My son, Chris, sent me another book…Across the Kitchen Table by Pamela Read von Gohren. It consists of individual vignettes about her experiences and reflections on homeschooling and the raising of children. This morning I read “Another Educational Goal” that reminded me of one of the points I tried to emphasize to my parenting groups when I was teaching. It has to do with giving attention to behaviors.
Children tend repeat the behaviors that get the most attention. This is just as true for bad behaviors as well as for good ones. Children who are penalized for bad behavior will often repeat the behaviors if it is the only way they have of getting a parent’s attention. In my parenting classes we often talked about the importance of giving attention to those behaviors we want our children to repeat. But it isn’t as easy as it looks.
What parents find difficult is ignoring bad behaviors. Their instinct tells them that bad behaviors need to be punished. It is also true that some behaviors are just plain annoying and parents set out to stop them for their own sanity. There are a few principles that can help parents find a way that is effective and balanced.
– I believe in acknowledging a child’s feelings. It isn’t so much about comforting but about giving children a vocabulary to talk about their feelings. You can say, “Sounds like you are angry,” “That must be very disappointing,” “You feel embarrassed”, “I know you are lonely for Dad.” But dwelling on a feeling after it is named can encourage a child to use feeling words as a way to get and hang on to a parent’s attention.
– Von Gohren uses words that suggests to a child that, while they may feel unhappy about something, they still have to address the situation at hand. Her examples: “Nevertheless, the paper must be recopied.” “Regardless, the toys must be picked up.” She also suggests using “When…then” phrases, which I often suggested to parents. “When you finish cleaning off the table, then you can watch your video.” Follow through is vital.
– Ignore whining. I wish I had been told about the normalcy of kids’ whining when I was raising my children. My idea of raising kids was a fairytale. “Yes, mother.” “Glad to do it for you, Mother.” Instead they were able to hook me by their resistance to doing what I’d asked them. In fact, if they resisted long enough, they could throw me into a tantrum. It was pretty entertaining, I suppose. I have heard of parents adding to a chore if their child commenced to whine. “Not only do you get to clear the table, but you get to sweep the floor, too.”
– There are better and worse ways to reinforce good behaviors. State what you see rather than evaluate. Instead of just “good job”, say “Every place has a napkin.” Don’t refer to chores as a way of helping Mom or Dad. Chores are everyone’s responsibility. It is what people do when they live together. The same will be true when they go off to college and have to share living quarters. It is true when they marry.
– Accept the limitations as children are first learning. A preschooler’s bed making will be very different than their older siblings. Acknowledge improvements and efforts. Don’t praise a kid when you know they did a job far below their ability just to get it over with.
– Consequences are the best teachers. I liked to tell parents, “Natural consequences are best unless they are harmful. Make logical consequence look as much like the natural consequence as possible.” An example of a natural consequence is when a child, contrary to house rules, leaves her bike out and it is stolen. A logical consequence would be when the parent puts it away for a while so the child can feel what it would be like to live without the bike. Don’t rescue them from consequences. If their bike is stolen, help them find ways to earn money to buy another.
– Behaviors that are hurtful to others or to the child themselves cannot be ignored. These are good teaching moments. “How do you think your brother felt when he saw that you had broken his model car?” “What do you think you should do?” Teach them about honesty, taking responsibility and making amends.
– Van Gohren suggest that parents who complain will raise complaining children. Model a positive attitude. I have said to my grandchildren, “I love looking at the piles of newly folded clothes. It makes me feel so accomplished.” Or, “I love getting up to a clean kitchen when I get up in the morning.”
– Have a sense of humor. Lighten up.
– I love von Gohren’s statement to frustrated parents: “Remember that (children) are God’s means of completing the growing up of adults.”