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Parenting Strategies

Last Updated: 10/24/2018 5:41 PM

Dr. Glenn Latham's book "The Power of Positive Parenting"

Intro  ::   Rule 1  ::   Rule 2  ::   Rule 3  ::   Rule 4  ::   Rule 5  ::   Review

"The first half of our lives is controlled by our parents. The second half is controlled by our children."
- Author Unknown


Knowing the principles of human behavior is one thing; applying them well is quite another thing. The two together constitute what I have referred to earlier as a working knowledge of the principles of behavior. In this chapter I discuss five strategies which, when used appropriately, will help parents create and maintain a happy, supportive home environment. I talk about managing-even controlling-behavior. Such a discussion sometimes offends people. Some people take the position that we have no right to control the behavior of others. This is true if our intention is to control the behavior of others simply to satisfy ourselves, if our intent is basically selfish. (That's manipulation.) On the other hand, particularly as parents, we have a responsibility to manage, and sometimes control, behavior, and it is foolish and irresponsible to think otherwise. The following quote from Murray Sidman's book Coercion and Its Fallout helps make this point:

"Should behavior be controlled?" is ... a meaningless question. Behaviors are always being controlled; we have no option. But the question of who is to control remains a matter of concern to everyone, particularly when coercive control predominates. Denying the existence of control provides no reassuring answer to the question of who will do the controlling. Such denial will only leave control in the hands of those who would coerce the rest of us for their own advantage.

We must design a world in which we can behave well.

In shaping and managing behavior, there are no quick fixes.

Everyone's behavior is continually under the reinforcement control of something in its immediate environment. Our job as parents (to say what I have said time and time again) is to create the kind of environment that will exercise positive control over the behavior of our children. (That's management). Dr. B. F. Skinner, world renowned psychologist, said it well when he said, "I've created a world where everything I do is positively reinforced. I've redesigned a world in which I can behave well." That is our responsibility in behalf of ourselves and our children, to create a world where we and our children receive immense amounts of positive reinforcement; to design a world in which we can all behave well. My wife, Louise, recently observed, "You're not controlling kids. You are making it easier for them to behave well." That is such a wonderful way to put it.

When I begin my work with parents, I often ask this question: "For whose good are you wanting to change your children's behavior-yours, the children, or both?" It isn't unusual for parents to want to change the behavior of their children simply to get their kids out of their hair! The well-being of the children may not be the main consideration. In such instances, it is not the children's behavior that is questionable; rather, it is the parents' motives. Another question I ask parents is, "Are you prepared to be consistent and exact in your approach to shaping your children's behavior?" Parents are often looking for a quick fix, something that will turn a monster into a dream child overnight and with a bat of an eyelash. That's not what I'm talking about in this book. I'm talking about a gradual, methodological, systematic approach to organizing an environment that will reinforce children for behaving well. But as parents, we must be honest about our motives. We must first accept as fact that in the course of growing up, children will behave in ways that annoy us. Most of these behaviors are simply age-typical, garden variety, weed behaviors that go along with growing up. They are just part of the territory, the heat of the kitchen: leaving a mess, sibling rivalry, moodiness, mouthing off, messy bedrooms, poor eating habits, sloppy and even bizarre dress and grooming, seeming carelessness and selfishness, refusal to comply, and the list goes on.

Typically, such behaviors are less important than how we as parents respond to them. An appropriate response would put the behavior in a proper perspective without doing damage to the child. A beautiful example of how parents should behave in such instances was published in Guideposts, February, 1983, in a brief article entitled "A Lesson Warmly Taught", by Jill Taylor. The author recalled an experience as a teenager when she failed to return home on time after attending a dance in a neighboring city. Anxious about her mother's reaction, she lamented to her date, "The minute I get home my mother'll lace into me. She'll be waiting at the door."

To the girl's surprise, her mother had gone to bed, leaving a light on to welcome her daughter home. But the best surprise of all came as she slipped into bed between "the icy sheets." "Instead of coldness, I found a pocket of warmth." Her mother "had tucked a toasty-warm hot-water bottle" into the foot of her bed. Rather than being met with a scolding, she was met with warmth and security. "Suddenly, intensely, I didn't want to disappoint my mother with my laxity and lateness anymore. And you know what? I didn't!"

Earlier, I talked about age-typical behaviors, and gave several examples of them. In most instances, age-typical behaviors are not as inappropriate as they are uncivilized.

As parents we must realize that children are in the process of becoming civilized.

As parents we must realize that children are in the process of becoming civilized. Our job is to civilize them, that is, teach them how to behave appropriately within the society of human beings. To judge children's behavior using adult's standards is both inappropriate and unfair. (This is addressed in detail in Chapter 4, On Being in Control.) Parents who get angry at a baby for crying are the ones who are behaving inappropriately, not the baby. Parents who strike a child for accidentally spilling his milk at the dinner table are behaving far less appropriately than did the child. For an adult to scream and holler at a screaming and hollering child is an example of an adult abandoning civility; hence, the adult is behaving far less appropriately than is the yet-to-be-civilized child. (This is illustrated in Figure 4.1) As parents, therefore, we must be very careful that we understand the behavior the child is exhibiting before we respond to it, then respond to it in a mature, scientifically sound way.

Love, kindness, patience, understanding, and so on are all wonderful qualities parents should possess. Unfortunately, in these difficult times where there are endless distractions-" forbidden fruits" that are so tempting and seductive-parents need to learn to skillfully use tools to both build and fix the behavior of their children. The five rules of parenting discussed in this chapter give parents specific direction, including the very words they can use, to help create an environment in the home that will properly direct and strengthen behavior. In discussing these rules, I also call your attention to how the principles of behavior that were discussed in Chapter 2 apply to making these tools effective.

The five parenting rules are:

Rule 1: Clearly communicate your expectations to your children. This includes a clear description of those behaviors which will get your attention. This is typically taught best in a role-playing setting.

Rule 2: Ignore inconsequential behaviors.

Rule 3: Selectively reinforce appropriate behaviors.

Rule 4: Stop then redirect inappropriate behavior.

Rule 5: Stay close to your children.


Intro  ::   Rule 1  ::   Rule 2  ::   Rule 3  ::   Rule 4  ::   Rule 5  ::   Review

RULE 1: Clearly communicate your expectations to your children. This includes a clear description of those behaviors that will get your attention. This is typically taught best in a role-playing setting.

Rather than simply telling children what you expect of them, role play those expectations.

At the outset, make certain your children understand exactly what you expect of them. I'm continually amazed, as I visit with parents and their children who are having problems, at how unsure children are of what their parents expect, and how those expectations change given the mood of the situation. When the child says to a parent, "I didn't know what you wanted me to do!" and the parent angrily responds, "What do you mean you didn't know what I wanted? What are you, stupid?," I know there is a serious communication problem concerning expectations.

Suppose, for example, that you expect your children to come to the dinner table when called. Rather than simply saying, "When I call you for dinner, I want you to come immediately. Now, do you understand that?", role play your expectations with your children. Here's how you could do that. Seat your children around the table and in a very calm, pleasant, controlled voice and demeanor say:

