Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Suburban Man: The Fight Board

By Rick Kaempfer

The school year officially ended this week in our school district. Kids are rejoicing all over the neighborhood. The parents, on the other hand, are chewing their fingernails and wondering what the heck they are going to do for the next three months.

I’m a little worried myself. My house will be occupied by three boys, day and night, seven days a week. The only sure things in life are supposedly death and taxes, but as far as I’m concerned, there’s at least one more sure thing if you’re the parent of boys over a summer vacation.

Fights. Lots and lots and lots of fights.

Summer vacation has barely begun, and here are just a few of the arguments I’ve already broken up over the past few days...
=Why does he get the green bowl?
=He’s looking at me
=Tell him to stop humming
=He called me a stupidhead.
=He bit my butt
=Batman cannot fly!

Each of these fights ended in fisticuffs. I speak from experience when I tell you that it’s only going to get more violent as the summer “togetherness” season heats up. I’ve taken all of the precautions I could. I signed them up for just about every activity under the sun, from summer school classes to swimming lessons, but it won’t be enough. All of these activities together are still not going to be as time consuming as school has been. Any way you slice it, these boys will still be spending waaay too much time together.

Which means it’s time to bring back the “Fight Board.”

I haven’t had it officially trademarked yet, but the Fight Board was created by yours truly in a fit of inspiration during an all-out brawl last summer. The fight board is non-judgmental. All it does is keep a running tally of the number of fights throughout the summer. It doesn’t matter who started it, what caused it, or whose fault it is. A fight is a fight—and a red tally goes on the board. This isn’t done to show them how many fights they have—although it is a nice bonus—it’s done as a reward/punishment system.

Here’s how the reward (carrot) and punishment (stick) system works. There are approximately 90 days of summer. If the boys are able to keep the number of fights below 50 for the whole summer, they each get a new toy of their choosing. That sounds like a lot of fights, doesn’t it? That’s a free fight every other day—and they’ll still get a reward. It’s also a completely unattainable goal for boys who easily fight twenty five times in a typical week.

Realizing this, I gave them a no-man’s land range of 50-100 fights in which they are neither rewarded nor punished. If at the end of the summer they managed to keep the number of fights below one hundred, no harm no foul. That’s such a vast improvement over the present situation—I would be rejoicing so much I wouldn’t be in the mood to punish them anyway.

However, once the number of fights gets above 100 (which is more than a fight a day), I start taking away a toy for each fight. For instance, if they fight 101 times—I get one toy. If they fight 120 times—I get twenty toys.

Any predictions how it went last summer?

They hit twenty five fights in the first week. The number slowed down substantially after that, because they saw the prize disappearing, but by July 1st they had officially lost their shot at the free toys. They ran through another thirty fights or so in that next two week period. As they approached 100, the fights slowed down again, but I think deep in their hearts they didn’t believe that I would really take away the toys, so the fights didn’t end completely.

They found out they were sorely mistaken on August 1st, when they eclipsed the scary 100 fight mark. I still remember the disbelieving looks on their faces when I started a collection of toys in my room. Ah, the joys of Star Wars fighter jets. I had five of them in my closet in the first two days.

By August 3rd, the fights stopped. Totally. They didn’t fight again for the rest of the summer.

I know all the parenting books suggest using positive reinforcement, but I can’t help but notice that my boys seem to respond much better to negative reinforcement when given the option. The carrot is rejected and the stick is embraced time and time again. Even with a possible reward at stake, Tommy never bothered trying to calm the combustible Johnny—he taunted him—and he paid for it. Even with a punishment looming, Johnny never tried to placate the even more combustible Sean—he antagonized him—and he paid for it. It wasn’t until the toys started disappearing that all three of them magically discovered how to get along.

When Johnny started to blow, Tommy helped calm him down. When Sean started screeching because his brothers were ignoring him, Johnny stepped in to give him just enough attention to avoid the meltdown. When Tommy started to lose it, the other two gave him his much needed space. It was like a miracle.

That’s why I love the Fight Board.

When I put the 2006 Fight Board up on the wall yesterday I heard a chorus of groans. They remember the terror of those red tally marks. They remember the disappearance of the Star Wars fighter jets. Let’s see if they remember the lesson they learned last summer. Can they control their tempers even if someone says something outrageous like “Batman can fly?” Will they prove the parenting books right and go for the carrot this time?

I’ll keep you posted, but let me put it this way: I’ve cleared out some room in the back of my closet...just in case.

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