Tag Archives: Advice

A Discipline Technique that Actually Works: the (Hysterical) Art of Repetition

For the past 2+ years my husband and I have been on the unspoken yet all-consuming expedition to find a discipline technique that actually works with the now-8 kids and teens the Lord has placed in our household.

One technique that we used to implement quite frequently (too frequently) with our kids was that of writing lines. If Gleny got up in the morning and forgot to make her bed, she’d receive a firm scold along with the consequence of writing 50 or 100 times: “I will make my bed each morning without being asked.”

Our kids would dutifully finish the written consequence – although frequently with gritted teeth and after hours of procrastination, sitting there idly with the paper and pencil as they slowly (oh, so slowly!) wrote out one letter after another, filling up one or two or three pages with their empty declarations of change.

The only thing was, writing lines never worked. If Gleny (or whoever) had to write such-and-such number of lines declaring that she would make her bed each morning without being asked, guess what? The next morning as I would pop my head into her room to see how she had learned from her consequence, her bed still wasn’t made! In such a situation (which used to happen all the time) I would probably then storm over to wherever she was and chew her butt, assigning 100 more lines for her to write with the same pointless declaration she had made yesterday.

All to (almost) no avail.

As you can imagine, our lives quickly became consumed with such useless discipline, and literally several of our kids each day would have at least one written consequence, almost always enacting zero behavioral changes. Instead of being joyfully occupied with the task of parenting, we became the consequence-managers of our kids, which made just about everyone quite miserable.

Everything changed last May when my husband and I were at a conference for missionaries and other laborers who work with children, and we heard a red-headed middle-aged American woman speak who’s been working with Honduran children and teens for about 20 years. The topic of her speech was something along the lines of how to discipline effectively. I thought wearily: I’ve got to hear this.

She passed to the front of the small auditorium, very bubbly in her personality, and, among other advice that I have since forgotten, she introduced a disciplinary technique that she personally has used and seen effective over the years: the (hysterical) art of repetition. I don’t know if this is actually what it’s called (it’s probably not), but, in essence, that is what it is.

She began telling us that many children where she works had become accustomed to barging into her office without knocking. Her solution: each time a child or teen did so, she would greet them with a big smile and remind them that they need to knock and wait for her to respond before entering. Then she would say, “Go ahead and try it.” The child or teen would then leave the office that they had just barged into, go back outside, close the door, knock, wait for her response, and then enter. As they did this, she would smile even bigger and say, “Hey! That was great! I want to see you do that again,” and would send them back outside to do the whole knock-wait-enter process again. After a few times of repeating this habit-forming process, both the child/teen and her were cracking up, and rather than an empty scold or some consequence that has nothing to do with the infraction (such as writing lines), this disciplinary technique actually enforced the desired action, thus creating a sense of muscle memory and habit.

This advice that we heard last May has revolutionized our parenting, our kids’ reactions to correction, and – most importantly – has actually led them into habit transformation, leading us all out of the futile cycle of other disciplinary techniques we had previously used that produced no real change.

Here’s an example of this from our household: 12-year-old Jackeline is notorious for leaving things thrown about or starting a project and not finishing it (as in, not putting everything away afterward), so several months ago I decided to put the new technique into practice with her. I entered her bedroom one afternoon to see how she was coming along organizationally, and – not to my surprise – I found her dirty pajama pants thrown on the floor. Without the least bit of anger flowing through my veins I went, found her in the kitchen washing dishes with 11-year-old Gleny, and said, “Hey! Come with me, and I’m gonna show you something.”

Her eyes traced me suspiciously as she followed me to her room, where – with my eyes opened too-wide and my eyebrows raised-up just about as high as they would go – I said in a ridiculously slow tone, over-annunciating each syllable: “Dir-ty pants…go…in the ham-per.” My head was slowly – almost like a strange cartoon character – nodding up and down as my really-wide-open eyes were drilling her, my index fingers and thumbs carefully holding up the dirty pants in front of me as I demonstrated the 2-yard journey they had to take to the hamper.

