Annie Keeling: A comes before B |

Annie Keeling: A comes before B

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The next Start Small Parenting Foundation Class begins Oct. 13, This six week class is held at The Nest in Grass Valley. For more information: or 530-210-1100.

Of course, A comes before B in the alphabet. But what does that tried and true expression mean in 3Rs (respectful, responsible, reliable) parenting?

A Comes Before B is a practice to help teach children that their responsibilities come first. It contains an educational consequence. This means that a child’s world will stop in order to allow them to fulfill a certain respectful on-track behavior. When and if their world starts up again is up to the child.

I call it: “Stopping the Child’s World.” A Comes Before B does just that.

Billy’s Toys

Billy is learning to put his toys back in the bin when he is done playing (that’s A). When that is finished, he’s eligible to go over to his friend’s house (that’s B). Billy is in charge of WHEN he puts the toys away. Until then, his world as he wants it (moving on to the playdate), stops. It starts back up again when he chooses to clean up the toys.

That’s right. The child decides when he cleans up the toys. I can hear some parents object. They might be thinking, “He’ll clean them up when I tell him to do it.” Most parents would like their children to listen and respond to their voice the first time. A Comes Before B is a teaching practice that helps the child learn to do this from a place of internal control.

The Threat Distinction

Many parents use the “If . . . then” format when trying to get their child to behave.

“If you don’t put your toys away, you can’t go to your friends house.”

“If you touch that one more time, I’m going to take away your doll.”

“If you don’t do your homework then you can’t watch television.”

Why is this problematic? Why doesn’t “If. . . then” get the desired results?

These statements contain a threat. They may not be as explicitly punitive as, “Pick up your toys or I will spank you,” but they do imply an imposed punishment enforced upon the child.

Threats are often used as a last resort when the child won’t respond to the parent’s voice. The threat is then escalated to get the child to pay attention or behave. This tactic relies on fear and stress to motivate. It relies on making the child feel bad in order to get compliance.

Threats might get an immediate response, but that’s often a short term solution. As I’ve written about before, threats are on the punishment scale. To punish kids is to make something unpleasant happen to them, usually with the goal of changing their future behavior. This has not proven beneficial in the long run. A common question I hear is that if punishment is truly effective, why does the parent have to keep doing it over and over?

The Child’s Reaction

Threats lower the trust level between adult and child as the child feels intimidated, frightened or even bullied. Some children react with anger or defiance. Some will back down and others will become upset or withdrawn. There is a challenge in a threat for some children to see if the parent means business. Sometimes a battle for power follows.

Controlling children in this way — from the outside with a threat — does not help them to learn an internal basis of control, which is very beneficial as they grow into the world. A Comes Before B is more respectful and more easily understood than threats are to teach kids to listen and cooperate.

Educational Consequences

A Comes Before B contains an educational consequence. Children can learn this internal process in which they are in charge of themselves. This puts the educational consequence in the hands of the child. It’s his choice to do action A before B. B is usually more desirable than A. That’s a good learning in life that we may have to do the harder activity first. When or if they do A, well, that’s in their court.

Change occurs most when we “want” it to happen, not when we are forced by others. So, instead of: “If you don’t take your dishes off the table, you are not going to baseball practice,” try: “A Comes Before B. Dishes before baseball. When the dishes are cleared, I will take you to baseball practice.” It may seem like a small shift in semantics, but it makes a big difference.

One caution: The term “educational consequence” can be misunderstood and misused. Some parents honestly believe they are using educational consequences when they lecture their child or use some subtle form of punishment or deprivation. Because parents are trying so hard to educate their child, they may use this idea even when the educational value is very low. They might also try to “teach the child a lesson.” The word “teach” is misused unless active teaching/learning is present. It is a way to mask the fact that the parent is punishing the child.

Good Foods Before Dessert

Most children love sweets. They often want dessert more than the healthier foods at mealtime. My son loves dessert. He knows he’s not eligible for dessert until he eats a variety of foods from the dinner table. “A” (good foods) comes before “B” (dessert). It’s not a threat. It’s being clear on the respectful on-track behavior — the behavior that is necessary — before sugar can go into his body.

When we introduced this at a young age, my son’s reaction to having to wait for dessert was balling his fists, shaking his head, and a loud scream. Knowing his “survival” brain had just taken control, we were patient and loving with his reaction. But we also didn’t let that reaction throw us off course.

That moment of realization — when my son got to see that getting B was within his power — was priceless.

As my son has gotten older, it’s clear to him in the homework arena. He wants to hang out with friends. His schoolwork is unfinished. All I need to say is “A Comes Before B” and he knows exactly what I mean.

Even young children can grasp A Comes Before B. Just as they are learning their ABCs, they can learn which behaviors must come first.

Three Major Benefits

• Thematic: “If . . . then” is a situational approach. A separate solution is sought for each situational problem. A Comes Before B is an applicable theme — meaning it can be applied to many different situations. It also means the parent doesn’t have to explain the process each time. Both parties learn what A Comes Before B means.

• Less Back Talk: Many children try to bargain for a different answer when they don’t hear the one they want. A benefit of this practice is that the child’s “Why?” has already been answered. Set the precedence and be consistent. A Comes Before B will minimize disputes and backtalk as well as help your child listen to your voice the first time.

• Cooperation: The child is responsible for his own actions — for both the more difficult behavior that hasn’t been learned as well as the desired outcome. The child is in charge of the experience from the inside, as opposed to the parent controlling it from the outside. The experience becomes one of cooperation rather than coercion.

A Comes Before B can be introduced to any age child (and can even be helpful for adults, i.e. with procrastination or making a new goal.) Be sure to give credit for any improvement. Your positive voice is a powerful teaching instrument.

Annie Keeling of Grass Valley teaches parenting classes at The Nest. Connect with Keeling at or 530-210-1100.

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