Guidelines for using the couch A refresher course in discipline By Linda Downing Miller• Illustration by Marc Stopeck
Experts generally agree children need help learning to control their behavior. Parents generally agree they need help helping their kids do so. We've read the experts' books. We've nodded at the sage advice. We may even have jotted down some of the expert disciplinary strategies. Then we've promptly forgotten them, worn down with too much to do and too many battles to fight. (It's not just me, is it?) Experts say we often learn best by example. Let's consider a simple leather couch.
1 Establish and communicate clear rules. Are you a relaxed individual, comfortable watching your possessions dismantled, hurtled over and used as trampolines? Even your leather couch? If you secretly cringe at the thought, you may secretly hate your kids if you don't tell them. Consult your spouse, if applicable. A united front is important.
2 Be consistent. If jumping on the couch is not allowed, don't get tired one day and let some adorable little person jump on it for 10 minutes before exploding: "That's enough! I've told you there's no jumping on the couch!" Call it when you see it every time, even when you are operating on only three hours of sleep and don't give two lint balls about the stupid couch.
3 Stay in control. If you enter a room and discover someone breaking the couch-jumping rule, try not to shriek, "*!#! I said no jumping on the couch!" Take a moment to gather your thoughts. The cushions probably won't suffer that much more damage.
4 Reinforce the rules in a positive manner. Get close to the offender(s), make eye contact if possible and state in a calm, clear voice, "The couch is for sitting. Please get down now." (Note the positive emphasis on the couch's true purpose.) Wait expectantly for up to five seconds.
5 Implement immediate consequences. So someone is jumping on the couch. He or she has listened to your positive reminder, locked eyes with you and resumed jumping even more gleefully. Perhaps he or she has made a justified statement such as, "But I have to jump to Princessland so I can be on time for my wedding!" Guide the little bride-to-be off the couch firmly but gently, perhaps explaining, "I see you want me to help you get down." Now state a relevant consequence, such as, "You may not play in this room the rest of the day," or "You need to take quiet time in your chair to calm down." Avoid a delayed penalty such as "No dessert after dinner," or an unrealistic one, such as "I'm never letting you wear your princess dress ever again!" Try not to launch into lengthy explanations or rants: "I've told you and told you and told you not to jump on the couch. Why do you do it? Are you trying to drive me crazy?" A child will not hear past the second "told you." (I've tested this.)
6 Diffuse hard feelings with creativity. Your child is desolate. She missed her wedding at Princessland because of your ridiculous rules. You say, "Hey! Did you hear that? I think I hear the chair calling. It's saying, ‘All aboard for Princessland! Sit down and fasten your seat belts!' " Intrigued, she sits quietly in the chair for five minutes until you announce her arrival. This is very, very hard to do when you feel completely and utterly humorless.
7 Involve your children in solving problems. If you find yourself spending too much time monitoring the use of the couch, try a family meeting. "Kids, we seem to be having a persistent problem of people jumping on the couch. What do you think we should do about that?" After you fend off the first round of helpful suggestions-"nothing," "allow jumping"-you may find your children coming up with more feasible ideas. Maybe you will agree to save up together for a small trampoline. Maybe you will decide couch-jumpers are banned from the room and have to pick up any toys on the floor.
8 Validate feelings. Two children have been gently removed from jumping positions on the couch. They've tearfully picked up scattered toys and are now standing in the kitchen, still crying. "She was jumping on the couch before I was, so she got to jump on it longer!" wails one. "I was STANDING on the couch. She was the one jumping!" yells the other. Hide in the bathroom if you are about to hurl self-esteem-damaging insults. Come out when you can muster up something sympathetic to say. For example, "I know that you both like jumping. I know you are sad that you can't, but those are our rules. It's OK to feel mad at your sister. I sometimes got mad at my sister(s)/brother(s) when I was a kid."
9 Redirect. "Why don't we go outside and play hopscotch or leapfrog? We can jump that way." "Would you like to draw a picture about your wedding in Princessland?" If wholesome suggestions fail, I have found 100 percent success with, "Would you like to play on the computer?" Or "How about a TV show?" Allow the kids to choose—of course, only when your established audiovisual limits allow.
10 Occupy the territory. When your children are happily engaged, sneak away and lie down on the couch.
Linda Downing Miller lives in Oak Park with one husband, two daughters and a slightly worn leather couch.