As a parent, wouldn’t it be nice to only have to correct your child’s behavior one time for the change to stick? One reminder to clean up after oneself…one lesson on using eating utensils properly…one example of how to say thank you to express gratitude for a kind gift or deed.
Unfortunately, that’s not how it works. The reality is that appropriate behavioral actions and modifications are a lifelong learning process for our children (I know; I’m still learning myself!). Learning how and when to act appropriately requires daily practice and reinforcement.
So how can you make this lifelong learning a little easier, on both you and your children? Here at The Quaker School, we promote two foundational principles of practice that we, as parents and teachers, can implement to help children improve their behavior:
#1: Keep it positive.
My Hunter College professor advised me with these three words back in 1998 while I was earning my first master’s degree. Though I have long forgotten her name and face, I use this advice daily in both my professional and personal life.
For children, punishment — the applications of aversive consequences — is unreliable. Because we might never really know what is causing behavior, we can’t predict how the youth displaying the behavior will react. Some children will react to punishment with compliance, while others will withdraw or rebel.
Reward, on the other hand, is totally reliable.
When praised authentically, perhaps using the powerful praise we have previously discussed or by giving a meaningfully reward, children are encouraged to do more of what is being praised or rewarded.
I’ve seen many cases where the “Matthew Effect” applies to the behavior of children. The Matthew Effect refers to a passage from the Book of Matthew in the Bible that says the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. In this case, children who behave the worst receive the least praise and reward, and the attention they do receive often reinforces the negative behavior.
To break the cycle, catch your child being good, create the conditions for them to find success no matter how small, and reward and praise them overwhelmingly. Most important, try to remain consistent; keep at it and don’t get discouraged if they backslide.
(And remember, this doesn’t mean you should not have consequences for your children. It simply means those consequences can be handled positively. I will be sure to elaborate on this in a future post!)
#2: Be a Thermostat, not a Thermometer.
When it is hot, a thermometer tells us that it is hot; when it is cold, a thermometer tells us it is cool. A thermometer reacts to the temperature in a room.
But while a thermometer merely reports the temperature, a thermostat actually controls the temperature. This is the foundation of conscientious parenting.
Our job as parents is to set the tone, or the “temperature.” To be the thermostat for your child, find ways to retain a composed demeanor and use a neutral voice when behavior begins to escalate.
You are the adult, so let your children take cues from you. If our children become anxious, it’s imperative to stay calm. If they want to argue, peacefully refuse. My wife will often quietly say to my daughter, “No one is yelling. Why are you yelling?” and this single point will usually help to diffuse the situation.
It really does take two to fight, and an excellent response to most arguments is to refuse to engage in the battle.
Of course, the frustration and exhaustion brought on from the difficult situations we encounter with our children should not be minimized. It can be overwhelmingly frequent and challenging.
However, the best reminder we can give ourselves is that we are the authority, and therefore, we have the power and responsibility to set the tone, environment and expectations for the youth in our homes and our schools.
How do you reinforce positive behavior in your home? Share your tips in the comments below, or over on Facebook.