It feels like déjà vu to me.
Billy misbehaves, so Dad gets in his face to convince him that the behavior is unacceptable. Dad builds a case like a lawyer, spelling out as many reasons he can think of to discourage Billy from behaving that way again. Then Dad follows the evidence with sentencing. But ten minutes after Billy is out of timeout, he’s a repeat offender.
We want kids to link their actions to consequences, but bombarding them with information is giving them too many cords for one outlet. We need to simplify our process if we want to actually get through to them and inspire them to behave better.
So before you arraign your juvenile for his next infraction, slow down, and choose just one of the following responses.
Option 1: Ignore them
Why would you ignore somebody you love? Sometimes kids, even subconsciously, just want attention. And if their behavior gets that attention they crave, they’ll repeat that behavior.
A former mom-boss told me how she thought “What would Michael do?” when Hugo was acting out. In his tantrum, he went into the bathroom and pulled the toilet paper from the roll, calling upstairs that he had done so. Instead of scolding or punishing or reacting at all, she kept about her business. A few minutes later, Hugo began gathering the toilet paper up and calming himself down.
Ignoring isn’t necessarily a default response. The only way to ignore children appropriately is to ignore them intentionally (i.e. only in response to behaviors that are perhaps obnoxious but not unsafe). As the child learns that their destructive behavior doesn’t work, they’ll choose other (and eventually constructive) means to get your attention.
Option 2: Enforce a consequence
But some behaviors merit a consequence.
For a consequence to be effective, it must be directly related to the behavior. Taking away dessert privileges for breaking a lamp reflects the parent imposing his authority rather than informing the child of the situation, which is what we’re after. Doling out punishments inspires fear and disempowers children; developing introspective skills and awareness discourages the behavior in real, sustainable ways that can be extrapolated to future situations.
However, it is crucial to the application of a consequence that it be presented devoid of emotion. If the father is angry when he tells his daughter to clean up a mess, then the wires get crossed and she may believe she is sentenced to clean up because her dad is angry and mean, rather than realizing it’s to rectify her action.
Option 3: React authentically
We’re human. We react like humans. If you have an emotional reaction to something the child did, sometimes the best thing to do is to just let it out.
If you try to use this as a manipulation to manufacture some response, you are really lying to your child and yourself. But if you are truly saddened, disappointed, frustrated, or otherwise upset by something your child did, articulating that sentiment can serve as a discouragement in their mind.
A loving relationship is the reward of parenting, and if you have built that strong bond, the child won’t want to hurt your feelings. I’ll say, “I’m mad that you stretched out my shirt” or “I’m sad that you broke my Lego tank” and then Hugo can use this information to frame his perspective on how to behave.
Once you’ve chosen how you want to respond, give that response its moment to sink in. After you see that the child has processed the situation fully, you can then open up a discussion and expand upon ideas or feelings. Or perhaps you reacted authentically in the moment but there’s still a broken lamp or errant T.P. so after a little while, it’s time for the consequence (time to clean up!) The situation may call on diverse responses, but in due time. Put simply: don’t overwhelm the child in the moment.
Overloading the child with lots of reasons he erred just dilutes each point so it’s less likely to be retained. We want the child to learn and mature, so the next moment you’re struggling to find an appropriate response to destructive behavior, make it easy on yourself and do one thing at a time.