3 Remarkable Research-based Tools to Shape Your Kids’ Behaviour
Depending on the age of your child, each child needs about 50 directives a day just so that your family can function. If the child doesn’t comply with say 30 of those, and you have 3 kids, that’s close on 100 moments of frustration a day. The result for us parents? Rapid aging, moments of completely losing it, and going to bed each night in a fetal position – exhausted, dazed and defeated.
On the other hand, when our kids are mercifully cooperative, there can be great joy in our parenting and family life.
For many of us, our default setting tends to be authoritarian. We demand. We bark orders. But once command becomes our default setting, most of us end up opting for mild to severe coercion rather than cooperation as our modus operandi. This is enticing, because we all know that domination – at times supplemented with outbursts of anger and threats of punishment – is a tried and tested way to get our children to comply in the moment.
But the persistent full frontal assault on the wills of our children has some undesirable side-effects: Not only does it tear away at the relational threads that hold parent and child together, but it undermines the levels of happiness and harmony in the home. It also commonly builds up a residue of resentment that could eventually erupt in a toxic volcano of rebellion in the teenage years.
Five kids in tow, I have been determined to bolster the rare quality of tractability in my kids. In fact a few weeks ago I wrote a post entitled, 20 Ways to Enlist your Child’s Co-operation. Since then I have reflected and read more on the subject. I realized I missed out 7 other points (or as I see them, tools) of critical importance – most of them more important than all 20 in the post before! In my previous post, I mentioned 4 of them. Here’s the final 3…
3 Research-based Tools to Bolster Co-operation.
1. Reward Charts.
Use a Reward Chart System as a cooperation booster every now and then.
For several years Julie and I have stumbled across some kind of point-system which has worked wonders – for a while. Each time, we create a simple chart on our chalk wall that lists for each child a handful of specific cooperative behaviours (usually the positive version of their specific forms of non-cooperation). Then at the end of every day or two, we give our kids points/stars/stickers based on those criteria. When they get x amount of points (in the form of ticks on a list, or maybe marbles in a jar), we may reward them with something we know they want. It could be time on the iPad, or a toy, or some freedom like staying up later on weekends.
So remarkable has this been to galvanize higher cooperation levels that at the time we swore this was the secret to shaping children’s behaviour. We weren’t dreaming – there’s good research behind this method. Dr Alan Kazdin, in his book The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child says this form of positive reinforcment and rewards lead to positive results in 80% of cases of parents who try it, especially when done correctly.
However there is some questions around it. Dr Eileen Kennedy in lecture 4 of ‘Raising Socially and Emotionally Healthy Children’ says that other researchers believe it only works 50% of the time. She also points out the two downsides: One: it only works for a few weeks before novelty wears off, and both parents and kids get bored or tired of it. Two: it doesn’t do much to deepen the intrinsic motivation kids need to succeed in life.
As a result of her insights, and our experience, Julie and I have decided to use a reward chart system no more than once a year, and for no more than 3 weeks. I suggest doing this either in a time of year when your child’s behaviour tends to hit a low point, or when a new small-toy-or-sticker collection craze hits town – which you can use as rewards.
Oh by the way, don’t ever list ‘be caring’ on your reward chart. ‘Research reveals that in most areas rewards work to reinforce a behaviour,’ Peter Vishton says in lecture 17 of ‘Scientific Secrets for Raising Kids Who Thrive’, ‘but in the instance of caring for others, it undermines their future intrinsic motivation to do so.’
2. Win-Win Problem-Solving.
Invite your child to collaborate with you towards a win-win solution.
It was Steven Covey in his book ‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families’ that first persuaded me that, especially as kids get older, collaboration might do more for our children than mere command. Collaboration has a win-win orientation, while command is often experienced by the child as win-lose (Dad won, I lost).
Specializing in applying the win-win mindset to parenting, Social Scientist Ross Green has pioneered CPS (Collaborative Problem Solving) between adults and children. His method involves three steps:
- Acknowledge the child’s concern. They say, I’m not going swimming! And you say, You don’t want to go swimming. How come? What don’t you like about it? They answer, It’s boring!
- Present the two competing concerns: You don’t want to go swimming because it’s boring, but Sacha is waiting to teach you lessons, and it’s important you learn to swim.
