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By "Today" contributor
updated 12/17/2004 1:37:32 PM ET 2004-12-17T18:37:32

Today in "Parenting Weekends" we continue a series of excerpts from “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” the most recent book by “Today” show contributor Dr. Ruth Peters.

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Law #15:
Get on the Same Page
A five-dollar kitchen timer is the most effective, easy, and fabulous way to turn lazy, noncompliant kids into movers and shakers! You’ve never imagined it could be this easy to get your kids to listen — and act! Just think, no fussing, no whining, no procrastinating. No nagging. No yelling. No threatening. In a matter of minutes, your whole family will be moving in the same direction.

***

It’s no secret what a kid’s number one priority is: to have fun, pure and simple. This makes for a “to do” list highlighted by such critical tasks as watching television, playing video games, hanging out with friends, or biking around the block. Understandably, homework and chores fall much farther down on the list. Mom and Dad, though, clearly have a different set of priorities.

Parents do want their kids to have fun, but they want to balance play with completion of responsibilities. They want the tasks done in a timely manner and don’t look forward to the inevitable hassles that go with threatening, barking orders, or generally trying to light a fire under their kids to get them to do their work on time.

It usually comes down to the simple fact that what “now” means to a kid is often different from what “now” means to his folks. Children want chores to be fit in between television shows or a break in playtime. Mom and Dad, however, usually prefer work to be completed before play begins, and that’s where the friction starts.

Does this inevitable difference in perception have to become a problem? Not necessarily, especially if you accept that it’s a natural part of child rearing because of the differences in parent/child human nature. Just understanding that these differences are normal takes some of the sting out of the issue. Of course your kid would rather play than clean up his bedroom. If you can understand and accept that as typical, then half of the problem is solved. I’ve found that too many parents get caught up in the emotion of the moment rather than focusing upon problem resolution. My advice is to keep calm and nonchalant and to move on to how you’re going to solve the problem — quickly, with a minimum of nagging, lecturing, or reminding. Use action or a consequence rather than a lot of yakking, and you’ll begin to see your child’s behavior change for the better. He may not want to clean up the bedroom, but he will if there’s an effective consequence lurking around the corner.

One of my fondest remembrances is how one family worked on and resolved this dilemma in their own home. Roz, mother of 9-year-old Abraham, was a stickler for organization, getting things done on time, as well as planning ahead. Sam, her husband of 12 years, was not cut from the same cloth but had found himself living in a home where there was a place for everything and therefore everything needed to be in its place. Instead of just dropping his clothes on the floor at the end of the day, Sam dutifully put them away in drawers or the laundry hamper, and had even become quite a pro at doing the laundry and other household chores himself. Although he felt that Roz’s neat-nick ways were a bit much and perhaps unnecessary, Sam stuck with the program since it meant so much to his wife, and he found that it actually was nicer living in a clean and organized environment.

But, to Roz’s consternation, Abraham’s acorn didn’t fall far from his Dad’s tree. This kid was a slob by nature, and he saw absolutely no reason to make a bed (“What’s the point? I’m just going to unmake it every night!”), pick the stuff up from his bedroom floor (“I know where everything is. I like it like that!”), or put away clean clothes (“What difference does it make where I leave them? If they’re on the floor, I can easily see what I have.”). Of course, none of these arguments went over well with his mother, and that’s when the fun would begin. On a daily basis she was finding herself nagging, reminding, and prodding Abraham to keep his stuff neat and in order. Usually the kid either talked back, ranted indignantly, or just flat-out ignored his mother. If Sam was home during the battles, he often found himself taking sides (with whomever seemed to be making the best argument at the moment) and would inevitably pay for his lack of loyalty by either receiving the cold shoulder from his wife or getting the brush-off from his kid. This was not a particularly happy family when they entered therapy — Roz felt like a drill sergeant to both her husband as well as her son, Sam believed that no matter what side he took he’d never win, and Abraham felt that his mom was ridiculous and on the way to losing it.

At our first session, I explained to the family that it’s typical for parental priorities, time pressures, and schedules to clash with children’s preferences. From the child’s reference point, experience, and interests, a messy bedroom is often a benchmark for how much stuff one owns — not a sign of disorganization or of being a slob. Wasting energy on making a bed intrudes upon valuable time and resources that could be allotted to skateboarding or watching television. Putting away clothes in drawers or hanging them up in closets may not only be wasted effort, but out of sight is, well, out of mind. It’s difficult to inventory what you have when it’s not directly in the line of view!

So how to best set up the formula for getting things done correctly, with minimal hassle, and, most important, within the parent’s time frame — and without too much kid fussing? As I explained to Roz and Sam, it’s simple — buy a timer and use it. (I can’t tell you the number of clients who have told me that had they known of and used my timer technique that they probably could have solved many problems without formal counseling.) Why is this technique so effective? Because timers and buzzers turn gray areas into black and white — no ambiguity allowed. A buzzer turns now into 1, 5, or 10 minutes — not when the next commercial break occurs. And as you’ve probably learned from your own kids, just give a child some ambiguity or a shade of gray, and you’re a sitting duck for an argument or a problem!

I informed Sam that for the program to work best, he’d need to be on the same page of the book with his wife. When either parent wanted something to be accomplished, they were to ask Abraham to do it within a certain time frame. That could be “before your sitcom begins,” “after dinner and before you begin to use any electricity,” or better yet, “before the timer buzzes.” If the kid began to argue, they were to ignore his complaints, set the timer, and walk away. If he accomplished the task on time, reasonably correctly, and without a bunch of grumping and griping, life would move on. If he didn’t, then he would lose out on a privilege or receive a “bad point” or other negative consequence. No ifs, ands, or buts . . . just a consequence for not doing as told when told.

