Does any of this sound familiar?
You serve your preschooler Cheerios and he throws a fit because even though he said he wanted Cheerios, now he wants waffles. Exhausted and in a rush, you take the Cheerios away and start heating up a waffle.
Your husband asks your daughter to turn off the TV, but she just wants a few more minutes. So she asks permission to watch one extra show. Dad says no. She whines, “Pleaaassseee.” Dad says no again. After an endless and exasperating back and forth, she huffs and says, “Fine, can I just have five more minutes?” Dad agrees to the compromise.
Your daughter is frustrated because you won’t let her go out to the park without her shoes on. She’s mad and she wants mama to know it. So she yells and cries and stomps her feet. She even adds in, “You’re a mean mommy!” You’ve had enough of her behavior, so you go into her room and give a long lecture on respect.
These scenarios happen in varying forms in households across the map. Parents try to do the best they can. They all want to raise well-fed, well-behaved kids who grow up to be successful and happy adults.
Unfortunately, much of the effort parents put forth to meet these goals fails to improve the behavior. In fact, in some cases, it might be making it worse.
Kids are perceptive beings. Even if they can’t tie their shoes or solve an algebraic equation, they’re pretty good at knowing how to get what they want and how to avoid what they don’t want.
A lot of the time, when kids act up they get rewarded with attention or a cookie or an extra television show. Or they get out of taking a bath or eating carrots. Sometimes, a parent might even yell at them. It doesn’t matter. Yelling and admonishing can be a reward if the goal is to get a rise out of the parent.
That’s why, when parents change the way they handle behavior, children quickly realize their old tricks no longer work.
Behavior that is rewarding in any way will be repeated. Behavior that has no benefit will go away.
Why bother throwing a tantrum for a waffle if the waffle never comes? Why spew fresh comments at your parents if those comments have no impact? And why beg and negotiate for more television if, after all of those theatrics, the answer remains a steadfast, “No”?
The problem is that, instead of reinforcing the behavior they desire, parents sometimes waste their energies on reinforcing the wrong behaviors.
Here are the top 3 things parents can ignore in an attempt at trying to stop reinforcing bad behavior.
Kids usually whine because they know it touches a parental nerve. When parents turn annoyed they often try to discipline. But usually it doesn’t work. Kids end up thinking that whining will score them some attention. And when parents aren’t in the mood to deal with the whining, they tend to give in to the demands.
When parents negotiate with their children, they can expect everything to be up for arbitration. How about three carrots instead of seven? Two stories at bedtime instead of one? Ten more minutes of screen time? No will never be no.
3. Provoking behavior
Kids say mean things or push our buttons because we react. That’s the goal. When children are upset with their parents they oftentimes want their parents to be upset too. So they lash out. And parents often take the bait. I understand the difficulty of merely turning the other cheek when our offspring scream cruelties our way, but trust me and ignore.
Here are the top 4 behaviors you shouldn’t ignore.
If you want your kids to listen when you talk, provide some positive reinforcement when they are hearing and responding appropriately to you.
This one is easily overlooked. Catch your kids being kind, thoughtful or compassionate and reward them with your attention and praise.
3. Hard work
Have you ever worked hard on a project and your boss barely noticed? It doesn’t feel good. Notice when the kids are working hard on something. Never mind the result. Reward the effort.
4. Follow through
Parents expect kids to empty the dishwasher or walk the dog. They don’t think they have to say thank you or even mention it. But if parents don’t notice the good stuff, kids will find other less desirable ways to get the attention. Instead, compliment kids when they do what they are asked to do.