She laughed at my antics, grabbed the pants from my careful fingers, threw them in the hamper and, in one motion, began heading for the door. I said in a sing-song tone, “Uh-oh! That’s too easy. You will put on the dirty pants over the shorts you’re wearing, lay down in your bed as if you’re going to sleep (because they’re the pajama pants she had worn to bed), get back up, take off the pajamas, put them in the hamper and walk out your door. Twenty times. Thank you!”

She looked at me with a you’ve-got-to-be-kidding stare as I read her thoughts perfectly: I don’t have time for this. I just promised never to leave my pants thrown on the floor again, okay?

But, being the wonderfully obedient daughter that she is, she only hesitated about 2.68 seconds before retrieving the pants out of the hamper and beginning the process.

I waited a few yards away in the living room as I heard her constant movement – putting the pants on, laying down, getting up, taking them off, putting them in the hamper, and then leaving the room only to enter again. It only took about a minute or two before she was laughing hysterically and a bit out of breath. Every time I would see her lovely face burst through the teal-colored curtain to her bedroom as she entered the living room, finishing a round, she would verbally say the count until she finally got up to 20 and finished the discipline. She did it all like a champ, I thanked her, and she returned to the kitchen to continue washing the dishes with Gleny.

Just because I was having too much fun, I decided to follow her to the kitchen. There she stood at the sink with Gleny, their backs to me, as I made my presence known, much to her surprise: “Hey, Jackeline?”

She turned around to face me, searching my face expectantly. I said in a really convincing tone: “Um…you left your pajama pants tossed on the floor.”

Her eyes grew wide and her jaw literally dropped as a devastated stillness overtook her. Her thoughts: Wha – How? I just –

Me: “Just kidding! Hey, thanks for washing the dishes.”

She let out a long, relieved sigh-laugh and eyed me as if we were already forming the beginnings of some fabulous inside joke.

My thought (and probably hers!): This is so much better than writing lines!

And, the best part: Although we have had to repeat this process with her a few times since, her behavior and habits really are changing to such an extent that she is not leaving her things haphazardly tossed about to the degree that she used to. She’s becoming suspiciously well-organized!

Other examples of this are: 8-year-old Jason used to always leave his school uniform bunched up on his dresser or floor instead of hung on the hanger as we had asked, so two consecutive nights as I was preparing dinner I had him in the kitchen with me, carefully hanging and then un-hanging his school uniform multiple times, forming the habit. Literally ever since then – and that was weeks ago – every afternoon as I peer into his room, I see his school uniform perfectly hung up! No more scolding or nagging, no long, drawn-out consequences, just habit-forming repetition!

A couple months ago we were all in-and-out of our little office building getting school supplies ready for the new school year (the Honduran school year begins in February), and every time one of our kids would enter, they would slam the door unintentionally, producing a heavy metal-on-metal bang that nearly shook my brain loose. Every time they slammed the door (which was more than a few times), I would look disapprovingly at the person who did it, who, in turn, would look at me with an I’m-so-sorry expression, and I would remind them: “Please be more careful with the door.”

Well, this produced zero result as, time and again as we were all entering and exiting the front door, carrying supplies to and fro, the door kept getting slammed by the same culprits. Then the idea occurred to me: the (hysterical) art of repetition. Not 10 seconds later another big slam shook the office building, and I looked at the culprit who started to do their traditional innocent shoulder-shrug I’m-so-sorry routine as they continued on their way, and I said in a very bouncy tone, “Hey! To help you learn how to handle this door better, go ahead and open it, enter, and close it carefully – without making a single noise – 15 times.”

Our kids had already been introduced to this form of discipline (which is actually positive habit-formation more than discipline), so the culprit – who I believe was Gleny – rolled her eyes good-naturedly and set about opening the door, entering, closing it slowly and silently, and then exiting to do the whole process again. She did it perfectly (even laughing as she did so), so I thanked her and allowed her to pass. A minute or two later 7-year-old Gaby came crashing through the door, so I assigned her the same task. Shortly thereafter, Jackeline.