Sure, Abraham, upon hearing my suggestions, was less than thrilled with the idea, but it ended up being more fair and pleasant in the long run. Roz, over the next few weeks, began to pick her battles, and Sam found the buzzer to be a “safe” mechanism to use with his kid. He was no longer in the middle trying to choose sides between his wife and his son, and Sam quickly saw how pleasant a home can be when the petty arguments disappear. Abraham resigned himself to picking up his dirty laundry on a daily basis and found that he had even more time to skateboard or watch TV as his mom was no longer lecturing him about responsibility and organization on a daily basis.

So if you want to get your kids to get moving and to accept your definition of what now is, consider establishing the rule that the “buzzer has to be beat” or they will receive a negative consequence. Or for kids who have trouble prioritizing their time outside of the house, make the rule that the child cannot go out to play without wearing a watch with the alarm set. In addition, you can use the timer for motivating your kids to clean up their bedrooms, get the mail from the mailbox, or come in for dinner without having to be hassled, nagged, or reminded five times. It works, folks, and it will save you big bucks in therapy fees!

Keep in mind that differences in priorities between parent and child grow even more complex as the years go on. Many folks I speak with take it very personally when their children have different viewpoints on the world and how they perceive what is and isn’t important. Often parents believe that either they’ve been remiss in their child-rearing practices or that there is something wrong with the kid. Well, usually it’s neither — we’re just dealing with different people who may see the world via different priorities. Neither take on life is necessarily better. So don’t expect that your child is going to be a clone of you, with all the same opinions and points of view. Do what you can to engage them in conversation. Teach them, persuade them, and most of all, lead them. But remember they must — and will — make their own decisions about what’s important in their lives.

But until then, get that timer going!

Living the Law
How to begin to change the priorities in your house? Well, try the following suggestions.

Call a family meeting. Explain to the kids your frustration with responses such as “in a minute,” “I don’t want to,” or “it’s not my turn” when you request something of them. Discuss how before-school dawdling gets everyone stressed out and begins the day on the wrong foot. Remind them of how, just that morning, you spent 25 minutes yelling, nagging, and hassling them to get ready, and when they were finally leaving, you gave each a kiss and said, “Have a nice day!” Now what’s wrong with this picture? Personally, I’d have a heck of a time having a nice day after having been screamed at for almost half an hour!

Ask for their suggestions and solutions. Be sure to listen without interrupting. Someone just may offer a brilliant idea that may work, but don’t count on that always happening. Most likely the kids will complain about “not being morning people” and how it’s somehow your fault that they have to get up so early for school. Ignore this stuff — don’t even bother to go there.

Discuss general time limits. Start your list by working from morning through evening until bedtime, noting each chore or responsibility that needs to be done on a daily basis. Most days will mandate similar activities, although weekend responsibilities may be different than weekday chores, and time pressures may be lessened on Saturdays and Sundays. After you’ve decided as a family what needs to be completed, and in what order, begin to determine how much time should be allowed for task completion. Don’t be surprised if this feels like you’re negotiating a legal contract — it is an agreement of sorts, with all parties present in your family’s mediation exercise.

Set reasonable time limits for each task. Take the individual child’s personality, nature, and state of the mess in their bedroom into consideration. Your neat-freak daughter may need only a few minutes per day to pick up her shoes and socks in her bedroom, but your laissez-faire son may need 15 to 20 minutes of work to get his room under control. Be prepared for the kids to begin negotiations by requesting longer time limits than you feel comfortable with — listen, determine if it can be fit into your day, and then accept the time frame or lower it to fit the reality of your family’s responsibilities.

Make exceptions when necessary — and explain why. For instance, if one of your children has a bunch of kids over for the afternoon, the time allowed to pick up the playroom or bedroom may need to be doubled. Or, if time is going to be devoted to a school project all evening, then the bathroom clean-up or dishwasher duty may be excused for the evening. This allows your children to see that you are trying to be reasonable and flexible when there is good reason, but that you are intending to stay within the system, and you continue to expect things to be done on time.

Present each child with their own timer. The buzzer is theirs to use to help them to move faster in terms of getting out of bed on time, bathing, brushing teeth, completing homework, and anything else that needs some putting the pedal to the metal. Show them the Mom or Dad timer also and explain that you’ll be simultaneously setting yours so that they won’t be able to stop their timers in order to give themselves more leeway. In discussing this, don’t worry that you’re putting a sneaky idea in their heads — most kids figure it out the first day on the timer system.

Review the program. Summarize what will be timed and what will not, as well as stating the consequences attached to not beating the buzzer. I suggest loss of television privileges in the evening if the kid didn’t beat the homework buzzer earlier in the day or no dessert if the child dawdled too much and didn’t come to the dinner table in a timely manner. Be creative and think outside of the box — use what works with the individual child.

Use it or lose it. Many of my clients fastidiously use the timer system for the first month or two and are awed at the new, compliant children who are now residing in their homes. Then the folks get lazy. The timer becomes misplaced in a drawer, and trust me, the kids notice that it’s no longer being used. If they see that you are not on top of timing the problem areas in the day — watch out! Some children will continue to respect your priorities, while others will begin to slack off. If you see this insidious process occurring, it’s time to rifle through the kitchen drawers, find the buzzers, and resurrect the timer system. There may be a few grumps and groans from the kids, but it will work again and you’ll be a happier, less frustrated parent.

NEXT WEEK: Why you have to REALLY listen to your kids

Rodale Books

From “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” by Dr. Ruth Peters. Copyright ©2002 by Dr. Ruth Peters. Excerpted by permission of Rodale. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” She is also the consultant psychologist for the Family Program at the Pritikin Longevity Center, a nutrition and exercise facility in Aventura, Florida. For more information you can visit her Web site at www.ruthpeters.com. Copyright ©2004 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.

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