One of the interesting aspects of working with children is the presence of behavior that seemingly doesn’t serve the child’s own self-interest. For instance, a child may be misbehaving at school, getting into trouble at home and not have any clear friendships. It’s a bit hard to understand what would motivate the child to behave this way, and there is often a sense that “he must not understand what he’s doing.” This certainly may be the case. Some children do not see the connection between their own behavior and the outcomes it brings. It therefore becomes quite tempting to repeatedly lecture the child on their bad behavior in the hopes that they will make the connections. Some people will think, “I discuss with my child, I don’t lecture.” That may be the case, to clarify the difference: a discussion is a two way conversation in which both parties contribute equally, whereas a lecture is a speech in which one person speaks far more than the other. Lectures go something like, “you see how when hit David, no one in class wants to hang out with you. Wouldn’t it be better to stay calm?” The young child has a tendency to respond to lectures by breathing out a sigh and saying, “yes, Daddy.” Or worse yet, the child may respond “but you don’t understand.” This leads us to respond by saying “you need to learn to take responsibility for your actions.”
If you are a parent that utilizes lecturing to show your child their mistakes, ask yourself: is it working? Are these lectures leading to a decrease in problematic behavior? Unfortunately, for many of the families who come to my office, it seems that the answer is no. In most cases it seems that these lectures actually lead to greater conflict at home without any significant improvement in behavior. Yet, we are so invested in the idea that the child must be thinking about the situation incorrectly that we believe the answer is more lectures, not less. We try to solve the problem by changing the content or our lectures or by delivering them more frequently.
Before we examine an alternative solution, let’s consider a highly flawed assumption behind lecturing. The most prominent assumption is that problematic behaviors stem from inadequate understanding of a situation. If I can quickly cast doubt on this belief, let’s note how many adults behave in ways that go against their own self-interest. How many adults smoke cigarettes despite knowing that they will seriously harm you? Likewise, how many of us eat a donut when we know that oatmeal is a healthier breakfast? How often do we spend our money rather than save it? Given that adults often do things that they know they shouldn’t, how realistic is it to expect a child to act based on their understand of what is best for them? My thinking is that the answer is “not very realistic.”
We often behave irrationally, not because we don’t understand a situation but because we aren’t motivated by rationality. We are motivated by short-term consequences, such as the delicious taste we will experience. Therefore, one way to modify a child’s behavior is to modify the immediate consequences.
To do this, explain to your child that the next time they hit another child at school, regardless of the reason, they will lose their screen time at night. Then when it comes time to remove the screen time, let’s avoid having a lengthy discussion. Simply state “you hit David at school, so you lose your screen time tonight” and don’t discuss the matter further. If your child complains, which is likely, ignore their complaints and pretend as though you didn’t hear them.
When he gets his screen time back the following day, ask “Do you remember why you lost your screen time last night?” If he can tell you, “because I hit David” then you say “good job remembering.” Let’s not spend time discussing why it was a bad idea to hit David and how it would have been so much better to enjoy his screen time yesterday. The consequence for hitting was the loss of screen time and it should not be compounded by a lecture or shaming the child for their behavior.
Then ask the child “what could you have done instead of hitting David that wouldn’t have resulted in losing screen time?” See if he can identify any alternative behaviors; if he can’t, you may suggest some. But the idea here is to avoid lecturing and rather encourage him to generate solutions. Possible solutions include “take 3 deep breaths and say calmly ‘please give me back my toy.’” Or, “Ask the teacher for help solving the problem by saying, ‘teacher, I want to play with the truck and so does David. How can we solve this problem?” Or “Play with a different toy, like the other truck instead.”
Please note: it is all too easy to skip over the alternative behaviors part, or rush through it. Kids learn quickly that they can say “not lose my temper” and their parents will move on feeling satisfied that their child has “learned their lesson.” Unfortunately, “not lose my temper” is not an actual solution because it isn’t an alternative behavior; it’s a lack of a behavior. The question is “How will you not lose your temper? What will you do to calm down or distract yourself?” It’s also not good enough for a child to say “tell the teacher.” We want to add, “what will you say to the teacher specifically?”
Children aren’t very interested in discussing solutions; they’re feeling impatient and simply want their privileges back. The best way to manage this is to not give them back their privileges until they answer the questions in a sufficient manner and in a respectful way. If they can’t do this, say “you sound too upset right now to treat me with respect. I’ll come back in 10 minutes and hopefully you’ll be ready to discuss then. Once we talk, I’ll give you back your Nintendo DS.” When you return ask them “are you ready to discuss calmly with me now?” If the answer is still “no,” tell them again, “I’ll come back in 10 minutes and hopefully you’ll be ready to discuss then.” They will likely protest; just ignore them and return calmly in 10 minutes. The idea here is to avoid lecturing them that “you need to calm down.” Rather, you are showing them through your actions that you won’t interact with them when they scream at you.
In summary, rather than focusing on how you can get your child to think differently about a situation or assume that they’re thinking is the issue, let’s try an alternative approach. Let’s show them through our actions, rather than our words, that their behavior has consequences. Let’s devote our focus to specific alternative behaviors that the child could do next time instead. If there is no improvement in a period of 3 weeks of consistent enforcement, then you’re caught in a system that isn’t working. This could be because the consequence isn’t effective. For instance, maybe the consequence is losing Nintendo DS time, but the child has simply started watching more TV and they don’t actually mind losing the DS. Another problem is that the connection between the behavior and the consequence could be too far removed. For instance, “if you hit a child today, you won’t get to go to summer camp” would be problematic if summer camp isn’t for 8 months. That means it will take 8 months for the child to actually experience the consequence of their behavior. Or the last (and most likely) problem is that the alternative behaviors identified aren’t specific or feasible for your child. Children who get into trouble frequently learn very quickly to give generic answers to get adults to leave them alone. As noted above, don’t accept answers such as “don’t lose my temper” or “just get over it,” because they aren’t specific alternative behaviors. The question is: the next time someone steals your toy, what specifically will you do instead of hitting them?