Then, about half an hour later, the miracle: Gaby, who had gone through the open-close-exit discipline and had stayed inside the office since having finished, suddenly needed to go outside for something. I had already completely forgotten about the whole slamming-door problem because we had already gone quite some time without another episode, but as little Gaby got up to leave, she said to no one in particular: “Gotta close it carefully,” and she opened the door, closed it very, very slowly without so much as a squeak of its hinges, and then was on her way. I looked on, jaw hanging slightly open at what I had just witnessed: she learned!

So, a few weeks ago my husband Darwin and I were out at breakfast with Jackeline as the thought occurred to me to ask her – now that she’s largely on the other side of many of the initial behavioral issues that used to characterize her during her first year with us – what disciplinary techniques that we’ve used with her had actually helped her to develop, mature, and form better habits.

She laughed from across the small wooden table where the three of us sat and said, “I don’t want to tell you, because then you’ll keep giving me that discipline…”

I laughed with her and waited for her response. Finally, she announced: “…What has helped me the most is when you make me repeat actions [to form positive habits]…”

Toiling Upward in the Night

During these past few days there has been a palpable sense of preparation– of everyone preparing for something – permeating nearly every occurrence in our household. I can’t speak for our kids, but my own anticipation for this time had been growing exponentially in these past few weeks, for I know that I hold in my hands some secret key that many others have yet to find nor search for.

This week all 8 of our kids, Darwin and I are on vacation from all our normal activities for ‘Holy Week’ (the week leading up to Easter that can be taken as the American equivalent of Spring Break).

In our household, every time there is any kind of extended vacation such as this, everyone knows what to expect, and they do so with well-intentioned groans and good-natured murmuring, although I know that deep down they rejoice. They know without fail that Mom will spend considerable time each evening elaborating long, specific lists of goals, homework assignments, and other guided activities for each person on the whiteboard outside of their bedroom door. And each person is expected to meet these goals with diligence and joy before 5:00pm the following day.

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Gleny (11) and Jason’s (8) whiteboard of activities one day this week

 

My heart quickens with giddiness just thinking about it, because as many squander their precious free time, we busy ourselves with the joyful art of preparation, knowing our Father has something in store for us and wanting to be prepared when the time comes.

A quote that I stumbled upon during my college years that has greatly marked my outlook every since is this:

The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night. — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

And although I have never breathed mention of this quote to Darwin or our kids (nor do we have it painted in huge, bold letters over our front door, although that doesn’t sound like such a bad idea), the reality of its words is already deeply imprinted upon our hours and days.

So while the rest of our neighbors or even our beloved students who study at our school most likely spend these 9 days of vacation wandering aimlessly (as is the favorite pastime of youth in our neighborhood), watching hour after hour of television or idly chit-chatting and gossiping on their front porches, we are toiling upward in the night.

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Sandra (15) and Jackeline’s (12) whiteboard of activities one day this week

 

Each day our 6 kids who can read and write have a host of healthy, guided activities to set about doing: study specific chapters from the Bible, play piano or recorder for a certain amount of time, practice the times tables with a certain sibling, go to a quiet place with so-and-so to share and pray, write a letter of friendship or encouragement for someone else, write a reflection or list of life goals, study English as a second language for an hour, stand up and read out loud 45 minutes from any book of their choosing, or participate in our version of cross-fit training (100 push-ups, 100 frog-jumps, and 10 laps to and from the far gate, etc). Each person (ages 8-15) must manage their list of 4-8 activities by themselves, checking off each activity throughout the day as it is completed. When 5:00pm rolls around, the goal is that each person has finished all that was assigned to them.

