Monday, December 7, 2009

Getting Dressed

So, a couple of weeks ago I decided that it was time that Sammy learn to dress herself.  She's shown that she is capable.  She puts on pants when it (unintended pun alert!) suits her, she can put on her coat using (cute video alert!the "flippy-dippy" method, and her fine motor coordination is above average.  She is also working on buttons and snaps at school, and she sees the older kids putting on shoes and such, so I thought her interest level would be high.

I was wrong.

When I told her I was going to teach her how to dress herself, she seemed excited, until she was asked to perform any part of the task.  She simply refused to try any of the simple tasks I showed her.  I isolated the skills.  For example, all I asked her to do first with her pants was to learn to put them on the floor with the tag at the bottom and the big hole facing her.  NO, MOMMY!  I CAN'T DO IT.  YOU DO IT MOMMY!  HELP ME!  So I tried putting the pants on the floor for her, thinking this part might be more difficult than I realized.  I put the pants on the floor and showed her how to make "tunnels" by lifting up the top part.  She loves tunnels, and was thrilled to see tunnels in her pants.  She was even eager to stick her foot in the tunnel.  But the minute she felt resistance from the material, NO, MOMMY!  I CAN'T DO IT.  YOU DO IT, MOMMY!  HELP ME!  Now, I knew she could do this because she's done it before, but for days she could not or would not stick her legs in those pants.

I tried other things:  games, songs, reverse-psychology, etc.  Nothing made a bit of difference in her attitude.  As long as I was helping, she would try a little bit, but not enough so that she was really learning anything.  We were making no progress.

I could have decided to wait and try again later.  But this resistance she has to putting forth effort really bothers me.  She seems to be the type of child who won't try anything unless she can do it well immediately.  She didn't walk until she was 17 months old, but then she got up and walked like a 2-year-old.  There are countless other examples of this kind of thing.  And I don't see a lot of persistence in her in general.  She is also cautious.  These things are not horrible character traits - I'm pretty sure she gets them from me and I'm pretty spectacular so I'm not worried about her in any overall way.  But I do think that she can use some extra pushing on learning how to put forth effort, and she needs reinforcement to know that it's ok to do things wrong.  (See the comments on my Reward Systems post from last week for further discussion of this.)

So I decided to persist, and having just dispensed with the Cooperation Chart, I decided to turn it into a Reward Chart.  I give her a smiley face on the whiteboard for each dressing task she accomplishes:  putting on pants, taking off shirt, etc.  When she gets 8 smilies, she can choose a piece of candy, a trip to the ice cream store, or dinner at a restaurant.

This is the type of arbitrary reward system that Rational Jenn first addressed and I responded to.  And it worked, which is no surprise.  (Jenn and I agree that these things work in the short-term, but Jenn's objections are about the lessons you teach by offering disconnected rewards.)  Sammy started putting forth effort and learning the new skills.  As soon as she "masters" any particular skill, I wipe it off the board and tell her that she doesn't need the treat anymore, since she can do it now.  (My explanation is much more elaborate, but that's the essence.)  She has had no problem with me eliminating the treats, but of course, there are still things on the board.  We'll see what happens when we're done and there are no more rewards.  But when we eliminated the Cooperation Chart, she didn't squawk, so I'm hopeful.

Another thing I notice is that she does seem to take joy in the actual dressing, once she gets it.  She tells strangers at the store that she puts on her own pants now.  She practiced taking off and putting on her shirt on her own yesterday, just to try it.  I'm considering eliminating the rewards even before she masters everything, because I think she might have finally gotten the idea that, if she keeps trying, the accomplishments will come.  But I don't want to ruin this lesson by stopping too soon.  The lesson of effort is more important to me than the dressing.

Now, I wish I had thought of this in the beginning, but there was a better way to go about this.  I wanted some extra kind of motivation to kick-start her effort, but it didn't have to be so completely disconnected from the actual rewards of independent dressing.  A few days ago, I realized that a perfect "reward" would have been to allow Sammy to pick her own clothing once she could put it on herself.   The problem with that is that I already let her pick her clothing somewhat.  I'll either let her choose from 2 outfits, or pick the pants, or whatever she's in the mood for that day.  Many days she just asks me to pick for her.  She also chooses her shoes and socks, so this wouldn't be a new privilege.  So, it wouldn't have been a clear thing - that she was earning this privilege by stepping up her responsibility.  Still, it probably would have been better than the totally arbitrary reward. 

So I'm sticking with the Reward Chart for now because it would be confusing to change, but I don't feel like there is all that much difference in the two approaches.  Ideally, you wouldn't use either, but simply show the child how to dress and count on his natural desire for independence to guide him towards putting forth the effort.  This is the way even Sammy learns most things.  And sometimes she's early and sometimes she is late with certain skills, and I'm fine with that.  I do think that most of these things should be done at the child's pace and when the child is ready and naturally interested.  But I don't believe in 100% child-led learning.  This getting dressed issue was something of an experiment for me and for her, and I think we both learned a lot.  I won't jump as quickly to a reward next time, but try only to use them in the cases I explained in my earlier post.  And, I think, I hope, that Sammy learned something about effort.

P.S.  Since I wrote the draft of this post, there has been further discussion in the comments on the earlier one.  I haven't changed my mind, but I do have some additional thoughts on the whole matter, so you might want to go back and re-read that if you're interested in the subject.


  1. We've always stayed away from unconnected rewards, but the idea of a jump-start makes sense to me, if used selectively. Your post has set me wondering whether something similar would work on an older (11 year old) kid. With that age, one would probably explain before hand that the external reward is temporary. I'm still undecided about its applicability and potential downside with that age, but something I will chew on and might test.

  2. OD: Have you ever been concerned about your child's level of effort or motivation? I hope you'll report on anything you learn!

  3. Amy - I loved your post on rewards! I think I have been approaching them very similarly to you, but haven't put my thoughts together as clearly. We used rewards to jump-start potty training - it took a few weeks to establish the new behaviorr, then the rewards disappeared quite naturally. Same thought as for you: Karina was very ready to use the potty, just not motivated to try, and the little rewards did the trick. Once she learned, we could just drop them. I agree to use them sparingly - and whenever possiblem, I just explain the benefits or model behavior.

  4. Heike, I think I said this in the comments in the earlier post, but that's another area that I do think justifies the "quick-fix" of using rewards: something that is very important to the parent. I really don't care what Sammy learns from potty training at this point. I just want it done and over with. It's quite intolerable. (She's a little better now, but still having a lot of problems.)

  5. [...] issue is cropping up once again. I don’t want to cover all that ground again, but here are two posts that describe my concern.  Rational Jenn just wrote a post about the same type of issue with [...]