I accidentally married a parenting expert: What my special education-teacher husband taught me about being a mom

Liza Monroy (right) with husband Jason and their two daughters
Liza Monroy (right) with husband Jason and their two daughters.
(Via Liza Monroy)

He was fun, silly, smart, musical and in possession of a particular expertise in children, and that has made all the difference in learning how to tame tantrums and go positive in correcting undesirable childhood behaviors.

Liza Monroy writes about the joys and challenges of parenting in Santa Cruz for Lookout.

Throughout my 20s and into my 30s, I was ambivalent about whether or not I’d become a parent. As a writer, my most enjoyable hours are spent tinkering with sentences in solitude. In a former version of my life, I’d joke to friends that I would have children only if I met the perfect person to be their father. Who could that be? Someone involved, maybe even more so than I’d be. I was pretty sure the dream father didn’t exist and I would be all right as that eccentric old writer who still lived in her Brooklyn one-bedroom with several pugs.

Liza Monroy

I knew not much about children other than that some of them, sometimes, were cute and could be charming. If I held a friend’s baby and the baby cried, I’d just pass ’em back. When I got my first jobs, babysitting and nannying didn’t appeal. I went from waitressing to working as a secretary in entertainment and publishing, writing books and articles on the side until I’d amassed enough bylines to make a go of it as a freelancer. I preferred to be noncommittal so I could be free to change my mind or move without having much to uproot or upend.

What I’m trying to show you here is that I would not say I’d win any Best-Prepped-for-Parenthood awards. I thought it was an opportunity that might just pass me by in this lifetime, and that I might not be missing out on anything. I’d gain more time for travels, friends, romance, books and coffee.

And then, because this is how it works, when I least expected it I met Jason. An elementary school special education teacher from Santa Cruz. We met on a capoeira retreat in upstate New York; he is one of the capoeira instructors training under Mestre Papiba Godinho at Raizes do Brasil, aka Capoeira Santa Cruz, and I trained at the same academy under a different mestre in Brooklyn. If it weren’t for two capoeira teachers from Brasilia setting up branches of the academy on opposite coasts, I never would have met a special ed teacher who lived in Santa Cruz. It felt like kismet. Jason was fun, silly, smart, musical, and in possession of a particular expertise in children. So, no spoiler alert necessary, that when we did have them — two of these mysterious little critters, both girls — Jason went on to give me some valuable tips. These weren’t, and aren’t, 100% foolproof or guaranteed, but they stopped me from losing my mind on multiple occasions when my kids wouldn’t do what I asked or verged on tantrums at inconvenient times and places. The techniques, which of course I’m going to pass along in this story, help regulate their less-desirable behaviors.

After becoming a mother at 35, I beyond appreciated the unconventional situation of having married a guy who knew more about children than I did. I found that society expects mothers to be the ones with the answers. Or, at least, mostly expected them to be the ones to bear the burdens of “correcting” childhood behaviors, when they scream and cry for more ice cream while covered head to toe in ice cream. Another stereotype: “Mother knows best.” This mommy didn’t know … well, I have managed to curb my use of expletives since having children, but you catch my drift.

Sometimes it feels as if we’ve fostered two little independent people and we’re out of the woods of the years of no sleep and not being able to get anything done. And in the next moment, one of them will prove me wrong with a tantrum over the amazing avocado-based ice cream she can’t have another scoop of (hey, I get it) or demand for an umpteenth episode of “Bluey.

My default mode for handling this stuff was along typical lines of, “No, you can’t have more ice cream, and we are all done with TV!” It was the kind of response that led to further protest. I knew there were probably other ways to communicate with children so that they could hear you, but I didn’t want to read how-to-parent guides, either — little people didn’t come with a manual, and besides, they were the ones who had to learn how to be people!

Fortunately, my husband has worked with middle and elementary school kids with emotional disorders and special needs. He has learned and developed “systems for crisis intervention and a lot of experience with kids who have behavior goals,” he tells me during our very official interview on the couch a couple weeks ago, after having driven our daughters two hours to his parents’ house so we could focus on our conversation in our house downtown. “You have to have a proactive way to control your environment and help kids calm down when they’re upset or it’s going to be chaos all the time.”

