At your wit’s end and ready to take away a toy or privilege? Taking things away is an effective discipline strategy…sometimes.
To understand when to take away a toy, it’s necessary to first talk about when it is NOT that effective. The answer lies in equal parts behavior science and cognitive development, and operator error.
We’ll address the operator error first, cause it’s the trickiest. Basically, parent mess up the delivery and it topples the whole system. It is very difficult to be consistent with taking away the iPad EVERY SINGLE TIME your child yells at his sibling, mostly because life makes it impossible to be consistent with anything.
But it’s also hard to be consistent because taking away a toy or privilege punishes the parents and we are hard-wired to avoid things that aren’t pleasant for us. You know the drill, taking away the iPad at 9:00 am means that there is not a break for YOU for the entire rest of the day. That’s brutal. Nobody is going to sign up for that consistently. Because of this, it makes it easy to not be consistent and let some bad behavior slide just to save yourself. We’ve all done it. No judgment. Blame the system.
There absolutely is a better way, but let’s talk about behavior and development first.
Most kids are not at a cognitive level of development that allows them to be really successful with connecting current behavior with future consequences. Yeah, maybe I’m going to miss out on some TV at the end of the day, but right now, the emotional release of yelling is so much more present than the future of watching TV. So, I’m just going to yell and pay the piper later.
Even more, kids have not developed the cognitive mechanism for responding well to punishment—unless the punishment is very severe—and we’ve agreed that’s not the goal. Punishment is not the best learning mechanism for kids, but reward is. Kids’ reward center works great, which is a good thing because we want to spend time strengthening behavior by reinforcing it because that’s how learning happens. It’s not enough to just teach kids what not to do, we want to teach them what TO do. Rewarding them for the right behavior is much more effective than punishing them for the wrong behavior.
So, how can we do all these things in an effective manner? A token system to earn privileges and toys is something that is usually proposed, and token systems can be very effective, but they are also susceptible to inconsistency. It’s hard to know when to give a token or not. It’s difficult to know if you should take a token away when bad behavior occurs. And then there’s the negotiating: “why didn’t I get a token, why did you take a token away, I should have gotten a token for that!”
It can quickly become a system that isn’t fun at all.
When it is necessary to decrease a behavior—like whining or not following instructions or hitting—a modified time-based token system that focuses on the ABSENCE of the behavior is very effective. In behavioral science, this is called Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO), but those words are over the top for a day that started by finding a two-week-old sippy cup under the couch. DRO just means that as long as you don’t see the behavior that you are trying to get rid of, you reward that behavior with a privilege or a toy or a token that can be banked to earn access to the privilege or toy.
When to take away a toy…let’s break this down:
Step 1: Identify the things you don’t want to see
Maybe it’s yelling and hitting and arguing. Don’t pick more than three or four. It’s too hard to manage otherwise. After you have chosen these things, define them in your head. What does hitting look like? What is arguing? Go ahead and write those things down so you are very clear with yourself.
Working Example: I want to see less arguing, hitting, and yelling.
Step 2: Decide on the reward
But also: the amount of time you need to earn the reward, and how much of the reward your child can earn. Remember that you have to make sure the reward is valuable, and that it’s something that they aren’t getting for free, and that they aren’t getting so much of that reward that the reward will lose its value. Screen time is a great thing to earn, but if your child is getting that all day long, it’s not going to be an effective reward.
Working Example: I am willing to give my child 15 minutes of screen time for earning three tokens. Each token will be earned for abstaining from yelling, arguing, and hitting for 30 minutes.
Step 3: Set the timer for the targeted time
Working Example: I will tell my child that they can earn three tokens and then they will get screen time. As long as they are not arguing, yelling, or hitting the timer will keep running.
Step 4: Decision time
If the child does not yell or hit or argue, they earn a token when the timer goes off. Yay, everyone! But what if they DO argue? The timer starts over.
The good news is that they immediately get to start earning things again which should encourage the right behavior to develop. It also creates a system that doesn’t make kids want to give up.
Working Example: My kid just hit his brother. I say, “When you hit your brother, your timer starts over and you don’t earn your tokens.” And I start the timer over without one single more word or discussion or gnashing of teeth.
Step 5: Success…or not!
Kids will pretty quickly learn that they are wasting their own time if they don’t follow the expectations. Sometimes, however, the process of restarting the timer or not getting their way will make kids mad.
Working example: I’ve reset the time because of arguing. Now, this kid is arguing about arguing which has escalated into a meltdown. I say, “When you are calm, I will reset the timer and you can earn more screen time.” And then I just wait for the de-escalation. It’s in his best interest to get it together because now he is wasting his own time. I can continue with my day until calm prevails.
Step 6: Deliver the reward
Once the set number of tokens are earned, the kid gets what the kid earns. Imagine yourself as Oprah: “You get screen time, and YOU get screen time, and YOU get screen time!”
That’s it. It’s actually easier to implement than it is to read about. And it’s completely customizable and manipulatable. Change the reward, change the timing. Increase the number of tokens or the amount of the reward earned. You got this!