any port in a storm


While the next little tidbit is related to parenting, and therefore supposed to bore the ever-livin’ lymph out of anyone who doesn’t plan on breeding, hopefully it will still relate. If not, well, it’s late July, which means the internet itself is having its usual mid-to-late-summer period of flatulence, so you can continue barely reading this. It’s funny how we can digitize the world out the ass, and yet, when it’s July or August, that world still just wants to lie in a hammock drinking a sloe gin fizz.

But I digress.

Almost every study done on behavior modification shows that negative reinforcement works very quickly, but is a terrible long-term bet with all kinds of problems. In other words, if your child is misbehaving, you can slap him across the room and he’ll stop… but he won’t stop for long, and he’ll grow up loathing you, then he’ll hit his own kids, and then need lots of therapy.

Early on, we did the research, and concluded this: the only way to get your child to behave decently was to praise him/her when he/she did things correctly. Conjunctively, when they do something awful, you calmly remove them from the situation, and guarantee their boredom.

It’s hard for several reasons: first, negative reinforcement tends to be the most primal response… nothing screams parenthood like a parent screaming. Secondly, when you’re in a tough battle of wills with the kid, it’s awfully hard to find anything to praise. Thirdly, you may have a kid that thinks a “time out” is just as fun as “real life”. But if you can get a few angles in there, it’s mesmerizingly effective.

Which brings me to The Wheel of Wonderful™. Researchers showed amazing results when kids were given goals that were clearly marked on big sheets of paper stuck to the wall. They’d amass gold stars and all kinds of shit, and just the physical presence of that “doin’ good stuff” wall was turning violent little brats into children you actually want to eat dinner with. Of course, this raises all the usual donnybrooks about turning your kids into nice little robots for your convenience, but that’s another blog.

Lucy had something similar on her door for a while, complete with crazy rubber stamps she could press herself. She would get one stamp each time she did something the first time she was asked, shared well, asked for things nicely, and other things at our discretion. When she got 25 points (usually within 2-3 weeks), she could pick out any (realistically suitable) toy at the toy store down the block.

Problem was, we travel a lot, and her bedroom door was not portable. So I got two squares of thick black foam posterboard of different lengths. In the middle, I stuck a white foamboard wheel with numbers written along the outside, and clamped them together with a script binder:


A little window, a few non-sequitur stickers, and voilĂ : Lucy’s Wheel of Wonderful™. Of course, I couldn’t figure out how to have 25 equal sections of a circle even with a graphing calculator, so the magic number is now 24. For each point she earns, she dials them herself, seeing the number in the little window.

That bizarre little art project has now been to New York twice, Italy, France, England, Santa Cruz and all points in-between. And while Lucy herself is going through an intense physical phase that has her jumping onto my head knees-first without notice, I have to say, she’s such an awesome pumpkinpants.


with her last 24 points, she chose this dress – assymmetrical sweetness

Did the W.O.W. have anything to do with it? Hard to say, but it sure didn’t hurt, and there have been lots of situations where the promise of “points” got her to do something with 4,000 less man-hours of parent labor. I sometimes wonder if the Wheel of Wonderful can be translated out into the world as a whole, for grownups in real jobs. Sure, we do things for the promise of money, power, or some form of adulation, but what if it was a little more tactile, and we got to turn the wheel ourselves?


another W.O.W. present she chose: the fairy kite!

0 thoughts on “any port in a storm

  1. Amy S.

    Having worked with approximately 200 nine-year-olds over the last eight years, the conclusion I’ve come to is it’s different for every kid. For some, I have had to implement my own version(s) of the Wheel of Wonderful. For others, tilting my head and lowering my eyebrows at them was enough. Whatever gets results.

  2. Mom

    OK…WOW is a great thing, and I’m utterly opposed to physical punishment, having been “switched” or “spanked” more than once as a kid, and all it did was piss me off. Time outs are at least benign, and if you can figure out how to make a kid bored enough will often work, if only because it gives a kid in a manic state a little time to chill.
    The WOW sounds terrfic, and I wish I’d had them for you kids. But in your essay, you don’t say what you do when there is an infraction, one that cannot be “rewarded” just for stopping the mayhem. Do you have a good device for that, too (short of the rack or tazer)?
    3 year old Barnaby asked me to play a game with him the other day, and when I said I couldn’t do i till later, he threatened me with a “time out” if I didn’t do it NOW. (sigh).

  3. jason savage

    sounds good, but what happens when she becomes aware of all the rewards programs out there in the world, and starts clamoring for an upgrade to an en suite room?

