August 04, 2011


Dr. Riley’s Box of Tricks: 80 Uncommon Solutions for Everyday Parenting Problems. By Douglas A. Riley, Ed.D. Da Capo. $15.

     Ranging from the reasonably odd to the oddly reasonable, clinical psychologist Douglas Riley’s ideas for handling typical issues confronting families primarily involve taking things to extremes – that is, even further extremes than the ones children are likely to present. Thus, “The Liar’s Program,” for a child who often fibs, involves disbelieving everything the child says, so if he or she says what he or she wants for breakfast, the parent presents something else, since the originally expressed preference must have been a lie; if he or she wants to watch cartoons on a weekend morning, the parent assigns chores instead; and so on. This is an amusing idea that could actually work, although whether the lying child would actually do the assigned chores or eat the offered and unappealing breakfast is less than clear (Riley assumes the child will do as he or she is told – a shaky assumption at best).

     If nothing else, the ideas here are likely to make parents who read them feel better, even if the parents don’t try them out. If a six-to-14-year-old constantly yells, for instance, Riley recommends insisting the child yell everything or be ignored. Riley’s imagined dinner conversation is hilarious; and he insists that this program really has been tried, and really does work. You’ll never know unless you try it, but just imagining it and smiling at it may give harried parents a smile.

     For these ideas to work in the real world, parents have to be willing to carry them out. That is a repeated message here, and one some parents may have difficulty accepting. Several “tricks” require something along the lines of one that Riley calls “The Victim of Capitalism.” This is a messy-room approach: if a child leaves things strewn everywhere and never cleans up, the parents apologize for buying him or her so much and “explain that the only way to relieve him of the huge burden they had placed on him was to box up half of his stuff over the next few days and put it into storage so he would no longer have to deal with it.” Two weeks later, if the room is still messy, the parents have to box up half the remaining stuff and store it somewhere secure. And so on. Riley assures parents that this will work, but “you must be willing to follow through.” Will parents who have been so indulgent in buying things suddenly see the light and be willing to deprive a child of many of those things? Doubtful – although maybe, if parental frustration is high enough, this just might be workable.

     The biggest potential problem with Riley’s clever solutions (which are sometimes tricky but not really “tricks”) is that he assumes kids will get the point that parents want them to get. In the context of the counseling sessions that Riley holds with children and parents, and the reinforcement those sessions provide, that may be so, but it will not necessarily work the same way with families going about their everyday lives. For example, Riley suggests “The ‘I Forgot’ Pizza Method” for kids ages eight to 14 “who can’t seem to remember to do their homework or to hand it in if and when they do it.” This involves promising pizza for dinner, then getting a pizza place to make a pizza without cheese, with just a few bits of randomly distributed sauce, and with a small scattering of pepperoni; giving it to the kids; and then saying the pizza maker must have forgotten to put on all the ingredients, just as the kids forget to do their homework. The kids are supposed to understand that this is a lesson…learn the lesson…and clean up their act. More likely, though, they will become outraged, storm out of the room, go eat something else, become surly and unpleasant (or surlier and more unpleasant), and learn only that the parent who pulled this is not to be trusted to order pizza ever again.

     There is no question that parents need to think creatively to break through some of the ongoing issues that erupt and then fester in families. Riley has a good grasp of many of those issues: arguing, door slamming, slacking off, bathroom battles, fighting with siblings, interrupting, cell-phone overuse, and more. And a few of his approaches seem to have a good chance of success. For example, if a child fears going to sleep because he or she is sure the room is filled with spooky things, such as vampires, Riley suggests sitting down and talking calmly with the child, asking how often the vampires have actually gotten hold of him or her – not in dreams, but in reality. The child will eventually realize the answer is “zero.” Then you point out how dumb the vampires must be: “They roam around your room all night, from what you tell me, but it’s never occurred to them to look under the covers to find you. So they must be really stupid.” This is supposed to get the child to laugh and calm down – and it may do just that. It’s certainly worth trying. Just don’t be surprised when, a couple of days later, he or she announces that now the problem isn’t vampires – it’s witches, or zombies, or giant flesh-eating Easter bunnies, or something else. The fears underlying thoughts of these imaginary creatures may not be as easy to lay to rest as Riley suggests they are. Likewise, the problems that lead to many parent-child difficulties may not be solvable by tricking them into nonexistence.

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