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Dear Tammy:

I am a live in nanny for a family. I have been here almost a year and am really struggling with discipline. The children are 9 and 6 year old girls who were both adopted. The father works out of state and the mom passed away a few years ago... I am alone with the girls most of the day and while I know I have made a difference in their lives I want to do more. The area I am struggling with the most is being consistent and having enough patience... The father's approach before I arrived was screaming and spanking. When I came I began a chart system and really tried to lead by example. It worked for awhile but I found that 'dad' wasn't following the charts and would use rewards to 'make up' after he had screamed or spanked. Needless to say the chart system became ineffective after awhile. I have continued to try and use positive reinforcement but it, too, is becoming ineffective. The younger one cries and whines often and the older one is very manipulative and sometime aggressive. I often feel as if I am just putting out one fire after another and lately have been losing my temper more and more. I have even swatted the younger one on the bottom a few times and feel soooo guilty about it. The older one and I are currently in a test of wills and I am losing big time... She 'tattles' on me if I don't give her what she wants and I nag her and threaten to leave if she doesn't start showing me more respect - all the time knowing the reality which is I don't want to leave... I am getting frustrated with myself far more than with the children. I know my actions are only adding to their problems and that no kid wants to live in fear or with guilt. How can I turn this around - especially since I know dad isn't going to change and I can't count on him to 'buy into the program' any further than he is (which is SOME less yelling and a LITTLE less spanking...)

Frustrated Nanny


Dear Nanny:

Thank you for writing! That family is very fortunate to have you. .I acknowledge you for how much you care about those young girls because they (and their Dad) have had a pretty tough time of it.

As you are already aware, yelling, spanking and other forms of punishment just don't work - especially not in the long run and they don' teach the lessons we want children to learn. I know there is a lot of support for charts and other reward systems, but I am not in favor of them either. Reward and punishment are both tools used to control children and they are inherently self limiting and manipulative. Children learn manipulation by being manipulated and you mentioned that the oldest is already very manipulative.

For most of my life I thought rewards and/or punishment should work. I just thought that there was something wrong with me - that I just didn't know how to do it right. It never, ever occurred to me to question those tools. It wasn't until I discovered Redirecting Children's Behavior that I understood that it wasn't that I was inept and stupid - I was just trying to accomplish an incredibly challenging job with very ineffective tools.

Redirecting Children's Behavior is based on the knowledge that a close, loving and respectful relationship creates an environment where children will want to cooperate and be willing to repair their own mistakes. Aren't we all are far more likely to cooperate with and listen to those we feel close to? Punishment and rewards get in the way of the relationship so I advise you to avoid using either. Appropriate behavior and how it makes a child feel should be reward enough. You can give children treats and gifts - just do not tie them to their behavior.

Most children and especially children who have lost a parent need a lot of genuine focused attention. Your little girls have lost their mother and their father is often absent and it sounds like he may also be emotionally distant with them. That is understandable because he too has experienced a huge loss.

In order to get out of the test of wills with the older one I encourage you to avoid power struggles like the plague. Instead of trying to convince the child that you can and will control her - frankly admit you can't and don't even want to, and then ask instead what it would take for her to do what you want her to. Tell her specifically what you want and that it is important to you and why. For example in a situation where the child doesn't want to go to bed: "I know I can't make you go to bed, but it is really important to me that you get enough rest, so how can we work this out so we both get what we want?" or "Would you like to go to bed now or in 5 minutes?"

The best way to avoid all power struggles is to never, ever give an order, instead give choices and make polite requests. "Would you like to go to bed right now or in 5 minutes?" or "Will you please go to bed now?" are approaches far more likely to get good results. As you ease up on the power struggles and give the girl more appropriate ways to feel powerful you will find that your relationship has improved a lot. That should make everything else go better.

As to the younger child's whining and crying: Work on giving her more focused attention when she first asks for it so she will learn that she can get your attention without whining.

I do not have a magic wand that will make it so they will never misbehave or cause you concern, but I do know that creating a close loving relationship with children can create miracles.

Good luck and keep up the great work. What you are doing is so important.



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