More than anything else, Rob and Tracy White want to enjoy their three daughters in the few hours they have together as a family each day. Reality has been another matter.
On a recent weekday afternoon, for instance, Rob sits at the kitchen table trying to talk with a guest over the tumult made by the girls -- Sydney, 6; Jessica, 5; and Bentley, 18 months. Having just confiscated a snuck-before-dinner Popsicle from her eldest daughter, Tracy now shouts at her:
"Sydney! Stop that!"
Sydney is the little dynamo in the family room, whirling a large doll around by its ankles. On second glance, that's no doll. It's baby sister Bentley. Whoa! Jessica jumps back just in time to miss Bentley's head.
"Sydney, I said stop that!" demands Tracy.
Rob groans. "Individually, they're sweet girls," he says. "Together, it's hell!"
Bentley comes in for a reasonably soft landing, then runs off, her big sisters in pursuit. Tracy sinks into a chair beside her husband.
"We've tried every kind of discipline, from time-outs to spanking," says Rob, "and felt bad about it all."
Rob is a regional manager for a medical-device company. When not on the road, he works from an office in the family's home in Alpharetta, GA. "I love seeing so much of the girls," he says, "but it definitely shortens my fuse."
Rob considers himself the disciplinarian. "When I was growing up, kids didn't get away with this stuff!"
Tracy, a full-time homemaker who worked for an insurance company until Jessica was born, admits to being more indulgent:
"I grew up being yelled at. I don't want to discipline that way."
Tracy begins her day at 6:30 by extracting first-grader Sydney from bed to dress, eat, and catch the school bus. If Rob is home, he pitches in, but much of the time he's on the road.
Next up is Jessica, whose talent for dawdling often results in a last-minute rush to preschool. All the while, Bentley keeps mom hustling. "My life is spent cleaning up after her," says Tracy. "Bentley doesn't want to play with toys -- she wants to open every bottle under my bathroom sink."
The challenges Rob and Tracy confront when disciplining their kids are similar to those many of us face. That's why we thought they'd be ideal candidates for a "makeover" at the hands of Atlanta-based, child-discipline expert Bob Lancer, who runs parenting and child-discipline workshops and is the author of Bob Lancer's Parenting With Love: Without Anger and Stress.
Contributing editor Jessica Snyder Sachs is a health and science writer based in Georgia.
When the Whites meet Lancer for a problem-solving course in child discipline, they readily admit that they're inconsistent disciplinarians. They feel particularly out of control with Sydney. The previous Sunday, for instance, she spent most of the day confined to her room because of her misbehavior. "And as soon as she was let out, she was at it again -- arguing with us, teasing Jessica, working Bentley into a frenzy," says Rob.
By comparison, Jessica has been more compliant. However, with a frustrating tendency to ignore simple requests like "Please put on your shoes," her parents find they have to repeat themselves, sometimes more than four times, before Jessica responds. "I don't think she's deliberately disobeying," says her mom. "It's like she's spacing out."
More troublesome is Jessica's new habit of sassing her parents. "I want to nip this in the bud," says Rob. Adds Tracy, "Part of the problem is that sometimes I allow it."
Bentley's turbocharged toddlerhood is a big part of what keeps her parents rattled. She can easily sustain a 20-minute tantrum to get what she wants.
With all this on the table, the Whites ask Lancer to begin the makeover with Sydney's disruptive behavior. "I'll be watching Jessica and Bentley play, when Sydney, back from school, blows in like a tornado," Rob says. "She throws her book bag and her shoes on the floor. She grabs stuff from Jessica and drags Bentley around by the legs. And I'm just running after her saying 'Sydney! Stop!'"
Rob wonders whether Sydney, as the oldest, resents her sisters for displacing her as the center of attention. Indeed, sibling rivalry between Sydney and Jessica has become relentless.
Sydney, like the other two children, needs some regular one-on-one time with her parents, says Lancer. "Right now, she's feeding her need for attention by provoking your anger," he tells them.
Just as important, Lancer says, the Whites need to break their association between disciplining their children and being mad at them: "As long as you're reacting to their behavior out of anger, you're out of control. Taking charge with your child begins with taking charge of yourself."
