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Choices, Cookies, and Kids: A Class Garry Landreth Training

Choices, Cookies, and Kids: a Classic Garry Landreth Training

Written by Kelsie Goller, MA, LPC-S, RPT

Clinical Director, KPS

Last week, I went to a play therapy conference, and one of the speakers was Garry Landreth, author of Play Therapy: The Art of the Relationship. Dr. Landreth is a big name in the play therapy world, as the founder of the largest play therapy training program in the world, the Center for Play Therapy. He has written over 150 articles, books, and videos. He received the Virginia Axline Distinguished Professional Award for his advancement of Child-Centered Play Therapy. Listening to Dr. Landreth speak in person was an amazing experience- he is so gentle and gracious, definitely a “Mr. Rogers” type of presence. He inspired me to be the best person in the play therapy room that I can be, by communicating understanding and delight in being together to every child who walks in the door. This week, in honor of hearing Dr. Landreth speak, I wanted to write about one of his classic trainings, called Choices, Cookies, and Kids. While the original training is available on DVD here, you can also view a version here, where Dr. Landreth presented on this same topic for a church group. Or you can keep reading for a summary of some of his principles in this training!

Counselors and parenting experts frequently talk about the importance of consistency in parenting, and Dr. Landreth’s training really hones in on what that consistency looks like. Most importantly, we want to give choices to kids in order to help them build their ability to choose (and to choose wisely) for themselves. As Dr. Dan Siegel says in his book The Whole-Brain Child, “Too often we forget that discipline really means to teach, not to punish. A disciple is a student, not a recipient of behavioral consequences.” If we continually teach our children that they must follow our orders or receive a punishment, ultimately what we have taught them is to avoid punishment and to follow orders. Instead, we want our parenting to empower our children to make their own good choices.

When we use choice language with our children, that means putting the emphasis on how their behavior affects their outcome. It helps develop natural cause and effect understanding in young ones. For example: “If you CHOOSE to pick up your toys, you CHOOSE to watch your show at 3pm. If you CHOOSE not to pick up your toys, you are CHOOSING not to watch your show.” The consistency part of this equation is that you must follow through with whatever your child chose. Another way of offering choices is when you are redirecting behavior, such as in the ACT method (also created by Dr. Landreth). This acronym stands for:

A-Acknowledge the Feelings.

C-Communicate the Limit.

T-Target an Alternative.

For example: “Bobby, I know you are angry right now. [Acknowledging the feeling.] But I am not for hitting. [Communicating the limit with the noun placed first to emphasize the purpose of the person/object.] You can CHOOSE to squeeze your kinetic sand or you can CHOOSE to swing on your swing to help with those angry feelings. [Targeting an alternative and offering self regulation strategies.]” In this situation where the behavior needs to be addressed because it is a safety concern (parent is being hurt), it is important to help the child regulate first and then later (when the child is in a calm state) talk about how hitting hurts and work to build empathy and repair the relationship. Learning does not take place when the brain is overwhelmed with big emotions, so if our focus as parents is to teach not punish, we will first seek to calm the nervous system and engage in the teaching time later when the brain is ready to learn.

Other principles that Garry Landreth talks about in this video is that we need to give choices to kids commensurate with their ability to respond responsibly (“Give big choices to big kids and little choices to little kids.”) Children can understand choice-giving at about two years of age. Also remember not to get into power struggles over the three things that caregivers cannot control: eating, sleeping, and toileting.

Short of medical intervention, we cannot MAKE a child eat, sleep, or use the bathroom, so parents need to focus on creating the proper environment for those to occur rather than engaging in a power struggle that we cannot win.

Dr Landreth also uses several examples in his video of children trying to make a different choice after they have made a bad choice. For example, one child rushed to put away his pajamas after already leaving them on the floor, knowing that the rule was “If you CHOOSE to leave your pajamas on the floor, you CHOOSE not to watch Mr. Rogers.” Dr Landreth responded to that child, “I think I know what you have in mind. You think that if you pick up your pajamas now, you can watch Mr. Rogers. But at the very moment when you left them here, you made the choice.” Dr Landreth would argue that letting children live with the consequences of their choices is more important than allowing them to watch Mr. Rogers or eat a sliver of chocolate pie, especially since there are many choices that we make as teenagers and adults that we do not get a second chance at and may be life-altering. However, TBRI (Trust Based Relational Intervention) principles might suggest that the parent ask the child if they want to do a “re-do”. A “re-do” is a way for a child to have a felt experience of doing what is right while still maintaining parental consistency. So if the child comes to dinner in a bad mood and immediately says, “This looks gross!” the parent might offer a re-do: “You know that if you choose a bad attitude at dinner, you choose to lose dessert. Would you like to try a re-do? You can choose to go back out of the room and come in again if you would like to try again.” (More information about re-dos can be found in Karyn Purvis’ book The Connected Child.)

In any discussion of parenting techniques, I want to remember that we as parents very often do not do what we would choose to do when we are in our most calm, regulated, parenting selves. Parenting children presents us with a constant barrage of small (and large) frustrations, in addition to the usual frustrations that adults face, from workplace aggravations to financial concerns to the constant house projects. Very frequently, parents respond to their children in the moment of discipline out of irritation or anger rather than self-regulation. Dr Landreth says, “The most important thing may not be what you do, but what you do after you have done.” Relationship ruptures will occur, when parent and child are upset with one another. The important thing is to repair these ruptures- to talk with the child about what happened, to apologize if needed, and to re-establish attunement and connection with the child. Give both your child and yourself grace to make mistakes. And in your own calm and mindful moments, rehearse for yourself who you want to be as a parent and recommit to be that person, as many times as you need. The work of parenting is both hard and delightful, and the journey is worth it, for both yourself and your child!


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