By Sharon Knapp Lamberth
I still smile when I recall a conversation that I had many years ago with Mrs. Smith (not her real name), an active school volunteer and mother of a first grader. Mrs. Smith, with her son in tow, had stopped by my office to discuss an agenda item for an upcoming PTA meeting. After chatting for a few minutes, her son started pulling on her arm voicing that he wanted to go home. Mrs. Smith stopped, told him that he was being rude and that they would go home when she and I finished our discussion. A few minutes later her son, once again, began pulling on his mother’s arm, whining repeatedly that he wanted to go home, his volume increasing. Having finalized the main points we needed to discuss, Mrs. Smith stated that she needed “to get home and do some pruning right away.”
A few weeks later, Mrs. Smith and her son stopped by again. I noticed that during the visit her son did not interrupt us at all. At one point, he tapped his mother’s arm, then waited patiently. When there was a break in our conversation, she turned to him and asked what he needed (which was permission to go to the bathroom). After he left, I mentioned to Mrs. Smith that I was extremely impressed by her son’s patience and manners. Her response: “Oh, when I prune, I make it count. You know you have done a good job of pruning when you see positive, consistent results in short order.” She winked. I got it.
In its most basic definition, prune means to “reduce the extent of (something) by removing superfluous or unwanted parts.” We typically associate pruning with trees, shrubs, and bushes; the act of cutting away dead or overgrown branches or stems to increase fruitfulness and growth. The longer one waits to begin pruning, the longer it may take for fruitful change to occur.
If early, regular pruning can benefit the behavior of plant life, imagine what it can do for a child. As with trees and shrubs, pruning children involves removing that which is preventing optimal, fruitful development.
Children do not come into the world knowing how to behave properly. They arrive completely dependent on others for their care. They are the center of their world and will forever be if not taught (starting around age 2) that the world will not, and should not, continue to revolve around them. The sooner parents successfully prune their children’s natural (but ultimately unhealthy and unfulfilling) tendency towards “I want what I want when I want it,” the happier the children will be. If unsuccessful in their efforts, parents will likely see their children become increasingly disobedient and demanding. By the time their children reach puberty, attempts at curtailing their surliness, back-talk, and defiance will likely be ignored.
Mrs. Smith understood that pruning her son’s behavior (“reducing the extent of”) meant that the consequence for his rudeness needed to impact him more than her. I later learned that he had not been allowed to attend an upcoming sleepover and had to go to bed an hour earlier, with no TV, for a week – pruning that clearly got his attention.
For those who may be thinking that Mrs. Smith’s son’s consequence was a bit harsh for the crime, ponder this: If the goal of a consequence is to nip the behavior in the bud, then the consequence must be one that causes the child to feel the pain of their misdeed to such a degree that he/she will not want to repeat the offence again.
A timely, stiff consequence that gets a child’s attention ‘BIG TIME’ offers the greatest chance of successfully eliminating unacceptable behavior. Consequences that carry no significant weight in the eyes of the child often result in parents addressing the same issue(s) repeatedly; the parents feeling the pain much more than the offender!