A parent’s pandemic survival kit: Are you rewarding bad behaviour? Part 2

The phrase, “be good” is just an anxiety-provoking nebulous idea that threatens rejection.

Many years ago, I was babysitting for a family with two school aged boys. One day, the older brother decided to give his younger brother a pounding just before he went out the door to see his friend.

I informed him that he doesn’t get a ticket to ride after beating up his brother and I calmly ordered him to stay home.

I thought my idea for a suitable “natural consequence” was bang on because it made him so furious! I thought that he will really remember this result the next time he thinks about beating up his brother.

The boy ended up calling up his mother at work and raising a big stink! As it turned out my excellent idea for an effective natural consequence, that was unpleasant for him but not abusive or demeaning in any way, was all for naught. When his mother came home, she didn’t even seek out the younger son who was the recipient of the pounding but instead went straight to the offending son and, apparently sorry for him, gave him a sympathetic hug… a hug for beating up his brother! Is it any wonder kids behave so badly sometimes?

I realize that she gave him a hug because he was unusually upset by my “bang on” natural consequence—like his mother had never seen him upset before!

It made him very raw because I targeted something he really valued. He would have probably preferred a scolding or even a slap—as long as he could still do what he wanted! This shows how “natural consequence” is not a watered-down substitute for punishment. It can pack a punch!

I can appreciate how difficult it is to vigilantly monitor one’s responses for the sake of cultivating positive behaviour patterns, but it will pay off. I am quite guilty of rewarding bad behaviour myself… with my cat! When he wants to come into the house, he scratches at my door. Being too lazy to come up with an alternative, I reinforce his scratching every time I open it for him!

Now, I realize I will never train him out of it, and I will always have a bunch of ugly cat scratch marks on my door! If children realize that they can become the centre of attention (positively or negatively) by acting badly, they will keep acting badly.We tell our children to “be good” without defining exactly what that is.

The phrase, “be good” is just an anxiety-provoking nebulous idea that threatens rejection. Adults need to point out to children exactly when they were “good,” give them a description of their actions (something we do in great detail when they misbehave) and then reward them with attention, a high-five or a trip to the ice cream store. Children can’t understand what being “good” is unless we give them very specific real-life examples, such as, “I liked how you shared the train set with that little girl at daycare,” or “You are so polite! You always say please and thank you!” or “Wow! You ate all your vegetables!”

Creating a positive experience right after “an incident of good behaviour” will cement it the into the child’s neural pathways forever.

I get so dumbfounded when I see adults become fully engaged by children who behave badly, acting like moths drawn to a flame. Instead, we should be engaged by children when they behave well, and then celebrate it. Once committed to that shift in orientation, you may be surprised by how many kind, caring, respectful and generous things kids can do!

Debra Lynn has a BFA in art and design from the University of Alberta and an MA in art education from Concordia University in Montreal. She is the instructor and coordinator of the “Little Picassos,” “Paint Club” and “Adventures in Art” art programs for kids in Port McNeill

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