The Perils of Positive Parenting

This may not be a particularly popular blog post. In fact, I’m reasonably certain that’s true. But I post it in case there’s anyone like us who is feeling like a failure at this parenting gig and who might—just might—find a bit in here that rings true.

Why do I feel like a failure? Well, because current parenting “experts” drill into us that it’s all about positive reinforcement. We shouldn’t take a negative, punitive stance; we should frame everything in the positive! So, instead of saying, “Theo, don’t throw your clothes on the floor! Put them in the hamper!” I should say, “Theo, our clothes go in the hamper when they’re dirty!”

That’s all well and good, and sometimes, for the minor things, it works just fine. “Time to stop doing fun stuff and go to school” can easily be phrased as “Time for school—let’s get shoes on!” and no harm is done. The shoes get put on (eventually), and we get to school. Awesome.

But then there’s the bigger things. The age of seven, for us, has been an age of a lot of testing limits in terms of backtalk. And of course, the ever-present loudness. The loudness…well, it’s a long-term issue, and we continually work on it. But the backtalk was relatively new, starting in maybe the last six months to a year. Over and over we tried to help him with phrasing and tone, knowing that these things don’t always come intuitively to him.

“Theo, do you hear how you just said that to me? That’s a rude tone and words. A polite way to answer would be, ‘No thank you, Mom, I don’t want any right now.'”


“Theo, it’s not polite to ask someone if they’re insane, and that tone was rude. Instead, you can say, ‘Okay, Mom, I’ll turn off the TV.'”

Modeling a polite tone…always modeling a polite tone. And giving him words to use that would be polite and respectful, instead of rude. Because I know he’s not a rude child in his heart—he’s a testing seven-year-old who takes a long time to digest some of the finer nuances of social niceties.

But after close to a year of this, I had had it. I mean, really, really had it. I was tired of being talked to like some sort of hired help. And all of the positive phrasing and strategies were getting me absolutely nowhere…except more annoyed that my kid continued to treat me like a servant. Plus, his little bro is talking more and more, and I didn’t want him picking up some of this stuff. (Ask me how quickly Sam is picking things up—he learned the word “damn” from Chris yesterday!)

So, I thought back to an older parenting strategy, one that didn’t tell me I had to use positive phrasing all the time. I thought back to the “get ’em where it hurts” strategy—that is, find out what they really care about and use that as your discipline strategy.

Got it. What does Theo really care about? One thing: money. Enter the jar system…

Theo is a very visual, tactile kid. Sticker charts where the stickers are attached to rewards are only somewhat effective, because I don’t think the connection between sticker and desired activity/item really resonates with him. So I came up with the idea of the jars.

One jar is labeled Allowance, and every week I deposit $2 worth of nickels in it. Two more jars are labeled Rude and Loud. Every time he says something rude or is loud after I’ve warned him not to be, he has to take a nickel out of the Allowance jar and put it in the appropriate Rude or Loud jar. At the end of the week, he gets to keep whatever of the allowance he hasn’t lost, and I get to keep whatever is in the Rude and Loud jars.

I think this works for Theo for a couple of reasons. First, we make him physically remove the nickel from his Allowance jar and put it in the Rude or Loud jar, so he has that tactile activity of physically losing his money.

Second, he hates—and I mean really hates—the fact that the Loud and Rude jars end up funding my Starbucks trip or Chris’s iTunes budget. It galls him to no end to be paying for something that we enjoy.

So call me a lousy parent for resorting to negative consequences, but you know what? It’s working. A year of positive reinforcement did nothing, but three weeks of good old-fashioned fiscal penalties seems to be doing the trick. There’s a whole lot more polite Theo and a whole lot less loud Theo.

I’m not saying this is for everyone. I’m sure there are kids out there who respond just fine to positive reinforcement. Mine just doesn’t really appear to be one of them, when it comes to the big things like this. The little things, sure—I will happily phrase the minutiae of the day in positive terms. But enough is enough when the positive phrasing leaves you hanging at the edge of a precipice and thinking, “I’m really not allowed to wash his mouth out with soap, huh?”

By the way, I’m part of an online autism parenting group, and a mother was at her wits’ end with her VERY LOUD child who couldn’t seem to STOP YELLING EVERY DAY, thus driving their housemates bananas. I posted a short description of our jar system and said, “This is the only thing that has worked for us—take it for what it’s worth.” Every…single…other…comment was along the lines of “You just need to use positive phrasing with him! Try ‘Let’s use our inside voice’ instead of ‘Shhhh! No yelling!'” I told Chris about this woman’s dilemma and got halfway through my description of the suggestions for positive language when he interrupted me and simply announced, “Bullshit!” (Which totally reminded me of my dad, who would’ve done the same thing.) I started laughing because it reminded me of my dad, and Chris said, “Well, if that actually worked, it’d be great! How long did we try that here, and it did nothing?” Yeah, my point exactly.

So if you’re like us, and the highly desirable goal of being able to simply use positive phrasing to help your child learn good behavior is eluding you…hey, there’s always good old monetary fines! 😉