Loving solutions to your everyday problems

Screening the screens: does it have to be all or nothing?

Moderation in all things, including moderation

-Jacques Pepin

It has been a rough winter.  Like some of you, I am a fan of snow, generally speaking.  I enjoy when those pretty white flakes are falling, painting the trees.  I enjoy the slower pace when everyone is homebound and the Currier and Ives look of the city.  I love watching my children sled in the snow and even brought my son home from school one day on his plastic sled.  It was fun.

That is, until it wasn’t.  The day I sledded my four year old home turned sour almost immediately after I took a picture of them.  My two year old daughter went from being “a lille shilly” to a full-blown crying fit from the freezing cold as quickly as…well, as quickly as I did.

When we finally arrived home after the longest three block walk of our lives, the TV went on.  And on.  And on.

Then of course I read “10 reasons why handheld devices should be banned”  and its counterargument, “10 reasons why the ’10 reasons to ban handheld devices’ article is wrong, stupid”, the combination of which left me feeling a little guilty and a lot confused.

I am not in favor of rampant TV watching, but have always encouraged moderation on this point.  Although I have paid attention to the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations on television, I have to admit I have never fully followed them.  Even when I had two children under the age of three, I still relied on TV to hold their attention during those times when I could not:  making dinner, taking a quick shower.  It seemed that, when it came to a home made meal, the 25 minute episode of Curious George was a small price to pay.  I would even joke with friends, “Hey American Academy of Pediatrics, do you cater?”  But things were getting out of hand.  One episode quickly turned into more.  And more after that.  What was going on here?

When I actually took the time to notice what was going on, a noticed something over and over.  When I turned on my phone to “quickly”  check email, my kids would immediately ask for the TV.  A quick analysis consistently looked like this:

Before behavior (antecedent):  I look at phone

Behavior:  Kids:  “Can we watch TV?”

After behavior (consequence):  Me:  “Okay.  But just a little.”  Kids:  “YAY!”

I was no longer using the TV only when necessary, and moreover, I couldn’t stand it.  After taking a look at whether to teach or not to teach, it was definitely important enough to work on.  And, fortunately I now knew the pattern, making it much easier.

We instituted “Screen-free Saturdays”.  The rules were simple:  use the phone as a phone.  Turn off the 3G and the wireless.  It was a struggle for the grown-ups.  I found myself wanting to change my Facebook status within my first hour.  But after a bit of time, it was fun.  The grown-ups got a much needed respite from reading several things at once.

And, proving my theory, the kids didn’t ask to watch TV.  Not once.  They had a great day.  There was the zoo, and a violin lesson.  They played all day with their toys, each other and us.  It couldn’t have gone more smoothly.

Some weeks may be more of a struggle, but we are determined to stick to it.   And we’re all looking forward to creating some space.  We won’t be leaving them behind for good…just a bit of moderation.

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The Potty Games Part 3: Game Day

Today was the day. We had made our decision:  toilet training would begin.  We had everything set up and we were ready to go.  Snacks were laid out on a small table next to the bathroom door, along with 4 sippy cups (water and 3 kinds of juice).  Dolly was in her underpants and, since I couldn’t find a doll that actually peed, I also had a squirt bottle ready.

As soon as my husband got my daughter out of the house, we would be ready (tip: keep the potty training as distraction free as possible).

My son woke up late, very excited to wear his new underpants. He immediately wanted to play with Dolly and her makeshift underwear. “Later,” I said and when breakfast was done it was just us, ready for potty.

First, we let Dolly try. She “sat” on the potty and “peed”. My son and I both cheered as we gave her a salty snack (tip: keep snacks small so your child doesn’t fill up. You’d be surprised how effective a snack the size of a nickel can be). Of course she didn’t eat it so it was all his, along with a drink. After a minute or so, we asked if Dolly was dry. She was! More snack, more drink. Then he sat down. Nothing happened, but we were off to a good start.

Every 5 minutes we would do a Dry Pants Inspection. Every 15 he would try the potty. Now we were rolling.

10:11. He said, “I’m dry, can I have a snack? Starting to get the hang of the system…

11:01. Still no pee, but dry

11:52. We’re both starting to lose steam now. He asks for a story. I say, “First let’s try the potty”. He agrees.

12:06. I’m starting to get a bit discouraged. Is he too old? Will he be going to college in diapers after all?

12:15. An accident. And I knocked over all the treats.

12:25. Another accident, right after trying the potty (seriously?!?). Oh, and I knocked over the treats again.

