Monday, November 28, 2011

The Right Tools (From the Cleveland Post February 24, 2011)

The Right Tools


K. S. Volcjak

Have you ever thought of words as tools?

As with many recent insights, my children brought on this one. My children and the need to teach them, that is.

Okay, discipline them.

Our overwhelming desire to be fair with our children means that every collision of wills results in a lot of 'splaining to do. At least at some point.

But discipline sticks best when it is clear and quick. As you might guess by now, my on-the-spot explaining is not likely to be quick. (I hope I am clear, eventually).

What to do?

Humans use tools to make the work manageable, which brings me to tool-words.

Tool-words are words or phrases that are pre-loaded with a whole lot of meaning. We talk about them in advance, so when a problem arises there isn't much to talk about.

'Naughty Chair' was the first tool-word I found. Picked it up from Jo, the "Supernanny."

In this case, it is not just a word. It's also a child-sized oak school chair that sits next to the front door.

The phrase and the chair work something like this:

Mama: "Time to put away your toys."
Beloved Child: "No."
Mama: "Go sit in the naughty chair."
Beloved Child: (storms off to sit in naughty chair.)

Really. Why they go obediently to the naughty chair immediately after refusing another instruction is beyond me. But they do.

It works so well that I mobilized it. There is a section of floor in every grocery store, waiting room, and friend's house that morphs, when necessary, into the Naughty Spot.

Eventually, the reminder of the naughty chair is sufficient to get them to modify their attitude.

You may be thinking: "Naughty chair? Isn't that a little judgmental? Why not use 'Time-out' like everybody else?"

"Time-out" has its place. But using a non-judgmental word in a situation where judgment is most definitely rendered can lead a child to conclude that "time out" means "naughty." It becomes a euphemism. Not a lesson I want to teach.

One of the lessons that the "naughty chair" came preloaded with is that Mama and Daddy know things Beloved Children do not. They are responsible for keeping everyone safe, healthy, fed and clothed. That means they are the ones who make the rules. Disobeying the rules is naughty and results in unpleasant consequences.

Prompt obedience is not about power-tripping, control freak parents. Ultimately, prompt obedience by young children is a safety issue. Think about it.


I got another great tool-word from the fantastic forest rangers at Clemmons Educational State Forest. They conduct educational programs for elementary school children throughout the year. Effective communication is key if they are to keep students safe and engage them in learning about cool things like owl pellets.

They gave me-and the children -'stories' as a tool-word.

The rangers found that asking "Does anybody have a question?" caused hands to shoot into the air, but not for questions. They wanted to share their outdoors experiences, whether they obviously related to the field trip or not. They wanted to share stories.

Which ate into the time and flow of the great wildlife programs. So, how to encourage the interest without ruining the show?

The did it by reminding the students to focus on questions and giving them the word 'stories' to describe the thing they wanted to say that wasn't a question. Then they set aside time for stories after the programs.
When a child can't contain himself and launches into telling about the time Uncle Joe fell out of the boat, the ranger redirects him firmly but kindly with "That's a story, save it for later." He's made it clear that the timing is the problem, not the student, not the story.

It's brilliant. Simple definitions, clear boundaries, all established from the outset. Interruption dealt with, enthusiasm redirected, on to the next predator.

That's a lot of heavy lifting with just a few words. Tool-words.

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