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Behaviour Management: The Bucket Analogy

Aristotle is going through a phase. At least I’d like to think it’s just a phase and not because I’m failing at my role of being a parent. To put it simply, he’s been obnoxious. It’s tough swallowing that when I know he can behave so beautifully sometimes that it just blows me away and I think to myself, “Wow, I’m so lucky to have such a wonderful son”. And then he has to go and ruin it all with his obnoxious behaviour that makes me want to connect my foot with his annoying behind and send him flying into the next neighbourhood. Okay, I’m kidding – really! There is no need to send the child protection services here. I’m just allowing the petty me some measure of satisfaction of picturing that thought.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking really hard about his behaviour and wondering if he’s behaving this way because I suck at being Mum and he’s taking me for a ride – meaning I really need to crack down harder on him – or, maybe, just maybe, it’s a phase that all kids go through and all that is required are some firm boundaries and broken-record repetitions until the right behaviour sticks. I’m leaning towards the latter – probably because I can’t bear the thought that I might be a crappy Mum especially when I’m already trying so hard. It probably helped that a conversation with a friend who has four kids and has been through it all also said the same thing when I lamented over my son’s behaviour. I believe she said something along the lines of, “Oh, he’s only five years old.” So that’s supposed to mean that this behaviour is normal? Well, she’s the one with four kids so I guess she ought to know better.

Regardless, I tried the harsher way – just to see if it would work. And no, it did not. It just got worse until I found myself being angry everyday. I was angry, Aristotle was angry and we were both miserable. And when something isn’t working, it is just sheer stupidity to keep doing it. So I’ve been trying hard to break the negative cycle that has sucked us into this maelstrom and is threatening to drown us unless we do something different.

The bucket analogy

Remember when I said that it is important to have a good relationship with your child’s teacher at school? Well, here’s another reason why – some teachers have really great ideas for managing difficult kids because they’ve had the experience of managing many children with different personalities. At least, this is so if you have good teachers at your child’s school who can recognise when something is not working and are willing to implement other methods until they find one that works with your child. Thankfully, for the second year running, we have been blessed with another good teacher.

One thing Aristotle’s teacher was quick to observe was that punishment by removing privileges doesn’t work very well with Aristotle. The reason is because he doesn’t care. And when there is no feeling of loss, the punishment has no effect. What she did notice was that he thrived on recognition. When he did something good, he liked being recognised for it. And when no one notices anything, he behaves poorly to get the attention. I appreciated the fact that she noticed these effects on him and was quick to act on it because handling a class full of children can be exhausting and sometimes we just react to the situation rather than take control of it. I know I’ve been guilty of that and I only have two kids to deal with!

It’s a common problem – child is bored and wants attention, child would rather misbehave and receive negative attention than to get nothing and continue feeling bored. They did this experiment on rats and found the same thing. The solution would seem simple – just give him more attention. Which works, if you can fulfill his idea of having “sufficient” attention. Unfortunately, as I have begun to discover, my definition and his definition of sufficient is rarely ever the same. And when you have another child and a household beckoning you, time is not something you have in abundance. Additionally, I have begun to notice the interference of my own emotions that I struggle to deal with. So we need to address it. There is also the question on boredom but we’ll address that in a later post.

Aristotle’s teacher told me about an analogy she used in school to help the children understand the effects of their behaviour. She refers to an imaginary bucket that everyone has. If you do something nice for someone, you are filling their bucket. If you fill someone’s bucket, you  make them feel happy and good. When you do something mean, it empties their bucket and it makes them feel sad and unhappy. Why does it matter whether you fill someone’s bucket or empty it? Because it affects your own bucket. If you fill someone’s bucket, you are also filling your own bucket because it feels nice to do something good for someone else. If you empty someone’s bucket, you empty your own bucket and that doesn’t help you feel better.

I thought it was a great way to explain things to kids in a way that helps them understand something as abstract as emotions and feelings. Recently, I used it to explain how he made me feel whenever he did things to rile his brother up. This is the gist of what I said:

“When you do things to upset didi, it empties my bucket. When you empty my bucket, I have nothing to fill your bucket with. So let’s work on filling each other’s buckets everyday.”

