Q: Using the “ticket method” you have described in previous columns and books, I began my four-year-old daughter’s rehabilitation program this week. When she loses all five of her tickets, she has to spend the rest of the day in her room and go to bed at 7:00 P.M. instead of 8:30 P.M. One day she lost all of her tickets by midmorning, so I sent her to her room. She came out repeatedly and told me she wasn’t going to stay in there. So I removed all toys from her room and told her that for each time she came out, she would have another night with a 7:00 P.M. bedtime. Is that the proper thing to do?
A: Let’s look ahead and see what your approach is leading to. If every time your little rebel comes out of her room you add another night of early bedtime, it’s conceivable that she could earn a year’s worth of early bedtimes in a couple of weeks. Then what would you do? Can you possibly enforce that? The obvious answer is No. All you’re doing is painting yourself into a corner.
First, a brief summary of the ticket method: List no more than three specific misbehaviors on an index card (e.g., throwing tantrums, refusing to obey instructions the first time, being mean to the dog). Those are the misbehaviors you are targeting for elimination. Post that list on the refrigerator. Attach a certain number of ticket-shaped pieces of colored construction paper to the refrigerator (2” by 5” is a good size) above the target behavior list. The child begins each day with, say, five tickets. Every time she produces one of her target behaviors, the parent points that out and removes a ticket.
The first four tickets are “free.” They are the child’s “margin of error” for any given day. When she loses her fifth ticket, she spends the remainder of the day in her room (first reduce the room’s entertainment value) and goes to bed at least an hour early. As the child’s behavior improves, losing fewer and fewer tickets per day, reduce the margin of error gradually, but to no less than two. Or, keep the same number of tickets but add more target behaviors. Eventually, eliminate the system altogether.
The fact that your daughter is coming out of her room is evidence that she does not want to be confined there. Therefore, although this constitutes defiance, it’s actually a good sign. She is simply testing your resolve by throwing all of the emotional “weight” she can muster against the program in the attempt to frustrate you enough to abandon it.
As I’ve pointed out many times in this column, when parents begin to do something truly effective concerning a long-standing behavior problem, the child’s natural response is to test the parents’ resolve by turning up the heat, making things worse before they get better.
Unfortunately, when things get worse, parents often conclude that the strategy isn’t working and the system, whatever it is, collapses. As a result, the child learns how to get her parents’ goat, and the next time they try a systematic approach to a behavior problem, the child tests even more strenuously. And around and around they go.
Obviously, your daughter eventually follows your instruction and goes back to her room. Just stay the course through this storm. Calm seas lie just ahead.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.