Parent: "Children, when I call you for dinner I expect you to be seated at the table within 30 seconds after I call you. Billy, what do I expect you to do when I call you for dinner?"
><em>Note<em>: Don't ask the children if they understand what you are saying. A yes or no answer is not sufficient. Be sure you get a substantive response so you know they heard you and understood you. Also, direct your question to an individual child, not to all the children at once.
Billy: "Ah, Mom, this is dumb! Don't treat me like a baby. I know what you mean when you tell me to come to dinner."
><em>Note<em>: If the child should respond in this way, be very careful that you are not drawn into an argument or an unrelated discussion about your intelligence or how mature the child is. Rather, simply restate your question.
Parent: "Billy, what do I expect you to do when I call you for dinner?"
><em>Note<em>: This is called the broken record approach. It instructs us that if a child's response is not in line with what we expect, ignore that response completely and restate, perhaps rephrase, the question. If you do this calmly and without argument, the probability is very, very great the child will give you an appropriate answer, typically requiring no more than two repeats of the question/direction. The child's response might be given grudgingly and sullenly, but don't attend to any of that junk behavior, as follows:
Billy: "Oh, this is stupid. You want me to come to the table when you call me!"
Parent: "Thank you, Billy, That is exactly what I expect. When I call you, I expect you to come to the table. Thank you for that answer."
> <em>Note<em>: With this response the parent has cut through all of the extraneous junk behavior and has gotten immediately to the heart of the matter. The response the parent wanted was the response that got the parent's attention, and as we learned earlier, behaviors that are attended to in a positive way are behaviors that are strengthened. Remember, pay no attention to those inconsequential behaviors you don't want repeated.
Parent: (Turning to another child), "Mary, how quickly do I expect you to come to the table when I call you?"
><em>Note<em>: Since Billy didn't give the parent a complete answer (he didn't say "within 30 seconds"), it is necessary to pursue the expectation until all aspects of the question have been adequately addressed and responded to.
Mary: "I don't know. I forgot."
><em>Note<em>: Unless parents get substantive responses from their children regarding expectations, it is altogether possible that key components of the expectations will be left unaddressed only to cause problems in the future.
Parent: "Listen carefully, Mary. When I call you to the table I expect you to be seated within 30 seconds. Mary, when do I expect you to be in your chair at the table after I call you?"
><em>Note<em>: You will notice that the parent prompted the child to pay attention by saying "Listen carefully, Mary." This is a directing, sometimes redirecting, statement. Whatever you do, don't say some dumb thing like "For heaven's sake! Don't you ever listen to anything I say?" Sometimes, since children's minds wander, particularly in situations where they are not happy, it is helpful to prompt them to pay attention.
Mary: "You expect me to be in my chair within 30 seconds after you call me. But Mom, that isn't fair! What if I'm busy doing something? Am I just supposed to drop it and come to dinner just because you called?"
Parent: "Thank you, Mary, for listening carefully. You are exactly correct. I expect you to be seated at the table within 30 seconds after I call you."
><em>Note<em>: Notice, the parent did not get side-tracked by the child's resistance to the expectation. The parent complimented the child for listening carefully and repeated to the child what she said that was consistent with the parent's expectation. Everything else was left unattended. Don't give attention to any behavior you don't want repeated! (What principle of behavior applies here? Look back at principle #1: Behavior Is Strengthened or Weakened by Consequences.)
Pay no attention to inconsequential behaviors you don't want repeated.

Once the parent is absolutely certain the children have a clear understanding of what is expected, it is time to discuss consequences for compliance and noncompliance. Remember, the consequences of behaviors are what maintain or eliminate them. (An extended discussion of consequences is found in Chapter 5.) Now, back to our example.

Parent: "Good, I'm glad you listened carefully and understand what I expect you to do when I call you to the table to eat. When you meet these expectations, you will continue to have those privileges you enjoy so much. What are some of those privileges, Billy?"
><em>Note<em>: Don't tell the children what those privileges are. In fact, never tell children something they already know. Let them tell you. It can be very instructional for you, and it engages the child in the discussion in a very dynamic way.
Billy: "Do you mean to tell me that if I don't come to the table within 30 seconds after I'm called you're not going to let me watch television!"
><em>Note<em>: A response like this is very instructional. Now you know exactly what the child values most: watching television.
Parent: "Thank you, Billy. Television is one of those privileges you really enjoy."
><em>Note<em>: The parent did not answer Billy's combative question. This is very important. Parents who allow themselves to be drawn off track to answer such questions simply yield control of the situation to the children. When that happens, the ball game is all over, and no one has won.
Parent: "Mary, what are some privileges around the house you really enjoy?"
Mary: "Well, I like playing with my Barbie doll, but you're not going to take my Barbie doll away from me just because I don't come to the table are you?"
><em>Note<em>: In both of these children's responses the parent was immediately made out to be a bad guy who won't let the children do things they want to do just because of some stupid rule. That is certainly the implication. Pay no attention to this. Rather, search the children's responses for those bits and pieces of information that are in line with your instructional intent and build on those. Ignore everything else.
Parent: "Yes, Mary, you really do enjoy playing with your Barbie doll. Billy and Mary, when you come to the table to eat within 30 seconds after you're called, you will have earned these privileges for the rest of the day. Mary, what privilege do you earn if you come to the table within 30 seconds after you're called?"
><em>Note<em>: The parent has put privileges in their proper perspective: as something children earn as a result of proper behavior. The availability of these privileges is entirely up to the children. It isn't a matter of whether the parent is a good guy or a bad guy. The ball is completely in the child's court and what he or she does with it is his or her business, as are the consequences.
Mary: "You'll let me play with my Barbie doll for the rest of the day."
Parent: "Thank you, Mary. That's right, you will have earned the privilege of playing with your Barbie doll for the rest of the day."
><em>Note<em>: The parent did not respond to the child's saying, "You'll let me..." The parent merely restated the consequence in terms of what the child had earned.
Parent: "If, on the other hand, you become distracted or careless and don't come to the table within 30 seconds after I've called, we will start eating without you and you'll have denied yourself the privilege of playing with your Barbie doll or watching television for the rest of the day. Furthermore, if you are more than a minute late coming to the table, you will have to wait until breakfast (or lunch or dinner) before you can eat. Billy, what will happen if you chose to not come to the table in time?"
><em>Note<em>: Since children will sometimes dawdle endlessly before coming to eat, its a good idea to put limits on how long they can dawdle before they lose the privilege of eating. And remember, if they do lose the privilege of eating, don't worry about it. I've never known an otherwise healthy, well-fed child to starve over night. (Of course, this strategy would be modified if there were compelling medical reasons why a child must not miss a meal.)
Billy: "This is absolutely the dumbest thing I've ever heard in my life. I can't believe you, Mom. What's so important about coming to the dinner table within 30 seconds or a minute? I can't wait until I'm old enough to get out of this dumb house and away from all these stupid rules that treat me like a baby!"
Parent: "Mary, what will happen if you fail to come to the dinner table on time?"
><em>Note<em>: The parent has completely ignored Billy's juvenile and defensive outburst. There wasn't a single thing Billy said that was worth a response. Not a single thing! Under those conditions, direct your question to another child. If there isn't another child, simply redirect the question to the one child. "What privileges will you deny yourself if you choose to come to the table late?"
Mary: "If we don't come to the table within 30 seconds, we won't be able to play with our toys or watch television for the rest of the day. If we don't come to the table within a minute, we won't be able to have supper either."
Parent: "Thank you, Mary. Now I know that you understand exactly what I expect. Thank you for listening carefully and answering correctly.
>Billy, what can you expect if you don't come to dinner on time when I call?&quot;<td>
Billy: "I know what you mean, Mom. No T.V. or no supper! Brother, I can't believe this is happening."
Parent: "Thank you, Billy. I'm glad to know you completely understand what I expect, and that you understand perfectly what to expect if you do or do not come to dinner when called."
Never tell children something they already know. Let them tell you.

All of this shouldn't take more than a few minutes. Don't drag it out. Make it brief and make it crisp then let the children be on their way. Don't be concerned if the children don't agree with you. Agreeing is not that important, assuming that your expectations are reasonable. But their understanding of your expectations is important. Once you have that established, including an understanding of the consequences for compliance or noncompliance, terminate the discussion there.

Now, let's move on to the moment of truth: the children have been called to come eat.

Parent: "Billy and Mary, it's time to eat. You have 30 seconds."
><em>Note<em>: When the children are called, the parents should use a pleasant voice, even a lilting voice, during which time the expectations of the parent are restated in brief detail. As the children come to the table on time, be sure to acknowledge that.
Parent: "Thanks, for coming to the table when you were called. I really appreciate that."
Billy: (Muttering under his breath) "That's the dumbest thing I ever heard of."
Parent: (Changing the subject) "Mary, what exciting thing happened to you at school today?"
> <em>Note<em>: At this point, any number of responses might be forthcoming from either of the children. In any event, it is important that the parent be certain to not attend to any of the mouthy, sullen, disgusting, age-typical, inconsequential behaviors. Rather, the parent should move the discussion along in a positive way, picking up on cues that are provided by the children as to which responses to attend to and reinforce and which responses to simply ignore and allow to die on their own. When handled correctly, with lots of reinforcement being given to appropriate behavior, even the most sullen, disgusted, out-of-sorts child will enter a discussion in an attempt to get a few of the goodies the parents are so lavishly handing out.
Agreeing with parental expectations is less important than understanding them.

The example above involved younger children. Here is an example of how parents would state their expectations to an older adolescent child. The parents are expressing their expectations about when the child should be in at night.