In the beginning (as in, until very recently) this was like trying to herd cats on steroids (as my dad would say), especially with the younger kids who generally used to get distracted or were moved to acts of disobedience every 16.45 seconds, but after months (and, for some of them, over two years) of consistent encouragement, fair discipline, modeling by example, dogged persistence, and real-world consequences, by now everyone is well-adjusted to Mom’s terrible habit of expecting everyone to toil upward in the night with her. By some act of divine grace, they’ve recognized that, although in the here-and-now they would rather do as they please, long-term it really is what’s best for them and, as such, they have decided to hop on board willingly with all this crazy business of toiling while just about everyone else they know does the exact opposite.

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Josselyn (11) and Dayana’s (15) whiteboard one day this week

 

A couple nights ago 8-year-old Jason, who has been known to be quite the procrastinator and not the best general manager of his time and resources (by golly, he’s only 8!), approached me at 5:00pm as we were all setting the table for dinner and said in a very even, mature tone, although clearly disappointed with himself: “Mom, I need a consequence because I didn’t finish all of my goals on time. I got most of them done, but I’m still working on writing all the times tables from 0-10.”

I squatted down in front of him and said in a very sympathetic tone, “Well, everyone who did finish their goals will get pudding with their dinner and then your Dad and I will watch a movie with them afterward, so your consequence is that you don’t get the pudding and will have to go to bed early instead of watching the movie.” I shrugged innocently and added: “Maybe tomorrow you will manage your time better.”

The consequence seemed clear and fair to him, so he smiled, nodded in agreement, and we continued lightheartedly with the dinner preparations.

The next day he got up early and worked (independently of any adult help or encouragement) more diligently and joyfully than I have ever seen him work, and finished all of his goals not by 5:00pm but by 1:00pm. And, that night, he got his chocolate pudding at dinner and got to watch the movie in addition to having quite a bit of free time in the afternoon to play after having finished his goals!

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Our kids’ assignments from just two days of vacation! Included here are thoughts/reflections on different Biblical passages, the times tables, personal reflections and goals, and more!

 

Something that brings me great joy in a sneaky sort of way is that among the 7th grade students from our local community who study at our home/mission, our eldest daughter, Dayana (15 years old), has quickly and efficiently distinguished herself among them without any conscious effort. The other students are literally astounded by many of her abilities, whether it is the fact that she plays piano quite well and already gives classes, is Darwin’s very capable assistant in the choir and frequently teaches the sopranos by herself, or that she delivered several lethal blows in the class’ first organized debate, speaking with such authority and confidence as if she were already a well-trained lawyer. On the first set of quizzes that rolled around, she was the only student who passed, and right now as we are ending the first grading period, she is the only student who has an ‘A’ average. While others glaze over in Bible study, she participates actively and wisely, and she has to turn away many classmates who seek her help in group projects or homework assignments because she knows they will only distract her.

One day as she and I were discussing the reality of her overwhelming success thus far in our 7th-grade program (which is the first year in high school according to the Honduran system), she laughed earnestly and said, “And I thought I wouldn’t do well in high school!

I, too, laughed with her, amazed at all the Lord has done with her young life in less than two and a half years of living in our home (after two years of living with a foster mom before us), and I asked with a careful tone: “Do your classmates know that you didn’t enter first grade until you were 11 years old?” Understanding that my goal was not to shame her for the fact that her biological parents never put her in school but rather to point out the impressive fact that all of her academic, musical, and Christ-like developments have been made in four years’ time, she looked over at me with a sly grin and said, “…No.”

Upon hearing her answer I believe I threw my head back and let out a laugh that came rumbling up from my gut. If only they knew: Dayana is not some genius; she has simply mastered the art of toiling upward in the night.

So at 6:30am on any given day as our 26 students (16 in high school and 10 in elementary) come pouring in our front gate, many drawn to those beautiful notes coming from the keyboard just inside the schoolhouse door, eyes wide when they peek their head in and see it is 15-year-old Dayana playing Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, I smile because I know she practiced 2-4 hours every day during her vacations and continues to do so an hour each afternoon after getting out of her academic classes. It’s not luck or some special gifting; she’s a toiler.

Or when 8-year-old Jason’s principal at his private Christian school comments to us with wide, sincere eyes that she is shocked by Jason’s turnaround from a rude, immature student to one of the most well-adjusted, stable students in his class in less than a year’s time, I smile because I know all the toiling upward we’ve done with him while the rest of the world was sleeping.

