Tag Archive for behavior

A New Year’s Resolution for Parents

Little girl baking christmas cookies

The new year is just around the corner and many of us are contemplating a “New Year’s Resolution” for the coming year. As parents, we might consider what kind of resolution could help us become better parents. To help us decide on a good parenting resolution, I recommend a “2-week parenting audit” to help you think of possible resolutions around parenting. Don’t worry, it’s not hard or guilt inducing. It simply helps us identify areas in which we can grow. This “audit” consists of listening to yourself as you talk to your child and counting 3 things.

  1. Listen to yourself and count how many times you say “no” compared to how many times you say “Yes.” Don’t get me wrong. “No” is an important word for a parent. “No” sets limits for our children’s health and safety. But “no” can also interfere with our children’s creativity and appropriate exploration. Learn to say “yes” as often as you can. When possible, find a way to modify a “no” into a “yes”.  Instead of “no, you can’t have a snack right now,” say “yes, after dinner you can. I don’t want you to ruin your appetite with one before dinner though.”  Learning to say “yes” can help a parent think about the “true reason” for having the rule or limit. Knowing the “true reason” for a rule can also help a parent identify a “yes” alternative that still satisfies the rule. Children will learn the “spirit” of the rule or limit when a parent learns to effectively balance “no’s” with “yes’s.”
  2. Listen to yourself and count how many times your correct negative behavior compared to how many times you acknowledge positive behavior. It’s easy to find ourselves constantly correcting our children.  Unfortunately, a constant focus on correction blinds us to the times our children engage in positive behaviors. Our children will also become discouraged believing they “never do anything right.” We need to make it a practice to look for the positive behaviors in which our children engage and to verbally acknowledge those behaviors. If we make this a daily habit, our children will surprise us with even more positive behaviors. We will also discover the “need” to correct negative behavior decreases as positive behaviors increase.
  3. Listen to yourself and count how many times you offer your child a directive compared to how many times you offer an opportunity to connect. Yes, a lot of tasks need to be completed around the house and our children often need prompts to help them remember to do their part. But when directives outweigh connection, you have a recipe for rebellion. Sometimes a directive can even be couched in an opportunity to connect. For example, “Please help me cook dinner tonight. We can talk while we cook.” Or “The living room is a mess. Help me clean it up so we have more time to do something fun together.”

After you have counted and looked at each of these comparisons, make your New Year’s Resolution. Do you need to say “yes” more often? Do you need to acknowledge positive behaviors more often? Do you want to speak words of connection more often? Or, if you’re like me, you may want to improve in all three areas. Each one will help build a more intimate relationship with your child while teaching them important life skills. I have to ask: which one will you work on next year?

Do Not Steal Your Child’s Passion

Unbelievable. Well, sort of….  I guess it really does make sense when you think about it. Let me explain and you decide what you think.

The researchers chose only preschool age children who showed an interest in drawing to participate in this study. Then, they divided the preschool children into three groups. One group was told they would get a reward, a certificate with a gold seal and a ribbon, after participating in a drawing activity.

The second group received the same reward, but it came as a surprise. They were never told about the reward and knew nothing about it until they received it after the activity was completed. During the activity, they simply enjoyed the drawing activity with no expectation of reward.

The third group participated in the drawing activity but did not receive a reward and no reward was ever talked about. They simply enjoyed the drawing activity with no expectation of reward and no reward to enjoy after the activity.

The most important part of the observation occurred after the drawing activity (which was only six minutes long by the way). After the activity, the research team observed the children through one-way mirrors for several days. They wanted to see how much the children drew on their own. What did the researchers find?