I’m not sure whether he’s describing his workplace or our home — probably both, but there have been so many times in these early years of parenting when I’ve been relieved he was present with the wisdom he’s gained from 15 years in his career. What he learned in behavior intervention classes can apply to defiant toddlers and rebellious adolescents alike, depending how you frame it.

“On the job you get trained in crisis intervention,” he says. “When someone is extremely upset, you need ways to calm them down. My first year of work I didn’t have any of this. I was an intern teacher with no behavior modification or crisis training. I hadn’t taken behavior classes yet.”

It was a nightmare. “One kid would take his clothes off and run around the room when he didn’t want to do something. What do you do about that? Looking back on it now, I had no idea how to deal with it.”

While my husband’s students’ behaviors might be more extreme than neurotypical kids’, what he described was a similar response I met with every morning when I would tell our children to get dressed for school. They invariably shout, “No! We’re still playing!”

In other words, I could use his advice about how to handle our own offspring.

Here are his four key strategies for helping your children with unwanted behaviors — including a quick guide, in case you are (like I am) obsessed with lists that can be affixed to a refrigerator.

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Know why they are doing it

The function — what they actually want — is key, Jason points out. Are they really freaking out about ice cream, or is it about getting your attention? “Maybe they don’t care about something and just want your attention,” he says. “In those cases you could be reinforcing the behavior even if you’re not giving them what they want, because what they really want is that you’re paying attention to them.”

So before all else, “figure out the function, what the behavior gets them.”

Our younger daughter, for example, loves to take my glasses off my face as a way of playing with me and getting my attention. At first I thought it was about glasses, so I got her a pair of play ones at our mecca, aka Front Street CVS. But she doesn’t care about them and doesn’t wear them (in fact, I think they’re lost) because she doesn’t want glasses; she wants my attention, to play and interact.

But what should they do?

“Always tell someone what you want them to do, not what you don’t want them to do,” Jason says. “Kids are really bad at thinking of what an appropriate replacement is for something. So if you say, ‘Stop running,’ they might stop for a second, but they’re still thinking about running. Try, ‘Remember to walk — we have to remember to have a calm body and walk here. Let’s make sure we’re walking because that’s safer.’ Don’t say the negative, only the things you want them to do.”

This key tip I call WSTBD. What should they be doing? It sounds simple but is very challenging. Let’s take a quick semiotics refresher. What do most signs say? STOP. No littering. No loitering. No skateboarding.

“Realistically, it’s hardwired into us to tell people to not do things,” Jason says. “So if you catch yourself saying, ‘No, don’t,’ then immediately say what you do want them to be doing. It makes little kids’ lives easier, since they’re not able to make those kinds of connections yet.”

If you can do that, he suggests also making it fun. He describes having a kid in his classroom who would scream and tantrum constantly, and being told, “This kid screams and has tantrums all day long” and that there’d be nothing to be done about it. “When she screamed, I said, ‘I have this thing where I can only understand if someone whispers.’ Telling her to use a quiet voice wouldn’t work, but if I said, ‘Can you whisper that to me?’ … well, it’s physically impossible to scream and whisper at the same time. I gave her a replacement behavior. If she screamed, I’d say, ‘What? I need a whisper.’ And her tantrums stopped.”

With my little one and the glasses, I’ll say, “Do you want to play with me?”

“Yes!”

“OK, first you have to give me the glasses back. Then ask, ‘Will you play with me, Mommy?’”

“But the next time she asks to play, you have to do it,” Jason tells me. “‘Or she’ll learn, the only way to get Mommy’s attention to play with me is to take her glasses.’”

Liza Monroy (right) with husband Jason and their two daughters
(Via Liza Monroy)

Other uses: instead of “Don’t run!” try “Let’s have a crawling race!” or “Let’s have a tiptoe race — go in slow motion!” You can’t physically run and crawl or try to go as slowly as possible at the same time. “Imaginative play is a great way to do it because you’re replacing the behavior with the silliness kids naturally have. It doesn’t feel punishing and you’re getting them to do what you want anyway. It’s easier to say, ‘Hey, stop that!’ But if you stop and think, ‘What should they be doing?’, you can change your own reaction to get what you want from them.”

Instead of saying, “Don’t do this anymore,” say, “Do this thing instead and here is the thing that can happen. Instead of trying to get them not to do it, think, ‘What behavior replacement can I teach them that will work to get them something?’” Jason says. “We do that all the time with kids, when we say, ‘Did you use the magic word?’, things like please and thank you. ‘You forgot to say please!’ ‘Ask me in a nice voice’ — we do that all the time, but we need to do that for other kinds of behaviors, too. A lot of parents don’t know that, and it could be really helpful.”