Parent: "Sid, it is very important for you to be home at night at a reasonable hour. Why is that so important?"
><em>Note<em>: Again, don't tell the child something that he or she already knows. Let the child tell you.
Sid: "I know you want me in early, but I don't know why. There is nothing the matter with me being out late. I'm doing okay in school, I'm not getting into trouble, so what's the big deal?"
Parent: "We know it annoys you when we talk about this, but it is very important. Why is it so important?"
><em>Note<em>: Rather than responding to the child's questions and getting side tracked, the parent showed empathy and understanding then came right back to the original question.
Sid: "I really don't know why it is such a big deal. I suppose you think I need my rest or that I'm safer when I'm home."
Parent: "Those are good reasons, Sid. You do need your rest, and home is certainly a safer place to be at night, particularly late at night."
><em>Note<em>: Here, again, the parent cut through all the extraneous, distracting, age-typical junk behavior and found those pearls of wisdom that were worth paying attention to. Everything else was just junk and was left alone.
Parent: "All things considered, Sid, we have concluded that you should be home on school nights, and that includes Sunday nights, no later that 9:30, and on Friday nights and Saturday nights no later than mid night. Those are the times by which we expect you to be home."
Sid: "What! 9:30 on school nights and 12:00 on weekends!' What do you want me to do, lose every friend I've got? That is just flat-out unreasonable. I won't do it and you can't make me do it."
Parent: "You are correct, Sid, we can't make you do it, but we expect you to do it anyway, and when you meet our expectations, you will continue to earn the privileges of this family that you really like. What comes to your mind when I use the term 'those privileges of the family'?"
Sid: "I suppose that you are telling me that if I don't get home at night by ridiculous times, you are not going to let me use the car anymore. Is that what you are telling me?"
Parent: "You are correct, Sid, in assuming that the use of the car is one of those privileges that you will deny yourself if you decide to stay out later than 9:30 at night on school nights and midnight on weekends. What other privileges will you deny yourself?"
><em>Note<em>: The parent put the burden of responsibility squarely on the child's shoulders, acknowledged the child's accurate perception of the parent's expectation, and moved forward with the discussion without being drawn off course.
Sid: (Sarcastically) "Well, I suppose you could lock me out of the kitchen or out of my bedroom or even out of the house."
Parent: "No, we are not going to starve you into submission or invite you to leave home. You mean far too much to us to do a thing like that. Sid, we are sorry this kind of discussion annoys you, but it is because you mean so much to us that we feel it is important to have this discussion."
><em>Note<em>: Again, empathy and understanding were used while at the same time reassuring the child that he is a valuable member of the family unit. Though the child may appear to be disinterested in this expression of affection, and even say things to that effect, the probability is very, very great that he is glad to have heard it and is reassured by it. Never conclude that just because a teenager says some-thing rude and ugly in response to a tender expression of affection the child didn't appreciate that expression of affection. Remember, he is still in the process of becoming civilized and has a lot to learn about how to respond appropriately to parental love and affection. Some kids will have learned this well by late adolescence. For others, it may take awhile. Everyone learns at a different rate whether we are talking about learning to read or do arithmetic or to deal appropriately with expression of parental affection. (Chapter 9, "Dealing with Hate and Anger," has more to say about this.)
Sid: Sid:"Frankly, I don't know if the use of the car is that important to me. After all, I have a lot of friends with cars and I'm sure they won't mind using their cars when we want to go some place. So it's really no big deal to me. If I don't get to use the car, so what! I have options, you know. I'm not the baby you think I am."
Parent: Parent:"You are certainly correct when you say you are not a baby. In fact, you are a very able young man and when you are ready to assure us that you will comply with our expectations, the privilege of using the car will be yours. Give it some thought, and if you would like to discuss it later, just let us know."
><em>Note<em>: The parent has once again assured the boy that he is valued and that the privileges that are under parental control will be extended to him as soon as he is ready to comply with parental expectations. The boy hasn't been told that he will not be able to stay out longer than the parents want him to. To do this is very risky and can persuade a child to do everything he can to make sure the parents' expectations are not met.
> Unless children are willing to comply, either because of their respect for their parents or because of their wanting to enjoy the privileges of the home that are under parental control, parents of older children must not delude themselves into believing they can &quot;make&quot; their children do anything. Expressions to that effect are simply invitations to a child to rebel even further. Rather, parents should wait until the child wants the privileges of the home that are under their control and then make those privileges available (contingent) upon those expectations being met, all the while being on the lookout for opportunities to reinforce those behaviors that are consistent with parental expectations. For example, when the child does come home by the expected time, the parents should reinforce that with such statements as, &quot;Hi, son. Glad to see you home safe and sound. And by the way, thanks for being home early.&quot; Then, if possible, accompany this with a hug, a pat on the back, or some other appropriate physical contact. Furthermore, if it's not awkward to do so, it's a good idea to engage the child in a pleasant, non-judgmental, non-moral-bound discussion about something that has happened during the day, or recently, which was of interest to the boy: events surrounding a ball game, something that was reported in the news, a family happening, something at school, or whatever. These discussions don't need to be long. A discussion of this type need last just a few minutes, and if pleasant can have a great effect in bonding the child to his parents and increasing the probability that he will continue in the future to comply with their expectations.<br> With older children, achieving the desired level of compliance takes longer and might even find the child engaging in what we call counter-control behaviors; for example, deliberately doing exactly the opposite of what is expected. A sort of extinction burst. Don't be intimidated by this. Remain calm, proceed in a positive, direct manner consistent with your expectation, and carefully observe the direction of the behavior. Give the treatment time to work. Usually within a week to 10 days, you'll begin to see improvement. You won't likely "be there" in that length of time, but you'll likely see behavior moving in that direction. If you do, acknowledge it in a positive, reinforcing way. If you don't, restudy the consequences then make adjustments accordingly. Don't expect miracles. Be systematic.
Use empathy and understanding, but stay on course.


Intro  ::   Rule 1  ::   Rule 2  ::   Rule 3  ::   Rule 4  ::   Rule 5  ::   Review

RULE 2: Ignore inconsequential behaviors.

As I noted earlier, many (in fact, most) of the annoying behaviors of children are not worth paying attention to at all. The question is, "Which ones should be attended to and which ones shouldn't?" Certainly, there is no way of identifying with absolute certainty and in every situation which behaviors should or should not be attended to. As a general rule of thumb, age-typical behaviors such as mild sibling rivalry, and when children are just being mouthy with one another, should be ignored. Occasionally, children will scrap with each other even to the point of pushing, shoving, grabbing, and hitting, more for the purpose of annoying than for hurting. These behaviors can usually be ignored. Just turn your back on them or completely walk out of the room. Say nothing about them. Don't even look at the children when they are behaving this way. Behave as though the children are not even there. Children who fuss over toys or territory or what's fair should generally be ignored. Children who argue with one another and exchange meaningless verbal blows should be left alone.

Most of the annoying behaviors of children deserve no attention whatsoever.

If the condition of a child's bedroom is creating a rift between a parent and a child, it is better for the room to be left a mess than for the relationship between the child and the parent to be a mess. This is not to mean that parents should make no effort whatsoever to teach their children neatness, orderliness, and care for their immediate environment. But in the long run, it isn't how neat, orderly, and careful children are with their bedrooms or bathrooms that determines how neat, orderly, and careful they will be with their own homes as adults. That is determined by the model set by their parents. As children grow into adulthood, they don't typically model or maintain their own childish or adolescent behaviors. Rather, as adults they tend to model the behaviors of the adults who were prominent in their formative lives as children-usually their parents.

Looking back over our child-rearing years, my wife and I can recall bedrooms that were nothing short of a menace to society and disgusting in about every respect. On the other hand, some of our children were very neat, orderly, and careful. Everything had its place and everything was in its place. Today, we can go into the homes of any of our six children and find there a level of neatness, orderliness, and care that very nearly approximates that of the home in which they were raised. To many adolescents, a messy room is a status symbol. One of our children once told us, "If you think I'm going to bring my friends into a clean bedroom, you're crazy. They'll think I'm some kind of weirdo." As I noted earlier, the first question we must ask ourselves when we set about changing the behavior of our children is, "For whom is this behavior being changed?"

To many children, a messy room is a status symbol.

If parents' attempts to teach their children reasonable dress and grooming standards have failed and their children have succumbed to the pressures and reinforcers of the peer group, parents are well advised to ignore all the junk behavior and look for opportunities to acknowledge and positively reinforce those behaviors which approximate reasonable dress and grooming standards.

