Like all parents, I love my son – more than I knew was possible. The sense of responsibility we carry to ensure we teach them good behaviour can be daunting even for the best of us. Nothing reduces confident, loving, well-meaning parents to uncertainty and guilt faster than not understanding and managing the behavior of our precious children.
When thinking about children’s behaviour, most of us think of discipline. However, there are two main steps in managing behavior. First, it is most important to reinforce positive behaviour, creating habits and situations that make good behaviour more likely. Only after this step has been firmly established should we consider the second step of managing children behavior - Controlling and eliminating negative behavior, including discipline strategies. This article will focus on the first step - Supporting positive behaviour so that discipline may not ever really be needed.
Over the last two decades, I have read some great books, been to some very important parenting talks, and spent hours researching and talking to parents about children’s behaviour. I am so very grateful for some of the great advice I have received over the years – advice I turn to, depend upon almost every day of my life. When I really sit back and reflect, none of the advice is ‘the latest’ but out of the thousands of hours and pages, a few experts stand out and I am also happy to share really good stuff with you.
Tip 1: Practise play, praise and positive language
For me, the most important influence has been from Carolyn Webster-Stratton and her wonderful book “The Incredible Years”. From her, I learned what I consider to be the 3 most important practices in promoting positive behaviour of all kinds: Play, Praise and Positive Language.
Play comes first because it is what I always consider first. Children are much more likely to misbehave if they haven’t had enough time to play. For children under 4 years old, parents are still the most important playmates. I have a 4-year-old and I am sure he would be shocked to discover that I do not actually enjoy playing with Lego, or playing ‘picnic’ with his stuffed animals, and -- my least favorite of all but his favorite – playing Ghostbusters. My play with him is an investment in his well being; if he is whining or being defiant, my first consideration is pausing to consider the amount of positive relaxed time we have shared over the course of that day. I have concretely noticed that his behaviour improves after we settle down to play for a little while. The mornings are a particularly important time to have good behaviour as everyone in our house is rushing out to a busy and long day. Our mornings have gotten much simpler since we started waking 30 minutes earlier to fit in a small play session before we all rush out of the door.
During our play session, I make sure to use the next two important tools I learned from Webster-Stratton. The first is a conscious effort to keep my language positive. Instead of saying “Don’t…” and “Stop…”, I say “Can you please…” reframing language into the positive sends clearer, more structured message. “Don’t run” becomes “Walk, please”; “Stop yelling” becomes “Indoor voice, please”. Reframing to the positive redirects both of us to what should be happening instead of focusing on the negative.
Praise is the most important aspect of positive behaviour reinforcement I gained from reading and following Carolyn Webster-Stratton’s work. Praise is simply the most effective tool we have - It works because it gives a simple reward for a job well done, providing useful information about how to repeat the positive behaviour. Praise helps us all to feel good about what we have done and provides a natural incentive to do it again. It is possible to praise a child too much – but only in theory – because in this busy world, who has the time to overly praise a child? Most of us struggle instead to get in a few words of praise each day, even with focused efforts. I am always falling a little short of where I would like to be in relation to praising my son, my spouse and my colleagues; it is vital to all of us to know what we are doing right and have it acknowledged.
Tip 2: If it is not life-threatening or morally threatening, let them do it.
The next piece of advice that I have gotten comes from this famous American parenting expert, Barbara Coloroso, and her groundbreaking book ‘Kids are Worth It’. This deceptively simple piece of advice is short, catchy and easy to remember – but so difficult to apply with consistency. Sometimes it can be a challenge not to over discipline – every parent gets into a nagging cycle from time to time – because it can seem like children just require constant guidance. And that is exactly why I use this phrase - In my mind, I ask “Is it life-threatening?” or “is it morally-threatening?” It gives me pause, just that few seconds I need, to question whether I am nagging my son or not. It can be easy to slip into a cycle of constant verbal contact, but constant instruction and scolding diminish the power of our words and makes your child’s heart hardened to your guidance. It is important to find a balance in correcting our children, and thus I have found this simple phrase effective in providing me with a useful little bit of advice when I am feeling uncertain about whether a particular action is an important behaviour to discipline or not.
Tip 3: Determine the rules and whether you're prepared to enforce them
The next piece of advice is along the same lines as the last piece of advice and comes from Lew Powers, 21-year veteran Boy Scouts director. The advice is again deceptively simple, but challenging to practice. I have found it useful and important to children of all ages. This statement gives me pause about the rule I am about to make for a child or a group of children. Am I really prepared to enforce this rule? Is this behaviour or situation really important enough to create a rule? Rules must be simple and realistic because children must be able to do them and understand why they must be done.
If I go around making unnecessary or not properly considered rules – for example, those that are not considered life-threatening or morally threatening – then it may be difficult for the children to remember all of the rules. For example, if I tell my child that he needs to finish his dinner before he can leave the dinner table, then I need to make sure that happens, even if it takes a long time. If I give in without my son finishing his dinner, I have undermined any consequences I hope to implement in the future. It is more valuable to pause, and consider whether I really have the time and energy to ensure he stays at the table before I make the threat. It helps me be realistic and focus on the more important rules.
Tip 4: Be aware of the 'talk, persuade, argue, yell, hit' syndrome
The last piece of advice is given by Thomas Phelan, a humorous and systematic parenting expert. It describes a set of behaviors that are so common among parents and children – perhaps the most common discipline cycle. It is the 'Talk, persuade, argue, yell, hit' syndrome. For example, a child asks to eat some junk food right before dinner.
In response to the child, the first thing most parents do is Talk: “No, you can’t have it right now, we are about to have dinner.” The child whines “But I want it!” The parent responds with
The parent responds with Persuasion: “You can have a cookie after you finish your dinner.” And because, persuasion rarely works, the child continues to escalate; “I want it now! I don’t want dinner!” The parent becomes frustrated and begins to
The parent becomes frustrated and begins to Argue: “You will not have it, and if you do not stop you will not get any dinner either!” The child responds “I don’t want dinner!” and this can go back and forth for a while, everyone becoming more frustrated. The volume of voices increasing until parent and child are both Yelling. And then unfortunately in some situation, this escalating anger can quickly become physical with
Unfortunately in some situations, this escalating anger can quickly become physical with Hitting – parent hitting child or child hitting parent. It is a complicated cycle of interactions, but very difficult to avoid. Over the years, I have kept this description in mind and tried to work
It is a complicated cycle of interactions, but very difficult to avoid. Over the years, I have kept this description in mind and tried to work backwards through the cycle: Eliminating yelling, then eliminating arguing and now avoiding persuasion. Statements like: “You need to eat your dinner, and finish it before you can leave the table.” need to be non-negotiable, as soon as you begin negotiation with your child, you have a very good chance of losing that negotiation as children can be remarkably tenacious when they want something. Children can spend an hour engaging in negation over eating 2 pieces of broccoli, and in the meantime tiring and frustrating their parent, without suffering much ill effect themselves. Children are happy to negotiate, even at times, argue with you, because they have your attention that whole time and still are not eating dinner, ultimately getting what they want. Stopping this cycle is up to you as a parent, which is why this has been such a valuable piece of advice to ruminate on - it reminds me just how quickly behavioural situations can slip out of control.
I started with introducing the 'play, praise and positive' practice as it is the ultimate way to create and reinforce positive behaviour, and to avoid the need for discipline. Tips 2 - 4 are used to decide when it is important to set rules, which may or may not need to be enforced. We all want to create environments where positive behaviour is encouraged and reinforced, so that the need for discipline is a last resort and ultimately used infrequently and ideally, not at all.