Like other experts, I think Dr. Sophy is on the right track but misses the mark because, like so many others, he is focused on how things should be and how children should respond, and this is seldom borne out in reality. His suggestions are perfectly reasonable, but may not always be workable. Why?

Any plan to be effective must be a plan you can execute without relying on anyone else. In this example, if Chloé remains defiant, for whatever reason, the plan will fail, because the success of the plan depends upon her understanding her mother’s reasoning, agreeing with it, agreeing that being appropriate has value, and then choosing to change her behaviour.

Dr. Sophy stresses the importance of dialogue. I believe the less said, the better, because actions speak louder than words. Here’s where I have trouble with his method:

There is an assumption that the child will wish to behave appropriately – that she should wish to behave appropriately. Why? A four-year-old (or anyone else, for that matter) only cares whether or not her behaviour is effective: Does it get her what she wants? As long as it does, she will continue to use it. When it doesn’t, only then will she change it.

And what if the child’s fondest wish at that point is to gain some control over the parent? What if she wants revenge? The quickest and most effective way (usually) is to behave inappropriately. Let’s not overlook the very real satisfaction that comes from acting out: If she can’t have the dolphin, maybe she can create a scene and push mom’s buttons so she feels embarrassed and uncomfortable. That demonstration of power is certainly worth something!

Also, with choice theory, there is never a promised reward (or bribe) for “good behaviour.” The reward for co-operative behaviour is the co-operation of others, and children are able to learn and understand that very quickly.

These are examples of what I call the “should” method:

a) The parent should be able to lead the child away quietly.

b) The child should respond to reason and calm down.

b) The angry child should want to behave appropriately.

c) The angry child should respond positively to this method.

A note: Good behaviour and respect can’t be bought. And respectful behaviour (e.g., politeness, good manners) is not the same as respect!

Dr. Sophy uses a binary approach: we either accept or modify inappropriate behaviour. But I believe there is a third, much more powerful approach: creating circumstances that make it more appealing for the child to change her behaviour. Consider the following example.

A choice theory solution:

The trip proceeds smoothly until Chloe discovers the gift shop. She eyes up a huge blue dolphin that she states will need to come to sleep with her tonight. If Chloé’s mother wishes to buy her something, she says, “No, I’m not buying that – but you may choose one of these.” If she doesn’t wish to buy her something, she simply says, “No.”

(Explaining is futile; “expensive” means nothing to a four-year-old. It won’t make her want it any less, and it won’t make her behave more reasonably. And despite current trends to the contrary, parents need not justify their decisions. Sometimes it’s just no!)

At that point, Chloé begins to call her mother names such as stupid or dumb. If this doesn’t escalate into a tantrum, mom observes dispassionately, and when Chloé stops, the field trip resumes.

If Chloé’s behaviour does escalate into a tantrum, mom calmly picks her up and removes her to a quiet area. Her words are few: “I understand that you’re upset. Let me know when you’re ready to go back to your friends.” Mom is friendly and reasonable, but firm. Chloé will quickly realize she means what she says.

Mom says nothing else, but her actions are decisive, loving and respectful, and the message is clear: “This behaviour won’t get you the dolphin. Neither will being co-operative. But once you’ve chosen to behave more co-operatively, you will get to join your friends and enjoy all the aquarium has to offer.”

Mom also knows the following:

And so, as Chloé becomes calmer, mom may ask, “What do you want?” If the answer is still, “The dolphin,” a follow up might be, “Yes, I know that. And it’s okay for you to want that, but I’m not buying it. What else do you want?” And if Chloé can’t come up with anything, what about being with her friends? What about exploring the aquarium? What about a hug?

It will soon become apparent to Chloé that what she’s doing isn’t getting her what she wants, but she’ll choose to behave co-operatively when she figures out what’s in it for her – namely, returning to her friends and the fun of participating in the field trip.

And what if Chloé remains defiant in the face of all this? Mom waits patiently...