I have this internal alarm that goes off whenever I haven’t seen or heard my toddler for 60 seconds. The realization usually startles me and I wonder off thinking, “Oh great. What is he doing?” Usually I find him emptying the soil from the potted plants, scrubbing the toothbrush drawer with a (wet) toilet brush, or exploring the markers (which are thankfully washable) at the art table….and on every adjoining wall. It’s a tough job to keep up with kids, and all the things they DO.
When I talk with parents and teachers about child behavior, they often want to know how to get their children to DO something, or more likely, to STOP doing something. I know what they’re getting at, but the truth of the matter is, there are many ways to change what kids DO.
From a behaviorist perspective, you can simply associate behaviors with experiences and –voila– behavior changes to achieve or avoid that associated outcome. Like Pavlov’s dog, it’s assumed that sticker charts and candies, as well as spankings and time outs become synonymous with good and bad choices and will begin to dictate a child’s behavior. It’s very much about the DO: You do this, I do that.
There’s some truth to this philosophy and it can be used in part when combined with good reason. When learning new skills, for example, frequent rewards can be effective, and I would certainly never underestimate the power of compliments and other positive reinforcement, nor the teaching moments that come from natural consequences. But there’s a certain short-sightedness that comes from focusing only on the action side of behavior, the DO.
If your objective is to influence what kids are DOING, there are many avenues that open up. If you think about it, abusive and/or manipulative adults are very good at getting kids to DO what they want. If your end goal is simply compliant behavior, these tactics fit the bill. They are very effective. Hopefully, however, these approaches don’t sit right with you. They aren’t acceptable approaches for many reasons, but in particular, because a few very important aspects relating to behavior are missing. These are the aspects that go beyond the DO to emphasize the BE.
BEING good is really what we’re after. When you begin to look at behavior not as the product itself, but as simply an observable manifestation of who children are BECOMING, a paradigm shift occurs and those missing components become obvious.
1. Respect: If you hope to influence behavior in a healthy way, you have to start from a position of respect. Respect the inner workings of the individual and recognize that problem solving and decision making are personal skills that must be developed and honed over a series of mistakes and guided practice. When we recognize that social skills are learned, we also recognize that respect is also something we model for young children — whether we recognize it or not — in our words and our actions, even as we problem solve their behavior. We can’t teach children to be respectful if we don’t first set a pattern of respect in the way we treat them.
Children may DO nice things, but when respect is a part of who they ARE, many choices they are faced with become instantly clear.
2. Relationships: Dr. Jack P. Shonkoff, Director of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, has said, “There is no development without relationships.” When we see that social and emotional development happens within the context of our relationships with children, and their relationships with each other, we make different choices about how to instill discipline. Methods that erode trust and respect go out the window.
When we teach our children to develop discipline in a way that is respectful, our relationships are strengthened and our teaching becomes more powerful.
3. Principles: Principles, understood and valued, do much more to change human behavior than any amount of bribery or physical punishment ever could. Think about martyrs who have died for a cause or people you know who have turned down jobs or opportunities because the offerings went against their own goals, passions, or principles. Principled people can not be bribed or bought. Their behavior is a reflection of who they are in their core.
We would do well to focus on teaching children the principles — the why’s of behavior — rather than to rattle off a litany of rules and corresponding incentives and punishments. When behavior comes from what children believe, from who they have BECOME, there is more consistency and more integrity than when behavior alone is the end goal.
Kids will make mistakes. But those behaviors — what they DO — are not who they ARE. When we can remind children of who they really with principles, with respect, and within a healthy, strong relationship, the DO part tends to work itself out.
Top photo courtesy of Three Seas Photography.
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