This is tough, I know, but in the long run it is worth it. One of our sons came under the reinforcement control of his peer group resulting in a hair style that Louise and I found very distasteful. After we had made several fruitless attempts at getting him to change, we decided it wasn't worth losing our son over so we just lived with it. It wasn't easy, I'll admit. There were times when I wanted to chloroform the kid and shave his head as bald as a billiard ball! But we just gritted our teeth and continued to hug him and tell him we loved him and built the relationship, focusing our attention on bonding the boy to us and the value system of the family unit. As adolescence passed and the boy's behavior began to gradually moderate-responding to new forces within his adult environment (remember, behavior is shaped by consequences within one's immediate environment) - his hair got shorter and shorter until finally it became very becoming-even to us! Recently, he brought his family home for a vacation and his oldest daughter wanted to see pictures of her daddy when he was a boy. Our granddaughter flipped open the pages of the family photo album and staring back at her were pictures of her daddy in the bloom of adolescence. "Daddy! Is this you?" she asked in startled tones. Her father went over to see what she was looking at. "Mother!" he gasped, "How could you have let me wear my hair like that?" (Admittedly, my wife and I had a difficult time not touting this as a triumphant moment.)

Parent-child relationships are more important than grooming.

A mother once asked me what she should do about her 17-year-old son. She said he had dyed the left side of his hair red and the right side green. She wanted to know what she should do and say to him when he got home. My advice to her was simple. I told her, "Say to him, Hi, Son, I'm glad you're home safe and sound.” Then give him a hug and a kiss and send him off to bed with an affectionate `Sleep tight, Son. I love you."' "But," she asked, "what about his awful hair?" To which I asked, "What about it?" "Well," she asked, "what am I going to do about his terrible hair?" In return, I asked, "What can you do about his hair?" To which she answered, "I don't know. I've tried everything. I tried reasoning with him. I pled with him. I even tried bribing him, but all to no avail. I don't know what to do. That's why I'm asking you." To which I said, "In that case, don't do anything about his hair, but do everything you can to establish a good relationship with the boy. Forget the hair." I felt confident then and would give the same advice today, that a good relationship between the parent and the boy will have a far better and more lasting effect on how the boy grooms himself as an adult than all of the pleading, complaining, reasoning, and bribing will ever do.

Children will engage in junk behavior over which we as parents have zero control.

I vividly recall an interview between a reporter and a young television starlet. Apparently during her teenage years, the girl had been quite rowdy and a terrible problem to her parents. During the interview she was asked, "How did your mother feel about your behavior. Did she try to crack down on you?" To which the girl replied, "My mother tried everything. It was something I had to outgrow. I was having a good time and it took me time to grow up. And I did. Now I eat health foods and I don't smoke or drink or anything. I guess I evolved in finding things in my life that were more pleasing to me than partying." She was then asked, "If you had a daughter, would you be a disciplinarian with her?" She answered, "I would chain her to her bed and lock her in her room. My greatest fear in life is spawning a daughter just like me. I couldn't go through the suffering, the wondering of when it was going to end, the way my mother did. I wouldn't be able to take it because I know what she'd be doing when she was out there. My mother didn't know." Lastly, she was asked, "Is there anyone to blame for that crazy period of your life?" To which she answered, "Me. It was a specific time and specific town with a specific girl. I wasn't mistreated or abused by my parents, I was loved. That's how I felt at the time. I blame me."

Anyone who ever says parenting is easy, never had children.

There are a couple of excellent lessons to be learned from this interview. The one is that kids will engage in junk behavior over which we as parents have zero control. It was the case with us when we were kids and it will be the case with our kids' kids. It just goes with growing up. Our responsibility as parents is to establish the best relationship possible with our children so they can survive those high-risk times and come out whole and intact. The second great lesson to be learned from this is that kids ultimately grow up and come to realize what they put their parents through. Although that is of little comfort to parents at times when their children are misbehaving, it at least might be a learning experience for the children as they enter parenthood. A couple of years ago, my wife and I were talking with a friend whose son had been a terror during adolescence and had gotten into all kinds of trouble. As a young adult, he turned out very well and had even achieved some rather remarkable accomplishments. While visiting with the boy's mother, my wife said, "You must be very proud of your son." To which the mother replied, "Yes, I am. But why did he have to put me through the meat grinder first?" Well, those are simply the risks we take when we have children.

Anyone who ever says parenting is easy, never had children! When our children engage in behaviors over which we have no influence or control, we are best advised to ignore those behaviors and do everything we can to establish a solid bond with them, a point I address at length in Chapter 25, When All Else Fails. A short time ago I was watching a public service spot on TV about child abuse. An outraged father (i.e., a skill-less father) was justifying his abusive behavior by saying, "It's how I keep the boy in line just like my father did with me." Think about that. Think about it really hard!

"If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow."
>Chinese proverb<div>

To sum up, I'm reminded of the biblical admonition to "Be slow to anger," and of the Chinese proverb, "If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow." Be slow to pay attention to behaviors which are basically age-typical and which left alone extinguish because of lack of attention. Behaviors that fall in this category tend to become apparent within a short period of time. Also, as I noted earlier, ignore those behaviors over which you have no control and place the emphasis rather on building relationships between you and your children, a point I address in Rule 3, Selectively Reinforce Appropriate Behavior.

Be slow to pay attention to annoying age-typical behaviors that are sure to fade with time.

As parents, we are inclined to work ourselves into a tizzy over behaviors that just aren't that significant. I had an experience a few years ago after giving a keynote address at a conference for human service providers that illustrates this point. An anxious and distraught woman cornered me and insisted that I talk with her about her out-of-control daughter. The woman was in her late 30s or early 40s and I quickly envisioned a rebellious 15-or 16-year-old daughter who was driving her mother crazy. Finding a remote spot away from the convention hall, the mother began pouring out her anxieties to me about her daughter: "She is rebellious, refuses to do anything she is told to do, is absolutely demanding of every moment of my life," and on and on and on. The intensity with which the mother recounted the litany of her daughter's behaviors was such that it was exhausting to me. I suggested we find a couple of chairs where we could sit down. I had about become convinced, after years and years of working with distraught parents, that I had met the situation that would try me to my limit, and perhaps even exceed it. Finally, after the mother had poured her frustrations and despair out on me, for want of anything else to say, I asked, "How old is your daughter?" Her answer nearly knocked me off my chair: "Six months!" For an account of what I told the mother, read Chapter 11, A Word About Fussy Babies.

Video Clip 1


Intro  ::   Rule 1  ::   Rule 2  ::   Rule 3  ::   Rule 4  ::   Rule 5  ::   Review

RULE 3: Selectively reinforce appropriate behaviors.

Without a doubt, the key to developing high quality human behavior is through the selective, positive reinforcement of appropriate behavior. I've already said this several times in this book and it will be illustrated time and again in subsequent chapters. But it is of such importance that it demands to be revisited. When I talk about the selective, positive reinforcement of appropriate behaviors I mean simply that we as parents MUST(!!) be constantly aware of the behaviors of our children and to carefully select and skillfully reinforce those behaviors that should be strengthened. It is neither possible nor appropriate to attend to every "good" thing a child does every time he or she does it. To do that would be artificial and even punishing to a child. Instead, look for opportunities to pay attention, in a very positive way, to a few select, appropriate behaviors, and do it intermittently, i.e., at times children least expect it.

For example, it is important for human beings to learn to get along well with other human beings. This is so basic to our individual happiness and success that no aware person could possibly disagree with it. It is a given. This being true, when we see our children interacting appropriately with other children, we should seize this as an opportunity to selectively reinforce that appropriate interaction. This can be easily done by walking past the children while they are thus engaged and in a very natural way, taking only a few seconds and using a few descriptive words, say, "You children are surely having fun playing together so nicely." Those are ten words that took only about three seconds to say. And that's plenty. In the process you might even gently and affectionately touch the children. Certainly you would smile and perhaps even wink, then go on about your business without giving the children the slightest hint that you had planned the entire thing; that you were selectively reinforcing appropriate behavior.

Having a healthy relationship with good books and good music and good art has also been shown to be important in the raising of low-risk children: low-risk meaning children who are less likely to engage in delinquent behaviors, abuse drugs, become members of unhealthy peer groups, drop out of school, and so on. Knowing this, parents should be on the lookout for opportunities to selectively reinforce behaviors which indicate that the child is showing even the slightest interest in these things. For example, a child brings a book home from the school library and you say, "Hey, that looks like a neat book. When you've read it I'd appreciate your telling me about it." Or, in the case of younger children, you might say, "I'd love it if you'd read me part of your story before you go to bed tonight." You might even carefully arrange your environment to prompt behaviors you would then selectively reinforce. For example, check out from your public library a colorful book you think might be attractive to your children. Perhaps a picture book of animals. Set the book open in a conspicuous place at home and then watch to see if a child shows any interest in it. If he does, make sure you take a moment to share your interest in the book by saying something like, "Isn't that a neat book? I checked it out of the library. I was sure you would love those pictures." If the child shows an interest, take a few minutes to enjoy the book with the child, all the while saying things that let the child know that books are a lot of fun.

