Teach Doctrine, Not Just Behavior

December 14, 2007

Three years without a glitch and now this.Why was he doing it?

It had been over two months now that our son had started wetting the bed. The whole thing was disheartening and puzzling to Margie and I. We talked about it, prayed about it, read about it, thought about it… but nothing seemed to bring us a solution.

To stop the wettings, I had rewarded, praised, threatened, and spanked. Nothing seemed to work.

The effect of this effort was simply more wet sheets, a rather fearful small boy, and two very, very frustrated parents.

I had been told many things by many people about bed wetting… “His bladder must be too small – he’ll just have to grow out of it. That’s what my doctor said.” “He is suppressing some emotional conflict and needs to see a therapist.” “There is some new medicine on the market that helps with this sort of thing. Why don’t you take him to the doctor and be done with it?” “Just ignore it – he’ll get over it eventually.”

Fundamentally, I felt uncomfortable about all of these answers.

You see, I have learned through my personal experience, many success books, and most importantly, through scripture study, that God made us in His image. And that as His children, we are endowed with the power and privilege to be masters over our bodies. At the core of this power, each of us has been given agency – the ability to freely choose our thoughts and actions (though we are not free to choose the consequences of those actions).

Because of that, I had to believe that, somewhere, for some reason, my little 5 year old was choosing to wet his bed. That being the case, he could choose to not wet his bed. It’s a painful, but liberating truth.

And frankly, the “why” behind it all was not that important to me. I also tend to think that we spend way too much time in society today digging into the why, instead of focusing on solving the problem. Was his bladder too small? Maybe, but why did that stop him from waking himself up and walking the 10 feet to the toilet? Did he have “emotional issues”? Maybe. But the power to control our emotions is part of our Godly heritage.

I also know that there is nothing impossible to man when he resolves to do something and is willing to turn to God for help.

So, at the core of my seeking for an answer, I had to figure out a way for him to be motivated to make that choice. Once the desire was there, the “how to” of keeping his bed dry could easily appear.

But how could I increase his desire?

As I prayed about it, I had a series of ideas come into my mind. Here is what I did:

1. Taught the Principle of Agency

My son and I sat down and had a talk – the same talk, repeated over and over again. “Son, did you know that God gave you total and complete power over your body? Let’s see you do something cool… can you raise your hand? Great job! Ok, now try closing your eyes. Awesome! How about jumping up and down on your right foot? See, that’s no problem for you. Ok, last one… can you blink your eyes, swallow, and pat your tummy at the same time? No problem! You’re amazing! And do you know what? God has given you that same control over your private parts. And guess what else? When you are asleep, part of you mind stays awake and can tell you to wake up when you need to go potty. Isn’t that amazing???!!!”

During our second talk along these lines, I could see the lights illuminate in his eyes. He was discovering that he was in control of his mind and body. I could see this truth awaken a sense of power and strength in his mind.

How different is this conversation than what most children are told… you are powerless, you are a victim, you are not in control, the world around you dictates your actions, etc… Isn’t that the principle behind the pop a pill and see a shrink message that so many children get today?

Now before anyone reading this jumps on the defense, let’s be clear about my perspective. I totally believe that God has inspired the creation and expansion of modern medicine. Likewise, I firmly believe that a good counselor can do endless good. These things have their place and space. But I also believe that they should only be utilized after correct principles are taught and children empowered to act and not consider themselves hapless victims of a cruel world.

2. Habitual Skill Training

Even after he felt empowered, I knew my son needed to possess the habitual skill of using the toilet instead of his mattress. So, we turned to my good old, faithful friend… practice.

Every time the bed was found wet, he got to practice at least 10 times in a row doing it the right way. We did this most often in the middle of the night, just after he wet. Yes, it cost me a lot of sleep, but his self confidence – and learning the lessons of agency – were well worth it to me.

