“Do you want to be late for school?”
You can see it coming, but there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do about it. You’ve tried planning and preparation. You’ve set your alarm for a half hour earlier. You’ve had long, calm talks with your child detailing your expectations about the morning routine. Yet, invariably, day after day, you feel the knot tightening in your gut as the school bell draws nigh. Once again you’re badgering and even threatening your kids to get them out the door. Perhaps the worst part is that after all that stress and effort you’re still, as usual, 15 minutes late.
None of us want to nag or threaten. It leaves our children sulky and makes us feel like we’re turning into exactly the kind of parents we promised ourselves we would never become. It sometimes feels, however, that it’s the only option left.
How would it make you feel to not only get to school on time, but to have your own child taking the lead in making it happen? It’s possible.
Listen to yourself
Try this experiment. Point to a dirty carpet and say to your spouse, “Vacuum the living room.” You don’t need to actually try this, do you? The mental experiment is enough: there is a very low probability that your carpet will get cleaned unless you do it yourself.
Nobody likes to be told what to do and this includes children. Ultimately, you might get the results you want because you are bigger, stronger and control the key to the pantry, but is this really the kind of parent you want to be?
Listen to yourself as you go through your morning routine (it might even be helpful to tape record yourself for a few mornings). What kinds of things are you saying to your child? Most of us are addicted to directing our children, especially during transitional periods like getting ready for school. (e.g., “Pull up your socks,” “Finish your breakfast,” “Brush your teeth.”) Many of us try to soften these “bossy” statements by turning them into questions (e.g., “Wash your face, okay?”), but to your child’s ear, it’s all the same. It’s not any less of a direction if you say it in a soft voice.
Humans tend to rebel against being bossed around. We might do what we’re told for awhile, but ultimately we grow to resent it. We dig in our heels. We argue. Our inner child shrieks, You’re not the boss of me! Can we expect our children to be any different?
Another thing to listen for are questions to which you either already know the answer or that don’t really have an answer (e.g., “Didn’t I tell you to come downstairs?” “How many times have I told you to put on your shoes?”). Your preschool child either recognizes these for what they are (veiled directions) or feels challenged to actually answer the unanswerable – a stress inducing situation at best.
Putting your child in charge
The reason we rebel against directional statements is that the human animal generally wants to feel in control. Being told by others what to do strikes us as an effort to undermine our autonomy. It would therefore seem that one of the worst ways to get children to do what you want is to tell them to do it.
Am I saying that the key to getting out the door on time is to put your child in charge? Yes.
This does not mean that you must sacrifice your own desires and wisdom. In fact, Child Protective Services would likely soon be knocking on your door if you did. But the process of getting to school on time is every bit as much your child’s responsibility as it is yours. Sharing that responsibility with your child not only provides her with a sense of pride and control, but it also takes some of the pressure off of you; maybe even loosening that knot in the pit of your stomach.
Speaking informatively with your child
Now try our mental experiment again, but this time simply state, “The living room carpet is dirty.” Don’t point, don’t make “knowing” eyes, just formulate the statement. You still might have to do it yourself, but the probability of the carpet getting vacuumed goes way up. This happens because by merely making a statement of fact, you are creating a circumstance in which you put your spouse in control – he gets to make his own decision concerning what to do about the dirty carpet.
Speaking informatively with children works in the same way. Instead of directing your child in the morning, make an effort to limit yourself to informative statements. This is not as restraining as it may at first sound. You may talk about yourself (e.g., “I don’t want to be late for school,” “I can help you with your shoes,” “I expect you to be ready by the time the big hand is on the 3.”). You may talk about what your child sees, hears, or senses (e.g., “Your pants are on your bed,” “The big hand is almost on the 3,” “Your toothbrush is on the counter.”). You may talk about possibilities and connections to other things (e.g., “Yesterday we missed circle time because we were late,” “When we lay our clothes out the night before it doesn’t take as long to get dressed.”
Once you have practiced replacing your directional statements with informational statements for awhile, it's time to try the descriptive cue sequence.
The descriptive cue sequence
The descriptive cue sequence is a powerful tool developed by North Seattle Community College instructor and early childhood education faculty member Tom Drummond for helping you get in the habit of speaking informatively. The sequence gradually increases the amount of “push” with each step. Don’t move on to the next step as long as you are getting the results you want.
1. Give cue
• Instead of directing your child to get ready for school, give a cue, such as, “It’s time to get dressed.”
• Some parents might prefer sounding a signal of some kind, like a bell or a song.
2. No help
• Wait for 10 to 15 seconds
• Look for appropriate behavior and reward it by describing it or with a non-verbal recognition (e.g., thumbs up, big smile)
• Describe what needs to be done without telling your child what to do
• Give facts—what needs doing, where things are, etc.
• Model the desired behavior by doing some yourself
• Talk aloud about what you are doing
• If inaction is still a problem, give a simple, clear direction (e.g., “Please put on your socks.”)
6. Set a contingency
• Make the next activity dependent on completion of the task (e.g., “When you put on your socks, you can pick out which Hot Wheel you want to take in the car.”)
As you and your child grow accustomed to this process, you will find a decreasing need to employ the higher numbers on the list. Many parents find it helpful to post the descriptive cue sequence on their wall in a conspicuous place, at least until they have learned the procedure.
You may not notice an immediate change in your child -- it can take time for him to grow accustomed to the feeling of control and responsibility. If you stick with it, however, your child will gain a sense of pride and power as he is given responsibility and control over his own preparation for school.
You, however, will feel an immediate change in how you feel about yourself. You won’t be nagging or threatening and very quickly you will begin to feel like the kind of parent you always promised yourself you wanted to be.
And if that’s not enough, you and your child will get to school when you want to . . . at least most of the time.