Parental Attention, Your Biggest Reward
Your attention is one of the biggest “payoffs” you can give to your children for their behavior. This is both good and bad. When children behave in appropriate ways, we usually give them attention, and attention is a reward that causes them behave that way more often. When we give our children attention for inappropriate behavior, it often takes the form of correcting, scolding, nagging, having logical discussions, arguing, questioning, threatening, etc. Children will respond quickly to this coercion, but unfortunately, the research in human behavior clearly shows that this attention is reinforcing or rewarding the very behavior we want to eliminate. And so, the inappropriate behavior occurs again an again. Since parents are about 4 to 5 times more likely to respond to an inappropriate behavior than to an appropriate behavior, we often get in the trap of rewarding and building the very behaviors that annoy and bug us so much.
There are 5 basic components to parent attention.
– Closeness (physical distance)
The greater any or all of these 5 items, the greater the payoff of parental attention. The more you pay off a behavior, the more likely it will re-occur again and again. This creates a real trap for parents. Just think about your reaction to your child saying, “OK Mommy,” or yelling, “No, I won’t!” Which one creates the most emotion in you? The second one, of course. Inappropriate behaviors evoke greater emotional responses from us as parents, and so our response to our child’s inappropriate behavior will be louder, longer, and more intense. And so we just rewarded or reinforced the very behavior we hate.
So, what should you do when something happens that you do not like? Well, when possible, just ignore it. The skill is called Pivot (or planned or purposeful ignoring). If you feel you must do something, handle it calmly, with as little attention as possible. Remember, STAY CALM!!! If you get upset, your child wins. If you stay calm, you win! (This is true whether you are taking to a toddler or a teen). Be direct and use instructive language like, “No, you may not take the baby’s toy. Choose another toy to play with.” Your child will complain, but you just stay calm and be directive. This will take a few exchanges, but just stay calm. If the child persists, direct her to a specific activity, such as “Draw me a picture.” or “Build me a house with these blocks.”
To make matters worse, the attention we give our children for inappropriate behavior often models poor behavior. The way we behave teaches our child how to behave. If we get upset when things happen that we don’t like, then we are training our child to do the same. If we raise our voice, we are training our child to yell. If we hit (such as slapping the child’s hand), we are training our child to hit when upset. On the positive side, when we stay calm during conflict, we are training our child to stay calm, and when we are patient with our child, we are teaching our child to be patient.
The attention you give to your child is the most powerful reward you can give for any behavior. When it comes to parenting, remember this principle, “You get more of the behaviors you give lots of attention to.” Catch your children being good. Have frequent brief, positive interactions when your child is behaving well. And above all, stay calm and handle the bad behavior as quickly and calmly as possible.