- Invite the child to problem solve. Let’s think how we can work this out – do you have any ideas? At this point the child usually repeats themselves, thereby revealing they have never been given the chance to problem solve. So try press them to solve the problem. Maybe there’s something you bring along that will make it less boring?
I did this the other day. For the last year I’ve been letting the kids choose their own breakfasts, but lately Julie has created her own healthy granola cereal. All my kids but Eli choose it. The other day I tried to choose for him – and it backfired. Instead of more sternly imposing my will (You will eat this breakfast today!) I tried Covey’s / Green’s method…
Me: You don’t want to eat the breakfast? How come?
Eli: I don’t like the taste that much.
Me: ‘You choose cereals by their taste. But I want you sometimes to eat cereals for how healthy they are. If you only eat your cereals you win, but I lose. If you only eat mom’s cereal you win, but I lose – in fact you lose too. Can you think of an idea so we both win?’
Eli: My brain is hurting. I can’t think.
Me: Of course you can. (And I repeat the question.)
Eli: What if every morning I take a spoon of mommy’s cereal then I choose whatever I want?
Me: That’s a brilliant idea. Two tablespoons and you have a deal.
Eli: I can go for that dad.
It’s worked perfectly – Eli is no different to you and me. We’re all invested in our own ideas, wanting to prove their effectiveness.
I’m not advocating that we never command, but that we try out collaboration more. In ‘Launching your kids for life’, Bob and Cheryl Reccord write, ‘Children are always more enthusiastic about doing things differently when they’re invited to participate in the development of new plans or solutions, and they will come up with surprisingly useful and creative suggestions of their own.’ Besides, if we’re never willing to be flexible how we can teach our kids to be flexible?
3. Praise Power.
Catch them being co-operative.
I am not a gardener, but I know the rule of the garden: if you want more of something, water it. It’s the same with kids. When they say please or thank you, when they do something you’re telling them to do, or when they desist from doing something wrong – say, Well done for saying thank you / listening straight away / being cheerful while you obey / sharing your snacks / keeping the lego on the table.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve become a black-belt parent at catching them doing stuff wrong, but a yellow-belt at catching them doing stuff right.
Based on 3 decades of study, Dr Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, concludes that ‘Giving attention to undesired behaviors increases undesired behaviors, while giving attention to good behaviors increases good behaviors.’
His research shows that always catching children doing wrong and reflexively and constantly responding with nagging, reprimanding and other forms of punishment actually ‘waters’ the bad behavior! ‘A better way to get children to clean their room or do their homework,’ he summarizes the research, ‘is to model the behavior yourself, encourage it and praise it when you see it.’ How is this best done?
Focus your praise. Affirm the child’s specific behaviour in the moment, but not the child them self. I appreciate the effort you put in there! or Nice attitude or Look, you’re being kind to your brother is much better than You’re amazing or You’re such a good boy. Sheila Eyberg, a psychology professor, recommends parents provide their children with what she calls ‘labeled praise’ – specific feedback that tells the child exactly what he or she did that the parent liked. So for example, when a child tends to struggle calming down, spot the opportunity to say, I really like how quietly you’re sitting in your chair.
Beware of creating an approval addict. You’ve harmed the child if they stop doing things simply because they should or they can, and now only do them for the recognition. So don’t affirm everything. Affirm diversely and randomly. Most importantly, don’t let your child confuse your approval with love. Especially when they don’t get it right, be sure to say, but I love you.
Be honest. Have you ever watched some kids playing a sports game poorly yet still being praised for it? Much better to be honest in your affirmation. Wow, you’re always so considerate! is phony. Flattering your child is to their soul what junk food is for their body – it might sugar-boost them momentarily, but they’re actually weakened in the long-term.
Let me pull together these 3 research-based tools…
- Reward charts – use about once a year, as a super-booster for good and cooperative behaviour.
- Win-win problem solving – use from time to time, mainly when there is a recurring disagreement between child and parent on a matter.
- Praise power – use liberally most days.
One more thing.
By the way, since parenting is life’s most important job, a congratulations is in order … Well done for taking the time to read (and sometimes share) my blogs. Life is packed, but your effort to read it evidences a love for your child, as well as a determination to become a better parent. We’ll never be perfect parents, but hopefully, we can all be better ones than we were yesterday.
Also published on Medium.