Want to win parenting? 3 behaviors to ignore—and 4 to reinforce instead

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.

1. Whining

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.

2. Negotiating

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.

1. Listening

If you want your kids to listen when you talk, provide some positive reinforcement when they are hearing and responding appropriately to you.

2. Kindness

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.

When I was expecting my first child, I wanted to know everything that could possibly be in store for his first year.

I quizzed my own mom and the friends who ventured into motherhood before I did. I absorbed parenting books and articles like a sponge. I signed up for classes on childbirth, breastfeeding and even baby-led weaning. My philosophy? The more I knew, the better.

Yet, despite my best efforts, I didn't know it all. Not by a long shot. Instead, my firstborn, my husband and I had to figure it out together—day by day, challenge by challenge, triumph by triumph.


The funny thing is that although I wanted to know it all, the surprises—those moments that were unique to us—were what made that first year so beautiful.

Of course, my research provided a helpful outline as I graduated from never having changed a diaper to conquering the newborn haze, my return to work, the milestones and the challenges. But while I did need much of that tactical knowledge, I also learned the value of following my baby's lead and trusting my gut.

I realized the importance of advice from fellow mamas, too. I vividly remember a conversation with a friend who had her first child shortly before I welcomed mine. My friend, who had already returned to work after maternity leave, encouraged me to be patient when introducing a bottle and to help my son get comfortable with taking that bottle from someone else.

Yes, from a logistical standpoint, that's great advice for any working mama. But I also took an incredibly important point from this conversation: This was less about the act of bottle-feeding itself, and more about what it represented for my peace of mind when I was away from my son.

This fellow mama encouraged me to honor my emotions and give myself permission to do what was best for my family—and that really set the tone for my whole approach to parenting. Because honestly, that was just the first of many big transitions during that first year, and each of them came with their own set of mixed emotions.

I felt proud and also strangely nostalgic as my baby seamlessly graduated to a sippy bottle.

I felt my baby's teething pain along with him and also felt confident that we could get through it with the right tools.

I felt relieved as my baby learned to self-soothe by finding his own pacifier and also sad to realize how quickly he was becoming his own person.

As I look back on everything now, some four years and two more kids later, I can't remember the exact day my son crawled, the project I tackled on my first day back at work, or even what his first word was. (It's written somewhere in a baby book!)

But I do remember how I felt with each milestone: the joy, the overwhelming love, the anxiety, the exhaustion and the sense of wonder. That truly was the greatest gift of the first year… and nothing could have prepared me for all those feelings.

This article was sponsored by Dr. Brown's. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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As mamas we want our babies to be safe, and that's what makes what happened to Glee actress Naya Rivera and her 4-year-old son Josey so heartbreaking.

On July 13, the Ventura County Sheriff's Department announced the 33-year-old mother's body was found at Lake Piru, five days after her son was found floating alone on a rented boat. According to Ventura County Sheriff Bill Ayub, Rivera's last action was to save her son.

"We know from speaking with her son that he and Naya swam in the lake together at some point in her journey. It was at that time that her son described being helped into the boat by Naya, who boosted him onto the deck from behind. He told investigators that he looked back and saw her disappear under the surface of the water," Ayub explained, adding that Rivera's son was wearing his life vest, but the adult life vest was left on the unanchored boat.


Ayub says exactly what caused the drowning is still speculation but investigators believe the boat started drifting and that Rivera "mustered enough energy to get her son back onto the boat but not enough to save herself."

Our hearts are breaking for Josey and his dad right now. So much is unknown about what happened on Lake Piru but one thing is crystal clear: Naya Rivera has always loved her son with all her heart.

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