So Tuesday of this week of vacations each of our kids set about accomplishing the different assignments on their whiteboard, certain activities intended for spiritual or relational growth while other focused on more practical skills such as math, reading and public speaking. It quickly became evident – to my total surprise – that not even one of our kids needed encouragement or redirection because each one was already so joyfully entrenched in their interdisciplinary assignments, so I did something I have literally never done before: with the rain in a constant drizzle outside, lowering the usually hot tropical climate to an almost-nippy cool, I got out a blanket and author Ted Dekker’s new book and curled up on the couch in our living room to read.

You must understand: Darwin and I are typically in constant motion from about 5:00am until about 8:00pm – going to and from the office or school buildings to supervise, teach and counsel, correcting and disciplining so-and-so or attending to such-and-such semi-crisis, talking with him-and-her about their attitudes or going after the lost sheep who stormed out in anger, working on paperwork or accounting, attending to various visitors, etc.

But Tuesday was different. I looked around me, taking in with careful observation all that I saw: Dayana peacefully holed up in the school building, producing beautiful notes from the piano; Sandra in her bedroom, her voice soaring high as she practiced the different choir songs; Jackeline and Jason rather dynamically practicing the times tables with flash cards; Josselyn writing a reflection on what she had read from the book of John; Gleny at our square wooden table a few feet from me, contentedly coloring a large graphic drawing of flowers and such; my husband Darwin finally having 5 seconds of free time to study his English textbooks and audio tapes, his materials spread out as he studied uninterrupted in our dining room; and Josue and Gaby playing with some degree of focus with blocks and stuffed animals on the floor beside me. I assessed and re-assessed the situation, thoroughly convinced that at any moment someone would urgently need me or possibly explode with anger or need to be encouraged to manage their time more wisely, but, despite all odds, each person continued onward in serenity and efficiency, managing themselves with a self-discipline that I had never before seen in such perfect bloom.

Seeing that everything was quite under control, I hesitantly sat down on the couch – a sacred act which does not happen often, as we have the widely-accepted rule that no one can sit on the couch until evening once everyone has bathed and has on clean clothes – with my book in hand, waiting to see what would happen. I tentatively read a few pages, constantly lifting my eyes from the written plot to supervise and verbally encourage/praise the little ones around me, until the daring thought struck me: I think I could actually remove myself from active involvement in this situation and…nothing bad would happen. Cool! I’m gonna do it! I’m gonna get out the blanket, curl up and really relax! Is this possible?! I’m sitting – no, laying! – on the couch at noon! Whoa!

So that day – for the first time that I can recall – I curled up horizontally on our little couch with multi-colored cushions under a big quilt and spent several hours devouring my new book. Yes, Gaby came over more than a dozen times to pat me, sit on me, put her stuffed animal cat in my face and generally try to reel me into her love trap, but the general tranquility and diligence around me continued on unabated the rest of the day as each child/teen reached all of their goals way before the designated hour, and did so with grace. My heart smiled as I reached out in gratitude to our Good Father, thanking him for these seeds of diligence and wisdom that He has planted among us and allowed to begin bearing such fruit.

So in our household, we are learning that it’s not about taking in orphaned and abandoned children and giving them a toothbrush, a safe place to sleep and three square meals a day and assuming we’ve done our job well; it’s about toiling with them upward in the night, taking what was broken, thrown-away and abused and seeking God’s power to transform, renew, and germinate in such a way that we all – Darwin and I included – become increasingly useful instruments in His hands. It’s about throwing aside what eats our time, what only distracts and destroys, and secretly plodding onward toward a new calling, a new Kingdom, while the rest of the world sleeps. It’s about seeking to prepare the little ones one day after the next with such a dogged perseverance that the world may very well call us unrealistic or too demanding, so that they may be found prepared and willing in the hour when He may call and reveal the purpose He has for them.

Amen!