Accidentally Reinforcing Misbehavior

Monday, June 1, 2015

Parenting requires presence of mind as well as clarity and calm. I often suggest that parents “put on their zoot suit” prior to a parenting shift whereby they need to be on without distraction or ambivalence. Children misbehave when sensing a parent’s lack of presence. Excessive fatigue, stress and inconsistency will result in weak parenting fraught with sarcasm, impatience, threats and bribes. In the end, parental misbehavior promotes misbehavior in children and teens. And, to make matters more messy, misbehavior can be accidentally reinforced!

Here are a few reminders of common errors parents make. When you begin to manage yourself and your children with intention and mindfulness, you will be better able to avoid these common errors.

1. Failing to Shape the Positive

Parents can shape a positive or expected behavioral outcome simply by attending to a child who is behaving as directed. So, when your child is sitting quietly at the dinner table, that is the time to be present and engaging. It is not always necessary to exclaim “goodness” with adjectives about how “great” a child is, which could backfire for the child who feels that compliance is all about pleasing and being judged.

Always remember that cooperation is, in itself, naturally reinforcing until such natural mastery is now longer impactful due to external rewards. Believe me when I remind you that simply attending and engaging a child with your full presence, including an affectionate holding of the hand or a smile will suffice.

There will also be moments whereby a child is naturally feeling proud- and I am not referring to those, “hey! look at me” moments. There will be a devoted piano practice or a returned homework assignment that is worthy. When mom or dad are too preoccupied or distracted, the opportunity to attend to the moment [affirmation] is missed!

2. Losing Clarity and Appeasing a Child

It is easier than any parent would like to admit, to give into a child’s efforts to have you bend a rule. Perhaps the child is about to have a tantrum. Maybe your son has learned to crank up the charm or be the best little lawyer he can be, to argue his way out of the rule or limit you have set forth. And, don’t forget! Your rules and directives are built on precious values you are adhering to in order to raise a mature and responsible person. This requires delayed gratification as well as frustration tolerance. Those two emotional experiences, while ‘not fun,’ are necessary for emotional maturity such as impulse control, otherwise known as patience.

So, stand clear, calm and strong once you have set a limit and/or given a directive [an expectation for behavior]. When you have stated, “After lunch and a nap, we will go to the pool.” No turning it around under doubt or duress! Better not to speak than to undermine yourself. Every time you cave with something like, “okay…just this once but then I don’t want to hear it again,” you undermined trust and security for your authority. And, you just accidentally rewarded an obnoxious behavior, such as pushing the limits by arguing. And unintentionally, your child may learn your authority is not reliable. Insecure guidance means more misbehavior.

If you are not sure, at any point, about what decision works best for you and/or your child, then just wait, “mommy will tell you in a few minutes,” “it’s time to stop asking or the answer is ‘no’. I hear your you,” “whining does not change the rule…lunch and a nap will pass quickly, then we hit the pool.” Then change the subject. No more talking or arguing! Better yet, don’t talk! Just distract or redirect. It’s like changing the channel of the brain. Simply say, “right now we are headed to lunch.” This directs the brain where you intend to go, not where your child desires. You know best.

3. Less than 10 Words

This is just a reminder to stop talking so much. Children or teens, employees and, frankly, any adults for that matter, know that when the person in charge is still talking, reasoning, thinking out loud or otherwise ‘lecturing,’ there is hope for a loophole. No doubt, if you are talking to explain or rationalize, you are looking weak. You do not need to defend or rationalize your parenting. There may be a respectful explanation for a change of plans but that is a different matter and can still be brief.

Keep your managing and directing clear and save meaningful pillow talk or car chat for those precious shared moments and endeavors when a child is not intent on bending rules and can therefore be open to thinking and learning from reflection.

When you mean business- usually during transition times, such as getting ready for school, after school homework or chores time or bedtime- you need to be prepared in advance and clear, having already considered all factors that go into your decisions for what you expect. The rules are your expectations, by the way, and we all thrive on rules so we can thrive. Some amount of consistent rules or expectations is called structure, and structure sets us free to focus and dig in. It takes the anxiety out of too much choice and wiggle room out of the behavioral equation. There is security in consistent rules.

4. Watch Your Delivery

My last tip, for now, is about your delivery when you are giving a directive to a child. Keep it neutral. Do not personalize it. Take the emotions out and bring your voice down and matter-of-fact. “It’s time to clean up” in a solid, calm matter-of-fact voice with pure presence [meaning you are not 20 feet away hollering] is just right. No sarcasm and no voice going up as if you are asking for cooperation, “so, it’s time to clean up now, okay?” Why ask if it is okay thereby handing the child a choice for noncompliance? And, watch the tone. Any kind of irritation or anxious hurried tension in your tone is a match to light the fire for defiance. Hey, it’s kind of fun to have that kind of power and watch mom lose it. Or, why not push the ticket, especially if you have become accustomed to mom or dad losing it. Now you can control when it happens!

Parenting is a job, not to be taken for granted. Effective management that enhances cooperation and compliance is all about the process of parenting which involves calm confidence, which in turn requires we are clear and present.

This entry was posted on Monday, June 1st, 2015 at 4:30 pm and is filed under Blog. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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