12:40. Success!! Pee in the potty, followed by a phone call to Thomas the Tank Engine (played by my brother) (tip: the goofiest rewards are sometimes the best. Have a few friends or relatives on deck for this)

12:51. Accident. Can’t win ‘em all. Finished in the potty, so we’re getting closer.

1:05. Prompted to the potty and peed!

1:21. Peed again! Asked a question (“Do you want to try the potty?”) and twice refused. After a Dry Pants Inspection, went and peed

1:47. He wanted to play with the doll and led her to the potty. When asked this time, sat down and peed

4:35. Dad comes home. We’re not quite there yet, but he can’t stay out forever.

5:30. A close call with an accident. He stops the flow and finishes in the potty

6:00. While cooking dinner I come out to the living room and find him naked, watching Winnie the Pooh. He had gone potty, all by himself.

Over the next few days and weeks there were a few more close calls but within 2 weeks the extra clothing I kept packed in the diaper bag were no longer necessary. He did it, and in just one day.

Among the things that helped:

Keeping the environment distraction free.  Everyone was out of the house.  Just him and me and the potty.

Keeping it fun.  To us, going to the bathroom is all business.  But to him, this was new and exciting.  Trying to make sure it was playful.

Remembering that s**t happens.  So does pee.  Try not to get freaked out by accidents.  You woldn’t be able to run a marathon without training, and, unlike in  toilet training, you’ve used all the muscles involved in running a marathon before.  Your child will have to figure out what their body is telling them, which will involve guessing wrong for a bit.  It’s all part of the learning process.

Have something really fabulous available for the first successes.  Ours was a phone call to our favorite characters, other people throw a “potty party”.  Whatever it is, it should be something your child will really enjoy.

After those first successes, get excited about staying dry.  It’s not just about going in the toilet, it’s about listening to their body.  You’ll want to make sure they can do that on their own

Tracking throughout the day.  There is no substitute for careful observation.  Get your own data sheet here.

Whenever you’re all ready, the tools are ready for you.  So game on!

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The Potty Games 2:the Game Plan

There were a few things I had to prepare before getting started.

A potty. There were a few options. For those of you who, like me, despise cleaning, having a seat cover that you can put on the toilet so your little guy or girl doesn’t slip in may be an option. That was my first thought. But the risk here is that your little guy or girl may not allow enough time to set up the seat before they really REALLY have to go RIGHT NOW. Ultimately we went with a potty with a removable pot inside. A pain in the neck to clean, but a bit more likely to set your kid up for success

A doll. It’s preferable to have one that wets, but I couldn’t seem to find one ! A familiar dolly and a squirt bottle would do the trick.

underpants for dollyNope, couldn’t find these either! I just took an old pair of socks of mine and cut off the toe portion, then cut out leg holes for dolly and voila! Undies!

lots of different drinks. Three kinds of diluted Sesame Street juice and 4 sippy cups (1 for water). Check! It’s important to make sure they drink a lot — the more they drink the more they pee. The more they pee, the more practice they get. The more practice they get, the faster they’ll learn.

yummy (preferably salty) snacks. For one day, I made my peace with him snacking on goldfish crackers and chips for a few hours. Any yummy snack that is likely to keep them drinking will do (see above: the more they drink…)

underpants for my guy. Lots and lots of underpants. Expect quite a few accidents, especially in the beginning. I usually recommend that parents count the number of underpants they own (it’ll give you an idea of how often you can reasonably be expected to do laundry) and multiply it by at least 3.

data sheets Don’t be scared! It’s easier than you think. You’ll need to keep track of what time your little one goes to the potty, what level of reminder/ help they needed, whether or not they pee or poop and whether they’re dry when you check their pants. I used a sheet of loose leaf paper I had drawn, but you can just use the download on the behaviormommy’s printables page

a chunk of time (plan on a few hours) when you are alone with your kid, unplugged and 100% focused. Sounds like the hardest part,right? But it’s really essential. The success of rapid toilet training really depends on your focus, so don’t try and cut corners on this one. Get everybody else out of the house and don’t try to multitask for at least the first 2 hours. And enjoy shutting out the rest of the world for a while. How often do we get the chance?

an enthusiastic group of volunteers. Foxx and Azrin recommend developing a “Friends Who Care” list. Keep a list of beloved real and fictional people (though I added a few trains and monsters!) and let your little one know how proud they are of his or her new skill. In the age of cell phones, we can do even better. Have them on call, ready to tell him or her themselves! My dad was prepped and ready, practicing his Thomas the Tank Engine impression (peep! Peep!)

After I had set all that up, I set a date. Let the games begin!