If Sydney enters the room creating chaos, don't chase after her, he tells Rob: "This is where I disagree with many child-discipline books that say you have to react with discipline right away or it's no good." He urges Rob and Tracy to take a step back when their children's behavior upsets them.
"First you have to calm down," he says. "Think about what you want to do. Does this child need a hug, which can be effective when misbehavior stems from a need for attention, or does she need what I call a consequence? And if it's a consequence, what would be appropriate and effective? A time-out? The loss of a specific privilege? These decisions require calm and focus."
This point made, Lancer offers the Whites specific instructions for how to change Sydney's disruptive behavior, as well as Jessica's more passive disobedience, and both girls' sassiness and sibling rivalry.
First, says Lancer, Rob and Tracy need to meet with their older daughters to discuss their behavior. "Make it pleasant," he says. "Sit down with a plate of cookies, go to the park, or maybe out for ice cream."
LANCER'S RECOMMENDED STEPS:
STEP 1: Explain that while you love them, that doesn't mean they can misbehave.
STEP 2: Together, draw up a short list (around five items) of specific responsibilities and prohibited behaviors. It might include such rules as: You will not say or do mean things to each other (like grabbing toys or pushing). You will pick up your things when asked without whining or arguing.
By eliciting your children's input, Lancer says, you give them a feeling of responsibility for their own behavior. This strategy also invites discussion, so you can explain, for example, why it's important that your family treat one another with kindness and respect, or why everyone should pick up her own things.
STEP 3: Explain that when a child breaks a rule, the parent may either issue a warning or simply announce that there will be a consequence.
If the child heeds the warning, praise her. But if you get to a third infraction, impose a consequence.
"Don't feel like you have to come up with it on the spot," says Lancer, "and certainly not if you're upset." You can announce the consequence later in the day, once you've thought about it calmly.
With your children, make a list of mild-to-severe consequences for misbehavior. Include time-outs (one minute per year of age, Lancer suggests) or confiscation of a favorite toy for from a half hour up to a few days.
In general, he says, "choose the mildest consequence you can think of that will be effective and graduate to stronger ones as needed."
Whatever the penalty, it must have meaning to the child. Lancer recommends that the Whites ask Sydney and Jessica, "What kind of consequence do you think will help you behave?"
To help foster the concepts of good behavior and consequences, Lancer encourages Rob and Tracy to discuss with the girls what happens to adults when they break rules. For instance: If Tracy didn't buy groceries one week because she "didn't feel like it," the family couldn't eat.
THE TINIEST TERROR
Clearly, Bentley's too young to discuss behavior and consequences, but Lancer says she can be helped by a modified version of the warning system. For instance, Tracy can say to Bentley, "If you rub Mommy's makeup into the carpet (one of Bentley's less endearing behaviors), I'll take it away." If she tries to anyway, Tracy should take the makeup from Bentley's hand.
A more effective tactic with a child Bentley's age, says Lancer, is to create an environment where "no" isn't the constant refrain. He suggests giving Bentley some nonstaining makeup or play powder (cornstarch) of her own. "Then set her in front of a mirror and show her: 'See, we put it on our cheeks, not on the carpet.'"
Or Tracy could keep a lower kitchen cabinet open, stocked with colorful, nonbreakable bowls and cups that Bentley can easily stack and put away.
In discussing Bentley's tendency to have tantrums, Lancer suggests that she, like everyone in the house, would benefit from a calmer environment. "We're constantly rushing," her mom admits.
Bentley's particular "witching hour" is right before dinnertime. While one parent or the other frantically tries to cook, Sydney and Jessica run in and out of the kitchen, and Bentley screams for juice and "ookies."
Again, Lancer urges, step back and strategize. The Whites agree that Bentley's before-dinner fits have less to do with hunger than with seeing the older girls grabbing snacks. To make sure she doesn't see what they have, Lancer suggests that each girl be given a pre-dinner activity that separates her from the others.
Keep in mind: It's not the end of the world if once in a while a parent lets an infraction slide. "As long as consequences are administered consistently over the long run, parents can -- and should -- cut themselves and their kids some slack."
"Better to lose the battle and win the war?" asks Tracy.
"Exactly!" Lancer says.
A month after the Whites' meeting with Lancer, we checked to see how they were doing.
