March 16, 2010

To Stop Bad Behavior, Stop Reinforcing It

The other day at work, my husband saw a child with his father who was engaging in a common act of very poor behavior: he was saying, "Dad.  Dad.  Dad.  Dad," over and over while his father talked with another adult.  We've all seen this, been on the receiving end of it and probably on the giving end as well.

Then the boy upped the ante.  Tired of chanting, he punched his dad's leg as hard as he could.

The father's reaction?  He promptly turned around and said, "Yes, son?" as though nothing strange had happened at all.

There are a couple of things at work here, and therefore a couple of ways to stop the bad behavior all around.

  • Don't ignore your child.  Ok, so it's not quite that straight forward.  You shouldn't jump every time your child speaks, but you also shouldn't blatantly ignore your child, as so many parents do.  If you were trying to tell a friend something and they ignored you repeatedly, you'd feel helpless and devalued; a child feels the same way.   
  • You have to help them learn.  Young children are used to being the center of their parents' world; when they interrupt their parent in another conversation, they aren't trying to be rude.  So, early on, start to teach your child about polite ways to interrupt if they need you and times that they need to wait for you to be ready (like if you're on the phone).  But make sure they know they should make themselves heard in an emergency.  
  • Set up a signal.  Try setting up a secret signal with your child.  If you're talking to someone and they want to talk to you, maybe they can take your hand, rest their hand on your leg or do something else to quietly make you aware of them.  This can help prevent the development of whining, hitting, chanting and other irritating behaviors.  Make sure to acknowledge your child as soon as you can.  
  • Don't build up an immunity.  Try not to build up an immunity to your child's annoying behavior, if they already have a bad habit.  It's annoying to you, your child, the person you're talking to and everyone else around you.  And you're the adult, so it's your job to fix it.  If you've discussed the problem with your child and your expectations are reasonable for their age, follow through with warnings and time outs.  Don't forget to praise good behavior.  
  • Fix it fast.  Don't tolerate bad behavior while your child is three, four and five, and then suddenly expect a change when they turn six.  That's unreasonable.  If you nip the behavior in the bud, it won't get a chance to progress from chanting to whining to hitting.  

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