Sleep habits. Fertility. Steps per day. Water consumption. There's a tracker for that — all of that. So it probably shouldn't have surprised me to read Dr Catherine Pearlman's advice for struggling parents, and yet it kind of blew my mind. When you're trying to change your child's behaviour and you're not sure if what you're doing is working, she suggests collecting some data and analysing it.
Photo: Mindaugas Danys/Flickr
Pearlman is the author of Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction, which teaches the strategy of giving kids zero attention or reward for misbehaviour. While she's seen her approach work astonishingly well (which is why she wrote a book about it), this strategy — or any new parenting technique you decide to implement — isn't going to be the magic wand that instantly turns your child into a perfectly angelic darling who says things like, "Mother, may I please read a book quietly while you rest your sweet head?" Childhood, by nature, is erratic, emotional, complex, and it's often hard to see beyond the wailing meltdown that lies in front of you.
That's why you need a chart.
"Tracking helps parents see if there is some improvement," Pearlman tells me. "It doesn't have to be an all or nothing approach. Some improvement is better than no improvement. And seeing that there is some change motivates and empowers parents to keep at it. I've used tracking for sleep training, eating challenges, teen provoking behaviour and so much more. It really can be used to track any behaviour. If a child eats only 10 foods it might not seem like there is any change when the child eats 12 foods. But that's a huge improvement. Without tracking a parent might miss the small success."
It's also a clear way to notice any patterns and possible triggers so that you can adjust routines accordingly. In the book, Pearlman gives the example of Conner, a three-year-old who was having excessive tantrums that seemed to be set off by even the slightest disturbances. His parents, who contacted Pearlman for help, started tracking his meltdowns on a chart. Every time he had a tantrum, they added a little tally mark. It looked like this:
Notice any patterns? Pearlman writes:
The results were illuminating. The typical tantrum times for Conner were between noon and two in the afternoon, as well as the few hours before bedtime. He particularly struggled on the weekends (fourteen tantrums on Saturday and sixteen on Sunday).
After careful consideration, Conner's mum and dad could see why Saturdays and Sundays were a mess for Conner. His brothers typically had two games a day. Since they were not on the same team, that meant the parents each had to take a boy individually to the game. Hence, Conner's weekends were spent being dragged from this field to that field and that field to this field. He didn't receive a nap or have any time when activities were structured around his needs. Meals tended to be late or on the go, and by the end of the day Conner was spent.
After their analysis, Conner's parents made some changes. They had their nine-year-old drop one sport (he didn't love football, anyway). They also worked harder to coordinate rides for the older boys, and arranged for a babysitter for the times when they didn't want to miss a game. "These small changes caused the frequency of weekend tantrums to plummet," Pearlman writes.
You can really geek out with bar and line charts, but only if you want to. Pearlman notes that if tracking behaviour is going to make you more stressed instead of less, then you shouldn't do it. She also warns that tracking should be something that parents do discreetly for their own information — don't make a giant poster-sized chart and hang it in the living room.
Here's a template from Ignore It! to start (secretly) tracking your child's behaviours. Doing so might even help you detach yourself from sheer emotions, and start seeing things more objectively. Remember, it isn't just a tantrum — it's data.
Charts are excerpted from Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioural Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction by Catherine Pearlman with the permission of TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2017 by Catherine Pearlman.