The children who were told they would receive a reward for the drawing activity drew less (50% less!) after the activity than they had drawn prior to the activity. The other two groups drew the same amount before and after the activity. The expectation of reward changed the child’s behavior…but not in a way one might think. In fact, the expectation of an external reward robbed the children of their internal motivation and resulted in less drawing. After experiencing the expectation of reward for drawing, the children seemed more interested in drawing for the expected reward, not just the intrinsic joy and interest they once had for drawing. They associated drawing with an expectation of reward rather than satisfaction and joy. They lost the intrinsic reward associated with drawing. Unbelievable…but other studies support these results.  For instance, based on the results of 128 studies, researchers concluded that “intangible rewards tend to have a substantially negative effect on intrinsic motivation.”

Does this mean we should never reward our children? Not exactly. Rewards have their place. Rewards are helpful when a child has to do something they have never enjoyed. Rewards may also prove beneficial when they come as an unexpected surprise. So, go ahead and use rewards, but…and these are significant but’s…

  • Do not tie an expectation of reward to something your child already enjoys. Pay attention to what your child enjoys and simply let them enjoy it. Remember, most children enjoy helping (Children Help Without Nagging? How Can It Be?).  Let them help for the intrinsic joy it provides.
  • Do not create an expectation of reward for learning or school. You may undermine any intrinsic motivation your child has to do well, learn, and achieve in school. Instead, enjoy some spontaneous, unexpected celebrations for completing a project or, better yet, for the effort your child invested in their schoolwork.
  • Helping others for no reward is often intrinsically rewarding. Look for opportunities in which your child (and/or you) can engage in helping others. For instance, if your child enjoys math or English, they could tutor another child. (Learn more in Give It Away for Family Fun.)

Nurture your child’s intrinsic motivation. Don’t steal their passions and interests by indiscriminately building an expectation of reward for activities they already enjoy. Wisely choose what areas an external reward may prove helpful. But  simply encourage activities in which your children already enjoy and have intrinsic motivation.

A Dad’s Crucial Role Starts Early

A study published in the Social Service Review (September 2020) confirms the importance of a father’s presence in their children’s lives. This study used data collected over a 10-year period (starting at five-years-old) to explore the impact of a father’s involvement on the behaviors 15-year-old children. They discovered that a father’s social engagement with their children as well as time spent with their children led to fewer behavior problems in 15-year-olds. A father’s quality involvement in their children’s lives impacts their behavior for the better. But how much will it improve their behavior?

This study (read a review) found that increasing father involvement among families from lower socio-economic-status (SES) reduced the differences in behavior of 15-year-olds from higher SES groups. Specifically, a father’s involvement with his children reduced the gap between lower and higher SES groups in behaviors like aggression, depression, and delinquency by 30-50% in children who did not live with their fathers. Their involvement reduced that same gap by 80% for those children who lived with their fathers. Even more powerful, this study suggests that a father’s active presence in his children’s early life has a significant long-term impact on their adolescent behavior.

Interestingly, cash support did not have this significant of an effect on adolescent behavior. Children need hands-on, time invested, social engagement of fathers to really make the behavioral difference we want, not cash. (Father’s still need to support their children financially. Children need the financial means to meet daily needs. But a father’s active involvement in their lives can impact their behavior beyond what simply throwing cash their way does.)

Fathers, your involvement is crucial, pivotal to your child’s future. Get involved. Experience the joy of engaging your child today and you will experience the joy of a relationship with them for a lifetime.

Parenting & Science

Remember way back in middle school, maybe even elementary school, when you first learned the “scientific method”? If so, you might remember the first step in the scientific method. The very first step any good scientist makes is on of observation. She becomes curious about some event or experience she observed. Her observations lead her to recognize patterns and those patterns raise interesting questions. What’s happening? How did it start? What are the possible outcomes? What forces create the event? Interesting questions then lead to compelling hypotheses and exciting research to assess the possible patterns.

