Hannah and her mother went clothes shopping at the mall. Both were pleased with their purchases and celebrated with lattés at the Morning Star Café. They had a very good time together.
Two minutes after arriving home, mother and daughter were in the kitchen.
"Hannah, dear, did you remember to empty the litter box?"
"Omigod! We just got home and you're already at me about something. I'm going to do it, okay? Can't you leave me alone for once? I can't stand being in this house."
"Hannah, what is your problem?"
"You're my problem. Leave me alone."
And before her mother could say anything further, Hannah stomped off to her room.
"I can't believe her," thought Hannah's mother. "I took her shopping and we had such a good time, and the thanks I get is that as soon as we get home she acts like a brat. How can she be so ungrateful?"
The next afternoon, a Saturday, Hannah approached her mother:
"I'm bored. Could we go to Morning Star and get lattés again? That was fun."
Her mother's first impulse was to say yes. They did have a good time. But, she wondered, how could she give her daughter a treat given Hannah's behaviour the day before? She decided to give her daughter a taste of her own medicine.
"No, Hannah, not after the way you acted yesterday. You're going to have to learn that you can't behave that way – especially after all I did for you – and expect that there won't be consequences. No. No nice trip to Morning Star. Maybe next time you'll think before you act like such a spoiled brat."
"That is so unfair. I hate you."
"Maybe next time you'll think."
"You are so unfair!" And Hannah stormed off to her room.
I am not a fan of the above parenting approach. I think it teaches nothing good. Its message is that every unpleasant act deserves an unpleasant act in return, and more often than not it creates a downward spiral – the endless cycle of held grudges and retribution.
What Hannah often learns is:
"My mother is a vengeful witch. If I do something she doesn't like, there always has to be payback. Yeah, I guess I acted kind of jerky, but I was tired. Why did she have to fuss about the litter box as soon as we got home? I do the slightest thing, and now she's going to punish me."
There is another way. If Hannah's mother felt that she needed to respond to her daughter's brattiness, if Hannah's behaviour really bothered her, she could wait until a neutral time later the same day of the incident and tell her what she thinks.
Later in the day is useful because responses in the moment typically produce combative counter-responses and an escalating back-and-forth nastiness
Instead, that evening, Hannah's mother might have said:
"The way you acted today, when we got back and I asked you about the litter box, was upsetting to me. We had just had such a nice time together and then you had to act that way. It hurt my feelings."
Then the next day, when Hannah asked if they could go for lattés again, if her mother was in the mood for it, she can say, "Sure. It was fun. But you know we can't go every day."
Does Hannah then learn that she can act like a jerk and get away with it? No. She learns that if she acts like a jerk – especially after she and her mother had such a positive time together – that it will upset her mother and make her angry, neither of which Hannah likes. It's not a good feeling. But she also learns that her mother doesn't hold grudges. It's over. There is nothing further for either of them to be mad about. They can move on.
"Yeah, let's go. Maybe I'll try a soy latté this time."
Does it always have to be about lessons and consequences?
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books including I'd Listen to My Parents if They'd Just Shut Up. E-mail him questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.