A Hasty Word

Every parent has had at least one moment when frustration over a child’s misbehavior or inaction triggers an over-the-top consequence, like “you’re grounded until you turn 18” spoken to a five-year-old. I give this mom pointers on how to backtrack from such a consequence, plus a game plan for moving forward.

Q: My 7-year-old daughter has a perfect word that describes her actions towards her home school and chores, and that word is lollygag. I have frustrations with this and have for a while. I had to work recently, while my husband stayed home and did the day-to-day with the kids. My 7-year-old was lollygagging. My husband got fed up after giving her plenty of chances, and told her she would not have a birthday, which is coming up in a couple weeks. I feel sad about her missing her birthday, and having to tell all the in-laws, etc., what happened? Do you think this is an effective consequence?

A: Oh, dear. Words spoken out of frustration can’t be recalled, can they? At least not without consequences for all involved. A few points to consider before I address your question.

First, some kids lollygag. They just do. That’s not to say you can’t figure out ways to motivate them to pay attention. Giving a child chances without giving her the tools to succeed is a losing proposition for everyone involved. I hazard a guess that your husband simply couldn’t understand why his daughter wasn’t taking advantage of the “chances” and doing her work. Then he blew a gasket and levied a consequence he now regrets.

This is a classic example of a parent not thinking clearly and responding in the heat of the moment.

Second, you need to help your daughter learn how to manage her time and tasks. This isn’t done by hovering over her and giving her chances. Buy an egg timer—one of those wind up kitchen timers—and start using that to keep her on task. Give her 5 or 10 minutes more than you think she needs to do the task, then set the timer and walk away. This is key. You’re not to ask her if it’s done, you’re not to check on it. You leave her to do it alone. This will take some retraining on both of your parts—her to pay attention to the timer and you to not hover and constantly get on her case.

Third, you need to think about what consequences you’ll deliver if she doesn’t complete the task in time. But remember, you don’t have to do anything right away. At this age, you can wait until the evening or even the next day to level consequences. Tickets work well with this age, so check out the explanation in the discipline section of this website.

Finally, I think you need to retract the banned birthday as a consequence. This is a classic example of a parent not thinking clearly and responding in the heat of the moment. Sometimes, this might be an appropriate consequence, but for a 7 year old to miss her 8th birthday because she didn’t keep on task during chores is way out of proportion. So Dad should tell her that he over-reacted, spoke out of frustration, etc., and that he’s sorry and she’ll still have her birthday. Ask her what she thinks would help her to not waste time when she’s supposed to be doing something else. I’ll bet you’d be surprised at what she comes up with.

There’s nothing wrong with a parent admitting that he made a mistake—in fact, it’s important for us to admit when we were wrong to our kids. That shows them we’re human, and it shows them how to admit when we were wrong. Plus, it restores that frayed connection that can come when we over-react to our children’s behavior.

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