“Mom! My drawer is empty! I’m out of socks!” It was one of those mornings when we were running terribly late and I was trying to be efficient and stay calm. “Look in your backpack,” I shouted from the kitchen, trying to rescue burning toast and assemble three lunches all at once. “Eric took my backpack!” Jenny shouted. “I did not!” “Yes you did!”
Sometimes we think scenes like these are inevitable, just part of family life. Yet much of this chaos can be prevented—with a little thought and a few minutes of planning.
Sometimes we don’t see the obvious. We ask ourselves, “How can I change my child’s behavior?” when the more effective solution might be to change the environment. Here are some easy, yet effective ways to plan:
- Remove An Object
Some problems are easily prevented; all we have to do is remove the troublesome object. Parents have shared these stories:
The dentist warned us that Danielle has too many cavities. She was into the ice cream right after school, then skipping part of her dinner, anticipating a chocolate sundae. We thought of several plans, but the easiest was this: we bought only one pint of ice cream, once a week. When it was gone, that was it. Problem solved.
The third time my pliers were missing, I knew I was getting nowhere. Despite my complaints, Jason never broke the habit of taking my tools without permission. And he had a set of his own! Instead of another “discussion,” I found a foolproof solution: a padlock on the cabinet.
- Reschedule An Activity
Not only can we remove some troublesome objects, we can sometimes remove or shift activities that generate problems.
Every time I put Caitlin to bed, we’d roughhouse and tickle. When I’d say, “Time to sleep,” she could never settle down. So we made a new plan: active playing happens much earlier. Bedtime is calm and predictable: brush teeth, wash up, and hear a story. Works a whole lot better!
“Jimmy! The cat box smells again!” I was so tired of nagging that I thought, “I’d rather do the chores myself and not have to hassle.” But I knew that would be a cop-out. So I sat down and thought about our week. One of our rituals is going out to dinner every Friday night; we all look forward to it. Then it dawned on me: why not schedule Friday afternoon for chores? They’d have a natural incentive to do them quickly! Just changing the schedule made a surprising difference.
- Add Organization
Another way to prevent problems is to add something to the environment: something that will provide more order.
Garret lost keys faster than we could replace them. Then we put a small basket right near the door. Garret takes the key out of the basket when he leaves, and drops it back in when he returns. By now, it’s become a habit—and we seldom have to replace keys.
Every day, Carey came home starving. “Mom, what can I eat?” I’d list several snacks and she’d snub her nose. I felt exasperated. Then I saw what her friend’s mom did: snacks were always kept on a certain shelf in the fridge. Now I keep things like fruit, carrot sticks, nuts, celery and cheese on the snack shelf. I’ve also placed a “Request List” on the refrigerator door with a magnet. If Carey wants something, she can write it down. No more hassles—and my husband likes the plan too.
A great example of planning is a good kindergarten classroom: everything’s color-coded; there’s a special place for blocks, paint and sponges. Children know where things go and what’s expected of them. Happy teacher. Happy kids.
- Add Fun
We were all getting weary. “Gary has his foot on my side of the car!” “I do not!” “You do too!” Nothing could stop the whining and bickering—until Dad said, “Who wants to play alphabet?” In that moment, the atmosphere was transformed.
Creating a game—offering a challenge—sometimes, that’s all it takes.
Remember when Snow White encouraged the seven dwarfs to Whistle While You Work? When you’re in a hurry, consider creating a game:
Whoever is dressed and ready before this five-minute timer goes off, gets to pick the after-school treat.
The key is to realize that many problems can be prevented. We’re all busy; it’s easy to feel we don’t have time to make a plan. But all too often, we spend our time fighting and hassling because we didn’t take the time to plan. Once we experience the payoff—how planning prevents many problems and makes the day go smoothly—we can think of many more ways to use it.
Ilene Val-Essen, Ph.D., is a leader in the field of parent education. Her landmark book, Bring Out the Best in Your Child and Your Self: Creating a Family Based on Mutual Respect, offers parents tools to help their children and teens become the cooperative, independent and responsible young people they truly want to be.
Dr. Val-Essen developed the Quality Parenting program, which has been taught in the US and abroad and translated into Swedish, Spanish and Dutch.
She has been in private practice as a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in CA for more than thirty years. www.BringOutTheBest.com