There is one more parenting skill I want to share in this little series that I have started here. I had an opportunity to use it yesterday so it is fresh in my mind.
I do water aerobics a couple of times each week, not in a class, but on my own which I do in the pool of the local AmericInn which is open to people who want to use the pool for this purpose. I have learned that it is the best therapy for my osteoarthritis and the more I do it the more effective it is. Yesterday my daughter asked me to watch my 5-year-old grandson, Jackson. I’d taken him with me to the pool before but only when an older sibling was along to keep an eye on him while I did my exercises. He has a life jacket but he is eager to be able to swim without it and once in a while gives me a hard time about being able to take it off. He will test me when he doesn’t have it on by walking near the edge of the pool and threatening to jump in. Having another able-bodied person like his older brother or sister is a great help if I am to allow myself the distraction of doing my exercises.
I knew that if he was a problem, I could surrender my exercise regime and turn my full attention to him, but there was a second problem that wasn’t so easily solved. I might have to go to the bathroom while we are at the pool and after the swim, I would be in the bathroom changing, which takes several minutes. I didn’t trust him but I took a risk. I told him that whenever I went into the bathroom, he would have to sit on one of the lawn chairs around the pool until I came out. First I told him that it is a motel rule that a child under 14 has to be accompanied by an adult and that if we break the rule, he, and perhaps even I, won’t be permitted to come back again. I added that, even if that were not the rule, I am a worrying Grandma and if he breaks the rule I won’t not bring him back to the pool because I won’t know if he will stay safe while I leave him.
Jackson was great in the pool. He stayed near the shallow end when I asked him to and when I was done with my exercises I let him swim freely with his jacket in the deep water and in the shallower end I let him practice swimming without it while I stayed close to him.
When it came time to end our fun, I reminded him of the rule and had him sit on one of the chairs. When I was dressed and came out of the bathroom Jackson was still sitting on the chair where I had left him. I said to him, “This makes me feel like I can bring you back again and I won’t have to worry about your safety.” As we left, the motel manager and assistant were standing at the reception desk. I stopped to tell them what had just happened. “He did exactly what I asked him to do and now I can bring him back,” I said. He was beaming, and the manager and her assistant, thankfully, supported me by smiling and telling him what a trustworthy kid he is.
The parenting skill I was using is this: “Catch them at being good.” The principle is, “A child will do more of what give your attention to than those things you don’t”. I prefer the latter statement because we aren’t always talking about being good or bad nor are we talking about obedience. We are talking about giving attention. When we can acknowledge a behavior that we want a child to repeat by simply naming it and they are more likely to repeat it. For example, a parent might say, “You remembered to say thank you.” You don’t even have to say that you are proud of them. If their behavior is always about making you proud, that can lead to a kind of codependent relationship in which they will always be looking for your approval. You can add to an acknowledgement what you see as a positive consequence of their behavior. “Did you see the smile on that lady’s face when you thanked her? I think it made her feel appreciated.” Even when a child behaves a certain way because we asked them to, their doing what we asked is their choice and that is what we should acknowledge. It is empowering because the power is within them rather than coming from the parent.
When I began my career as a parent educator, I learned that many of the techniques I used when I raised my own children were wrong no matter how well intentioned I was. One of the mistakes I made was because of the wrong belief that when children are told what they were doing wrong, they will automatically seek to do the right thing. It wasn’t very effective. When I learned this principal, I realized that the negative attention I was giving children by always noticing where they had failed was actually encouraging the negative behavior rather than the opposite. Negative attention is, after all, attention.
The principle I have shared here of giving attention to the behaviors you want repeated is the opposite of what I had been taught and practiced, and yet it is probably the most powerful of any I have learned. I see it working in my grandchildren all the time. I am grateful for this second chance.