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Don’t check out on bad kids! Here’s why

In the seventh excerpt from her book "Laying Down the Law," Dr. Ruth Peters discusses the need for daily structure in kids’ lives.

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.

Law #6:
Establish Daily Expectations
Tried everything to get your kids to do as they’re told when told or to take “no” for an answer without griping and groaning? Do you want them to make their beds, feed the dog, and get their homework completed on time, accurately, and without a hassle? Well, just follow this easy plan. All it takes is clear and meaningful consequences!


By the time that most families land in my office, they’ve tried just about everything to get their kids’ behavior under control. Some swat and smack, others coax and reason, and many have tried parenting programs that they read about or learned about on television. Almost any tactic will get kids’ immediate attention, but most children quickly lose interest and return to their noncompliant, rude, or otherwise inappropriate behavior. And most folks give up when their children no longer respond. Maybe the parents will go on to try other parenting techniques or, once they get pooped out, just throw in the towel for a year or two and hope for the best.

In my experience, checking out for a few years only ends up with kids who are more problematic, so that’s not a route I suggest. What I would like you to consider, though, is using my behavior management system — one that I developed over 25 years ago and have used and improved upon throughout that time. All families need structure, rules, and expectations spelled out for their children, and that’s exactly what my program does. In my previous books “Don’t Be Afraid to Discipline” and “It’s Never Too Soon to Discipline,” I describe in detail how to set up behavior management programs for preschoolers, grade-schoolers, tweens, and teens. Charts are provided and the methodology is presented in great detail. But to get you started with an effective yet simple management system, my Law of Structure gets to the gist of what you need to set up a program that will work for your family.

The Law of Structure is based on four action items.

  1. Develop a list of expectations or chores.
  2. Establish what behaviors or attitudes are acceptable and which ones have to stop.
  3. Link behaviors (expectations and attitudes) with consequences (the behavior-consequence connection) and establish the rules for having a Good Day.
  4. Provide the consequences in a consistent yet nonchalant fashion.

Step One: Develop the ListsReady to set up the system for your own family? You’ll need to create two lists.

First, consider what chores and expectations you have (or want to develop) for your children. These can include activities to be completed before school (make bed, brush teeth, feed the dog), after school (complete homework, take out the trash), and following dinner (family room pickup, clean up bedroom, shower, and clean up bathroom). Kids don’t need a ton of chores, so try to focus on jobs that are important to daily functioning. On weekends the chores or expectations may be lessened or different — just be reasonable. This makes up the expectation list — the chores that we want our kids to complete each day.

The second list contains the pesky attitudinal or behavioral issues that all kids exhibit at one time or another in their development: talking back, not taking “no” for an answer, not doing as they’re told, interrupting, leaving without permission, fighting with and teasing siblings, whining, fussing, crying, and so on. These behaviors merit what I call bad points — the stuff we want to keep down to a dull roar.

Step Two: Communicate What Is Acceptable — And Keep Score
Now it’s time to determine how much goofing off or problematic attitude is allowed each day before your child loses her daily rewards. Since no one is perfect, you have to expect some minor misbehavior or rudeness from kids. Notice that I said minor — anything major needs to be addressed, but we can let some of the little stuff go.

I suggest allowing two expectations a day to go unfulfilled if the total number of chores is seven or more. If your chore list contains five or fewer, then perhaps allowing only one to slide is appropriate. Keep in mind that to get credit for chore completion, the child must do it without a hassle (no whining, fussing, or crying), on time (by a certain time of day, or better yet, beating a buzzer that you have set in order to better motivate task completion), and correctly (homework done well or dirty clothes put in the hamper and not shoved under the bed). Only if these three criteria are met does the child get credit for completing the expectation that day.

Then, set a limit for the number of attitudinal/behavior bad points that are allowed each day. Generally, I’ll begin a program allowing eight bad points per day — this may seem like a lot, but it really isn’t if you’re nailing your kid for rude remarks, bugging his sister, or yelling instead of talking. Trust me, bad points come quickly once you have the guts to give them out.

Okay, so we’re setting the rule that the kid needs all but two of his chores completed and no more than eight bad points in order to have a Good Day. Once you get this down, it’s easy to keep track, especially if you’ve drawn up a weekly chart, placed it on the refrigerator, and are marking it consistently. You’ll see especially cagey kids checking it out throughout the day — making sure that they use up every bad point that they are allowed but still staying within the criteria for having a Good Day. No problem with this manipulatory gesture. It just shows you’ve succeeded in getting their attention! When you lower the number of bad points allowed as time goes by, their behavior will adjust to meet your higher standards.

Step Three: Make the ConnectionNow it’s time to link the behavior with the consequences. I’ve found that kids respond best to earning tangible rewards they can accumulate and use. The most success I’ve seen has been with a system that uses five kinds of rewards and works like this:

  • A red poker chip to be used as money for allowance purchases (for grade-schoolers and older)
  • A blue poker chip worth a set amount for clothing (for tweens and teens) or for special toys or video games (for younger kids)
  • A white poker chip that can be saved up to turn in for special privileges (going to the movies, a favorite restaurant, concerts)
  • Use of electricity (using anything that either uses batteries or plugs into the wall — telephone, television, computer, Game Boy), and
  • Playtime/freedom (going outside to play or swim for younger kids and using the car, sleepovers, and so on for teens).

