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One Parent Stumbles onto STEP

By Sheri Lisker


Occasionally, when I have complained to my good friend, Joan, that my "little princess" has become "the great dictator" in our house, she has recommended that I take a parenting course, STEP (Systematic Training for Effective Parenting). Now I must explain that Joan is immersed in what I'll call the self-help thing. Deepak Chopra smiles benignly from her bookshelves, Enya's soothing tones emanate from her tape player and she's got a multitude of books, magazines, videos and various other media with titles like Staying Calm in a Vicious World and Women Who Love Men Who Say They Like Women But Secretly Prefer Football.

Still, when I dropped Maggie off at her preschool in our synagogue and was excitedly reviewing my options: should I write? go home and nap? go to the gym? or just have an uninterrupted cup of coffee? I noticed a sign that said STEP with an arrow pointing to the basement. Now if I hadn't known Joan, I might have assumed that someone was giving aerobics in my place of worship and I would have gone for that cup of coffee. But curiosity led me to that basement. Altruism led me to that basement. After all, Joan was interested in this for her ten year old son, Devon; I'd find out about it for her. The fact that the previous evening I had furiously tossed many of my daughter's favorite toys onto our wet lawn after she had responded to my request that she pick them up with a surly "Why should I?" might have been a factor. Let's face it. Desperation led me to that basement.

The room was packed. The room next door was chaotic: the children's room. Screaming, crying, begging (and that was just the caretakers). How effective can this parenting class be, I thought, if the kids are in such an uproar? Still, I reasoned, no one could have calmed these kids. So I inquired about the class and found that this was a free orientation and I was welcome to join. I saw a woman I had met at a baby shower and took a seat next to her. She explained to me that her adopted son had reached the fabled terrible twos. "I'm at the end of my rope," she confided. "Wait till he's three and can really talk," I rejoined, "You'll be hanging yourself with that rope."

...some of the best parenting advice I have ever gotten. Don't care so much about what other people think, in terms of judging you or your child. You might never see some of these people again. You will have a relationship with your child for life.

The STEP instructor, Aviva Schwab, has a firm, friendly manner that suggests she wouldn't be daunted by the average three year old. Then I sighed when I realized that I don't have the average three year old. I have Maggie. However, when I looked around the room at all the harried, confused, loving parents, I thought maybe I do have the average three year old. And judging from the number of grandparents and teachers in the room, I saw that Maggie is also representative of grandkids and students. I wasn't the only one who needed help!

Using lots of anecdotal information and a small chart, Aviva began to outline the goals and techniques of the class. There were two things she said that really impressed me. One was that the course did not advocate criticism. "When have you ever benefited by being criticized?" she asked. Usually, we have two responses to criticism: 1) anger at the person who gives it and 2) hopelessness and frustration with ourselves. True, I thought. Apparently, instruction, not criticism, is the goal.

The other thing she said that struck a chord echoed some of the best parenting advice I have ever gotten. Don't care so much about what other people think, in terms of judging you or your child. You might never see some of these people again. You will have a relationship with your child for life. At this point, ear-wrenching screams emanating from the children's room caused more than one parent to rise and inquire, "Is that one mine?"

Aviva then discussed the courage to be imperfect, for both the parent and the child. Are our goals for ourselves and our children realistic? Everyone makes mistakes, and instinctively children know they are not perfect. A house with a kid is not going to be spotless. ("I love this woman," my husband said when I told him she said this.) A day with a child may not be smoothly uneventful. Then she gave us suggestions for avoiding the reward/punishment method of parenting. Don't give your kids threats or bribes; give them choices, alternative solutions you can live with. For example, instead of screaming, "You put your toys away now!" you calmly ask, "Would you like to pick up the dolls or put away the puzzles?" If your child refuses to do either, you give her another choice: she can clean up her toys or the toys will be put away for the day. She makes the choice. If she still doesn't help, you pick up the toys and put them away for a day.

"When have you ever benefited by being criticized?" she asked. Usually, we have two responses to criticism: 1) anger at the person who gives it and 2) hopelessness and frustration with ourselves.