I’d sit in the hallway and have him climb into bed, pull the blankets up around his neck, and close his eyes. “Ok, what if you are sound asleep and suddenly you have to go potty… what do you do?” With that, he would throw the covers back and run into the bathroom, lift up the seat and carry out every particular of the practice – even down to flushing.

3. Salting the Oats

The old saying goes that you can’t make a horse drink water… but you can salt the oats.

A little added motivation was needed to get the job done. In this case, it was agreed between him and me that if the bed got wet, then his practice rounds would increase in longevity, eventually getting to the point that he would have to stay home from school all day and do nothing but practice.

4. Finally, Prayer

Each morning, and each night, he and I would kneel down by his bed and petition the Lord to give him the strength to keep that bed dry.

You see, he had to learn that our agency and will power is not enough in some cases… sometimes it takes our all, plus the prayer of faith, with nothing wavering and nothing being held back, to accomplish a goal. Only in this way can we rely on Heaven’s help… and he needed to learn that lesson.

With these five elements in place, we saw a miracle take place. After a few days of this, my son’s heart started changing. The desire to keep his bed dry and prove that he was in control, that he did have agency, and that God would help him, grew in his little heart (not to mention he really didn’t want to spend ALL day practicing!).

As so often happens when you empower another person to rise to their Heavenly Heritage, they take off and soar far beyond your expectations. On his own, my 5-year old son concluded that it would be better to practice BEFORE the bed was wet. And, certainly, if one brief mention of keeping his bed dry was a good thing in his prayers, a stronger, more repetitious petition would help all the more.

So he began. At nights, he got all snuggled up, warm and happy… and then with a gust of energy he would throw off the covers and make a dash for the toilet. This he would do over and over again, bragging time and time again, “I did 16 practices tonight dad – I’m never going to wet my bed!” “I did 20 practices, dad! Isn’t that good, dad?!”

Just before bed, as he knelt down to pray, he would plead with the Lord in loud tones, “Please help me not wet my bed. Please help me keep my bed dry. Please help me go potty in the toilet. Please help me not wet my bed. Please help me keep my bed dry. Please help me go potty in the toilet. Please help me not wet my bed. Please help me keep my bed dry. Please help me go potty in the toilet.” Sometimes repeating it 4 or 5 times.

Rising up he’d say, “God will help me, won’t he, dad?” “Yes, son, of that you can always be sure.”

In the end, we focused on the principles and doctrines behind solving the problem, not necessarily on the problem or the behavior to fix it. It was his own wisdom and insight that took those powerful tools and applied them in a way that worked for him.

Today, we not only have a son that is bed wetting proof, we also have a son that understands things like agency, personal power, faith, goal setting, natural consequences for behavior, and a myriad of other priceless life skills.

Additionally, in the process, the Lord has opened my eyes to a way – a pattern really – that most childhood challenges and struggles can be addressed.

The pattern? Teach correct principles and doctrines and correct behavior is likely to follow.

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After the Technique Comes the Concerto

December 5, 2007

“I’m must concerned that he doesn’t like it.  If he doesn’t like it, he will never be any good and feel pushed his whole life. And that is not what piano lessons are all about.”

Joshua’s piano teacher was right.  He wasn’t enjoying it… and he was doing terrible at it.

The sad part was that he has so much talent.  He can pick out songs, has a great ear for tone and pitch, and has an excellent sense of rhythm (unlike his father).

But what he didn’t have was the passion and all the skill and talent in the world doesn’t amount to a hill of beans without passion.

So, why didn’t he… and how could he get that passion?

That was the question Margie and I asked ourselves over and over during the next few days.  When we talked with him about it, he simply said, “I don’t like those exercises she makes me do – they’re not even songs and it is so boring!”

So, how do we make the technical exercises fun and exciting?

Here is where we articulated an enormously valuable lesson of life that Margie and I had both learned, but not realized it.

The answer is: you don’t make it fun and exciting – you just do it because it’s the right thing to do.