The three poker chips, electricity, and playtime/freedom are given as rewards when the child has earned a Good Day or are lost if a Good Day is not achieved. I’ve learned that to make a dent in a kid’s behavior, you have to first get their attention, and these consequences usually do.

If you have a child who is especially ornery or stubborn, you may need to raise the consequence bar — in terms of rewards as well as punishments. That’s where Law #7, The Law of Being Heard, comes in. Check out that law next even if your child is reasonably compliant — someday those ideas just might come in handy!

Be sure to follow through on your end of the bargain, whichever way it goes. If the child earns a Good Day, give her the three poker chips (red, blue, and white) as well as allowing reasonable electricity use and playtime/freedom. If your daughter doesn’t earn the Good Day, either by not completing most of her chores or by displaying a negative attitude and accumulating too many bad points that day, she receives no poker chips, and all electricity (except essentials like lights, blow dryers, and alarm clocks) and playtime/freedom are suspended until the next morning. The kid will certainly gripe about the negative consequences, but remind her that tomorrow is another day, and she can work to regain her rewards then.

Step Four: Be ConsistentI can’t tell you how many folks will set up my program and come back to see me 2 weeks later with great-looking charts. Many are thrilled with the results, the system keeps both the kids and their folks accountable, and that’s why it works. However, some families return with behavior charts that look terrific, but when I question the parents about how it’s going, I’ll hear responses such as, “He nags and nags me after I say no” or “I still have to remind her five times to clean her room!” Obviously these folks are not using the system — they are either afraid to give out bad points because it will anger their children, or they are just too lazy to get up and mark them on the chart. Many children report that their parents will threaten big-time but do not follow up with a bad point no matter how ill-behaved they are. Now I understand folks who don’t want to anger their kids or are too lazy to get their butts off the couch to mark the chart. But what I have trouble comprehending is why they continue to see me in private practice, paying a lot of money to get my ideas and advice and then not heeding it!

When I bring this enigma to their attention, the parents usually admit that they’ve slacked off and vow to do a better job over the next few weeks. I’m sure that my blunt demeanor scares a few families off, but most continue and are embarrassed into being consistent with the consequences and complying with my program. And those families do reap the benefits — kids who are more compliant, parents who nag less, and a genuinely pleasant atmosphere in the home. Believe me, if they can do it, so can you — just follow and live the law.

Living the Law

Call a family meeting. Before presenting the program to the children, however, Mom and Dad need to decide upon assigned chores and expectations and which behaviors or attitudes they wish to work on with each of the kids. Often, the majority of points will be the same for all of the kids, with some idiosyncratic issues to be dealt with for each child. Try to agree or compromise on what’s important.

Let the little stuff go. Stick with the important behaviors and daily expectations. If you make your list or chart too long or complicated, most likely you won’t complete it — and the kids will notice and begin to slack off.

Present the program. At the family meeting describe the idea of a behavior management program to the children. Don’t focus on or blame one particular kid — state that it’s a system to help everyone get along better. Let them know that this will help prevent you from nagging and complaining about their behavior and that they can earn some great privileges by following the system. Buy the necessities. Purchase a few kitchen timers, perhaps one for each family member. Explain how you will use it — setting the timer for 10 minutes for bedroom cleanup, 5 minutes to get dressed in the morning, and 15 to take a shower and wipe up the puddles. Confirm that not beating the buzzer will result in a bad point. Also, purchase the poker chips to use in exchange for allowance money, clothing funds, and special privilege points.

Set up the system. Review what chores and expectations each child must accomplish successfully each day and how many can be missed and still achieve a Good Day. Go over the bad points section of the system, clearly stating what will constitute a bad point and stating how many each child can accumulate each day and still receive their rewards. Go over the consequences that they will receive or lose, depending upon work effort and behavior/attitude during the day. Make a list of what privileges can be “bought” with the white poker chips and how all of the chips can be cashed in.

Answer any and all questions, even the small stuff. The better prepared you and the kids are for the system, the more successful it will be. Clarify ambiguities and gray areas, explain miscommunications, and describe why certain behaviors will be counted as bad points. Compromise when appropriate, but stick to your guns if the behavior in question is important to your family code of values.

Be nonchalant. If you have to give negative consequences, watch that you are calm and not yelling. Nothing gets a kid’s attention like a quiet parent patiently removing privileges. Many children are so used to screaming parents that it’s either water off a duck’s back, or you’ve just handed them reason to really be annoyed or angry with you. Give the consequence and move on.

Live the system. Set a start date and get going on the system. The first few days may seem a bit tedious in terms of marking the chart, but after you and the kids get the gist, it becomes second nature!

Next week: What to do if a firm-but-gentle approach doesn’t work

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 . 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 . 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.