Karen and Jeremy were playing on the back patio. Neighbor Jeremy was making circles on his trike, tooting like a train whistle. Karen was loading blocks into the wagon. From the den window Mom looked up from her desk and watched them play amicably. When she next looked up, she saw Karen shove the loaded wagon into Jeremy. As he tumbled off the bike, Karen got on and began riding around. When Mom reached the scene, she checked to see that Jeremy was fine. Then she swiftly lifted Karen off the trike, into the house, and into the laundry room where she settled the surprised Karen onto the Thinking Bench. Five minutes later, Karen was back playing and had learned a lesson.
What had happened in that five minutes? First, what did NOT happen: Mom had NOT answered Karen's childish aggression with the adult aggression of shouting and spanking. After all, one of the main purposes was to show that aggression doesn't win anything. Instead, she established parental authority firmly but with dignity and love.
As she scooped up her daughter and carried her to the Thinking Bench she said, ``I love you too much to let you act that way toward your friend.''
With Karen settled on the bench, Mom asked a question: ``What were you really trying to do when you ran the wagon into the bike? Karen pouted. ``I wanted the bike!'' Reaching over to the counter and setting the timer, Mom said, ``I'm going to give you three minutes to think over what you've done and how you could have done better. When the timer rings, I'll come back and listen to your answer.'' Karen was told not to leave the bench; if she did, the timer would be set for a longer time.
Already Mom had set the stage for letting Karen recognize what she had done, what she really wanted to achieve, and especially that she could think of a better way to do it. Mom knew she sometimes had to help her daughter put into words what she had done wrong. She also knew it was important for her to understand right activity from unacceptable activity. And she wanted Karen to start early to think through a solution -- even before fully understanding the meaning of the words ``problem solving.''
In three minutes, Mom heard the timer bell and returned to find an eager Karen, calm and ready to go back to play. But first Mom asked, ``Now if you wanted the bike, what was a better way to get it?''
Karen admitted she should have asked for it. ``Right,'' Mom answered, ``or you could have taken turns.'' She knew Karen didn't like sitting on the bench and missing playtime. ``Next time, please think about what you should do when you want a toy,'' she said. With a hug she sent Karen back to play. Karen and Jeremy played happily the rest of the morning. In fact, Mom even heard the words ``take turns'' several times.
The Thinking Bench can be as important a piece of equipment for young children as the trike, the swing, or the toy shelves. It starts early to teach children to think and make choices -- and to take the consequences for those choices. It also shows children that parents care for them and love them ``no matter what.''
After this experience, Karen may not always remember that hitting and grabbing are wrong, but each time she sits on the Thinking Bench and loses playtime, she is reminded that she has a choice: she can act in a better way and not have to sit on the bench. Soon she starts thinking before she acts.
A low footstool or the kind of step stool used to help small children reach the washbowl is ideal as a Thinking Bench. Put the bench in some neutral location -- laundry room or kitchen -- away from the excitement. It's best not to send a child to his room for punishment. After all, his room should be his castle, a special place of his own, not a place of exile. An inexpensive timer with bell can be used to provide the boundaries of thinking time, anywhere from 2 to 10 minutes, depending on the age of the offender and the gravity of the offense.
The bench is just one of many alternatives to spanking. It's especially effective with children under 10. And when it's no longer needed, it makes a great step stool for reaching those high shelves where you are safely storing the wonderful memorabilia of childhood.
The writer works in the area of child development and is the author of the book ``Six Weeks to Better Parenting.''