Like effective scientific research, effective parenting begins with observation. Effective parents observe their children with a keen curiosity. When we sit back and observe and, by doing so, we learn about our children. We begin to see patterns in their personality. We recognize their strengths and identify their areas of growth. Observation helps us learn patterns like how they interact, resolve conflict, and solve problems. We learn what bothers them, what interests them, and so much more.  Recognizing all these patterns and characteristics in our children increases our trust in them. We better appreciate their abilities and, as a result, let them practice more independence. Observation also helps us discipline more effectively. We will know how to best intervene when the need arises. In other words, observation helps us identify various patterns in our children behaviors and personality. When something unusual happens, our observations allow us to ask interesting questions. Those interesting questions eventually become compelling hypotheses that help us intervene effectively to teach our children what they need to grow and mature.  (Read Parents as Perpetual Students for more on parenting effectively by observing our children.) So, begin your parenting efforts like a scientist. Sit back and observe. Let your curiosity grow and learn about your children. You will love the results.

An Ounce of Prevention

Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” That’s a wise saying for many areas of life, including parenting. It is much more satisfying to prevent the crisis rather than deal with a problem after it arises; to look ahead and avoid the trouble rather than deal with the aftermath of troubling behavior.

With that in mind, here are a few preventative steps to take with your children.

  • If you want your children to eat healthy foods, eat regular family meals in which you serve healthy food.
  • Remove TV’s and game systems from your children’s bedrooms to prevent your children from spending all their time in their bedroom.
  • Buy fruits and healthy snacks to keep in your house instead of junk food if you want your children to limit the amount of junk food they eat.
  • If you want to limit how much time your children spend playing video games, get them involved in community activities with your family and as individuals (like sports, dance, music, youth group, etc.).
  • Build strong relationships with your children by showing interest in their activities, having regular family meals, and engaging in open communications with them to decrease the chances of your children becoming involved in drug use.
  • Model enjoyment of reading, read with your children, and share books with your children to raise children who read.
  • Involve your children in significant household chores and do the chores together if you want your children to become hard workers.
  • Each day spend time with your children identifying things for which you are grateful to help prevent children who develop a sense of entitlement.
  • Model kindness to others and to your family in order to prevent your children from becoming rude.
  • If you want your children to become creative and learn to have fun, get toys that require imagination— like dolls, action figures, and empty boxes.
  • If you want your house to be the house where all the kids come and so allow you to keep an eye on what they’re doing, keep lots of food in the house and build positive relationships with your children’s friends.
  • Teach your children an emotional vocabulary as they experience various emotions in order to prevent future meltdowns.
  • Apologize when you are wrong to prevent irresponsibility in your children.

Each of these preventive steps will lead to healthier children and a happier home.  Benjamin Franklin was right. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!”

Think Like a Child to Discipline Well

Learning how children think helps parents discipline well. It’s true. Knowing how children process information gives parents crucial information for effectively stopping unwanted behavior and teaching desired behavior. Take lying for example. Studies suggest that up to 96% of children lie (see Help! My Teen Lies to Me for information on teens lying). So, if you have children you will have to deal with children lying. But, consider how children’s reasons for lying changes as they mature.

  • Disobedient boyThree-year-olds lie to avoid punishment. Even if you catch them with their hand in the proverbial cookie jar, in the act itself, they will lie in an attempt to avoid punishment. When researchers asked five-year-olds about lying, 92% said lying was “always wrong.” Still, they lied. Why? To avoid getting punished.
  • Things seem to change around six-years-old. Six-year-olds no longer lie when caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Instead, they tell the truth hoping it will make their parent happy (and it usually does). They no longer lie to simply avoid punishment but to keep their parents happy as well. They want the reward of parents who are happy with them.
  • When children hit the “preteen” years, they demonstrate an awareness of the impact of lying on others. They become more considerate of other people’s feelings and the potential risk lying poses to relationships. About 22% of eleven-year-olds carry some guilt for lying. They want to part of a group and know that lying can isolate them from the group.
  • 48% of eleven-year-olds say that lying destroys trust. They know that lying breaks down the social order. If a person lies, who can you trust…and how can society operate without trust.

