January 21st, 2019
A few days ago my 21 month old granddaughter came over to visit with a friend of hers. They were accompanied by both their mothers and had come over to swim in our pool. (Don’t gasp Northern hemisphere readers –we’re currently experiencing a heatwave in Sydney!) The two little girls enjoy each other’s company and were running around excitedly and revving each other up. When one started screeching the other one thought that was a hoot and joined in. The two mums were doing their best to stop the noise. They shooshed the girls and said “no shrieking”, “stop making so much noise,” but to no effect. I realised why. I could see that the toddlers were having so much fun letting off steam after being in the car and now they had lots of space to run around in. And they were getting lots of attention from their mums. My daughter in law and her friend, in their embarrassment, were giving too much attention to the very behaviour they didn’t want. Toddlers are fairly easily distracted so it wasn’t difficult to refocus their attention on something else and so end the noise. As soon as the adults paid attention to something else that is what the children wanted.
Children are hard-wired to get our attention. They have evolved that way because they are born in such a vulnerable state compared to other animals. They are utterly dependant on adult attention for survival. And nothing gets adult attention like crying or shrieking. Whatever we pay attention to we will get more of. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pay attention when our children cry but if we give too much attention to undesirable behaviours we’ll get more of what we don’t want. Many a parent of a small child has fallen into the trap of laughing at something that seems cute the first time only to realise that if repeated that behaviour quickly palls or other people won’t be quite so entranced by it. I made the same mistake when L first threw something out of her highchair by reacting too much –she thought it was very funny and did it again of course. Subsequently when she threw things we just left it and distracted her with something else. She soon stopped doing it.
Adults are used to responding to poor behaviour by saying “No, don’t do that. “That’s silly”. Or “Naughty!” Sometimes we might shout or punish or if the behaviour is really unsafe, such as when a child darts into the road, we might smack out of fear. These responses are supposed to dissuade the child from repeating the behaviour but often they have the reverse effect. Even an older child is very keen to get parental attention and if they can’t get it through positive behaviours they will seek it any way they can. Many time-poor parents inadvertently give too much attention to negative behaviour and not enough to the good things the child does.
This week I’ve been preparing an in-service training for mentors on an adolescent behavioural change programme and realised the same negative patterns occur in the classroom too. When my son, (L’s father) was a little boy he struggled in the classroom because of dyslexia (at that time undiagnosed). He would distract from tasks that were too challenging for him by disruptive behaviour and would get in trouble. He was given demerits and detentions. In the Reception class he had a little book in which his teacher recorded all his missteps, every little (and large) misdemeanour and this was presented to me. When he was in year 1 his punishment on one occasion was to be sent to sit in the Reception year. The idea was to shame him into behaving. All of these sanctions were designed to inform him, and others, of his misdeeds to shame him in the hope that this would change his behaviour. It didn’t. But his self-esteem plummeted. And with that came more poor behaviour.
Paul Dix in his book ‘When the adults change, everything changes’ tells the story of Chelsea who had a chart at school that recorded in two columns all her good and bad behaviour and she formed the view that one cancelled the other out, that if there were more good behaviours at the end of the day she was ahead. Dix recounts that when Chelsea was a young teenager and got in trouble for staying out past curfew she sought to wipe the slate clean by tidying up the house and pronounced “You can’t get me –look what I’ve done.” She did not learn to be accountable for her actions with this behavioural ledger.
Likewise my son’s sense of self was so vulnerable that when his teachers shouted at him he made lied or made excuses for his behaviour and wasn’t able to accept responsibility. This isn’t what anyone intended.
What does work?
Paying attention to the child or teenager’s good behaviour gives our kids the attention they need. It makes it more likely that that behaviour will be repeated. It builds strong connections between us and our children which strengthens our influence –they are more likely to do what we ask. Then when they are doing something we don’t want they are more likely to listen to us when we (calmly) explain why that behaviour isn’t ok. If kids get lots of messages about what they’re doing right their view of themselves is that they are capable and valued. This helps them be resilient and less anxious. Then when they get something wrong they can take responsibility because they see themselves as basically good humans who sometimes make mistakes. We can have problem-solving conversations with our children that help them clear up their mistakes without loss of self-esteem.
To get into the praise habit have a look at our video on the pasta jar. Enjoy catching the good stuff!
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