When my kids protest the morning routine, I now tell them, “Whoever is dressed with shoes on first gets to pick the first song in the car!” since they both love choosing songs while we drive to school. (They have wildly differing tastes in music — our 3-year-old is still into the “Frozen” soundtrack, while the 6-year-old’s got a penchant for Lil Nas X.)

The ABCs of behavior: antecedent — behavior — consequence

Jason explains that for every behavior there are three components: an Antecedent something that leads to the behavior, such as “seeing a lollipop, or hearing a loud scary noise.” The antecedent triggers the behavior. B is the Behavior itself, “asking for the lollipop, screaming because the noise was scary.” It doesn’t have to be a behavior you don’t want; it can be anything: feel thirsty — take a drink of water. C is for Consequence. What happened because of the behavior?

In short: Something happened, there was a behavior, and something happened as a result.

A woman and a child hold hands

Jason’s quick guide to aligning your kids’ behavior with your desired outcome

  1. Know why they are doing it. Know what they want, give them a replacement that gets what they want. “I know you don’t want me to turn off the TV, you’re screaming at me, can you use a quiet voice and ask me to please watch one more.” You don’t want them watching more but you don’t want them screaming. Later, move the goalpost: “It’s done right now, but you can watch later tonight, do you want to watch later?” They can ask, “Yes please, I’d like to watch the show later tonight,” and they get it later, or they yell and scream and don’t get it.
  2. No attention for behaviors you want to eliminate. For attention-seeking behaviors you want to eliminate, “remind them of things they could be doing that would get your attention, but do it in an offhand way. ‘Oh, I wish Jonny would do XYZ instead.’ If you talk to them about it you could be accidentally reinforcing the behavior, if they were seeking attention.”
  3. Be consistent. It’s hardest to be consistent and that is the No. 1 thing. Identify a behavior you don’t want them to do and give them a new behavior they can do instead to get what they want or an equivalent thing. Be extremely consistent and also dispassionate.
  4. Don’t take it personally. It’s really hard, but you shouldn’t be mad at them. I get mad at them … but it works best when it’s not emotional. “I know you want this. To get that, you have to get this.” Or, I’m so sorry we can’t have that right now. Here’s another thing you can have if you do this. Suggest an equivalent thing that’s appropriate in an empathetic, not an angry, way.
  5. Identify your ABCs. Use what they want to get to get a replacement behavior and consequence. “If you remain calm and walk to the car, you get to pick the music we listen to in the car.” Think of interactions you want to change as what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, and what replacements you can use. “Walk to the car with the whisper voice and you can pick the music/get a lollipop, etc.” It depends on how much you care about not giving what they want.
  6. Be clear and positive. Always remember to say and be clear about what you want them to do and what your expectations are. “I want you to whisper, I want you to walk, I want you to sit right here while I get this ready. Always what you want them to do, not what you want them to stop doing.”
  7. Watch “Bluey.” The Australian kids show is a cartoon disguised as subversive parenting training. Double points for turning behavior modification into creative play because it will be fun.

“It’s a great way to look at behaviors,” he says. “It’s something that tends to get missed out on when you think about these things.” And once you see it, you see it everywhere. “Everything is this. For instance, I love seeing a new picture on my Instagram feed, opening it and seeing it gives you that little dopamine buzz, so you open it again and again.” Behavior mod: It’s even how big tech gets ya.

Also note that when a behavior stops working, they try it harder at first; for example, “they’ll scream and cry louder and longer so people think the technique didn’t work, but when you’re doing a pure extinction, it gets worse first. What helps kids replace the behavior faster is if you can stay calm and tell them what to do. Not ‘if you can stop crying and screaming’ but rather, ‘if you walk with me calmly, you can have this other thing at home.’”

So if, for example, you’re sick of your kid wanting lollipops, but are OK with something else, like watching “Peppa Pig,” say, “I know you’re really upset, I have the iPad, can you show me that you can use the quiet voice, and then you can have ‘Peppa Pig’ when we get to the car?”