I share these findings to make a point. Children think differently at different ages. To discipline effectively, a parent needs to consider their children’s developmental level and address the behavior at that level. In other words, they need to think like their children. A three-year-old may respond to a simple time out in a chair while a six-year-old will need more…like the constant acknowledgement of positive behaviors. Six-year-olds love to help their parents, providing an excellent opportunity to teach them chores and responsibilities. Eleven-year-olds begin to understand how behaviors impact their relationships and the world around them. Our explanations for appropriate behavior need to include this information. (More on child development in 5 Steps of Moral Development)

You get the idea. Listen to your children. Listen to how they think and observe what they find important. Learn about the changes that occur in children as they mature (More on development at Ages & Stages from Healthy Children). Use all this information in creative ways to discipline your children…and enjoy the rewards of your effective discipline!

3 Steps to Teach Children Better Behavior

Effective discipline involves teaching appropriate behavior, not just punishing negative behavior. In fact, the most effective discipline focuses first and foremost on teaching positive behaviors with these three steps.

  1. Mother And Son Doing LaundryModel the behavior you want to see in your children. If you want honest children, model honesty. Tell them the truth. Keep your promises so they know “your word is good” and truthful. If you want your children to avoid drugs and alcohol, live a drug-free lifestyle. If you desire polite and considerate children, be polite and considerate to your children as well as the adults around you. if you want children who have clear boundaries, set clear boundaries yourself. if you notice your children consistently engaging in some negative behavior, check your own behavior. Make sure you are not modeling that behavior in some way. Teaching positive behavior begins with you your own behavior. Model the behavior you want to see in your children.
  2. Point out the effect of you children’s misbehavior on those around them. Statements like “If you run through the crowd, you might knock someone down and hurt them,” “Your friend is sad because you won’t share,” “People in this restaurant are getting irritated with your loud behavior.” Pointing out the effect of their behavior on others can help your children learn to consider the consequences of their behavior, recognize how others are responding to their behavior, and to have empathy for others.
  3. Teach your children the behavior you desire. Don’t expect your children to know what behavior you expect. Show it to them. Explain it to them clearly. This may be as simple as cleaning their room with them or folding clothes with them so you can teach as you go. It can also include heart to heart discussions on topics like drugs, public behaviors, dating boundaries, expectations around driving. You could speak about these topics directly or through characters in stories or movies, current events, or experiences of friends. Whatever the topic, keep the expectations clear and concise. Avoid lecturing and nagging. Just dive in clear, concise and to the point. I know. It may seem like our children should already know better. But, how will they know unless we teach them? We need to make sure they know. So teach them again. The conversation may feel awkward; but a little awkwardness is worth the assurance that our children know exactly what is expected of them. And, that awkward conversation will actually contribute to a deeper relationship as well.

For a great example of this behavior read Dunkin’ Donuts & a Better Behaved Child and notice how this mother:

  1. Modeled the behavior she desired by staying calm.
  2. Explained the effects of her child’s behavior on others.
  3. Taught her child the behavior she desired.

Enjoyed the results!

Catch the Little Rascals Red-Handed

Children love to get attention from their parents. They will work to gain your attention by any means necessary. I’m sure you’ve noticed this truth on more than one occasion. For instance, the time your child quietly played until you received an important phone call and Father Daughter Chatthey suddenly “needed you.” Or, the time you tried talking to a friend but your child suddenly appeared and began to tap your shoulder and called your name. Your children do this because they crave your attention. They need to know you find them more important than a favorite TV show, book, phone call, game, or store clerk. This fact provides us with an amazing parenting tool…your attention. In fact, the attention you give your children will powerfully reinforce their behavior. Your children will do whatever behavior effectively gains your attention…and do it more often to gain your attention. So, give your child attention when they whine or tantrum and they will whine or tantrum more often. Give them your attention when they put their dirty dishes in the dishwasher and they will do that more often. Let me repeat these principles so we don’t miss them:

  1. Children crave their parents’ attention.
  2. Children will repeat any behavior that elicits attention from their parents. They will even increase that behavior to gain their parents’ attention.

