My 3 1/2-year-old was having trouble. We’d ask her to put something away and she’d tell us no. We’d request her assistance with a simple task and she’d claim she was “too tired” or “too busy.” We’d tell her it was time to stop what she was doing and she’d blatantly ignore us. Her whining was out of control. She intentionally bopped her sister on the head when she did something the preschooler didn’t like. Once she even attempted to hit Daddy when he did something she didn’t like. And the tantrums. Oh good gracious. Meltdowns over silly, ridiculous things that even other 3-year-olds didn’t care about.
At this point, let me just say that Little Miss is a really really good kid. I know that last paragraph makes her sound like a contestant for the next big family reality show on MTV, but truly, she is a good kid. But her age, developmental stage, and surrounding environment had all combined to create a temporary mini-monster and we were much less than pleased.
So…I tried something new.
I’ve learned that parenting is really one big giant lifelong experiment. You posit theories daily (perhaps hourly in some cases) and put your idea to the test, trying to find something that will generate the desired outcome. This science laboratory doesn’t come with goggles, a lab coat, and protective rubber gloves, either.
Anyway, this time my theory was that a visual goal would help Little Miss willingly act like she should, make better choices, and be, in general, a more pleasant person to be around.
I used some recycled baby food jars and dug out my old glass fishbowl stones. I found basic happy face and frownie face images on Google and then printed and taped the images onto two of the jars. The third jar I left blank and filled with all the stones. To be generous, I put a few starter stones in the jar with the happy face on it, to give her a head start.
Here’s how the jars work:
- For every positive thing she does – responding “okay!” to requests, voluntarily doing something helpful or kind, remembering her manners, taking responsibility, etc. – she gets a stone taken FROM the Frownie Face Jar and placed in her Happy Face Jar. (If there are no stones in her Frownie Face Jar they’re taken from the stockpile jar.)
- For every negative thing she does – arguing, whining, acting rude, misbehaving, disobeying, ignoring Mommy and Daddy, breaking the rules, etc. – she gets a stone taken FROM her Happy Face Jar and placed in her Frownie Face Jar.
- Once the Happy Face Jar is full, she gets to choose a special fun activity for us to do as a family, such as going to the zoo or the children’s museum.
At first it didn’t work. She didn’t care enough about the stones to act the way she should, so she began filling her Frownie Face Jar much more quickly than the Happy Face Jar. After a day or so, however, she finally started to catch on. We were able to say, “Well, that looks like a stone in your Frownie Face Jar…” and she’d suddenly remember how she should be behaving. I quickly became excited every time I got to tell her I was going to put a stone in her Happy Face Jar, and the smile on her face from the verbal affirmation we gave her each time a stone was placed in the Happy Face Jar was great.
Eventually we got to the point where we would just go move stones into her Frownie Face Jar if she made a poor decision, and the sound of it dropping into the jar would remind her that she should change her behaviour.
After 2 1/2 weeks of hard work, Little Miss finally put the last stone in her Happy Face Jar. And the good choices have (so far) stuck around. No, she’s not perfect. This is (sadly) not a magical method that will turn any preschooler into an angel. But she has been doing much, much better. She offers to help set the table, rather than waiting to be asked. She takes things to her room instead of dumping them on the floor when she’s done with them. She cheers her sister on when Miss Bennett is trying something new, like walking independently.
She may change her mind before we find time to go, but her current choice for a fun family activity is going to the zoo to see the baby elephant, the baby river otter, and the new flamingo exhibit that just opened a couple of weeks ago.
I may be more excited (and proud) than she is.