  4. josie

    Great idea and great pictures. I think you could patent the Wheel of Wonderful for busy, mobile parent circles. Consistently applying discipline must be a challenge on the go (I can say it has for us).
    I agree totally with Amy S., even though I have fewer kids in my sample to arrive at the same conclusion. You may need to come up with a series of mobile reward devices to fit various psych profiles. Wait, you’re not in that business are you? Perhaps this is a suggestion I should pass on to the Super Nanny.
    Like the adorable Lucy, I have a pleaser in my brood. She laps up praise and reward like a cat does cream. Having her around reinforces my self-imagined parenting prowess.
    #2 is a more complex type, who often baffles me. Positive reinforcement is great, but sometimes he blows it off, and sometimes he cares nothing about time outs. Promising “Toy Jail” for some of his (at-that-moment) beloved objects often works; But other times, he’s determined that NOTHING shall change the path he has chosen, seemingly only to prove that we can’t manipulate him. He’s shrewd and beautifully irreverent (don’t tell him I said that) one minute and amazingly affectionate and funny the next. “Apple, meet tree” (and I’m not talking about me here).

  5. GFWD

    I have not even gotten past the sloe gin fizz comment but wanted to say that if you weren’t thinking of the song, “Portland, Oregon” by Loretta Lynn when you typed that, then you’re a liar, liar, pants on fire. Great song.
    I’ll resume reading now and reserve my right to post again. Further affiant sayeth not.

  6. Deb

    Awesome, Ian. We have a giant poster, “Augie’s Behavior Chart” up on the wall of his playroom, and he earns a star sticker for any “on-his-own” good behavior, totally at our discretion (there are 40 boxes he has to fill). At the bottom of the chart is a huge picture of the toy he is currently coveting.
    In answer to Linda’s question, the threat of a star getting taken away has proven to be even more powerful than the time-out. My dad disagrees, saying something that is earned shouldn’t be able to be taken away, but it’s worked so far without any serious psychological repercussions.

  7. Anne

    If it works, I’m all for it. :-)
    And I LOVE LOVE that dress. Way to go, Lucy Fashionista-in-training!
    My only problem with rewarding good behavior is that it could set up an expectation. At some point of a child’s development, good behavior really must become its own reward. Because the peeps out there in the big bad world aren’t going to buy a girl toys or dresses simply for doing what is expected of her.
    I used a similar method to toilet-train our last child, who was particularly intractable. He started with a little jar of uncooked kidney beans — 14, I think (two weeks’ worth if all went well). When he pooped on the potty, he got to take one bean out, which I returned to the big container of beans in the kitchen. When there were no beans left in his little jar, we went to the bookstore and bought him a Beanie Baby, which he loved beyond all reason. It worked great.
    But as an almost 18 year old, he has known for years that he needs to feed and walk the dog every evening, do his own laundry and put it away, vacuum the 2nd floor every other week, collect the trash the night before pickup, unload the dishwasher when it’s clean and load it when it’s dirty, and so on. He gets not one red cent for these things. It is part of being in a household; we all pitch in. It is *expected.*
    I’m sure Lucy will navigate the change eventually from reward-based behavior to self-regulated good behavior. Enjoy her; she is lovely!

  8. CM

    1. Thanks for doing all this research so I don’t have to! I can start using these techniques in a few years.
    2. You honestly should try to publish a book of some of your around-the-house projects – the stove, the swing outside, the blackboards and stuff you created for Lucy….there are so many people who would dream of amenities like these but have no clue how to do them. The ‘Cool Dad’s Guide to Home Improvement Projects’ might do quite well, esp. with your great photos. (Easy for me to say since I’m not doing any of the work…doncha love it when people suggest what to do creatively and make it seem easy when it’s not? Sorry, but anyway.)
    Everyone, have a lovely day.

  9. LFMD

    While I love your idea, I agree with Anne. Good behavior needs to be its own reward.
    I am not exaggerating when I say that my daughter has always been very well-behaved and I can’t remember any times when we really had to break out the punishment with her. I had the idea when she was about 7 to get more involved in household chores, and we created an allowance system. Bad idea. Once she realized that this system meant being helpful around the house lead to “stuff”, she put together her own allowance chart. The chart itemized each chore, and she assigned a “price” for each chore. For example, walk the dog = $2 a walk, making her bed = $1 a day. We nipped that in the bud right away and explained that she would get a small allowance at the end of each week if she did all of her chores. Eventually, if I asked her to do anything that was not in the original plan, she would ask me “What do I get?” for doing such and such extra chore. This was not what we envisioned when we put together the allowance plan. . .
    Since then, my technique is to stress that she needs to help out with chores as a member of the family. We all do our part to be good citizens. There is no reward at the end of the chores, other than having a clean house in which to live, food on the table, and daily comfort and stability. It is a bare-bones lesson, and sometimes she rolls her eyes at me, but it works for now.