Attention becomes a powerful tool in changing your children’s behavior. Any powerful tool must be used with caution. Attention is no exception…powerful when used with caution. So, use the tool of attention with these 3 hints in mind.

  1. Don’t just give your children attention willy-nilly. Give them attention for positive behavior. Catch the little rascals red-handed being good. Catch ’em red-handed in the midst of positive behaviors and give them attention for that positive behavior.
  2. Avoid giving your children attention for negative behavior. Nagging, scolding, and yelling provide your children with energetic attention that will increase the negative behavior you’re actually trying to stop by yelling! Instead, give negative behavior as little attention as possible. Ignore it if you can. If you must address the negative behavior, do so in as neutral a tone and non-energetic a manner as possible. Save the energetic interactions for positive behaviors.
  3. Be creative in how you give your children attention. For instance, you can:
    1. Give attention through physical affection like hugs, kisses, high-fives, pats on the back, etc.
    2. Give your children attention with simple 1-3 word acknowledgements like “thank you,” “that’s great,” “cool,” “this is fun,” “I appreciate that,” I enjoy our time together,” etc.
    3. Give attention with specific recognition of positive behaviors they have done. Do this with statements like “Thank you for (taking out the garbage);” “I really appreciate it when you (clean your room);” “I see you’re (washing the dishes);” “(You made your bed), thank you;” etc. You get the idea. Be creative and acknowledge what you see your children doing well.

Give this powerful tool a 2-4 week trial. Catch the little rascals red-handed being good. Acknowledge it with a simple statement or gesture. Try it out for 2-4 weeks. You’ll find your children’s positive behaviors increasing, their undesirable behaviors decreasing. No, they won’t be perfect, but you will see improvements. You’ll have more fun, positive interactions with your children. Life in your family will improve.

Oh, Those Cute Little Attention Suckers

Children crave our attention. They constantly bid for our interactive presence in their life. Exhausted MomThey want us to join them in their world—to become present in their life, and to remain aware of their presence in our life. And, our children will do whatever it takes to make sure they maintain our attention. You have experienced this, I’m sure. Your child is sitting quietly in a room doing their own thing. The phone rings and you begin a conversation with one of your friends. Suddenly, your child wants to ask you questions…they need your help…they want to talk. You ask them to leave you alone for a moment while you talk on the phone. The next thing you know, they are picking up your crystal vase or doing cartwheels in the dining room. They have turned into an attention sucking vampire. Underneath all their questions and crazy behavior, they simply crave your attention and will do whatever it takes to get it! But wait…do not read too many negative intentions into this desire for recognition and attention. After all, they really do need us to survive. Children need us for everything from managing their emotions to regulating their impulses to providing them with food. Still, the little attention sucking vampires can drain a parent of energy. So, what is a parent to do? Here are a couple suggestions to help your child develop a healthy level of attention seeking behavior. It begins with us giving them positive attention.

  1. Catch ’em being good. I realize this is an old saying and perhaps sounds a little cliché; but, if you practice catching your children being good, their negative attention seeking behavior will decrease. They will learn that you are not only aware of their presence, but you are pleased with their presence in your life as well. They will know you delight in them. If you do not “catch ’em being good,” your children will learn that being bad will definitely get your energy and your complete attention…and negative attention is better than no attention. So, put in the effort to “catch ’em being good” every day.
  2. Play with them every day. Take some time every day to engage your children in some playful activity. Let them pick the activity. The activity can range from reading a book to going to a park to playing with dolls. Whatever activity you choose, spend the time focused on your child. Notice their strengths and acknowledge their imagination. Support their creativity. Laugh. Hug. Play.
  3. Respond to your children quickly. Do not ignore your children’s requests. Respond to them. You do not always have to say “yes,” but have the respect to respond. When your children begin to “act up,” respond quickly. If they begin to get angry or frustrated, respond early. Do not let them escalate before responding. If you do not respond quickly, your children will escalate. Their attention seeking behavior will become more adamant and intense. Their frustration will become a tantrum. Their “acting up” will quickly get out of hand. Why? Because they have learned that they have to escalate to get your attention. When you respond quickly, your children learn that they have your attention before they escalate.
  4. Acknowledge your children’s desire non-verbally when you are busy. If you are talking to a friend and your children come up to get something from you, put your arm around them. If your children begin to tell you something when you are not able to answer in length, simply let them know you will “answer them in a minute.” Then immediately address their need when you can. By acknowledging their presence and their need, you have let them know you are aware of them. They are on your mind. By addressing their need as soon as you can, you build trust. Your children learn to wait because they can trust you not to forget them in the process.