Or you might explain to your child that since you had to pick up her toys, you don't have the time to do something else the child might have wanted, washing the favorite dress or reading the extra story. You say this almost apologetically, not spitefully. The misbehavior might get worse at first, Aviva warns, but eventually the child will get the message. Many of us were nodding our heads at this when we noticed a toddler making a break for it down the hall. The babysitter and his dad corralled him into the nursery but believe me, it took the two of them, and he howled his protest for the next ten minutes, a very long ten minutes, I might add.

Also, Aviva warned us not to be the problem solvers for our children all the time. Teach your children to solve their own problems; it will instill self-confidence in them. For example, "You broke your truck. I'm not going to buy you a new one now. Can you think of what to do? Should you put this on your wish list for your birthday?" Maybe the child will opt to play fix-it shop with the broken truck. Or maybe your child, like mine, would just throw the truck at you, screaming, "You're stupid! I don't like you!" That's okay, says Aviva. You just say something like "I see that you are very angry. Let's put the truck away and deal with this later when no one is upset." Whatever happens, REMAIN CALM.

Armed with my newfound knowledge, I retrieved Maggie. I knew I'd only scratched the surface of this but I figured I would at least try to avoid losing my temper. I would attempt a few of the techniques Aviva had outlined. That old saw about a little knowledge being a dangerous thing buzzed through my head but I ignored it.

Apparently, Maggie had not taken the course. She seized my laundry baskets and refused to relinquish them, so I let her choose one, which she used to trap her new kitten, Max. When she wouldn't liberate Max, I gave her a choice. "If you don't let the cat go, you are choosing to give up the basket." She released him.

While I was on the phone, Maggie reported that she had overturned her snack table, complete with sticky peanut butter, onto the rug. Instead of ending my phone call to scold or nag her while I cleaned up, as I normally would have done, I glanced at Maggie, put up my index finger, signaling I'd be off soon, and continued. When I hung up, I told Maggie she would have to help clean up. She refused. Then I gave her a choice: pick up the crackers or wipe up the peanut butter. She chose wiping, which I allowed her to do, somewhat sloppily, with guidance. I bit down the urge to take the cloth from her to do it "properly". Maggie enjoyed cleaning up her mess so much she wanted to do the whole rug!

Our real challenge came later when she demanded that I skip my dinner and come upstairs. I stood my ground and told her she was welcome to come down and wait for me while I finished.

"No, you don't eat!" she commanded. "Come up now! I need you!"

I tried to finish my fajita while Maggie screamed, "Mommmmmmmmyyyyyyy!!!!!! I need you! I need you!" from the top of the stairs.

Occasionally, I would go to the bottom of the stairs and mildly inform her that she could come down and wait or I'd be up when I was done.

"Did the instructor tell you what to do when the kid screams till she pukes?" Rob asked.

"Not yet," I said. "I'll wing it."

Maggie screamed until she threw up. I changed her pajama top without comment and again offered her the choice to come downstairs. She took it.

At bedtime, she started to lose control of herself over the fact that I'd changed her pillowcase. Giving choices: 1) choose a new pillowcase 2) use this one 3) sleep without a pillow, didn't work. She demanded her dirty pillowcase. At this point, STEP was vying with my temper and my temper was winning. I told her if she couldn't make some other choice, I'd have to leave the room. My husband put her to sleep that night.

So maybe not a perfect STEP day but not bad, I thought. At least I hadn't resorted to irrational screaming or threats. Then I thought, Do I have the patience and endurance to be a STEP parent? And I figure it like this. If I have the patience and endurance to be a parent at all, I'll have to have the patience and endurance to be a calm one.

A few months later, I sent Aviva Schwab the following note:

Dear Aviva,
I am in love with my daughter again and owe this in large part to you (and to her, of course). Our relationship has deepened -- and we've been home sick, a major test. And it's not that she's been a different kid, "behaving better," "being easier," etc. (although she is easier) -- it's that I'm a different Mom -- a more patient, compassionate one. My New Year's resolution this year was to stop yelling and resorting to idle threats. Last year, this would have been an impossible resolution to keep but this year, I had resources and those resources came from STEP. I recommended the course to a number of friends and one mother I have coffee with tells me she thinks all parents and teachers should do this (and I agree). I hope all is well with you.

Thanks so much,
Sheri Lisker

P.S. I averted at least 4 arguments today -- major breakthrough! Go team!!

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