I gave him lots of examples of the things he could do that helps to fill my bucket – for example, putting his dirty laundry into the laundry basket rather than leaving it lying on the floor; playing nicely with his brother; taking his dirty dishes to the sink; etc.

Whenever I see him doing something that fills my bucket, I make it a point to do something to fill his bucket. It ends up a little like a tennis game of hitting the ball back and forth so no one ends up feeling neglected despite all the bucket filling they’ve been doing.

Is it working?

Well, we still have our dips but at least I feel happier about where we’re going and I feel a little less angry. Whenever Aristotle forgets to fill my bucket, all I have to say is that what he just did was empty my bucket and he gets it immediately. Previously, I would get angry and respond in anger and he would get angry because I’m angry and all the negative emotions just keep feeding each other. Once you’re angry, reason and logic is beyond your comprehension. This is so for adults, and it is especially so for children. Yelling at a child doesn’t help him “get it” because his emotions end up clouding his understanding.

I also know that when I’m angry, even if I am capable of making the right decision, my anger makes it hard to back down and do the right thing. When someone responds to me in kindness, I feel a desire to return the kindness especially when I’m wrong. Children are the same and they deserve no less, even when they are wrong.

At the end of the day, it is important to remember that we are trying to correct behaviours not overpower wills. Getting angry at a child for misbehaviour turns it into a power struggle for dominance and the lesson of what is the right behaviour is lost along the way. You want your child to accept that what he did was wrong, not feel that he was forced into submission which only leads to resentment after which, it is highly quesitonable whether any lessons were learned at all.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

3 thoughts on “Behaviour Management: The Bucket Analogy

  1. hi shen li,

    im curious, could u give examples of what u did to fill aristotle’s bucket? 🙂

    at this moment, ds loves M&Ms. he would ask for one / more everyday. sometimes i would use that to bribe him in return for good behaviour , which i know is wrong 😦
    when he does something bad, like grasping other childrens’ faces (usually little girls), i would automatically boils up. i have been trying to tell him for the 1ooth time that he should be gentle and not hurt people with his hands. hands are not meant for that.
    he is going to be 3 y.o feb next year. im quite sure he knows i dont approve of that behavior but he still does it.

    just last saturday when we went for a wedding banquet, he charged up to a girl and grasped her face. i felt quite shameful and sorry to the girl. and u bet i was mad. i reprimanded ds , in front of everyone. hubs then said i shouldnt do that and he took ds away for a walk. ds said “i am still sad” and that upset hubs even more.

    i apologized to ds but he was still sad. 🙂

    what would u do in such circumstances? any suggestions?


    1. Examples of filling his bucket – doing things together with him that he wanted to do, extra hugs and cuddle time (which he likes). It really depends on what makes your child tick so what fills one child’s bucket may not fill another child’s bucket. Although I’m sure hugs and cuddle time work for all kids.

      I would say that your son is still young so it will take time and lots of broken record repetitions to remind him that grabbing faces is not acceptable. Even now, I find myself telling Hercules the same times over and over and it feels frustrating. Right now, I do not believe it is much of a concern – embarassing, yet, but not something you should be too worried about as long as you are constantly reinforcing that this behaviour is not acceptable.

      Children are very forgiving and the important thing is to acknowledge you were wrong to get angry but you should also tell him that what he did was wrong, too. Sometimes I get angry and I shout at the boys. Afterward, I will apologise for shouting and explain that while it wasn’t nice that I shouted, it doesn’t change the fact that what they did was still wrong. You have to be clear so they know what it is you are apologising for and you also want them to know that their actions were wrong.

      We are human and we will get angry. Our children know us so well that it is easy for them to push all our “hot” buttons so you can expect that you will get mad and do things you regret later. I think we just need to be a little more patient with our boys – repeat and reinforce. As long as it can be seen that he isn’t doing it deliberately to hurt another child, you should just continue to remind him not to do it. Sometimes they get excited and this might be a way he tries to gain another child’s attention. It is frustrating but he will get it eventually.


  2. thank u so much for listening and sharing your thoughts. now i feel better. 🙂
    ive ordered Love and Logic book, hopefully they will give more insights on how to tackle these problems.

    now i can even use this bucket analogy in relationships among husband and wife and bf/gf 🙂
    im reading the FIve Love Languages and its a little similar to this bucket analogy 🙂


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