I’m not sure what special needs my ten-year-old has. He was two-plus when we adopted him, so by definition, he has “special needs.” Clearly he’s never met a rule he wanted to follow or a boundary he wanted to respect. But he’s so cute. At first the therapist thought he was just spoiled, as in, you’ve been distracted by the problems of his older siblings, and he’s so cute, he’s been allowed to get away with too much for too long. That was hard to believe. I’m a very strict mom. My own mother called me Captain von Trapp without the whistle. She meant it in the nicest possible way I’m sure.
So initially we worked on the temper tantrums and disobedience as mere symptoms of being spoiled. When that didn’t work, we took him back in to see the counselor. “Oh,” she said, “I think he’s sicker than I realized.” That was somehow both discouraging and encouraging at the same time. Discouraging because what parent wants to hear that about her child, encouraging because at least it made more sense. So we pulled out the big guns and started grading him on his obedience (A or F depending on his response to a direction). We set it up that he couldn’t play with his friends again until he had earned a roughly 80% average of As over the week. We were sure that would work since he lives to play with friends and has meltdowns when friends aren’t available. But no, he went a month, then two months without playing with friends. He said he wanted to play, but he didn’t change his behavior to be more obedient.
So we brought out the Howitzer: peanut butter. Rather than having him work toward a reward for obedient behavior, we imposed a negative consequence when he disobeyed. For each disobedient act, he was given a peanut butter sandwich on whole wheat bread for his next meal instead of yummy food. Well, you’ve never seen a kid snap to obedience so quickly. The first stunt he pulled after we initiated Program Peanut Butter was to set the timer for teeth-brushing at one minute when I told him to set it for two. Peanut butter sandwich for breakfast the next morning. The second stunt was to not take a shower before bed when I told him to. Peanut butter sandwich for breakfast the next morning. The third and I believe essentially final stunt was to wad his church pants up in a bag behind his closet door instead of putting them in the wash or hanging them up. Peanut butter sandwich for dinner.
Now, I’m making this sound very clinical, but in reality, there were enormous meltdowns each time because he hates, hates, HATES peanut butter sandwiches. In other words, they work! He sets the timer for two minutes every time he brushes his teeth now, he takes his shower consistently every night now, and sure enough, he hung his church pants up this week. In a family with three special needs kids and minimal progress over nine years, it’s almost dizzying to watch my youngest son demonstrate obedience so consistently. I’m not thinking he’ll never be disobedient again. After all, he’s ten. But once the habit is established, we can remove the peanut butter sandwiches as leverage and he can simply be a ten-year-old boy with the “special” need to obey his parents. All hail the peanut butter.