These four suggestions can help turn your cute little attention sucking vampire into a teddy bear, a child who knows his parents delight in him and hold him in mind. He will trust his parents to provide the attention he needs and seek that attention in more positive ways.

5 Tips to Improve Your Child’s Behavior

I loved working with John (name changed for privacy reasons), a seven-year-old boy who had a seizure disorder and was very active. I learned so much spending time with him and his family. Part of my job was to take John to the neurologist for his check-ups. One day, John and I sat in the patient room waiting for the neurologist to see us. John was bored and started to explore…well, explore may be an understatement. He began to spin around in the chair, climb onto the sink and then the shelves. He climbed onto the bed to see how high he could jump. He climbed into the window sill. He started to touch various medical instruments in the room. I tried to stop him but I was young, inexperienced…and obviously had no idea. I just followed him around asking him to stop, trying to redirect him. He simply moved to the next object and touched, climbed, jumped, threw, pushed buttons, flipped switches, and anything else he could. Then the doctor walked in. He looked around the room and realized I had nothing to offer. He smiled at me and quietly walked to the exam table and pulled out a little wind-up toy. He wound it up and set it down. It banged tiny cymbals and then did a backward flip before starting the process all over again. John immediately stopped running around the room and watched the toy. When it stopped, the doctor showed him how to wind it up. John wound it up and watched it go. The doctor left to continue his work, returning several minutes later to see John. I learned an important lesson that day. If you want to change a child’s behavior, change their environment. Here are some simple ways Thomas Gordon identified to change a child’s environment in order to improve behavior:

Enrich the environment. Provide lots of stimulating and interesting things for your children to do. Children do best when they have interesting, challenging activities to hold their attention. Pick an area in which your children can play safely and fill it with age appropriate activities that will attract their attention.

Impoverish the environment.  When we impoverish an environment, we reduce the stimulating, challenging activities available. I know it seems contradictory, but we can easily enrich some environments for our children and impoverish others. For instance, we may enrich the family room of your house but impoverish the bedroom. Impoverish the bedroom environment so your children have fewer stimuli to attract their attention when it is time to go to sleep. This may mean no TV, no video games, and no phones in the bedroom.

Simplify the environment. Modify the environment so your children can do more things independently. For instance, put clothes where your children can get them and put them away independently. Keep a stool by the sink so they can wash their hands without your help. Put unbreakable cups within easy reach. Make the environment conducive for independent, age-appropriate activities.

Prepare your children for changes in the environment. Children like consistency and predictability. When things happen unexpectedly, or when you have to do something that the children cannot predict, they become upset and act up in their stress. And, as you know, changes happen. Families encounter new or unexpected experiences. When this occurs, do your best to let your children know ahead of time. Discuss with them what will happen. Let them know what is expected from them. Encourage them and acknowledge their cooperation.

Plan the environment for increasing responsibility and independence. As your children mature, they can become more independent. Plan ahead for this growing maturity. For instance, create a space for teen privacy. Purchase an alarm clock so children can start getting themselves up in the morning for school. Knock before entering your children’s room. Create a message center for sharing information when the schedules get busy. Discuss appropriate curfews and make sure family members have house keys.

You can change your children’s behavior by changing their environment in any of the ways mentioned above. Of course this won’t fix everything, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure…why wait until the misbehavior occurs when you can change the environment ahead of time and maybe even prevent it?  

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