How many hours in a day do you spend telling your kid how to behave: don’t touch that, don’t hit you sister, don’t eat with your mouth open, don’t leave your clothes on the floor, stop doing that, don’t jump on the couch, don’t run in the supermarket, don’t run on the road, don’t leave your toys lying there…
If you have several kids, it can get pretty exhausting repeating the same thing day in day out. Worse, whatever you say rarely seems to have any impact on your child.
Most parents struggling to change specific behavior in their children make this one mistake: they focus on their child’s misbehavior rather than on the behavior they want to see. The problem with focusing on your child’s misbehavior is that this strategy does not allow him to identify the kind of behavior he should replace problem behavior with. In other words, “don’t leave your toys lying there” does not tell him what to do with the toys instead.
The thing with focusing on the behavior you want to see is that it allows your child to know exactly what is expected of her. That behavior is more likely to become habit, even though this will not happen overnight. In other words, although you might still have to repeat instructions, positive instructions are more likely to lead to the behavior you want and are much less tiring to repeat than negative ones!
Two things to keep in mind when focusing on your child’s behavior
1) Be as specific as possible
The more specific you are, the easier it will be for your child to behave according to what is expected of him. When dealing with more serious problem behavior such as aggressivity, being specific about the kind of behavior expected of your child makes it easier for you to monitor that behavior and to apply the consequences associated with misbehavior.
2) Transform negative instructions into positive instructions
Like I said earlier, negative instructions such as “don’t” and “stop” do no more than get you immediate results. They do little to teach your child about how she is expected to behave. To get the behavior you want, let your child know exactly what is expected of her:
- Instead of “don’t touch that”, you could say “you can take it only when we’re together”
- Instead of “don’t leave your toys lying there” you could say “toys in the toy bin”
- Instead of “don’t stand on your chair” you could say “chairs are for sitting”
- Instead of “don’t run in the supermarket”, you could say “stay close to me/the trolley in the supermarket”
- Instead of “don’t run in the parking lot” you could say “you must give me your hand every time we are in a parking lot” or simply “hand”
- Instead of “don’t leave your book on the floor” you could say “all books in the book shelf”
- Instead of “don’t jump on the couch” you could say “couches are for sitting”
You get the picture:
- Speak quietly…
- Put your clean clothes in your wardrobe…
- Put your dirty clothes in the hamper…
- Remove your dirty shoes before you get into the house or house slippers in the house…
- We change our underwear every time we take a bath…
- We eat at the table…
- Everyone who lives in this house must do chores…
- Talk with respect… Do your homework first…
- Ask if you don’t understand…
- Do your chores first…
- We wear protective gear when rollerblading…
- We wear helmets when riding a bicycle…
If you are dealing with more problematic or dangerous behavior, being specific about the consequences of that particular behavior also makes it easier to monitor and reduce that behavior:
– stay close to me/the trolley in the supermarket on you won’t come with me next time
– wear your helmet or you won’t be able to ride your bike
– Remover your dirty shoes before you get into the house or you’ll have to clean up after yourself
– Wear protective gear when rollerblading or you won’t be allowed to roller blade
Need help developing a solid discipline strategy? My free Making Discipline Work Email course will walk you through effective child discipline strategies. Based on proven scientific research, it weaves research and practical advice to propose practical tools and resources you can put to use immediately.
Thank for sharing this with us.
Would this apply to teaching how to get dressed correctly? It’s not a behavioural issue but there that negativeness when children get something wrong.
More than 50% of the time children who get dressed independently will quite naturally get it “wrong” and we’ll be there to put it right. Help them with shoes on the wrong feet, tops on back to front. Is this constant correcting a good thing? Especially when kids don’t really learn left from right until about 6 years old.
I’d like to think we should just leave them and prize them for there initiative at this stage.
I’ve always been for independent kids:) And definitely more positivity.
Thanks for you comment Eli.
I agree with you with regard to your example – I think it’s important to minimize our intervention and encourage kids to “get things right” by themselves (for example by asking questions to get them on track) even though this might take time. Other things that may help include noticing and praising the correct behavior, reinforcing specific behavior, etc.