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The potty games: the pregame show

So now that I had decided that it was time to toilet train the only question was how. Why not do this the way most parents do? I thought. After all, everybody seems to learn it. I’ll just casually suggest he use the potty at opportune times…how hard could that be?

Well, pretty hard as it turned out. With another infant, following through on my casual suggestion never happened. And worse yet, the casual suggestions got pretty rare. After another month with no progress went by, it was obvious I needed a more deliberate approach.

So I turned to my bookshelf and found it: Toilet Training in Less than a Day

Foxx and Azrin wrote this behavioral staple 30 years ago, and now boast of toilet training several generations of children. For the time it was revolutionary, and it still sounds a little too good to be true. Despite reading more than a few successful replications of the study their book was based on, even I had my doubts (Please don’t let my child go to college on diapers …I’ll never be able to face Richard Foxx at the next conference!)
I knew,of course that the difference between “possible” and “impossible” is often just a matter of effort (not always, but often). But knowing and believing are two very different things. I had a very intense”less than a day” ahead of me


Nobody goes to college in diapers: Choosing target behaviors (part 2)

How do behavior analysts decide which behaviors to work on?  How do we hone our targets on those “target behaviors”?  And what happens when those behavior analysts are parents?
In Part 1 of this  post I described the process of deciding to wean my son by looking at who the nursing was really for.  Now that so many of his little friends  are toilet trained, I am back to those questions; to teach or not to teach?
In their book Applied Behavior Analysis, Cooper Heron and Heward provide a decision matrix for selecting target behaviors.  In my opinion, it is a clinical masterpiece.  But for parents, it is a bit too clinical a masterpiece.  Parents need a different process, something that allows them the flexibility to make responsible, family-friendly choices.
Using this science you can teach anything. But that doesn’t mean you should teach everything.
Let’s run through a series of questions (along with some considerations) to help determine
what behaviors to target for decrease.

What is the risk of physical harm? If the behavior is dangerous, that has to be our primary
But: Given that this process takes time, some things are better helped with a few environmental
changes. Babyproofing is immediate, and that makes it preferable.
Why is this behavior a problem and to whom? Is this behavior driving you nuts? Or your other
kids nuts? Is it keeping him or her from making friends? If so, it’s probably a good idea to
decrease or eliminate it.
But: If you’re feeling pressure to eliminate a behavior because someone else told you they
would, remember that it is your child and your home. If it’s not your priority, that’s okay.
What are the costs/benefits of decreasing this behavior? Teaching can take time. Is it time and
energy you are willing to invest? Would it lead to a better quality of life for your child and your
family? Would leaving things alone make more sense, even just for now?
But: Remember that this behavior always serves a function, bringing us to the next question:
What is the function of this behavior? What is maintaining this behavior?  What is your child’s motivation? Have you looked carefully at what is happening before and after to help determine that?
and lastly:
How can my child get those reinforcers? Is there another behavior that would help him/her
access the same thing?

Which brings us to increasing behavior
So, let’s take a look at a few questions, and considerations when choosing a target behavior to
Is this behavior age appropriate? Is this something other kids your child’s age are doing? Or is
it beyond what should be expected?
Trying to teach a child something that is beyond their physical, linguistic, and cognitive abilities
is likely to frustrate both of you.
In this age of high-pressure academics even for infants, it’s important to remember that young
children are learning constantly, and there are many things they need to know. The learning
that takes place is not a waste of time until they start to read. They have all their lives for that,
but only now to be babies.
Is this behavior socially valuable? Is it going to lead to more social reinforcers? Is it going to
help them in school? Social situations? Will it increase your quality of life as a family? If so, it
might be worth teaching. If not, it may fall under the category of “parlor trick” and not be worthy
of too much time or energy.
Why is this behavior important and to whom? If this is an alternative behavior you’d like to teach
so you can eliminate a more distressing behavior, it rises to the level of “important.” In other
cases, you’ll have to figure it out if it rises to the level of “important enough.” Will this behavior
enhance your life as a family? Or are you trying to satisfy someone else? Again, it’s your home
and your family.

So where does that leave me with my little one in diapers? He’s rapidly approaching an age when toilet training is age appropriate and socially valuable…it may just be time to let go once again.

The adventure of toilet training begins…

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Nobody goes to college in diapers: Choosing target behaviors (Part 1)

The first time I heard about what my son would not be doing in college was at a La Leche League meeting.  He was about 12 months old, at a healthy weight and very curious about the world around him.  But he was still nursing pretty frequently.  I wasn’t ready to wean, I told them.  Was that okay?

The leader laughed and said, “Nobody goes to college still nursing.”  I wasn’t so sure.  “If he does, I just hope he goes locally,” I said.

