Teen-Age Curfews and Performance Management

I opened my email yesterday and lo and behold, what did I find but a question from someone claiming to have read The Performance Principle (available now at a bookstore near you!)

At first I thought it must be spam, but then I read through it and found that whoever wrote it made enough reference to the details of the book that they must have actually read it.  After grilling my immediate family members to see if they were using made up email addresses to give me the impression that non-relatives were reading the book, I came to the inescapable conclusion that the email was from a legitimate reader who not only isn’t a blood relative, but who isn’t even an acquaintance!  It was a big moment.  Someday I hope to have that experience again.

The reader had a question about the book, and about the application of the performance principle model.  Specifically he was asking about a situation in the book whereby the teenage daughter of the protagonist (her name is Sarah…well, in the artificial reality of the book that’s her name) is refusing to respect her curfew, and subsequently being grounded, over and over again, much to the frustration of her parents (not to mention Sarah herself.)  The reader pointed out that the story never really dealt with resolving that situation, and asked me about how applying the principles of behaviour management (or as I like to refer to it: the performance principle) might have played out.

Overcome with excitement that:

A.     Someone I didn’t know had read the book;

B.     And that someone had paid enough attention and cared enough about the concepts that they took the time to email me;

I began frantically pounding out a response. By the time I got to the end of my email I had something that, with a little editing, I thought was worth posting here.

In the book, I do use some non-business examples of applying the principles of behaviour management.  I described a few situations of this type, and then delved in detail into one of them, walking through the application of the whole structure.  I used the non-business example because sometimes the ideas are easier to relate to on a personal level, and because the principles of behaviour management are applicable to any situation we’re trying to manage that involves human behaviour.

Although I laid out the basic elements of the issue with Sarah and her curfew, the resolution didn’t make the final cut.  This was partly because of the desire to keep the book from getting too long, and partly because I was concerned that possible solutions around the curfew behaviour might resonate differently with different readers. The family example that I followed through to a detailed analysis and implementation of a change was a little more innocuous than dealing with the curfew.   However, it’s no less of an opportunity to apply performance management.

Every situation and pattern of behaviour and reinforcement is unique – not in how the process functions, but with respect to the specific behaviours, results, and what an individual finds punishing or rewarding.  When I talk about Sarah, it’s in the context of what I understand about her situation, and since I made her up, I have a fair bit of inside knowledge on this.  However, the specific situation would be different for every other teenager and parent struggling with curfew issues.

In order to resolve the situation with Sarah (as you would in every situation), you would need to do an analysis of the result being created, the specific behaviour creating that result, and the consequences being provided for the behaviour. 

In Sarah’s case, she found the restrictions placed on her to be unreasonable, and the consequence for breaking the rules (grounding) was no longer punishing.  It was creating anger and resentment, and was more irritating than punishing (the fascinating details are provided in much more depth in the book.)   So much so that she found flaunting the rules (as a form of protest over their unfairness) to be more rewarding than any negative impacts of the punishment.  It’s not hard to get into this kind of downward spiral where one person (in this case the parent) gets angry that the punishment isn’t having the desired effect, so he or she decides the solution is to ratchet up the punishment.  The person whose behaviour we’re focused on simply gets angrier and more resentful, and gets more reinforcement out of prompting the punishment.  No solution is in sight unless the pattern is changed.  Although it’s obvious when you take a moment to think about it, this is a classic case of doing exactly the same thing, but expecting to get a different result.

In Sarah’s case, one solution would be to hit the reset button (figuratively), and sit down with Sarah to map out the existing behaviour pattern. When it becomes apparent that the rules are the issue, then some consideration should be given to understanding exactly what the rule is supposed to be accomplishing, and whether a change to the rule is a possible solution – obviously one that still meets the parental requirement as well as Sarah’s.  

Failing that (and as part of this, ensuring Sarah understands the reason for the rule), finding something Sarah finds rewarding for complying with the rules would be the next step (e.g. if Sarah comes home on time one week it means the curfew time is extended by 30 min the following week…or coming home on time results in more access to the family car, etc.)  In other words, focus on providing meaningful rewards for the desired behaviour, and remove punishment from the equation.

Speaking as a parent, the challenge I see most often is that we (the parents) don’t always think carefully on the reason for the rules (when it comes right down to it, it’s hard to say a 10pm curfew is ‘better’ than a 10:30pm curfew.)  Instead, we are accustomed to the idea that it is our responsibility to make these qualitative judgement calls, and ‘because we say so’ is a good reason.  We don’t always think carefully about the result we’re trying to achieve, and whether there are other ways to achieve it.  We also don’t necessarily believe we need to explain our thinking – something that is absolutely sensible when your child is two years old, may be less sensible at sixteen.  If we step back and think about the result we want to achieve, there are sometimes good reason to revisit the rules. 

We also tend to overestimate the amount of control we have over a teenager’s environment, and therefore underestimate the amount we need to collaborate with the teen in determining the rules (see my point about explaining ourselves in the previous paragraph.)  Once a child is in his or her teen years, we are generally relying heavily on patterns of behaviours and consequences established when they were very young, and we use these established patterns to get them to engage in the behaviours we want.  It’s important to realize that these patterns were established at a time when we could physically prevent them from doing something by picking them up and putting them in their crib.  This was a simple, expedient solution, particularly when dealing with safety issues.  Because it was effective, we may have used a variation on simply removing them from the situation to deal with a variety of issues.

But the world is a different place when they’re not two years old anymore.  Our oldest boy is seventeen, three inches taller than me, and outweighs me by twenty-five pounds.  If he really, really wants to do something, picking him up and putting him in his crib is not an option for me.  As a parent, I have to rely on the reinforcement he gets from understanding and collaborating with me on rules, and/or whatever rewards I can provide him, rather than my former status as being pretty much the complete controller of his universe…when he was three feet tall and weighed forty pounds.

In the workplace we tend to recognize this more easily (in the extreme case, people will just quit if they don’t like the pattern.)  On the home front, it’s harder to see, although I know a lot of people (including my brother) who started ‘quitting’ the family (i.e. running away from home or moving out prematurely) when there was not collaboration in establishing the behaviour patterns.

Performance management is absolutely applicable in the family home, but I would add an additional caveat: the patterns of behaviour, reinforcement, and punishment often become more complex and multi-layered when we are dealing with the people closest to us.  Our relationship with our children can operate at an almost primal level (what parent wouldn’t, quite literally, get into fisticuffs with a grizzly bear if it was necessary to protect their child?). One could argue that certain patterns of what we find reinforcing with respect to dealing with our children are effectively ‘hard-wired.’  In what universe does wrestling with a bear make any sense?  In the one in which the most reinforcing thing in the world is the safety of your child.

What does this mean?  Most people find that the closer they are to a person (and in particular with their children), the more time they have spent interacting with that person, the harder it is to take a step back and analyze behaviour and consequences rationally.  And then when dealing with the behaviour in the moment, we have difficulty not falling back to old patterns that started when our kids were toddlers. 

A practical example of this: many parents choose to have someone else teach their son or daughter to drive (and for those that don’t many wish they had.)  Why?  They find that the process of learning often deteriorates into a flurry of emotions, hot button pushing, anger, tears, and ultimately, two unhappy people.

Our work relationships are often less intense, we don’t have the same learning history with people, and it can be easier to rationally apply performance management to understand and change the situation.

It doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but consciously applying the principles of performance management can be more challenging.

And on that note, I have to go deal with my son’s pile of dirty dishes, sitting right beside the empty dishwasher…we’ve only talked to him about this 8,000,000 times…I think l feel an emotion coming on…

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