When my daughter was about seven, her one job in the morning was to make her bed. The problem was that she had accumulated a collection of about 20 stuffed animals and insisted that all of them be placed on her bed in a specific configuration: the elephant and the proboscis monkey were friends so they had to sit next to each other, but the dog and cat might fight so they had to be placed far apart, etc. As a result, making her bed might take 30 minutes, which meant I had to rush her and her brother out the door for school and was at risk of being late to work myself. After one particularly bad morning, it was clear that things needed to change.
While thinking this through, I was reminded of a conversation I had with an old graduate school supervisor. He had been watching me work with a family from behind a one-way mirror and during a break in the session offered me the following advice: “I like where you’re trying to take this, but it isn’t going to work.” After a pause, and I’m sure a confused look from me, he continued. “It’s clear that you are more invested in changing these people than they are in changing themselves, and as long as that is the case then you will fail.” He then offered some useful suggestions for ensuring that the family was properly motivated to make changes.
Of course, this was the problem I was having with my daughter, Elaina. I was far more interested in her making her bed quickly than she was. So that afternoon, I sat her down and said: “I’ve been thinking about our morning routine. It isn’t working very well. I’ve been stressed about getting out the door on time, and I’m sure it’s no fun to start your day with me grouching at you. So, starting tomorrow, we’re going to do something different. I’ll wake you up like I always do, but this time I’m going to set the kitchen timer for 11 minutes. When the timer goes off, I’ll come into your room with this big Hefty bag and any animals that aren’t on your bed go into the bag. I’ll keep the bag upstairs during the school week, but you can reclaim as many as you want on Saturday.” Elaina listened carefully, asked a few questions, and then indicated that she understood.
The next morning, after the timer went off, I went into her room and found her sitting proudly on the edge of her bed with all the animals perfectly placed. Day two was similar, though this time she got the last animal placed with moments to spare. Then, Day three hit. Her two favorite animals were on the bed, but all the others were on the floor, which meant nearly all of them went into the bag. The rest of the week was easy, of course, because there were only two animals for her to put on the bed.
On Saturday, she reclaimed all the animals from the bag. Then, something interesting happened. On Monday, she managed to get all the animals properly placed before the timer went off, but over breakfast she said to me, “You know Dad, it’s possible to get all the animals on the bed in 11 minutes, but it isn’t easy, especially when I’m sleepy. And I’ve been thinking: there are really only four animals that matter to me. Also, there are probably some children who don’t have any animals for their beds, so maybe I should give away the others.” Later that afternoon, we made a trip to Goodwill and dropped off the surplus animals.
Looking back on this, I think the important element in the new strategy was that I could step back and relax because one way or another Elaina was going to be ready for breakfast on time, with or without animals on the bed. I was fine with whatever solution she landed upon – working hard to get them placed every morning, putting most of the animals in a basket instead of on her bed, or just persisting with the Hefty bag plan and letting each week play out differently. It was now her problem, and I was confident that she would find a solution on her own.