Several months went by and I continued to nurse, even though I was well into my pregnancy with my second baby.    I even read up on the logistics of nursing them both.  My OB thought I was nuts.  “How are you going to nurse him with a huge belly?  Where are you going to put him?”  I wasn’t too worried. I would figure it out.  Nobody goes to college nursing, I thought.

But soon, things changed.  He wasn’t nursing during the day anymore.   And at night, he seemed much more interested in getting a good view of his bedtime story and “talking” to me about it.  At one point, I asked him 5 or 6 times if he wanted to nurse.  He eventually did – for a few seconds.

Whether or not I was ready to wean, he was.

It was a little sad, to tell you the truth.  The end of an era.  That first night that he didn’t nurse, he was fine.  But I cried.  This was not the plan.  I was supposed to have until college!

But this was not about me.  He had told me very clearly that nursing was no longer for him.  Rather than nag him into it every night, it was time to give nursing up.  To let my little guy grow up, even this teeny bit.  To loosen my grip on his baby-ness.

Now that my son is older, there are other things to be given up.  I know quite a few parents whose children are toilet trained already.  Up until now, I have been a hold-out, despite the fact that I have helped dozens of children toilet train over the years.  Is it time to say another bittersweet goodbye to another part of his babyhood?

Even though nobody goes to college in diapers…

Check back here for part 2

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The Goldilocks Effect (Part 3): not too soft

In Part 1, I introduced the Goldilocks effect: a “just right” approach to discipline.  In Part 2, I wrote about being “too hard”.  And now, we’ll talk about “too soft.”

What does it mean to be “too soft” when it comes to discipline?  We’ve all been aggravated by another a parent that we felt was being overindulgent.  And (painful as it is to admit) we’ve all been that aggravating parent ourselves.  Where does that come from?  How can we avoid falling into that trap?

“Too soft” means we’re slipping into being over-sympathetic.  It’s an easy slip to make, and not so easy to avoid.  I’ve heard parenting described as “allowing  your heart to walk around outside your body”.  And it’s certainly true.  The urge to protect them at all costs is overwhelming.

I just have to be careful what I choose to “protect” them from.

Imagine if there were a natural disaster and the president spoke on television.  But instead of “We’ll be helping them out” or “I spoke to authorities” or “order is restored” he or she said, “OH MY GOD! DID YOU SEE THAT!?! THAT WAS THE SCARIEST !@#$%&* THING I’VE EVER SEEN!!!” You would probably start looking for the next flight going as far away as possible.

To my kids, little disappointments can seem like disasters.  They are too young to know that being denied their every little desire is not like having their home washed away in a flood.  They don’t know that hearing “no” to cookies for breakfast or a walk outside in the freezing rain or yet another “three more minutes” is not like a devastating earthquake.  They don’t but I do.  If I won’t be the adult, who will?

If I try to “protect” my kids from these little disappointments, I’m not protecting them at all.  If I send the message that I’m anxious too, I’m just confirming that there’s really something to panic about.

It’s a simple idea, but it’s been far from easy for me to commit to.  Even with 20 years of experience working with young children, hearing my own kids cry still throws me.  I’ve done a fair amount of “fake it till you make it”.  Many times, I’ve felt like a member of the band on the Titanic, playing “Nearer My God to Thee” while everyone around me scrambles for the lifeboats.

But this is what my kids need: a strong confident message.  Everything really is okay.  You may not know everything is okay, but I do.

And it is.  And the band played on.

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The Goldilocks Effect (Part 2): Not too hard

In Part 1 of this post, I introduced the “Goldilocks Effect”, a “not too hard, not too soft, just right” approach to discipline.

What is the difference between discipline and just plain anger?  The answer is simple:  attitude.

If you’ve ever taken piano lessons, you can imagine how terrifying it would be if your teacher threw down a complex piece at the start of your first lesson.  Imagine if she screamed, “You don’t know this!?!  Why not!?!”

Instead, a good piano teacher would take some time to show you where middle C is, where to find it on the sheet music, what it sounds like.  When we try to play, she says, “Not quite.  More like this…do re mi…”  In other words, she is aware that she is teaching a new skill.  Something we don’t already know.

In order to avoid the pitfall of being “too hard”  when it comes to discipline, we need to adopt the same attitude and remember that “discipline” means “teaching”.

Not as easy as it sounds, is it?  I think that many parents (myself included) are guilty of at least one angry tirade.  Have you ever heard yourself say something like this:

Why did you do that?  Why did you take his toy?  You have to share.  He was playing with that.  That wasn’t nice.  Would you like it if he did that to you?  no, you wouldn’t like it.  It’s not nice…

And the speech continues.  Our brains are in park and our mouths on cruise control, careening down the highway.

