Parenting Pearl: Saliency

This word, saliency was new to my parenting vocabulary when I first encountered it many years ago but I learned quickly the value in it and I am forever grateful.


On a Saturday morning you tell your child they have to clean their room. You mean, really clean his room and you tell him so. You say, "... and if you don't clean your room you aren't going to the sleepover at BooBoo's house tonight." (I like to make up names) All day the progress drags on, agonizingly slow. You keep checking in. Each time you do, you remind this kiddo that he is not going to the sleepover if it's not done and done properly. (yeah, BooBoo is a boy)

All day. Hours. Dozens of reminders and assurances that you are in fact, not joking.

You check in and the work is moving like molasses and it's not being done well at all. You reiterate that you expect the room to be cleaned correctly.

The evening comes, the room is not done. You have spent the entire day frustrated and irritated with this child. He has worked, piddled, dragged his feet, become distracted, maybe even thrown hissy fits and not gotten the task accomplished satisfactorily.

You crossly drop the hammer, "You are not going to the sleepover."

Even if the child reacts, gets upset the truth is, he's been bracing for this all day Mom. No surprise here. He has seen the time pass, he has heard you tell him over and over (and over and over) that he is not going. You became the Peanuts teachers voice hours ago. Despite any show of shock and surprise he may give you, I promise you he isn't surprised at all. He has been preparing himself for it and comforting himself that he doesn't really care. He didn't really even want to go. He might even say these things to you just to show you, he isn't beaten.

The problem is repeating the expectation, punishment or consequence reduces it's saliency every time you do so. It makes it less potent. It reduces the strength of the action every time you say it. Saliency.

It also robs the child of the chance to choose his actions and consequences, as you keep pushing him. If the room is accomplished you are largely to credit. If it isn't, in his eyes, I promise you, you are largely to credit/blame. The goal must always be to have the child choose and accept. We want them to choose wisely of course, but as an adult you should darn well understand by now that you cannot actually make any human being do anything.

If you are spanker, you might think you have compelled compliance by imposing yourself physically. You haven't. It reminds me of a story a pastor told many years, about a date with her husband when they were young. They were playfully bantering and he was trying to compel her to sit, and finally her big strong fella puts his hands on her shoulders and sort of sits her down. She replied, arms crossed, "Well I am standing in my heart!" They laughed as they told the story that depicted her spirit so clearly. (this was for the record a total flirty thing, nothing more)

I heard the story at 13 and it has stayed with me 30 yrs. Whoa was that ever me. In my childhood, in my life, and even with God! My physical body might be forced into compliance but you can bet your buttermilk I'm standing in my heart!


If you said instead, "So let me see, you want to go to this event tonight a lot, right? I want you to get your room clean. What are the chances we could both get what we want today? I am not going to want to help you by taking you to the party, if you don't care about what is important to me."

Then I would ask IF the child would like reminders. Do they want you to help them keep track of time? I always ask if they would like me to help them make a list, or show them what I expect so they know exactly what they need to do for it to be acceptable. I ask if they think it would help to have music on? The windows open? Door open or closed?

I set them up for success, I then give over all the control, and I am out.  I would say, "So we are clear. For me to take you to this party, I will need you to clean your room the way I have asked you. Do you agree?" Give-take. He is now in the drivers seat of what happens.

And then, if the child would prefer reminders of time, I would cheerfully pop in and give them. I might pop in and see if they would like a snack, or a drink. Or I might surprise them with one, since I know they are working so hard (even if they aren't). At no time, not ever, would I repeat that the consequence is no party. Not ever. I do not want to diminish the saliency one tiny bit. When the consequence hits, they must experience it at full potency.

At the end of the day, if the work isn't done, the child will actually not be surprised in the least that he isn't going. (oh ok maybe the first time or two you do it this way they WILL be surprised because they expect you to cave) You see parenting is a dance. If you and your kid dance a Tango all day everyday their whole life and you start Waltzing, his natural reaction is to try to get you Tango. THAT is the dance he knows. Keep Waltzing, he'll follow.

Where was I? Oh yeah...

Now, the room isn't done and he asks if he is going. You don't say no. You say, "What did we discuss? I think you know the answer." You are not leveling a punishment. He made a decision. (but don't say that!)

Then here is the real kicker - if the child is upset, you offer empathy. Not ever, I TOLD YOU this was going to happen. This is surprisingly the hardest part for parents. We want to lecture. We want to show them it was their choice not ours, but when we preach it, it has the exact opposite effect.


  • Discuss your expectation and the consequence.
  • Brainstorm with them how they can be successful and how you might help.
  • Leave it. No harping. 
  • Consequence follows it is not administered, it just is.
  • Empathize. (I'll have to share what is and is not empathetic at another time.)

When the consequence comes it will come with it's full potency. Which must happen a few times to change the dance.

Empathize. No "I tried tell you" or "I'm sorry you didn't listen."

One caveat, if throughout the course of the day your child realized he was overwhelmed and wanted to take you up on the offer of a list, or a reminder or some other offer of help. Bend.

Never lose sight that your goal is to get as much of what you both want as you possibly can. Change your role. Don't be the enforcer unless you have to be and then, be it. But try at all times to be the facilitator. Try to create an environment where the children see you as the person who helps them as much as they possibly can within the boundaries established by the parents.

Bottom Line - Nagging reduces Saliency.

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