We know that success in life is largely dependent on success at school which is in turn dependent upon how well children apply themselves to their studies. Therefore, when children are doing their homework, parents should take the opportunity to acknowledge that in a very positive, reinforcing way. For example, the parent might say in passing, "Glad to see you're getting your homework done, Honey. That's great." And as the parent passes, he gently runs his fingers across the child's shoulders. The child might look up and say, "I hate homework. It's dumb. My teachers are dumb." If that happens, the parent shouldn't even look back or acknowledge that response in any way whatsoever. Just keep going, but a while later, a few minutes later, the parent should once again walk past the child, but this time without saying a word just gently touch the child and then walk off.

Behavior that receives parents' attention is behavior that is strengthened.

It is not at all unusual for children to have a radio or stereo blaring away while they are doing their homework, or even doing their homework in front of a noisy television show. In such instances, it is not at all unusual for parents to say things like, "For heaven's sake turn that thing off. How in the world can you think with that thing blaring away!" I strongly advise parents against doing this because it selectively reinforces the wrong thing: having the stereo/TV/radio on. Recalling the point I made earlier, ignore all of the distracting, peripheral things going on and focus only on the behavior that is most desirable. In this instance, the homework. Just ignore the stereo, the television, or the radio, and acknowledge that the child is doing his or her homework and that is really wonderful. The more negative things parents say about the radio, stereo, and television, and the less positive things they say about the homework, the more inclined the children will be to attend to their radio, stereo, or television and to not attend to the homework. Remember the simple rule, behavior which receives parental attention is behavior that is strengthened.

We know that to succeed in life and to be personally happy we must learn to work. This being true, look for opportunities to selectively reinforce their behavior when children are working. For example, while the child is doing his chores around the house, acknowledge that work by saying something like, "Thank you for getting your work done. You're doing a fine job." Avoid criticizing the quality of the work. If the work is not done to an acceptable standard, rather than saying, "Come on, you know better than that. I'm not going to let you get away with doing a lousy job! Now get on the ball and do it right!", say something like, "You're almost there. With a little more work on this and this (be specific) you'll have it in shipshape. I appreciate you sticking with it until it is done right." It is likely the child will complain about having to do something over. Rather than getting into a long discussion about why it is necessary for the job to be done right, simply say, "A little more work on this and this and you will be done in good shape. Let me know when you are finished. I like seeing a job well done." Then be on your way. In time, living in an environment like this where reinforcement of appropriate behavior is swift in coming and precise, where gently-given directives are used instead of scoldings, complaints, and "When I was your age" stuff, it won't be long before appropriate behaviors outweigh inappropriate behaviors by a large margin and the quality of life at home will be remarkably improved. Remember to maintain a high general level of reinforcement.

Not infrequently a parent will be unable to acknowledge behavior immediately, and reinforcement has to be delayed. Perhaps the parents are working, are away at the time, or are not aware of what the child did. It's important to give delayed reinforcement in these instances. The following example illustrates very well how this is done. (I regret that I do not know the source of this example so am unable to acknowledge authorship.)

Chip was typically uncooperative and slow about going to bed on time. At six years of age he would find all kinds of reasons for procrastinating, particularly when the baby-sitter was taking care of him. One evening when his parents returned home, the baby-sitter reported a slight improvement in Chip's going-to-bed behavior. His mother asked the sitter for a detailed description of what the boy had done.

The next morning she was able to say, "Chip, remember last night when the baby-sitter was here and you were watching television? Do you remember when the program ended and she asked you to get ready for bed? She told me that you got up and turned off the television set and scarcely complained at all. She also said that you got your pajamas on without dawdling as much as you did the last time she was here. Daddy and I are pleased to hear that. It sounds like you're really becoming more prompt."

The mother's words of praise were reinforcers for Chip. His mother was not there to praise him immediately after his improved behavior, so she did the next best thing. She reconstructed the behavior so that Chip could remember quite well what he had done. She then reinforced Chip with her praise immediately after the verbal description of his improved behavior. Although Chip's mother at first regretted she had missed the opportunity to reinforce him immediately, she found she was still able to capitalize on the situation.

Whenever immediate reward is not possible the child may be re-minded of the circumstances and the details of his own improved behavior; the reminder may then be followed by either a verbal or a nonverbal reinforcer.

Virtually all children, in the course of a day, will do or say something that is worth reinforcing.

Virtually all children, in the course of the day, will do or say something that is worth selecting out for reinforcement. Soon, selectively reinforcing appropriate behavior will become second nature to you. It might seem a little awkward at first, but in time it will be as natural as driving a car, dialing a telephone, playing the piano, or whatever else a person does without having to think about it. It just becomes automatic. Parents have asked me, "But isn't that kind of artificial? Isn't it kind of phony?" My answer is clear and unequivocal: "No!" It is never unnatural for us to positively reinforce people for doing things well. In fact, it is a bright and refreshing switch from the typically negative and coercive interactions that so often take place between parents and their children. If parents find doing this awkward and unnatural, that's all the more reason they need to develop the skill of praise-giving!

Parents sometimes complain tome that their children never do anything that is worth praising. They never behave nicely. They are never pleasant to be around. Although I find this hard to believe, I still wouldn't throw in the towel even if it were true. Rather, I suggest to parents that they look for approximations of desirable behaviors and pay attention to those approximations. I will explain what I mean by approximations by recalling an experience I had in a class for emotionally disturbed children. It was a class of five upper elementary grade children who had severe behavior problems. The class was staffed by a certified teacher of the emotionally disturbed and a teacher's aide. As my school district host and I entered the classroom, the place was in total chaos. Children were running helter skelter around the room. Just as we walked in, one child leaped from a book shelf as he tried to grab the ceiling light fixture. Fortunately he missed, but went crashing to the floor, knocking over a desk and creating quite a commotion. He ran out of the room as fast as he could with the teacher in hot pursuit. About that time another child ran out of the classroom through another door, followed close on his heels by the aide. It was sheer pandemonium. In that setting, I can honestly say I didn't see a single behavior I could select for reinforcement. My host was mortified at what was going on and when the teacher returned to the classroom, dragging a kicking and screaming kid behind her, he advised her to leave the classroom with him so they could talk things over.

People never outgrow their need for positive verbal praise.

Remaining in the room were five wild children, a crying aide, and me. I walked over to the aide and asked if she would mind if I helped. Choked up and unable to speak, she nodded in the affirmative. As I looked around the room, I concluded immediately that the one thing I wasn't going to do was run after misbehaving children. Remember, behavior that receives attention is behavior that is strengthened. So far as I had been able to tell during the few minutes I was in the classroom, only misbehavior had been getting attention. From this, of course, I could only conclude that those behaviors were the ones that were being strengthened, which, of course, explained what was going on in the classroom.

Not being able to find any human behavior worth reinforcing, I began looking for something that would approximate appropriate behavior. I noticed a worksheet on the desk of one of the children. The worksheet was there but the child wasn't. I walked over to the desk and began to pay careful and undivided attention to what was written on the paper. Within just a few seconds, the boy whose desk I was standing by sat down. I said, "Thank you for sitting down," and I patted him on the back. I didn't say, "Well, it's about time you sat down. Why are you running around this room like a wild animal?" That comment would have been terribly inappropriate since it would have given all of my attention to the very behaviors I didn't want. So calmly and quietly I said, "Thank you for sitting down." I then asked the boy to explain to me his work, pointing out that he had answered several of the questions correctly. I complimented him on his performance. As he explained his work to me and began completing other problems, a boy who belonged at another desk took his seat. I said to the boy I was standing by, "Do these problems. I'll be back in just a second." I patted the boy on the back then turned to the other boy and quietly said to him, "Thanks for sitting down. Tell me about your work." The boy got a workbook out of his desk and began explaining to me a social studies assignment. Within slightly over a minute and a half, all five children were in their seats doing their school work. I never had to raise my voice above a whisper nor physically restrain a child. I simply selected an approximate behavior, gave that approximation my undivided attention, then as the opportunity arose, I positively reinforced appropriate behaviors as they became evident.

Unfortunately, we tend to focus attention on what is wrong, not what is right.

This same strategy can be used in homes. An unruly child leaves a comic book open in the living room. The parent picks up the comic book and begins looking at it. The child comes over wondering what his mom or dad is doing with his favorite comic book. The parent says, "These are different characters than were in comic books when I was a child. Tell me about them." The child responds and the parent takes it from there by selecting only those behaviors which deserve further attention. It is not a difficult thing to do, and for sure, it is infinitely better than trying to bring behavior under control through coercion, screaming, or any other desperate, negative, aversive means.

