Broken Window Theory Applied to Parenting

by Dr. Lorin Bradbury

Question: My kids are out of control and my house is a mess. My husband complains that he is tired of a dirty house and wonders what I do all day. With crying babies and screaming kids, I feel like I am losing my mind. What can I do to bring some order to our household?

Your description of your current situation creates a picture of chaos in your household. George Kelling and James Wilson developed what has come to be known as the Broken Window Theory. They stated “crime breeds in chaos” and “one broken window attracts another broken.” The idea is that if you can bring order to a neighborhood, crime will diminish. Take care of the small crimes and you will eliminate the big crimes.

In the early 1980s, New York City, had one of the highest crime rates in the nation, but by the 1990s, it dropped to one of the lowest. What made the difference? They cleaned up the subways.

This theory has great application to parenting. In the question posed above, there are some key words: “Out of control,” “house is a mess,” “crying babies,” and “screaming kids.” All babies will cry sometimes, and all kids will make noise, but the question above presented a picture of chaos and disorder. New York City didn’t suddenly achieve the lowest crime rate in the nation. They cleaned up one subway station at a time. When your family life is out of control, it will require addressing one area at a time.

The Broken Window Theory can be applied to parenting by having a consistent bedtime for you and your children. You might start by putting the children to bed at 8:30 and you and your husband going to bed at 10:00. That way you and your husband will have some time together alone each evening. Along with going to bed at a certain time, it’s equally important to have a certain time to get up. Life is much less chaotic when you get up early enough to not have to rush to work and school. Instead of losing your mind, you can bring sanity back into your life.

Closely associated with putting children to bed on time is requiring them to sleep in their own beds. Some mothers enjoy the intimacy they have with their children, especially if they are nursing, at the expense of intimacy with their husbands. If you truly want order in your household, put those babies in their own beds and in their own rooms. Husbands and wives need private time together.

Continue the process of bringing order to your home by establishing mealtimes. Research has shown that families that eat meals together have fewer behavior problems with their children when they are older. Turn the TV off and don’t allow electronic games at the dinner table. You might even go a step further and not answer the phone while eating. Why is this so important? Mealtimes are great opportunities for communication. They are times for learning values through discussion. But mealtimes are not good times to admonish the children for bad grades on their report cards, etc. Set aside enough time for the meal that no one is rushing to leave the table.

Don’t be afraid to challenge and correct bad behavior. Children are asking continually “Who’s in charge around here?” And if it’s not clear that the parent is in charge, there will be higher levels of anxiety, and there will be chaos. Reestablishing order does not mean that you have to exercise brute force. Instead, take back your home one subway station at a time.

Now look around your house. Is it orderly and clean, or is it messy and dirty? If you have children, houses will get messy, but they don’t have to be disorderly and dirty. If your children are old enough, get them involved in the cleaning and maintaining order. Find places for every item in your house. When you sweep and mop the floor, clean the entire floor, not just the center. Not only will your children enjoy the orderly home you create, but so will your husband. And you will feel better about the environment you have created. That’s called self-esteem.

A few years ago, I presented to our church twelve rules for orderly living. Our church members found them very helpful because they were tangible and they could put them into practice. I will present them here for your perusal. Instead of memorizing the whole list, try implementing one rule per week.

GOD IS A GOD OF ORDER

#1: Wash your dishes before going to bed.

#2: Clean up spills immediately.

#3: Make your bed upon rising.

#4: Put toys away after playing.

#5: Go to Bed at a reasonable hour.

#6: Keep your bathroom clean (Deuteronomy 23:13-14).

#7: Never leave piles of dirt on the floor—finish the job—put it in the garbage.

#8: Always arrive at church on time.

#9: “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Dress holy; dress clean. As much as possible, keep your person clean.

#10: Maintain Personal Devotions.

#11: Eat at least one meal together each day (except when fasting).

#12: Pray with your children before they go to bed each night.

Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to realnews@deltadiscovery.com.

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