Most people decide to become parents because they envision the joy and fulfillment of raising children. They picture Sunday mornings filled with endless snuggles. They see dripping ice cream cones sprinkled with laughter.
In our parenting fantasies, our children are perfect angels. They put away their toys. They wake up smiling, eager to attend school and complete their homework with determination and focus. Our fantasy kids behave in restaurants and jump at the chance to try new foods. Additionally, the little figments of our imagination wear whatever outfits we pick out, and they go to sleep on time, sans argument.
The reality of parenting, though, is far different from the fantasies we all held before having kids. Sure, there are the snuggles and the dripping ice cream, but those moments are short-lived. More often, parenting is slogging through making lunches, sudden stomach viruses, rushing to doctor’s appointments, meetings with teachers, juggling jobs and work responsibilities, and figuring out how to fit in grocery shopping.
Parenting is a lot of work, and much of that work is unavoidable. It isn’t what we imagined, but it’s part of the job.
What is avoidable is what’s widely considered to be the most unpleasant part of parenting. It’s the tantrums and complaining and constant negotiating. It’s the teenager who is pushing our buttons. It’s the child who begs incessantly for a new pack of Pokémon cards. Or the one who complains about homework and dinner and even family vacations to Hawaii. It’s the toddler who screams and yells, no matter the location, when he doesn’t get what he wants. All of that misbehavior drives the joy of parenting way down.
So instead of enjoying our time with our kids, many parents admonish and lecture them. They discipline and allot endless time-outs, but the behavior refuses to cease. It doesn’t go away because the rewards and benefits of the behavior remains intact.
You see, any behavior that is reinforced will be repeated. If kids receive any benefit from whining and complaining and throwing a tantrum (even if it’s just a compromise or a lecture), they think their behavior is an effective way to get what they want. If throwing a fit allowed a child to avoid picking up her toys, you can bet she will repeat that behavior at the dinner table to avoid carrots or at bedtime to skip taking a bath. If a huge tantrum in the line at Target won a child a box of Goldfish, you can believe the child will act up similarly in Starbucks or at Grandma’s house. Why? Because those behaviors work.
But parenting doesn’t have to include these moments.
Take away the benefits for those awful behaviors and they ultimately disappear. Why throw a tantrum at the Great American Cookie Company if no fresh-baked chocolate chip delight arrives? Why curse out Mom or Dad if they convey no reaction?
It’s pretty simple, actually. The quickest way to rid your life of those behaviors is to simply ignore them. Or, to be more precise, selectively ignore them (the behaviors, not the kids). What I mean is whenever your kids are in a power struggle, displaying inappropriate or attention-seeking behavior or throwing a tantrum, just ignore the behavior. As soon as your child stops the unpleasantness, reengage immediately. Kids learn instinctively that those behaviors are no longer effective ways to obtain attention or treats. When it’s clear that they can’t avoid carrots or baths with this type of behavior, kids will cut it out.
Don’t waste all of your precious time admonishing your children or dealing with awful behavior. Instead, provide all the attention and rewards kids crave, but only for the behaviors you would like to see. So lavish attention on children who listen, accept chores without complaining, eat their carrots without negotiating, or offer support to parents instead of cursing them.
You want to be able to look back on your time raising your children with a smile. You want to enjoy the ride and soak in every last moment before they run off to college and leave home for good.
Sometimes this means having endless Sunday snuggles and going out for ice cream. Other times it means ignoring them.
Catherine Pearlman’s book Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction is available now from TarcherPerigee.