Unfortunately, the tendency of care-givers, be they parents, teachers, therapists, or even medical personnel, is to focus on what is wrong rather than what is right. A few years ago, a mother of an 11-year-old girl came to me simply beside herself. Her daughter was in the pediatric ward of a hospital stuffed to the gills with Ritalin. She had been exhibiting some bizarre behaviors at school and at home, and the immediate therapy of choice of the attending physician and the consulting psychiatrist was to hospitalize the child and put her on Ritalin. The entire attention of everyone was on what was wrong. Not the slightest attention had been given to things the child did that were right and could be selected out for positive reinforcement. The mother, a registered nurse, was frantic. The parents had already sustained thousands of dollars in hospital and physician costs, and all they had to show for it was a glassy-eyed girl in the hospital who was all stoved up with drugs. The mother got the family physician to grant me professional visiting rights in the hospital. After talking at length with the mother, and carefully and systematically observing the girl, I was convinced that through the use of selective reinforcement of appropriate behavior, the child could best be treated with behavioral medicine, not drug therapy. After completing a "functional analysis" of the child's behavior (I carefully looked at what consequences were shaping behaviors), I developed a behavioral intervention that focused on carefully selecting appropriate behaviors that should be reinforced while ignoring all others. I taught the mother how to do that and 3 days later the girl was back in school, off drugs, and doing fine. That girl is in college now and has had no residual problems in the intervening years.

Reinforcing appropriate behavior is absolutely the best way to go!

Looking for that which is right and appropriate and then attending to it using positive reinforcement while ignoring-whenever possible-inappropriate behavior, is absolutely the best way to go. You can spend the rest of your life searching the scientific literature for a better way and you'll never find one.

At this point, a word of caution is in order. Specifically, it is important (a) to not selectively reinforce inappropriate behavior, and (b) to make sure that by selectively reinforcing the behaviors of other children, we don't appear to be unfair or unequal in our giving of reinforcers.

"Nothing is more inequitable than the equal treatment of unequals."

Regarding the first caution, I recall an experience I had while visiting one of my daughters in her office at work. Two women were in the office, one with two small children, ages 2 and 4. As I entered the office, I immediately directed my attention to the children since they were playing so well together while their mother and my daughter were discussing a business matter. I said to the children, "My, what lovely children you are. You are smiling, happy, and playing together so nicely!" The children beamed with pleasure and satisfaction, smiling even more broadly, obviously gratified at this assessment of their behavior. Just then, their mother added, somewhat sharply, "Yes, and with sticky fingers!" In an instant, the 4-year-old took a piece of hard candy from her mouth and began rolling it across her fingers, all the while looking intently at her mother. What should the mother have said?

Regarding fairness and equality in the giving of reinforcers, I refer to the excellent work of Beth Sulzer-Azaroff and G. Roy Mayer, published in their classic book Behavior Analysis for Lasting Changes On page 169, under the subtitle "Treating People Differently," they provide some clear advice in this matter, beginning with a question, "Won't ... others become jealous or angered if someone else is receiving special reinforcers they themselves are denied?" Their advice is to "...explain to these involved that each of us is unique and that each has special interests, skills, and areas of weakness (yourself included). Often... [others] ... will understand that focusing on different behaviors to change and using different methods makes sense." They point out that "...knowing that help is finally on the way can be a source of relief to peers who may have been suffering from the difficult behaviors of others ... Peers also may recognize that they stand to benefit" from the improved behaviors of others, and "...peers have been seen to applaud the success of their fellows. In this way the reinforcement program causes the environment to become more pleasant and rewarding for everyone."

The authors continue, "You could point out that the person is receiving the special privileges, objects, or access to activities for making progress. Inviting others to design programs for themselves in areas in which they need to improve is also possible. Emphasis is placed on each individual's progress, not on competitive comparisons." They further suggest that programs can be developed so that individuals can earn reinforcers not only for themselves but also for the whole group. They conclude by emphasizing the important point that "nothing is more inequitable than the equal treatment of unequals."

Video Clip 2


Intro  ::   Rule 1  ::   Rule 2  ::   Rule 3  ::   Rule 4  ::   Rule 5  ::   Review

Rule 4: Stop then redirect inappropriate behavior.

Occasionally, children will exhibit behaviors that simply can't be ignored. These are behaviors which left unattended can result in serious damage and harm to person and property. Before going into a detailed discussion about how to deal with inappropriate behaviors that can't be ignored, I must emphasize again the importance of looking first for opportunities to positively reinforce selected appropriate behaviors. In 99 out of 100 cases, when this is done systematically and consistently, there will be little need to worry about inappropriate behaviors becoming so severe as to need therapeutic attention. There will be no need for children to behave inappropriately if they are getting all the attention they need by behaving appropriately. Having said that, however, there still exists the probability that a child at some time will behave inappropriately to such a degree that it must be attended to.

The first thing that must be done is to determine whether the behavior is a predictably reoccurring behavior or whether it is an unexpected, out-of-the-blue, behavior which has seldom if ever happened before, which is totally uncharacteristic of the child, and which will probably never happen again. It is important to make the distinction between these two kinds of behaviors since the approach you should use is different for the one than for the other. I will begin with the treatment of those rare, unexpected, out-of-the blue behaviors. Let's suppose that for no readily apparent reason one child uncharacteristically lashes out at another child either verbally or physically. Maintaining complete composure, but with firmness in his or her voice and a stern but controlled facial expression, the parent should immediately put a stop to the assault. This can be done effectively by stepping between the two children, and in a calm authoritative voice-while looking the children in the eye-saying, "Stop that now. You may not behave that way in this house!" The parent should continue to fix his or her gaze on the children's eyes for a few seconds then in a calm, more relaxed voice say, "I'm sorry you are upset. Go to your room for a few minutes and relax. Lay down on your bed, take several deep breaths, and tell yourself to relax. When you are feeling better and have control of yourself, if you want to talk about it, let's get back together." Say this slowly and deliberately and non-threateningly. Say it in a therapeutic, understanding, relaxed manner. This will give time for the heat of the anger to cool down and to be replaced by reason. Having directed the child as to what to do, you might even place your hand gently on the child's back and move him or her in the direction of the bedroom.

Gently stop then redirect inappropriate behaviors that cannot be ignored.

If the child resists this directiveness and angrily lashes back with something like, "He started it! I was minding my own business and he began giving me a bad time! I hate his guts!" Do not try to correct the child or set him straight. Don't say a single word in response to such an out-burst. For goodness sake, don't get into a discussion about who's at fault or who started it. Say simply, "I'm sorry you're upset. Something surely must have gone wrong, otherwise you would never have behaved this way. It is so uncharacteristic of you. Please, go to your room and relax. You'll feel much better in a moment."

Such a response will reassure the child that he or she might indeed have a compelling reason for having lashed out at the other child, but the parent realizes that this behavior is not at all characteristic of him. With this reassurance, the probability is very high that the child will go to his room as instructed by the parent, and the whole matter will end there. If, during all of this, the child who was the object of the assault complains about being the innocent victim of a mean brother/sister, the parent should be careful not to try to determine or affix blame, to act as a negotiator to seek redress, or to do anything else to try and set the record straight. Efforts of this nature invariably do nothing but complicate things and drag the conflict on indefinitely. A parent should simply say, "I'm sorry you feel you have been the innocent victim of your sister's anger. You'll feel better soon." Then leave it at that. Later, when everyone is feeling better and emotions have calmed down, look for opportunities to selectively reinforce appropriate behaviors, as we have already discussed. At such a time, it is also appropriate to discuss feelings, but DO NOT allow that discussion to degenerate into fault finding, searching for fairness, placing blame, and all that junk. Use the discussion to clear the air, develop skills, and build bonds. For example:

Parent: "Mary, one of the things I admire about you the most is your ability to control your emotions. That's why this morning when you lashed out at Bill with such anger, I was really taken back. You know, of course, that behaving that way is not at all like you. Are you troubled about something that has you on edge?"
><em>Note<em>: The parent has not scolded, accused, threatened, or even warned the child. In fact, the child has been given the benefit of the doubt: "... behaving that way is not at all like you." The total focus of the parent's concern is on the child's well-being: "Are you troubled about something?" Remember, failure to behave well is not a reason to punish and scold. It is an opportunity to teach.
Mary: "Mother, I'm sorry for getting so mad. I'm stressed out, and Billy does those dumb things. I can usually just ignore them but this morning he just got to me. He's such a brat!"
Parent: "I know what you're saying. When a person is on the edge it doesn't take much sometimes to lose one's balance. I'm glad you've got your feelings under control. What can you do in the future if he gets to you again that way? Which he probably will."
><em>Note<em>:The parent has shown empathy and understanding, but has ignored the reference to Billy as "a brat." She moved right into problem solving and skill building. She is now about to teach a better way.
>Rather than simply stopping inappropriate behavior, teach appropriate behavior.<td>
Mary: "I'll just have to ignore him, Mom. But that's so hard to do. I wish I could just vaporize him. You know, Mom, he is such a pain to me that I can honestly say that if he were out of my life completely, I would be sooooo happy. I know that sounds awful, but that's really how I feel!"
Parent: (Smiling) "I know what you're saying. I've had my share of experiences with brothers. Let's pretend that I'm Billy and I've just done one of those dumb, annoying things. Show me what you should do."
><em>Note<em>: The parent has put all the age-typical emotions into perspective ("I've had my share of experiences with brothers"), and moved immediately into skill-building.
Mary: "I know, Mom. I just have to walk away. I can do that."
Parent: "That's certainly an important part of what you should do. But in addition to that, I have a couple of suggestions that will help you let Billy know that he hasn't upset you at all. Just knowing that he's gotten to you can be very reinforcing to him. So in addition to just walking away, I'd suggest that when doing that, you remain as casual and undisturbed as can be. Don't look at him in disgust, don't roll your eyes to the ceiling, don't shake your head or use body language or anything that suggests you are the least bit upset. Walk away with a purpose. Let Billy know by what you do that you have other, more important things, to attend to. You might even say to yourself as you walk away, something like, `Gee, I was supposed to call Tammy 10 minutes ago,' then hurry off. It's called purposeful or planned ignoring. Watch me as I demonstrate it. (Mother role plays the skill.) Now, you do it. (Mary does it.)"
Parent: "You did that very well, Honey. How did it feel?"
Mary: "It seems kind of dumb to go to all this bother just because of a bratty brother, but I can see what you're getting at. It felt okay. I think I can do it though what I'd really like to do is punch his lights out!"
Parent: "I'm glad it felt comfortable enough that you felt okay doing it. You'll be surprised how well it works, and how much happier you will be knowing you have a skill to use when you're under stress and might otherwise explode. You're a sweet girl, Mary. I love you. Thanks for spending a minute with me on this. It's been fun." (Kiss, hug, smile, wink.)
Mary: "Thanks, Mom. I love you, too."
><em>Note<em>: Again, all the age-typical garbage language has been ignored and the focus has stayed on skill development. By having the skill demonstrated, Mary learned that her mother has skills. That's a big plus. Furthermore, Mother let Mary know that she is acquiring skills that can be used elsewhere: "...you have a skill to use when you're under stress...", implying "under stress" anywhere.
Never try to resolve a problem if a person is drunk, stoned, emotionally distraught, or out of touch with reality.

Isn't this much better than exploding and reacting in-kind? Too often parents assume, when a child misbehaves, that, "what that kid needs is a good lickin' !" If you ever feel that way, I hope you'll reassess the situation and conclude that "What that child needs is a good lesson-in how to behave well, and I'm just the person who knows how to teach it." And when you do that, give yourself a pat on the back, a hearty smile, some affectionate verbal praise, and a gold star on your forehead!

Let's suppose, while in a fit of anger, the child broke something. Again, the parent would immediately stop the violent behavior by moving close to the child and even perhaps holding the child's hands to his sides. (You would not do this, however, if the child was stronger than you and there was a possibility he would physically lash out at you. If that were the case, stick with the use of verbal restraints only.) Looking the child squarely in the eye, and with a stern facial expression and a calm, authoritative voice say, "Stop that! You may not do that. I'm sorry you are angry, but no matter how angry you are you may not destroy things. Now go to your room and relax. When you are feeling better, come back and we will discuss what must be done to make things right." Then send the child to his room. Do not try to resolve the matter when the child is angry. Never try to resolve a problem if a person is drunk, stoned, emotionally distraught, or out of touch with reality. Trying to resolve a problem under those conditions only makes things worse. Instead, wait until the child has calmed down and is able to deal with things rationally. At that time, sit down with the child and calmly discuss the problem. You might begin like this:

Parent: "I'm sorry you were upset and became so angry that you broke the lamp. That was so uncharacteristic of you. Would you care to talk about it?"
><em>Note<em>: If a child wants to talk about it that's good, but during the discussion, make sure you are understanding and compassionate, not judgmental, preachy, or full of a lot of advice.
Do not allow children to pull you off course over discussions of fairness, blame, and so on.

><br>After the matter has been discussed, or even if the child prefers not to discuss it, proceed with what must be done to make things right.

Parent: "As you know, you broke the lamp. We need to come to an agreement on how you will pay to have it replaced. Do you have any suggestions?"
><em>Note<em>: As quickly as possible, engage the child in the problem-solving process.
Child: "Why do I have to pay for it? Other kids break things around their houses and they don't have to pay for it. Just because I broke it because I was mad doesn't mean that I should have to pay for it. This just isn't fair. And after all, that idiot brother of mine started it. You're always picking on me."
><em>Note<em>: It isn't unusual for a child to respond this way. People are always trying to figure out ways of avoiding responsibility for their own behavior. It is certainly no different for children. If the child says something like this, respond as follows.
Parent: "Paying for our mistakes is certainly no fun. In this instance, what suggestions do you have for paying for this breakage?"
><em>Note<em>: As I have illustrated before, the parent totally and completely ignores any of the stuff the child says that is designed to relieve her of any responsibility or to pull the conversation off course. The parent simply responds with empathy and then restates the question.
Child: "Mom, this just isn't fair! Why should I have to pay? No one else ever has to pay! I just don't believe I'm being treated fairly."
Parent: "I'm sorry you feel you are being treated unfairly. What suggestions do you have for paying for this breakage?"
Child: "I don't have any suggestions. I don't even know what it would cost."
><em>Note<em>: Now we are getting somewhere. In about 95 times out of 100, if parents will stay the course and not be dragged into an argument with the child over what is right or what is wrong or what is fair or what is unfair, after only two attempts at derailing the conversation, the child will begin to come around. However, if after the third time the child is still balking, the parent should terminate the discussion by saying:
Parent: "I can tell you are not ready to discuss this matter yet. I'm ready to discuss it anytime you are. In the mean time... " (At this point indicate a reasonable consequence that will remain in place until the child is ready to discuss the matter to resolution. That consequence might be having to stay home or being denied the privilege of using her bicycle or driving the car or whatever is age-appropriate for the child. When the child is ready to discuss the matter to resolution, proceed as follows.)
Parent: "I'm glad you are ready to discuss this matter and get it resolved. What suggestions do you have for paying for this breakage?"
><em>Note<em>: The parent does not scold the child for delaying the discussion or carrying on about what a terrible thing was done. Rather, the child is thanked for being ready to discuss the matter. Remember, attend only to those behaviors you want strengthened.
Child: "Well, I guess I could pay for it out of my allowance (or out of what is earned from a paper route, babysitting, a job, or whatever is consistent with the child's ability to pay).
Parent: "Good suggestion. I'll find out what it is going to cost to repay the breakage and then let you know. At that time, we will come to an agreement of some sort on a reasonable pay-back schedule."
><em>Note<em>: If it is an irreplaceable item such as an heirloom, an object of art, a gift from another country, or whatever, some kind of replacement should be insisted upon. Whatever payment is selected, it should be reasonable and accomplishable by the child. Obviously, the child should not be expected to pay on the thing for the next 4 years of her life. And besides, that is not the point. The point is that this is an opportunity to teach the child a lesson in being responsible for her actions. That is the bottom line. It is more of a learning experience than it is an effort to replace value for value. In the long run, if handled correctly, the lesson learned will be of infinitely greater value than was the object that was damaged or destroyed.
Consequences should be reasonable.