Remarkably, Tracy and Rob say, they saw an improvement in the older girls' behavior as soon as they returned from their counseling session -- even before introducing the new discipline system.
"Okay, Momma," Sydney replied, when asked to begin her homework. When she was told to wash up for dinner, she agreed without protest.
Clearly, part of the change came with the new sense of calmness in the family and the parents' fresh perspective on handling the kids, says Rob. "We realized that disciplining the children wasn't a lost cause -- they're still young and very impressionable."
Rob and Tracy began the makeover process by discussing with Sydney and Jessica -- over ice cream -- ways to make family life run more smoothly. They explained the system of consequences and how it would work.
"We said that a consequence was like a natural result of their behavior," says Tracy. Rob gave the girls ex-amples of what could happen, such as not being allowed to play with friends or losing other privileges.
Later, they sat down with Sydney alone. "We asked her to be a better listener and to stop making the baby cry," says Tracy.
Within a day of their discussion, Tracy had her first opportunity to test the system. Despite repeated requests over the course of 20 minutes to put on her shoes, Jessica was still padding around in socks. Finally, in the car as they rushed to preschool, Tracy told Jessica there would be a consequence as a result of her dawdling, though she hadn't yet decided what.
"When I picked her up from school, she asked if we could get ice cream. I knew then what the consequence would be," says Tracy. "I told her no and explained why." Jessica didn't cry or complain, she says. Since then, she has been better about putting on her shoes and dawdling in general.
Things appeared to run more smoothly until the following week, when Rob and Tracy had their first conference with Sydney's first-grade teacher. They were dismayed to learn that their daughter was causing problems -- calling children names, making faces behind the teacher's back, and not completing classwork.
After discussing it with the teacher, Sydney and her parents agreed on a system in which she could earn two stickers from her teacher each day to put on a special chart--one for conduct and one for completing class assignments. Every day, she was expected to earn both stickers.
Only once in the month since has Sydney failed. The consequence: staying inside that afternoon and helping Mom with chores, rather than joining her friends outside. "It kills her to miss out on the neighborhood fun," says Tracy.
Rob also began to help Sydney with her schoolwork when he's at home and makes a point of calling her when he's out of town. The result has been better performance and no more acting up in class.
Jessica, meanwhile, has become more challenging. "Her new thing is to stomp her foot and say no when I tell her to do something," says Tracy. "But for the most part she takes her consequences without complaint."
Jessica's apparent role reversal with Sydney has also led to a spate of tattling by the girls, with each one eager to report the other for small infractions, such as an unmade bed. Tracy is trying to head this off by imposing consequences on the tattler.
Yet overall, both girls' behavior has improved so much that Tracy has signed them up for swimming lessons as a reward. "If they continue to do well, we'll consider taking on another activity," she says.
Bentley is enjoying Lancer's suggestion that she get some makeup of her own. "I've given her some very light blush so even if she gets it all over her face, it barely shows," says Tracy. "Now she sits there quietly and lets me get ready."
Tracy has likewise tried giving Bentley a toddler version of consequences when she misbehaves. The effects have been limited, but promising. On a recent trip to the grocery store, for instance, Tracy agreed to let Bentley get out of the cart and look at the candy rack at the checkout. If Bentley grabbed any, however, Tracy moved her out of reach. "After being picked up a few times," she says, "Bentley got the message and left the candy alone."
Overall, the Whites feel they're getting good results from their discipline redo. The crux of their success, Rob adds, may be that they now realize just how much structure children really need. "We hadn't been giving them that," Rob admits.
Sydney and Jessica are also happy with the changes that have taken place in the household. "They're more patient," says Sydney of her mother and father. She also appreciates her parents' new interest in her opinions, and takes pride in having been asked to be her teacher's special helper.
Jessica, meanwhile, regrets several missed trips for ice cream, but admits that this particular consequence "helps me listen better." She also reports that she's been helping her mother with little sister Bentley and with bringing in the groceries.
As an unexpected bonus, Rob and Tracy say their teamwork has fostered a greater supportiveness of each other. "I've come to appreciate all that Tracy does to keep this family going," says Rob, "and I feel the same appreciation from her."
Best of all is the reward for all their hard work: a home life that's happier and decidedly more peaceful.