by Mary Alice Cookson
The start of a new year is a time when many families take stock of what’s working – and not working – in their homes. Are family meals happening consistently? Is the morning routine running smoothly? Are chores being shared by all members of the household? If not, maybe it’s time for some family-sized resolutions.
New Year’s resolutions are difficult to keep, which is why many people don’t make them, or they abandon them before even getting started! Family resolutions are even trickier because of ingrained family dynamics and all the personalities involved. How can we give our resolutions sticking power? How do we bring about positive and lasting behavioral changes instead of ending up frustrated or defeated?
The best way to make behavioral changes within your family is to “start where you are and set reasonable, reachable goals,” says Shayna Ross, a certified health coach with Advanced Neurotherapy in Needham. “Set yourself up for success so that you can then build on that success. For example, if you currently eat out all the time and your resolution is to cook more, start by setting the goal ‘I will cook one night a week’ as opposed to ‘I will no longer eat out.’”
Ross speaks from the experience of having grown up in a family business devoted to helping kids and families make behavioral changes. Her mother, Jolene Ross, Ph.D., is a neuro-behavioral psychologist and the director/owner of Advanced Neurotherapy. Dr. Ross recommends using the Premack Principle, which means have a less desirable activity precede a more desirable activity. For example, first get dressed, then have breakfast.
“Most children are hungry in the morning. If breakfast is yummy, it will be motivating,” says Dr. Ross. “Also, children can earn a favorite snack to be handed to them as they walk out the door if they are ready on time. So the principle is, in its essence, first we do this, then comes the good stuff. You build the chain of what you do before the good stuff.” This helps keep kids moving and on track without having to constantly nag them, she maintains.
Vicki Donlan, a business coach on the South Shore who specializes in working with women entrepreneurs, agrees that setting small achievable goals is critical in business and in life. Rather than bite off more than one can chew by saying, “Let’s save for Disney World,” Donlan advises starting with smaller goals so that children will see that goals are achievable. “Save bottles and put the money aside each time they are returned for a special family movie and dinner night,” she suggests.
Motivate with Rewards
Shayna Ross says she’s witnessed that “positive reinforcement, such as a sticker chart in which stickers can be exchanged for prizes, works far better than punishment in helping children with goal setting and achieving them.”
Donlan agrees, noting that these rewards remind her of the incentives and bonuses that her business clients use. “Yes, all people are motivated by rewards,” she says, “but people are also motivated by being noticed and acknowledged for a job well done. Both are important at home and at work. You can’t show your children too much appreciation. Love is free – use it!”
Dr. Ross suggests using “a simple point system in which each behavior is worth a possible 10 points. The child receives a portion of those points depending on how well they do in a given day per line item. So if the task is starting homework, they get points according to how cooperatively they start homework. But you can’t get 10 points unless you start your homework without being asked.” She adds that point systems should be straightforward, and points should be reviewed every day, preferably at a certain time of the day. Rewards are purchased with points, and they might include certain privileges or special time with parents.
by Mary Alice Cookson
Get Everyone on Board
“Everyone should have a role and responsibilities appropriate with age,” Donlan stresses. “The definition of family is a group living in a household. Children want to participate early on and are often discouraged. Later, when parents are looking for help, they expect children to willingly come forward when they have felt passed over in the past. Start getting children involved in family responsibilities early and let them know that added family responsibilities are a sign of respect and appreciation for jobs well done.”
She believes in offering allowance money in exchange for fulfilling family responsibilities and says even very young children can appreciate learning the concept of working for reward.
To get kids to clean up after themselves as opposed to parents providing maid service, Shayna Ross suggests scheduling a time during the day that is specifically for clean-up. “You clean the kitchen after having cooked, for example, and they clean up their mess at the same time,” she says. That way the expectation becomes clear over time.
Dr. Ross says, “Young children do best if the adult is putting toys away, as well. If there are multiple children, all should put things away at the same time – the bandwagon effect. Use praise liberally and be somewhat specific about your praise. For example, you can say ‘Good getting dressed!’ or ‘Good sitting!’ When something is completed, even if it is a part of a task, say, ‘Good job picking up toys!’” Follow up chore time with a positive activity, such as having a snack or taking a bath, making sure bath time is fun, she adds.
Give Kids a Say
To prevent family mealtimes from being battlegrounds where kids refuse to eat what you serve and want you to be their short-order cook, Shayna Ross says one option is to let each child pick one item or ingredient that goes into the dinner. “This gives them ownership of the meal,” she explains “and means they know that if tonight’s dinner is not their favorite, tomorrow they should have something they like. It also takes some of the responsibility off the parents, which should make the kids less likely to outright refuse.”
Letting kids set the pace sometimes can yield good results, she says: “In my work with families, I have had children put together lists of what they would like their parents to work on, just as their parents have done for them. For example, one child asked a parent not to yell at the other parent so much. This was a shock to the parent and really raised awareness.”
by Mary Alice Cookson
All three experts support the idea of family meetings with all members’ voices being heard. Kids in middle school or older can take turns leading the meeting, suggests Donlan. “I’ve learned in business that employees want to be listened to and buy in to new ideas, as long as their opinions are heard. Children, in some circumstances, may have a better idea of how to resolve a family problem. Listen to your children, but parents need to make the final decision,” she says.
Just as with bosses in business, Donlan adds that when parents “fall down in a moment of weakness, they should expect their children to react to bring them back into control. Of course, this is for use by families that truly have a mutual level of respect and love for one another. Parenting is a difficult role, but with that difficulty comes the greatest reward in life – watching their completely dependent babies grow into independent, competent adults.”
Tips for a Smooth Change
To orchestrate family behavioral changes, the Rosses and Donlan recommend the following:
• Remember that rewards work far better than punishment as motivation.
• Lead by example.
• Reward yourself and the family for sustaining success, perhaps with a special family dinner or game night.
• Consider age, ability and from where each person is starting when you set goals so that each person can reach his or her goals.
• Find ways to make achieving goals fun.
• Have the family participate in setting the goals, which will give you good ideas and helps everyone take ownership.
• Remember, screen time is not a birthright; it should be earned through good behavior each day.
• Spend as much electronics-free time with kids as you can.
• Keep kids well-nourished. Behavior deteriorates when they are hungry. Have snacks in the car when you pick them up from school or give them a snack when they get home rather than make them wait for dinner.
• Praise children specifically, especially for being good siblings: “What a good brother you are helping your sister!”
• Do not pit siblings against each other or have winners and losers in a family. Avoid saying, “Let’s see who can clean up the fastest!” or “Your brother got better grades in seventh grade than you’re getting.”
• Reward independence. It’s one thing for children to perform a task and another for them to perform the task without assistance or without being asked.
• Model good behavior. If parents fight with nasty words they can rightfully expect their children to do the same. Back-talk should never be tolerated and should involve consequences – every time – no exceptions.
• Know each other’s schedules. “Just as employees have a schedule, allowing management to know how all of the pieces move, and allowing the pieces to all move and work together, a family needs the same,” says Shayna Ross. “If everyone knows where the other family members will be, it is easier to be on the same page, set reasonable expectations of who will do what and also make sure everyone is safe.”