Isn’t so much of life like that?  As a mother, does Margie get all jazzed up and excited about changing a stinky diaper?  How about mopping that floor?  Or do I just fall all over myself to do some of my work projects that take away from family time?  No, none of those things are our “favorite, most exciting things” in the world to do… but they have to be done so that we can enjoy the great thrills of life.

The fact is, much of life is boring, mundane, drab, and flat.

It was not an easy conversation for either of us, but before the next piano lesson, I sat down with Joshua, “I know you don’t like those technical exercises, but you know what?  If you don’t do those today, you’ll never be able to play the songs you love tomorrow.  Without the drab and boring stuff, there can never, ever be exciting stuff.  Plus, if you only ever do the ‘fun’ stuff, you’ll never really enjoyit, never really be good at it, and eventually despise it – and I don’t think that is what you want.  It’s your choice, but I think you should hang in there, master the basic technical stuff and see what happens.”

He thought about it for a while and finally decided to drag and drudge his way through.

And he did.

It is now a few months later and the house rings with music.  There is a piano upstairs and one downstairs.  Stop by on any given moment and you just may find his fingers flying across the keys, filling the air with a catchy tune here, or a sweet melody there.

What a satisfying feeling to see that he has learned that life is not all bells, whistles, flash, and fun… sometimes it is just plain hard work, dull, and boring… but well worth it.


The Practicing Siblings

November 30, 2007

Smack!

A brief moment of silence… the deep intake of breathe before the scream erupts, I suspect.

WWWWWWAAAAAAAAA!!!!

Yep. Just as I suspected. Isaac and Brigham are “playing” together.  Sigh… more fighting.

Slowing I get up from my chair in my office. Not too easy to concentrate on digital isolation theories – let alone write a white paper on them – when mournful chaos is erupting in the room next door.

“Ok, boys, what is going on?”  “I-I-I-I-s-s-s-a-a-a-c, he h-i-i-i-t me-e-e-e!” my youngest boy wails.

Unfortunately, the scene is repeated more often then I’d like to admit. It seems that the chemistry between some of my children is just off.  They rather delight in inflicting pain and torture on each other.

It has been a parenting issue that has pressed heavily on my mind, and I have wondered repeatedly what to do. I’ve tried threatening, bribing, rewarding, begging, and, yes, even spanking. But to no avail – they seem as happy as ever to pull off the kid gloves the minute a minor conflict ensues.

About a week ago, during our morning family scripture study a thought popped into my mind. “The fighting has become a habit – a habit born of a lack of skills.  How do you break a habit? You don’t… you replace it.”  The thought was so strong it startled me.  Of course, they don’t have the skills yet – especially since I have not specifically and systematically taught them.

So, that very morning we digressed from the topic at hand and discussed habits and the ruts we often get into out of lack of skills, laziness, or both. We openly talked about the arguing and fighting.  In the end, as a family, we resolved that the only way to restore a higher level of peace and harmony was to replace the habit of fighting with other, more peaceful tactics.  And to do that we had to practice.

So, corporal punishment, threatening, bribing and punishments (at least in its old form) went out the window, and practicing came into play.  Here’s how it works… the second an argument begins (or even before if Margie and I are on hand), the offending siblings are split apart and asked if they are making good choices.

“No”

“Ok, then how could we handle this better?”

A calm conversation follows giving various alternative responses.  Once that is settled, they get to “practice” handling the situation the calm, peaceful and rational way.  Ideally, they get to practice 5 or 6 times… but sometimes parental patience only accommodates once.  Regardless, they practice doing it right.

The result?  Harmony.  First of all, it turns out that being compelled to change your attitude in the midst of a good mad is just about the worst punishment that you can inflict on a child.  Second, real conflict resolution skills are being emphasized, learned, and applied by our children (and, oh, the humility of confession… but also by their parents!).

Is it a lot more work for us as parents?  Yes. Do we enjoy doing it? Not really. Do the benefits far out-weigh the cost?

Most definitely.