The system gives you a framework “to interact with them when you’re stressed out,” Jason says. “You’re not going to yell at them. Maybe they’re yelling at you, but you’re not going to do that back because you don’t want to demonstrate the same behavior you don’t want them to do. Yelling at someone to stop yelling at you doesn’t give a positive replacement behavior. Kids aren’t doing it to be jerks, they’re doing it because they don’t know how to regulate their emotions.”

The consequence is what reinforces the behavior. So if you want to change a behavior you need to give “an equivalent consequence to the replacement behavior.”

Make the replacement behavior something physically incompatible with the undesired behavior. “People are stressed or have little patience. Teach yourself to have that little bit of patience. ‘This is what they’re doing, this is why they’re doing it, I need them to stop doing it, a system,’ so you look for the antecedent behavior and consequence,” Jason says. “Having that in your head keeps you calmer as a parent because you’re thinking about it analytically rather than being stressed out in the moment. It helps ground you.”

So when our 6-year-old is freaking out because she wants to go into It’Sugar for the kind of massive lollipop we have banned but her grandparents would readily buy her, I don’t descend to freaking out in response because she’s using whiny voice. I’ll instead remind her of something else she might want, ie, “I know you are sad because of the lollipop, but if you can use calm voice and quiet body, we can go right down there to Jamba Juice where they have your very favorite smoothie.” If she doubles down, first priority is to stay firm with the boundaries: “Hey, here’s another choice we can make [smoothie, bookstore, etc]. If you’d like something different, you can come ask me. I’ll be over here, and when you’re ready you can come talk to me in a regular voice — if you think of something else you want, you can come whisper in my ear.”

The timeout might be more for me and my waning patience, but a few minutes later she’s wiping her tears and asking if we can go browse kids books at Bookshop, and we go about our day.

“If you set a boundary, never violate it because that shows them boundaries are negotiable,” Jason says. “They want you to look at them and change your mind, is the function of that behavior.” Worst-case scenario, say, she refuses the smoothie alternative and continues the tantrum, “You can’t change the mind of someone who walks away from you. If all else fails try, ‘Oh, OK. When you’re ready I’ll be over here.’”

What is key, Jason says, is that “you want to support them. You don’t want to say, ‘Stop doing this now!’ You can say, “When you’re ready to talk to me, I’ll be over here.”

The habit of “I just need to make this stop” feeds the behavior. When I’ve found myself getting impatient, I’ll tell myself, “I’m going to dedicate four minutes right now to wait this out, it will save a lot of hassle in the long run.” In the long run, it’s a time-saver to wait something out for a few more minutes at the moment.

Choices and warnings

Choices help a lot — especially if someone’s being stubborn and doesn’t want to do something.

Warnings help, too. They’re preventative. If a kid has a tantrum when it’s time to turn off the TV, try: “I’m warning you, we’re turning this off in two minutes – here’s a timer,” and then, “TV time is over; we can have art time or play outside.” If they say, “I want more TV!” you can respond with, “Sorry you’re upset. When you decide if you want art time or to go outside, I’ll be in the other room. and you can come get me.” Giving them a choice empowers them, which makes them more OK with that they lost something they wanted (TV).

“Some kids can be wild and destructive when having a tantrum,” Jason says. “That makes it harder, but most kids aren’t, they’re just loud and annoying. The best thing you can do either way is ignore them as long as they aren’t going to hurt others or themselves, so they don’t learn that people give them attention when they’re screaming and crying.”

And if worst comes to worst and you can’t stop them from screaming and crying, “sometimes talking about a replacement behavior in the moment of crisis is a bad time to introduce it. Talk about other things they can do in a specific situation beforehand or afterward when they’re calm. In the moment, just ignore or offer a different activity, but don’t try to teach anything. Teaching skills is part of the preventative actions.”

Finally remember: Positivity rules. Over-praise the positive. Give lots of compliments on what they do that you are happy with.

My husband also learned that as a parent, he didn’t always need to bring work home. He thought he would be more regimented when he became a father, “have a schedule, icons and visuals,” like he does in his classroom. But, he says, “I do that at work all day and didn’t want to do it at home. It has to be a whole system. I thought, ‘Let’s just see what happens.’ I didn’t need that stuff. It helps every kid, but not every kid needs it.” And besides, he said, “I wasn’t the only parent. I had you.”

Liza Monroy's daughters walk down Lincoln Street in Santa Cruz
(Via Liza Monroy)