Thursday, February 4, 2010

A System

For the past few months, David and I have been living in a never-ending episode of SuperNanny, except minus the nanny and the hope she holds for order and peace. I am speaking especially about our little one, who has taken the Terrible Twos way too far. The way that she destroys things -- from my lipsticks to her brother’s masterpieces to the fish’s habitat – and the way she refuses to do any of the things that are required to keep her in decent health – such as sleep, eat and shit – combined with the way she emits blood curdling wails when she is unpleased – all of that adds up to one serious Reign of Terror.

So a few months ago, I read on our local listserv about this useful system other parents were using for behavior management. I like Systems. Systems are structured and unyielding. Systems are consistent and fair and nonnegotiable. And this particular one, called the Voucher System, had even more. It had hard, cold numbers.

It’s basically the same as a points system or a sticker chart where positive acts – chores, sharing, good listening, brushing teeth and getting dressed, etc – get assigned a specific value, in terms of points. Negative actions – hitting, rudeness, not listening, refusing to clean up – also are assigned a point value. And then rewards – special dessert, trip, activity or toy – are assigned a point value and can be redeemed when enough positive points have been accumulated.

Orderly. Fair. Nonnegotiable.

The first time we introduced the system, it worked wonders . . . for a week or so. When Primo finally earned the Air-Dry Clay he wanted, he sort of lost interest. Unfortunately, it failed to entice the child we really need help with, Seconda – who is immune to bribes or threats. But we recently re-introduced the system because the old Ipod shuffle that Primo’s been listening to at bedtime has finally busted and we want to get him another Ipod but we also want him to earn it, because, hey, that’s one BIG gift.

So back go the charts and the kid’s been racking up points faster than a gambler on a winning streak. Right now, you can win big in our house if you go to sleep and get les than three warnings in the process. That’s 10 points right there. Hell, I’m ready to make it 50, I’m so desperate for a bedtime that takes under two hours.

But the other day, one of Primo’s friends from school came over for a playdate and when his mom came by to pick him up, Primo ran over to her with a piece of paper on which he had drawn lines and serious-looking instructions.

Then he explained what it was he was giving her:

“This is a VOUCHER System. If Denny does something good, you give him points here and he can get a toy, or some licorice or an ITouch. But if he does something bad, you have to take points away, on this side and he CAN”T get any of that stuff. OK?”

I found the whole thing very embarrassing. I mean, had I explained our system it would have sounded much more nuanced and friendly and progressive but really, Primo is right, this is what it is.

Alfie Kohn
would be MORTIFIED. But what can I tell you? It seems better than screaming at your kids and empty threats and ineffective time-outs. I don’t think the punishment/ reward system is ideal but I really don’t know how a normal (not Superhuman) parent with normal (not Stepford) kids can realistically operate under anything different. With two fire-craker, high-maintenance kids, modeling good behavior and treating them like the kids I hope they will become just doesn’t cut it. Input? Ideas? Any tips for other Systems a system-addicted mother like me can look into?