Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Poncho Principle and the Siesta Effect

by Tracey Powell, MS
I didn't know I'd be learning several highly scientific principles of parenting ten years ago when we brought home our two beloved puppies, Poncho and Siesta (names not changed to protect confidentiality).

Poncho, the brown and black one, was eager to please and passed all good puppy tests such as fetching, coming when called, etc. Siesta failed all such tests, especially the one when you put a blanket over your puppy to see how vigorously it tries to get out. She liked it there and to this day loves to hang out on or under a blanket. This was our first parenting lesson in appreciating everyone's unique personality.

The Poncho Principle was learned way later, when our two daughters were toddlers or preschoolers and the demands of childcare and scheduling had gone way up. Up to the point when trading $500 for one uninterrupted hour of personal time would have seemed totally reasonable. So, in my overworked state, I was trying to get out the door for a scheduled appointment and needed to take my normally obedient dogs out for a bathroom break first. After running around getting everything ready with little help, Poncho could sense the stress and wanted nothing to do with me. He wouldn't come. I recall screaming near the top of my lungs at him: “Get over here!!” He promptly froze and peed on the carpet.

Poncho Principle—As angry yelling goes up, productivity goes down.

Yes, it's a true, little-known scientific principle. Yelling orders in anger is counterproductive. You will end up cleaning up extra messes if you fall into this regularly because kids will either (1) freeze and regress in fear like Poncho; (2) learn that push back is an effective way to get your attention, and your emotional reaction may end up fueling more oppositional behavior; or 3) be like Siesta and hide. Some kids will respond with compliance to occasional yelling, but these kids are also likely to respond just as well to much milder forms of instruction.

Bottom line: As your ability to keep calm increases, so does your child's ability to comply. Don't worry if you've done a good bit of yelling at your kids. We've all been there. The point is, it could be a sign to spend some time thinking about the next two principles.

Principle Two—Routines and praise work with dogs and kids.

If you are yelling a lot, it may be time to take a step back and think of what behaviors you need more of from your children. Whether it's self-care, using kind words, or being compliant, talk about what needs to change and make your expectations clear. Create a little routine and provide incentives. This could sound something like, “We've been having trouble getting out the door in the morning, so we need to focus on getting everything done by Go time. You will earn points to cash in for computer time at the end of the day when we follow our morning checklist cooperatively and are ready to go on time.” Get a visual timer. Make a game of it if you can.

Once you've developed a reasonably consistent routine, praise praise praise each step toward greater compliance with that routine. Using the incentives and specific praise will get you far, and you might even find over time that you're making very little use of consequences.

Dogs only need treats and lots of “good dog!” praises to know they're doing well. Kids are tougher and they will push back on routines for a while. The more oppositional or distractable your child, the more consistent work you'll have to put in. But keep telling him what you specifically liked about something he did each day, and eventually he'll see the pay-off of complying with family routines. Think, “I like how you put that game away right when you were finished with it. That really helps things go smoothly,” or “I like how you went to your room when your brother was starting to pester you. That seemed like a good choice.”

Because it is such hard work to be the creator of routines, and to keep giving praise on little points of progress, the Siesta effect might be the most important to remember for all overworked parents.

Siesta Effect—As you save energy and time for yourself, your parental effectiveness goes up.

Siesta loves to lounge and sees no need to jump up and do something for someone every time they ask (unless of course there's a highly attractive treat in hand). Think of her when your kids are asking for too much help and you're thinking they should do this themselves, but you just need to make the whining stop. Go back to thinking of the routine you'd like to see developing and start working on it. Your child will become self-sufficient more quickly and feel proud of the accomplishment if you take the time to set up that routine.

Think of how scared little Poncho must have been when I lost it and yelled at him. But remember, don't beat yourself up if you have yelled. Just return to following routines and the Siesta effect. Because four out of five seasoned parents surveyed would probably rank “Taking Care of Yourself” as Important Parenting Principle Number One.

Tracey Powell, MS, has over five years of experience as an individual coach/therapist and family coach and is affiliated with Psych Ed Coaches in Northern Virginia. She specializes in working with people with ADHD and related conditions including anxiety, depression, social challenges, and academic/career/personal transitions. Tracey works with children through adults and takes a supportive, action-oriented approach to helping clients meet clearly defined goals. She really enjoys helping parents develop positive parenting practices. Tracey is also a certified volunteer parenting educator with CHADD.


  1. This is a fabulous post. And unfortunately, a way too necessary reminder at our house. But we are talking about a plan and this can help us to continue to work on the desired goals... Thanks!

  2. This is so true...when I was really working hard on not yelling, getting down to my son's level and working on praise, things were a bit better. I feel like I have done a 180 and need to get back. I yell way too much for anyone's good.

  3. Thought this would be mostly about differences between the dogs.... 3 of our cats are from the same litter (from the other cat, Mom) and I can usually tell which cat did something if my husband describes the behavior.

  4. Ms. Powell,
    I would really like some encouragement along my way. I have an 11 year-old and sometimes they can be so great (compassionate, kind, loving) when we are doing unstructured/down-time activities. Any structured/responsibility-related activities )hw, chores, time-sensitive tasks) are a struggle and I really hate being around them. My husband doesn't believe in meds. I am addressing my own ADHD but all of this makes me close to hopeless on most days. Our child attends private school for the sake of a sheltered environment. (The grades are tanking so this is essentially a pricey daycare.) Something has got to change. Please help.