Providing long explanations of why kids should or shouldn’t do something almost never works, and it makes a lot of us feel awful when we do it.  So why do we keep doing it?

I would argue that this speech is not about teaching — it’s about restitution.  In other words, it’s about making us feel better after we get angry.  Not about giving our kids an opportunity to learn.

So instead of a stern taskmaster, we need to think of ourselves as that patient teacher.  Instead of “No! Why can’t you understand this?”, we need to think, “You’re getting closer.  That’s a bit better.”

It’s not an easy shift to make.  So for our kids and for ourselves, we need to keep up the practice…do, re, mi


The Goldilocks effect: a “just right” approach to discipline (Part 1)

Every parent has a somewhat uncomfortable relationship with discipline.  We all know on some level that our perfect little angels have some less-than-angelic moments.  And yet the very idea of discipline makes us squirm a little.  Nobody wants to see the sausage get made.

The idea of discipline scares us.  It is not that we, as parents, can’t admit that our children have faults.  It’s common for parents to complain about exhaustion or frustration.  But even those who are quick to volunteer the details of their little angel’s devilish tendencies have mixed feelings about the word “discipline”.

In reality the word “discipline” has gotten a terrible rap; one that is undeserved.  Discipline is teaching.  And, often, it is teaching something that someone desperately needs to learn.  For the toddler and preschooler, these lessons are pretty complicated: how to control your temper, how to get what you need, how to understand what other people need.  It is not easy stuff.  They are depending on us to help them make sense of it all.  If we don’t do this, we are doing them a terrible disservice.

So how can we discipline in a way that doesn’t make us feel like monsters?  In my 20 years in behavior analysis, I’ve found that the best approach is what I call the Goldilocks effect: not too hard, not too soft.  Providing discipline in that “just right” way helps keep the focus where it should be: on teaching.

This, like many of the tactics in the behavior analyst’s bag of tricks, is very simple.  Simple, but not necessarily easy.  In upcoming posts, I’ll be exploring some tips for successful “just right”  discipline.


An epiphany on the bathroom floor

Epiphany: a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.
I had a recent epiphany in the most commonplace and simple of locations:  my bathroom.  It was not, as one might expect, an epiphany about how I really need to clean the bathroom more often.  It was a little peek into the power of reinforcement.
It was bathtime, a time of the evening I have referred to as a championship maneuver.  Since my husband works nights, I spent most of my pregnancy with my daughter trying to figure out how I would bathe an infant and toddler without anyone escaping, injuring themselves, or pooping in the tub.  I am happy to report 100% success on the first two!  But this was a special evening.
After my 2 year old son was scrubbed down, I picked up my daughter, undressed her and put her in the tub.  My son could be trusted to play with his toys and splash around a bit while I cleaned and held the baby.  As I washed her and talked to her, my son swam over and, in his sweetest coo, said “Hellooooooooo baby“.  Thinking that was absolutely adorable, I said, “You’re so sweet to the baby.”  And then it struck me that I said that every time this happened.  I paid attention to the baby, he approached and paid attention to the baby, then I gushed all over him.  This wasn’t spontaneous, and it sure wasn’t rare.  Their relationship was built on reinforcement.
In behavior analysis, reinforcement describes the process when something follows a behavior and that behavior gets more frequent.  My son’s affection toward the baby was that behavior, made more frequent by my response of cooing at him too.  The thing that follows the behavior is called a reinforcer.  That was what I gave him when I gave him attention, and now that she is getting bigger she gives it too, in way bigger doses!
Of course, I am not the hero in all of my epiphanies: another recent one was when I realized that every time another kid approached him for a toy, I made him pass it over.  This was true even if he was playing with it first.  So, basically, I was teaching him:  “Sharing” means giving your stuff away.  And sharing sucks.  You hate it.
Where was your reinforcer then, Ms. Smarty-pants Behavior Analyst?  Huh?  Nowhere, that’s where.  How did I expect sharing to increase if there was no point?  Predictably, it didn’t.
So I did what all good behavior analysts (and good parents) do: picked myself up, brushed myself off and started again, a little wiser this time about using reinforcement.
But there’s no use kicking myself.  I, like anybody, also need reinforcement, so I’ll pat myself on the back for catching it before he became vehemently anti-sharing.  Hopefully my “catching myself” behavior will increase if  I cut myself a little slack.
Besides, I’ll always have bathtime.
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