Three Steps to Improved Parenting Skills
Feeling desperate and out of control can be common in parenting. When we don’t know a better way to parent we turn almost immediately to coercive methods to control our child’s behavior. We try to control by hitting, spanking, screaming, threatening, hurting, and abandoning.
Happily, research in human behavior has given us a lot of help. That help centers around three dominant themes: parent-child interactions, ignoring inconsequential behavior, and parents’ responsibility to teach their children how to behave appropriately.
1st-Increase Positive Interactions
Parents must go out of their way to have positive, pleasant experiences and interactions with their children. As we study parent-child interactions in the home, we are alarmed to find that these interactions are far more likely to be negative than positive.
In fact, parents are typically five to six times more likely to have negative interactions with their children than they are to have positive interactions with them. Don’t forget that the child decides if the interaction is positive or negative, no matter what you thought of it.
Since behavior is typically strengthened by parental attention (positive or negative), by attending to inappropriate behavior we are far more likely to increase its frequency and intensity than we are to “nip it in the bud.” In other words, we make matters worse. We strengthen the very behaviors we want to eliminate! We create a coercive environment from which children want to escape, or in which they try time and again to get even.
The far better way is to give positive attention to the things our children do appropriately. By attending to the good and desirable things our children do, we dramatically increase the likelihood that those good and desirable things will increase.
There is an old adage in our society that admonishes us to “leave well enough alone.” It is terrible advice where human behavior is concerned. We advise parents to go out of their way to have dozens of positive interactions and no negative interactions every day with each of their children who are living at home. And it’s easy to do. It takes some effort and practice to get into the habit, but it can be done. And when it is done oh, how wonderful things become! Parents are often complaining that their kids never hear a thing they say. Well, just try praise. You’ll be surprised how quickly children’s hearing improves (and adults’, too!)
2nd-Teach Appropriate Behavior
Parents have the ultimate responsibility to teach children how to behave appropriately. Yes, teach. How often parents say to me, “My child won’t behave,” “My child can’t stay out of trouble,” or “My child will not mind.” Statements like these describe what the child can’t or won’t do in terms that suggest the child is to blame: it’s the child’s fault! If parents better understood their role as teachers, they would say, “I haven’t taught my child to behave well,” “I haven’t taught my child to stay out of trouble,” or “I haven’t taught my child to mind.”
When a child fails to behave properly, that is evidence the child has either not been taught to behave appropriately, or the child is more often reinforced for behaving inappropriately than for behaving appropriately. Misbehavior of children must be recognized as a need to teach appropriate behavior, not an excuse to punish. Punishment is a terrible teacher. It only teaches children how not to behave.
When children behave badly, rather than say, “That child needs to be punished for behaving that way,” say, “I need to teach the child how to behave appropriately,” or, “I need to be more responsive to appropriate behavior.” If you will look at behavior this way, you are well on the way to successful parenting!
3rd-Manage Unwanted Behavior
Parents must learn to ignore most of the age-typical, “junk” behavior of their children. Easily 95% of the things kids do that drive their parents crazy should not be given any attention at all. Just turn and walk away. Just ignore it. It is simply age-typical behavior; it goes with the territory. Behavior that does not get attention soon weakens and dies. When kids argue and scrap with one another, just walk out of the room. Most of the time they are simply performing, and if an audience gathers, it just encourages (that is, reinforces) the performance.
Remember: Unless what you are about to say or do has a high probability of making things better (both for the moment and in the long run), don’t say it and don’t do it! For every ounce of frustration we get off our chests by screaming at and beating on our kids, we put a pound of trouble on their shoulders and ours!
By looking for opportunities to have happy, positive interactions with our children, and by just ignoring the “junk” behavior, it is possible to transform an otherwise unhappy home into a pleasant, more stable environment. Try it. You have nothing to lose but a lot of unhappiness and a lot of unpleasant behavior.