Friday, June 12, 2009

Curbing Creative Catastrophes

A friend of mine and I talk regularly about parenting strategies, and recently she became perplexed by what to do with her inquisitive 8-year-old boy's creative tendencies. He had recently devised a number of innocent experiments, which had resulted in a few things being damaged or ruined. The straw that broke the camel's back was when he used an entire gallon of milk to see if he could turn it into yogurt.

We had a long email discussion about this, and she thought it might be useful to someone else in cyberland if the bulk of that discussion were posted here. 

Below is the main idea of her email (her exasperated "cry for help"), with my reply following.

From the mom:

"My son is genuinely trying to see what happens when he conducts experiments; he's not trying to test his limits. I'm struggling with not extinguishing his curiosity versus not having money wasted like this. He says that if he asked me I'd say no to taking the chance of losing a gallon of milk, and I said well of course, darn it, and he started crying, saying I was using a firm voice. I said I'd have given him about a cup to experiment with - not a gallon - and he says the experiment needed a gallon. I said why? Please explain why you could not do this with one cup milk, and he says, 'I can see from your eyes that you're mad, so we'll talk later.'

"Some new found sense of extreme independence is telling him he's got as much sense as the adults now and he can make these decisions. He put the cordless phone in the water today. He was using the intercom and really needed to see if worked under water. He actually said about three times today, 'I couldn't resist it.' I think maybe we've spoiled him totally. After my parents' visit I am pretty confused about what's spoiling him versus what's just necessary for him.

"Camille, your thoughts? What're the consequences for all this? Remember, he recently told his friends it was perfectly okay to write with a pen on the back of the leather couch. The ink marks won't go away. When I mentioned this to our old neighbors, they said they'd have spanked their kids for that. I was like, god no, I wouldn't spank him for anything, but I am wondering if I just have no idea what I am doing." 

Me now:

I have a number of thoughts, which I'll just throw out there:

--He could be testing his limits, seeing how far he can go with "experimenting."

--He could be truly experimenting, albeit without any thought to how his experiments affect others.

--He could be trying to get your attention, which could be seen as "acting out" or "misbehaving."

--He could be doing all of these things. (This is my bet! LOL)

Let me see if I can sum up the situation, and be sure to correct me if I have it wrong. 

1. You have no problem with his experimenting, and you encourage him to use his mind creatively.

2. You have a big problem with his destroying family property, even if it's unintentional.

3. You don't like the fact that he experiments impulsively, without regard to how it will affect property and the people who use that property (e.g., the cordless phone).

4. You would like to have some input into what he uses for experiments.

5. He wants to have free use of everything in the house.

6. He wants to be treated like an adult when it comes to his experiments and choices.

7. He doesn't ask permission to do something because he believes that you'd say "no."

Sounds like he has a very rational mind, so why don't you approach him with rationality?

My first approach would be to have a sit-down conversation with him to discuss the situation. I'll give you an example of how my conversation with one of my kids might go, and I'll just use the milk as an example ...

Me: "I'm sorry I got angry about the ruined milk earlier today. I'd like to talk about how we can work this out in the future so it doesn't happen again."

Him (hesitantly): "Okay ... " 

Me: "I greatly value your inquisitiveness and your curiosity, and I want to encourage you to continue to experiment with things. One of your greatest gifts is your curiosity of the world, and it will serve you well as an adult. But I get angry when I unexpectedly find things that are ruined or damaged. If I were to go in your room and take your [insert favorite toy here] and use it in an experiment that damaged it, I'd bet you'd be pretty mad at me. Well, I feel the same way when I find something of our family's that has been ruined."

Him (voice raised): "But I just wanted to see if I could turn the milk into yogurt!"

Me: "I understand that, and I'm not angry that you wanted to try an experiment on the milk. But I was planning on using the milk later for a recipe/breakfast, and now I don't have it, and I'll have to go to the store to replace it. Do you have any suggestions for how we can avoid this in the future?"

