The Transitive Property

I thought about titling this something like “Catching Toddlers with Honey”, but I thought better of it.

I’m calling this the Transitive Property because it deals with the notion that things that you treat as small your child will treat as small. Things you treat as large, your child will treat as large.

For a long time, Janelle and I were pretty good about keeping Joshua away from electronic media. It was more or less absent for him when he was very little and as he’s gotten older we’ve kept it set aside as a sort of special treat. He can watch things if he’s with friends and they are watching, he can watch with his grandparents and other relatives, and at home we would let him see or play something maybe once a week if he had been being good.

This was all towards the goal of trying to keep him from looking to the TV or computer or iPad as a primary entertainment source at home. We didn’t want daycare to be his place of outdoor play and enrichment and home to be the place where he gets to watch Disney movies. So, when he would ask to watch things, we would tell him no or try to distract him and steer him towards books or puzzles or coloring books or whatever.

Pretty quickly this became a problem. Joshua would ask to watch things, and we would say no and he would freak out and cry and jump around and just be generally disappointed toddler-style for a bit. Or, if he did get to watch something, when it came time to stop watching the same thing would happen. He would freak out for a bit and this then made us less likely to allow him to watch things and the cycle continued.

We treated TV like a very big thing, so Joshua treated it like a big thing. When it was granted it was a major reward and when it was taken away it was a crushing loss. And why shouldn’t it be? We had framed it that way for him.

Recently, though, Joshua began to learn the art of the deal. Every couple of days he would come in with a new negotiation for us.

“Daddy, the sun is up so that means we can watch something now.”

“Daddy, let’s sit on the couch and we will watch TV while Mommy is cooking.”

“Daddy, I listened to my teachers today, so I can watch something now.”

Lines like the first couple were cute, but not terribly effective. The last one, though, made things interesting. He was asking to be rewarded for behavior we have been working to instill in him and it put us in an interesting position. It would be easy to say no (at this age nothing sticks for TOO long with a kid), but I would be asking a toddler to realize that virtue is its own reward. Toddlers don’t speak platitude. But he wanted to make a deal, so we decided to deal.

We opted to try and catch our flies with honey and to lean more on positive reenforcement for Joshua’s behavior. The result was immediate.

Janelle and I still tend to not give in to Joshua when he asks to watch things. It may be a silly distinction, but we don’t want him to think it can be on-demand. Even if we just wait 15 minutes and then bring it up ourselves, we like the idea of it being something he is rewarded or surprised with instead of just a rote request. But last week we let him play with the iPad or watch YouTube videos on the computer or watch a bit of a TV show on a few days. Each day it was for no more than 15-20 minutes, but it was more regular. We had a drastic reduction in crying and non-compliance through the whole week.

We have begun to treat TV like it can be no big deal, and Joshua has responded to that. When his every request was not denied, he seems to have understood quickly that not getting to watch TV right away doesn’t mean that he won’t ever get to watch it again. He took it much more in stride. And now we Trojan Horse in the moral for him, too. Before we watch or play with anything electronic I get down on a knee and I ask Joshua to look at me and listen to me and then I tell him that he’s getting to watch or play because he was a good boy. He listened to us, or he shared his toys well, or he was nice to his friend or his teachers said he was a good helper.

  1. #1 by Oliver on February 26, 2013 - 11:12 AM

    This is awesome! Also, pretty soon you’ll be able to try the whole experience points for chores thing!!

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