The 70% Rule.
Speaking of failures, amidst my many shortcomings, I’ve had this nagging something plaguing me of late. It’s okay to fail at writing, it’s okay to fail at my profession, and it’s okay to fail at losing weight and exercise. But I cannot accept failure at being a dad.
But I’ve felt like a failure lately. It seems that 90+% of my interactions with my kids are contentious. And all the while, I keep thinking, I’m one of those dads. You know what I’m talking about, right? The sort of dad that’s always butting heads with the kids, the sort of dad that the kids are conditioned to resent long before maturity sets in (and with it, the humble realization that dad may have been right after all).
But, I did little about it. I suppose I was so preoccupied with my other endeavors to do anything about it. (Bad idea).
This time, however, thanks to the loving…er…encouragement?…of the misses, something has changed.
I was preparing to leave to a neighboring city to pick up some wood for a project. I was running late and frantically looking for my headphones, so I could listen to an audiobook whilst away.
“Why don’t you have God-time instead?” she suggested.
(Translation—spend that time thinking about my spiritual status and consider ways in which I might improve.)
Well, the problem with “God time” is that it’s hard. You are forced to face your weaknesses, and I didn’t wanna do that.
But, with the gentle prodding of the misses, I agreed.
And as I sat there, thinking of me and my contentious interactions with my kids, I remembered a rule that I had long forgotten…
The 70% rule.
Now it’s time for a story within a story, inception-style. When I was newly married, I scored a job working with a 7-year-old autistic kid. My job, as his behavioral therapist, was to give prompts to him (e.g., ask him to ask me about my day) to which he would give an appropriate response (e.g., have a genial conversation about my day).
The kid was wicked smart, though, and knew that, as a new therapist, I was a bit green. So, of course, my first day out of training, the kid threw a tantrum. And what a tantrum it was! He spit at me, screamed at me, threw things at me, and bit me. I kept doing what I thought was the appropriate response—I told him, in a calm voice, “nope,” and continued to insist on obedience.
It didn’t work, and, if I remember right, the tantrum lasted the remainder of my work shift.
The following day, the lead trainer and I sat down and watched the video of me doing my therapy session.
“See what you’re doing wrong?” he asked.
“Yes. You see it?”
How could I be doing something wrong? I wasn’t throwing the tantrum!
“What?” I asked.
“You just said, ‘no’ seventeen times in a row. You’ve now been punishing him for 30 minutes straight.”
“And?” I asked.
“He’s never going to get out of a tantrum if you’re punishing him.”
“So you want me to reward him? For tantruming?”
“No,” he said. “I need you to lower the complexity of the task. Instead of asking him to do his multiplication tables, ask him to touch his nose.”
“Really. Then ask him to touch his eyes. And when he does it, reward him. Teach him that obedience is rewarded and misbehavior is not.”
Day two. Another tantrum, but this time, I lowered the complexity of the task. When he touched his nose, I rewarded him. Within ten minutes, the tantrum had passed and we could go back to the more complex tasks.
We again watched the video the following day, and my trainer said something that I thought I would never forget (and I did forget until last week):
70% of your interactions with him need to be positive.
And if he doesn’t deserve positive reinforcement? Change the complexity of the commands so he can be obedient. Or, perhaps even better, find something he is doing that is worth praising.
(Now, back to the first story).
So, amidst my God-time, the revelation of what I needed to do was clear.
When I arrived home, I saw him—the kid I’d been butting heads with the most. There was a subtle look of defiance in his face—chin lifted slightly, eyes purposely averting my gaze, mouth locked in a straight line.
“Hey buddy,” I said and gave him a hug.
His resistance to the charm of dad increased. Undeterred, I told him I loved him and appreciated how quickly he’d done his chores.
Still, resistance remained.
And did so for an entire day. But then, the next day, he and I took a trip to a neighboring city to run some errands. For the last 24 hours, greater than 70% of my interactions had been positive. For the 2-hour trip, he and I chatted about our mutual interests—books, woodworking, camping, etc. By the end, the façade had melted and he said, “Dad, today’s been a really good day. And I didn’t even play video games at all today.”
(Of course he was quick to esplain that playing video games might have made it better).
And I know it’s hard. How can you possibly find ways to reward them when the little monsters are driving you nutzo? They don’t deserve praise, dangit! I am the dad and they must obey!
Well, here’s the thing—in the not-too-distant-future, the form of defiance is going to change. Rather than slamming doors and refusing to clean, defiance may take the form of drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, and the like. I think my greatest weapon against that is to ensure the kids feel no need to be defiant.
And why would they, if 70% of the time, dad is their best friend?
And let’s say they do mess up. I want them to know that if they make mistakes, they’re going to have a compassionate friend who will weep with them and love them no matter what.
When they really need help, I don’t want them to be afraid.
That’s the goal at least.