Him: "NO!"

Me: "Well, I can think of a few things. Would you like to hear them, or do you want to come up with a few ideas together?"

Him: "I don't have any ideas! All I know is that you get mad when I try to do anything!"

Me: "I bet it seems that way, but what I'm mad about is that I keep finding things that have been damaged, and it seems like you're not respecting the things that we use together as a family."

Him: "But I NEED those things!"

Me: "I realize that, and I want to encourage your experiments. But I also have a responsibility to our family to have milk to drink, and you have responsibilities to the family as well. If you use all the milk without telling me so that I can plan for it, then we as a family won't have what we need."

The conversation might continue like this for quite some time, but eventually, he would start talking, and I'd try my best to get him to give some ideas for a solution. If I'm the one to propose every solution, he won't buy into any of them, believe me.

That said, here are some ideas I'd have for solutions:

1. Give him an allowance, and everything he damages or destroys through experimenting gets paid for with that. If the cost of the item is more than his stash of money, then he has to work off the debt.

2. Give him a budget for experiments (this would be hard if he can't contain his impulses). If he wants to submerge a cordless phone, he can buy one to use, or he can experiment on yours and replace it if it ruins it.

3. Make a list together of the types of things that are always eligible for experimental use (disposable things, renewable things [like grocery bags], things that you're finished with [old cell phones], etc.).

4. Make a list together of all the things that are strictly off limits. In our house that would be anything that I consider my personal property - my jewelry, certain items in my sewing room, etc. The list would probably also include anything valuable or irreplaceable (e.g., the couch, an heirloom, etc.).

5. Make a list of all the types of experiments that are okay and aren't okay (e.g., experiments using fire or the microwave, at least without supervision, anything that permanently alters the look of something that is family property).

6. Make a note that all of his items that are his are his to use as he pleases, and you won't say a thing about it, and he doesn't have to ask you. (Make a list of what those things are, if you need to.)

As to the lists, it would be infinitely better for him to make each list (that is, he would write it out and come up with most of the ideas with as little obvious help from you as possible). That way, he can't complain to you that you made all the rules and he couldn't abide by them.

If you go to all this work to come up with a solution, and then he doesn't abide by the agreement, then all bets are off. He *has* to live up to his side of the agreement or you don't have to live up to yours (and you might end up restricting his behavior). Make sure he knows that going in. This is not a punishment. It's a simple fact that, if he can't respect you and your household, then he loses the benefits. It's back to the logical consequences thing - he wants to be treated as an adult, so fine. If he's old enough to be treated like an adult, then he's old enough to handle the consequences of adult behaviors (e.g., paying for something that gets broken or having the use of something taken away because he's misusing it - just like they do in court decisions).

Once he knows what's free use and what's off limits, then he has complete freedom, and make sure he knows exactly that.

As to the milk issue specifically, I have him pay to replace the milk (after all, someone has to replace it). That means the money would come out of his pocket, he would go with you to the store, and he would take it to the counter and pay for it himself. Not mixed in with the week's groceries. I would stand next to him in case he needed help, but he'd have to do it himself.

Me again: I have no idea if there's anything here that might be of use to someone else, but there it is.

If you liked this post, you might enjoy these posts: Natural and Logical Consequences, More on Natural and Logical Consequences, and Natural and Logical Consequences: The Dreaded Four-Year-Old

Photo of Milk Sculptures by Tambako the Jaguar from here


  1. Camille, A lot has been going on here, but I started up again the discussion of making of lists of things OK to do. He's resisting making the list with me, and says nothing should be off-limits...Sigh. I am so tired!!!!

  2. I also wanted to add, that the best way to use this advice you've given, is for readers to read it many times, formulate generalized principles, and then apply it to their specific situation. That's a lot of work, but worth it, because if you think about it, there simply isn't any other way but this approach (atleast to me).