Dear 1-on-1 Coach: My son is the classic, “Give him an inch, and he’ll take a mile” kind of kid. Since using the Total Transformation, we’ve seen some real changes in his behavior, but every time I relax a little and reward him with a later bedtime or extra time on his Xbox, he ends up trying to push us beyond what we’ve agreed upon. And then he insists that the reward is the new rule. Help! I want to reward him, but I don’t want to end up in a power struggle with him over it.
–Brenda, Salt Lake City
It sounds like there are a couple of things going on for your son. The first is that he tries to push beyond the limits of his rewards and privileges. The second is that he believes that, just because he received a reward once, he should get it again. Both of these issues can be addressed quite simply.
Receiving occasional rewards can be confusing for children. If they get an extra 10 minutes of Xbox for being good one day, they don’t understand why they don’t get it every time they behave appropriately. Once they’ve received a reward for a behavior, they may ask for, or expect it, again and again. In behavioral terms, this is called “intermittent reinforcement,” which means “sometimes you get it, sometimes you don’t.” For example, let’s say you have a rule of no cookies before dinner. One night, you’re tired and distracted, so when your child asks for a cookie before dinner, you give it to them, just so you can be left in peace. The next night, your child asks for a cookie before dinner, and you say “No, you know the rules.” They ask again the next night, and the next – hoping that tonight is one of those nights when they get a cookie, in spite of the rule. In your case, it sounds like your child sometimes gets a later bedtime, and sometimes gets extra Xbox time. Now, he expects that reward. At the very least, he asks for it again and again, in hopes that “tonight’s the night.”
In order to change your son’s behavior, you need to be very clear about privileges and rules, and you have to be consistent. Tie his behaviors to specific privileges and consequences. For example, if your child is working on completing his daily chores, you might tie that to his Xbox use. You could say, “You need to complete your chores each day without being reminded. When you’ve finished your chores by 7 pm each day, you get to have half-an-hour of Xbox, from 7:00 to 7:30.” Don’t give him extra time if he is particularly well-behaved. Don’t say, “If you’re good, you can have five more minutes.” That’s just courting disaster. Stick with the agreed upon privilege. If his chores aren’t completed on time, he has no Xbox for that day, and he can try again tomorrow.
If your child earns the privilege of playing his Xbox, but refuses to shut the game off at the appropriate time, you have a couple of choices. One option would be to find another privilege, as he isn’t able to use his games without getting into trouble. Tell your child, “You have a hard time turning off the Xbox when it’s time. So for now, the Xbox is off limits. When you’ve completed your chores for the day, you can have half an hour of TV time. When you can turn the TV off on time without complaining for five days in a row, we’ll go back to the Xbox as a privilege.”
If, once he’s earned the use of his Xbox, he begins to use it inappropriately, go back to the TV as the privilege, until he can do that for five nights in a row.
If you choose to stick with the Xbox as his privilege, you have to address how he uses it. Sit down with your child and have a discussion about the rules around his Xbox. You might say, “You have a hard time shutting off your games when your time is up. When you earn your half hour of game time, I will set a timer. If you refuse to shut off the game when the timer goes off, or you ask me for more time, you will lose five minutes for the next time you earn your game. If you want to have your full time, you have to practice shutting it off when it’s time.” Remember to follow through with your consequences. Stick with losing five minutes – don’t keep adding lost time for every minute he refuses to comply with the rule. That would ruin his incentive to complete his chores. If your son earns Xbox time, set the timer, and remind him that he can have half an hour.
If he’d like to have more time with his game, he can earn that by shutting the machine down on time, without complaining, for five nights in a row. Once he’s been able to comply, you can add more time to his original half hour. If, after you’ve added more time, he begins to have difficulty shutting it off, go back to half an hour until he can do that appropriately for 5 days in a row. That way, you’re not stuck with giving him more time, only to find that he abuses that privilege.
Kids will take liberties when they have an opportunity to do so. If you sometimes say yes, and sometimes say no, they will always push for that “Yes.” Be consistent and clear with your rules. Create opportunities for your child to earn more time, or more privileges, by acting appropriately. As you do this, you may find that you’re rewarded with fewer power struggles.