crazy bad moments. I end up hissing and hissing at him angrily like a possessed demon lady, coming up with crazy threats to try to impress him back to his usual reasonable self, and yes, being terribly ashamed of myself afterward, knowing I am totally ineffectual and the whole shebang... I am totally going to give this a look (once the semester is survived).

Even more than a book review, though, this was a profound essay about all the different kinds of love it takes to care for yourself, your kids, partner, family, world.

speaking of which, love you lots!

Patrick said...

This was fascinating and inspiring, my friend. I suspect consistency would be MY big stumbling block as a parent as well. Well, one of the big ones. Lisa sounds like a wonderful resource. Why do I have a funny feeling I would benefit from a system like this too, even without kids? As a side note (or maybe it isn't), I've come to suspect that righteousness and vulnerability are two sides of a coin. I am usually righteous about stuff I'm secretly insecure about.
God bless parents! I get tired just thinking about all this.

Java said...

Marta, Patrick referred me here. He told me that as he read this he kept thinking of the situation I have with my son. Sure enough, there are amazing similarities between your story and mine. My therapist just recommended Ross Green's book _The Explosive Child_ which I have on order from Amazon. I like the sound of 4 Weeks ...Child, too.

My son is 11 years old and has been oppositional since very early childhood. Parenting is an interesting adventure.

Sara said...

wow - how awesome.

Melissa said...

Great post, Marta! The timing is perfect as we're struggling with Miles at present -- we got a letter from the principal today because he *punched* some kid on the bus! There's been a lot of yelling around here lately. Putting that book on my library queue right now, and glad to hear that things have calmed down at your place.

donna said...

i am just seeing this now... with tears streaming down my cheeks, i am so, so overwhelmed and in awe of you.
love you. xoxo, d.

Marta said...

Thanks so much everyone! Things are still going well, not perfect, but we're on the right track!

Jo: The beauty of this book is that it's pretty simple, and you don't really need to keep referring back to it. It's geared at kids as young as three, I think, so you might want to check it out.

Claire: my love, you are MY inspiration in so so many ways. Hang in there until the end of the semester. xoxo

Patrick: I actually agree -- I need a marble jar too! I'm only half kidding -- the notion of focusing on a few "jobs" at a time until they become good habits and then giving yourself a little reward, I'm thinking that's not a bad idea for grown-ups as well. May blog about it someday....

Java: I would love to know how things work out with your son, whether this is helpful at all. Best of luck! Parenting is grand, but humbling, huh?

Sara: it doesn't get much more awesome than you, friend!

Melissa: this might really help .... thinking of all of you ....

d: you totally recognize yourself, right? i think i would have lost my mind years ago without your friendship ....

Esther said...

Wow, Marta, I have never posted a comment on a blog, but I am blown away by this book review. Unlike you, I am not a great writer, so I can't write the review of your book review that I would like - I would spout some cliches like "unflinching honesty," perhaps. I love your book reviews!