Microsoft Excel as a parenting tool.

October 28th, 2006

Never did I expect that Microsoft Corporation would come through with a successful parenting aid, but they have.

The problem: My kindergartener son was taking FOREVER to get dressed for school. He’s perfectly capable of dressing himself within a couple of minutes, but noooooo . . . We’d come into his room 20 minutes after he left the breakfast table, to find him either still in his jammies or in some stage of nudity. Sample dialogue at this point:

“Boy! Why aren’t you dressed?!”
“. . . I got distracted.”
“Distracted? No! Get dressed! Right now!”
(Boy lolls on floor.)
“Now! Do you hear me?! You’ll be late for school!”
(Still lolls on floor.) “I’m sorry.”
“No! Don’t be sorry! Just get dressed!”

And so on. Well, we tried the usual range of carrots and sticks. We told him how great it is when he does get dressed quickly. We threatened him with having toys removed from his room. We hollered. We made him get dressed before he could eat breakfast (fairly effective because he’s like me — he wakes up hungry). But nothing worked consistently, until . . .

One day I had the bright idea to use the kitchen timer I keep in my desk to time how long it takes him to get dressed. He took his mark at the edge of our dining room, at the line where the tile gives way to the carpet, and cocked his arms like a sprinter. “On your mark, get set . . . GO.” This, he liked.

For a week or so, I tracked his daily times on a note pad. But some days he was faster, some slower. He started off like a shot in every case, but distraction would still enter in. I wondered whether this had anything to do with his semi-literacy: he’s only just now learning to read, so while he can read “2:46” on the note pad and understand that it means “two minutes, forty-six seconds”, it’s not easy for him to make comparisons between “2:46” and “1:58” and “2:24”.

This is where Microsoft comes in. I had run out of room on the piece of paper we were using to track the boy’s times, and I thought that maybe he’d respond better if he could see how long it took him to get dressed. Boom — an Excel spreadsheet with a chart. I entered his times to date, abstracted them into a graph, and showed him how slow times meant high peaks on the graph, while fast times meant low points. He grasped it right away, and for a few weeks now we’ve been using this. Every morning he gets up from the breakfast table and announces that he’s ready to go. I make a big show of opening up the spreadsheet and getting out the timer. (I’m always on the computer at this point, going through my e-mail.) He sprints off, and he’s usually back inside two and a half minutes. We enter his new time in the numeric column, and then there’s the moment of suspense when I update the chart. So now our conversations go like this:

“See, I was faster, Daddy, because the line went down.”
“That’s right. When you go faster the line goes lower.”
“But that day [pointing to a peak on the line] I wasn’t as fast.”
“Yeah, but I think that was the day you couldn’t find your shoes.”
“Yeah.”

Ahhhhh . . . peace and harmony, at least on the kids-getting-dressed front. Thank you, Microsoft.

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