  10. LFMD

    I am back. Hope it did not seem as though I was knocking your system. I love your creativity and Lucy’s adorableness.
    We have this dynamic in our house lately in which me, Husband, and Daughter each feel unappreciated for all that we do in our little household. Husband was upset last night because Helen and I don’t do any of the yard work (and we have a big yard and it is HOT). Last week, I was in a snit because I do laundry every day, and my family seems to think that clean clothes magically appear in their closets. Even Helen was mad recently because she is the only one who has been playing with our new dog. I am sure that the dog has some complaints of his own. . . .
    Other than admitting that we have become the Bickersons, I would like some advice that works for the whole family. Do you and Tessa have a Wheel of Wow that works for adults?

  11. Sean

    We have a sticker chart on our wall. Barnaby didn’t really care about the stickers going on the wall, he was just as happy having them in the book. And he responds really well to time-outs, but doesn’t really respond much to positive reinforcement. We’ve promised him stuff, and then he’s received the promised gift when he did the thing we wanted him to do, but the two didn’t seem all that related.
    We went to Toys-R-Us the other day and after half an hour, he had picked out new drumsticks and wanted to leave.
    It’s not that he isn’t covetous, it’s that he’s ridiculously spoiled. If he didn’t get a single new toy for two years, he’d still never get bored. We may have shot ourselves in the foot a long time ago.

  12. Deb

    I agree that rewarding good behavior can be a slippery slope, but you’re not going to enter into a social contract with a 3-year-old. One thing we decided was that the stars Augie would receive would be given randomly and at our discretion. And we intersperse receiving a star and getting verbal praise, with the explanation of why we’re so proud; why it’s important or nice to do that good behavior. And sometimes he gets one star for a weekend/cluster of good behavior/acts. As with anything, moderation is the key.

  13. Neva

    I agree with you LFMD. We had a similar experience with the allowance thing where everything began to have a “what do I get for this?” expectation so we nipped that in the bud too. Also, having a kid who really has very little interest in material things – toys don’t motivate her much. Taking away TV time or an earlier bedtime has always been much more powerful but that is more for dealing with the unpleasing behavior than the rewarding the good.
    Like your Mom said, Ian, you didn’t address how you deal with the “bad” things. Wheel of Pow?
    Anyway, on the child psych unit where I work they have a point system where they earn points for every hour they meet expectations and then they can buy things at the “point store” with their points. For bad behavior there is a green, yellow, red level system where you get more privileges as you move up the levels and you immediately return to red if you are aggressive or make a major infraction.
    It seems to work sometimes and doesn’t work sometimes. They are all different.

  14. Bozoette Mary

    That is the most beautifullest dress I ever saw; please tell Lucy!
    If you want to be completely horrified by the alternative to positive reinforcement, just google “To Train Up a Child” by Michael and Debi Pearl, two really scary fundamentalists.
    Then again, I’ve always thought a child-sized taser would be an excellent idea, particularly for those little darlings who insist on kicking the back of my airplane seat. We could call it “Taser Tot” and make a mint!

  15. Megan

    Not parenting, but dog training: positive reinforcement is also the current thinking for shaping canine behavior. It’s worked wonderfully well for several of our dogs, but sadly, seems to have little to no effect on the puppy we’re currently trying to house-train. We praise the dickens out of her whenever she goes outside, but this doesn’t stop her from routinely fouling our floors. Neither does a verbal correction when caught in the act. I’m at my wit’s end. Sigh.

  16. Anne

    Megan: Watch a bunch of episodes of “The Dog Whisperer” on TV or Internet, or “It’s Me or the Dog”. (Former is on National Geo channel; latter on Animal Planet.) I’m sure episodes are online. I have gotten so many good ideas from Cesar Milan, the Whisperer. Combination of firmness and reinforcement, but *never* overpraising. A single word “Good” or “good dog”. You have to do that pack leader thing. It doesn’t have to be mean at all. The pup is waiting for its leader, which should be you. Good luck! Housebreaking pups is why we always get pre-owned, pre-housebroken shelter dogs now. :-)

  17. Megan

    Thanks, Anne. I have been overpraising, and will look for some housetraining episodes online. We normally get older shelter dogs, too, but this little stray took up residence under our porch and we fell in love with her. She’ll be a great dog when we get this problem worked out.


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