Now to discuss how parents can effectively attend to inappropriate behaviors that are frequently reoccurring, even predictable. First, parents must be able to clearly describe for the child the behavior that can no longer be tolerated. Descriptions like, "You are too mean," or "You've got to shape up," or "We just can't stand the way you have been behaving lately" are not acceptable. You must be very specific. For example:

Parent: "We've noticed, Son, that every day during the last two weeks you have been using swear words. This is simply not acceptable and must stop. Why is using profanity such an inappropriate thing to do?"
><em>Note<em>: The parent didn't ask the child to explain why he swore. Do not ask children to explain their inappropriate behavior. (In Chapter 8, Questioning Children About Their Behavior, I explain in considerable detail why you must never question children about their inappropriate behavior.) It is appropriate to ask a child why a behavior is not appropriate since that invites the child to become part of the problem-solving process.
Child: "I don't know. Everybody at school does it. I didn't think it was such a big deal."
Parent: "Just because others do it does not mean it is right or good. Think of one reason why you should not swear."
><em>Note<em>: The parent did not allow the child to sidetrack the discussion by getting into a discussion about the rightness or wrongness of swearing. The parent stayed on course and simply repeated the question.
Child: "Well, I guess it is wrong to swear. That's what you've always told me."
Parent: "Others may not believe it's wrong, but we do and we are happy you know that. And besides, it just doesn't sound good. It makes people think you don't know a better way of expressing yourself. What are some words you can use other than swear words to express yourself?"
><em>Note<em>: The child has been briefly reminded about a characteristic of the family value system. An occasional reminder to this effect is good. The child is then invited to further explore a solution.
Child: "I guess I could say, darn and heck, instead of those other words."
Parent: "Good answer, Son. Those words are better than swear words. There isn't a single swear word that can't be replaced by a better word. Can you think of anything else you can do other than use swear words?"
><em>Note<em>: You will notice that every time the parent spoke, it took only a few seconds to say what was said and ask what was asked. In this last instance, it took less than 15 seconds for the parent to say all that was said. It is very important for parents to keep the child actively engaged in the discussion. It isn't the amount of time parents talk to the child that produces the desired results. It is the amount of time and number of opportunities the child has to respond and to be actively engaged in the conversation, and exploring solutions that are then rein-forced that produce the best results. If children think they are in for a long lecture, they will turn a parent off like a light. They might be looking at the parent and even have a facial expression that suggests they are listening, but their minds can be a million miles away. The best remedy for this is for parents to speak for short periods of time using only a few words and then inviting the youngster into the conversation.
Child: "Ah, gee, Mom and Dad. This is embarrassing. I know what you are telling me and I will try really hard not to swear around the house any more."
Parent: "You're right, Son, swearing can cause embarrassment and we are happy you feel that way. We are also happy you have decided not to swear around the house. But we expect you to stop swearing everywhere. What do we mean when we say we want you to stop swearing everywhere?"
><em>Note<em>: The parent has selectively reinforced an appropriate response, then expanded on it: "We are happy you have decided not to swear around the house. But we expect you to stop swearing anywhere."
Child: "Oh, I guess you mean when I'm at school and when I'm with my friends and wherever I am. But that's going to be hard to do! They all swear and I'm going to look weird if I don't swear with them."
Parent: "We can understand you may feel uneasy at first, but we still expect you to control yourself and to use better language. To use the words you suggested would be good substitutes for swear words. You know what we expect, and that's great. We will just have to trust you to do that when you are away from home. Can we trust you, Son?"
><em>Note<em>: The burden of responsibility for cleaning up his language still rests with the child, where it should rest. The parents have acknowledged they can't control his behavior when he is away from home, but they still expect him to behave appropriately. Furthermore, they have committed him to respecting their expectations.
Child: "Well, I'll try, but it's going to be tough."
Parent: "Thank you for giving us that assurance, Son. Maybe at the end of each day you can write in a notebook about how successful you were in using better language. And in the morning before you leave the house for school as you go out the door, say to yourself, Today I will control my language. Will you do that?"
><em>Note<em>: Self monitoring and self prompting are well established strategies for helping us improve our behavior. They work as well for children as they do for adults.
Child: "Yeah, I can do that. Is that all you wanted to talk to me about?"
><em>Note<em>: Children will often use comments like this that cue parents it's time to stop. If the parents feel their point has been adequately made, well understood, and well responded to, then it probably is time to stop. Stopping before you are entirely through is not always bad. Remember, today is not forever. This is not the last time you will ever have an opportunity to discuss your expectations with your children. It's better to leave a situation with the door open for further discussions.
Parent: "We are almost done, Son. We need to talk for a minute about what you can expect when you do or don't use swear words around the house. When you control yourself and don't use swear words, you'll be able to continue to enjoy many privileges that you really like around here."
><em>Note<em>: This would be followed by a brief discussion of what those privileges are, as was illustrated earlier. Again, have the child tell you what those privileges are. Once this discussion has been completed, proceed with the discussion of consequences. With predictable, reoccurring behaviors, you will likely need to include in your teaching a discussion of consequences. This is not so much the case with rare, out-of-the-blue behaviors since they are usually not so firmly under the reinforcement control of whatever it is that keeps reoccurring behavior going. For out-of-the-blue behaviors, a simple teaching strategy, as illustrated earlier with Mary and her mother, is usually adequate.
Parent: "And if you lose control of yourself, Son, what privileges will you deny yourself?"
><em>Note<em>: Then follow this up with a discussion of the privileges the child will deny himself, and for how long they will not be available. For a more detailed treatment of this, read Chapter 5, A Word About Consequences.
Make children active participants in problem solving matters.

Another wonderful and marvelously effective strategy for stopping then redirecting behavior in a positive, instructive way is the Teaching Interaction Strategy, also known as the Corrective Teaching Procedure. It was developed as a part of the Achievement Placemodel, University ofKansas, and is used at Boys Town(historically known as Father Flannagan's Boys Town) near Omaha, Nebraska. The procedure has six steps:


  1. Say something positive.
  2. Briefly describe the problem behavior,
  3. Describe the desired alternative behavior.
  4. Give a reason why the new behavior is more desirable.
  5. Practice the desired behavior.
  6. Provide positive feedback.


Today is not forever.

The procedure works equally well in school and home settings. The following two examples, provided by Dr. Richard Young of the College of Education, Utah State University, illustrate how the procedure works:

Example 1: Jim fails to follow his teacher's direction.

  1. "Jim, I like having you in class. You always give good answers to my questions."
  2. "Just now when I asked you to sit down and listen to the lesson, you continued to talk to Bill."
  3. "When I ask you to do something, you need to look at me, say okay or nod, and do it immediately."
  4. "When you follow my directions, our class is a better place to learn for you and for everyone else in it."
  5. "Jim, what are the three things you should do when I give you an instruction?" (Jim says, "Look at you, say okay, and do it.") If Jim doesn't respond, prompt him. If he responds inappropriately, repeat the question without displaying anger. Then say, "Let's practice. I'll ask you to fold your arms and look at me, and you show me the correct way to follow my instructions."
  6. Praise Jim's correct responses and prompt him to redo any steps omitted or done incorrectly. For example, "Jim, you did a great job. You looked at me and folded your arms immediately, but you forgot to say okay. Let's try it again, and this time remember to do all three steps." (Jim responds correctly the second time.) Teacher says, "Great! That time you looked at me you said okay and you folded your arms."

Although this procedure may appear cumbersome at first, it will soon become natural as it is applied consistently. This procedure is easily adapted to home settings, as the following example illustrates.

Example 2: Bill (age 13) calls Ralph (age 15) a derogatory name, and Ralph responds by knocking Bill down and hitting him. After separating the two young men, the parent teaches Ralph a better way to solve the problem with the following corrective teaching episode:

  1. "Ralph, I know that it really hurts when someone calls you a name,"
  2. "But you responded to Bill by fighting."
  3. "A better way to handle name calling would be to walk away."
  4. "By walking away, you won't get in trouble for fighting, and Bill will probably forget about it. Then it won't damage your friendship."
  5. "Ralph, next time someone calls you a name, how do you think you can handle it?" (Response, "I'll try to walk away.")
  6. "That's great, Ralph. Even though it might be really hard, it will be easier for you in the long run."

(Note: a similar episode would need to be conducted with Bill regarding name calling.)

Reinforce behaviors that reflect parental expectations.

The major difference between the treatment of occasional, one-time, out-of-the-blue behaviors and predictable on-going behaviors is the extent to which solutions are explored and consequences are clarified. However, the treatment is similar in one important aspect: In both instances, once a solution to the problem has been discussed, it is very important for parents to keep a keen eye open for opportunities to acknowledge and reinforce selected appropriate behaviors that indicate that parental expectations are being met. This gets behavior going in the right direction, and keeps it going in the right direction. We call that behavioral momentum.

It is quite possible to solve problems at home and have fun at it.

Several years ago, as Louise and I were watching our child-rearing years come to a close, we found ourselves living with three young adults still living at home-our three youngest children. They were all busy, dashing here and there, and eating on the run. It suddenly occurred to me that every day, without fail, Louise and I were gathering up and cleaning dishes and eating utensils from throughout the house. The problem was highly predictable, so I decided to take data on it. After 6 days, I was confident I had an accurate assessment of the problem, so I put my graph of the 6 days of data, accompanied by a note stating my expectations, on the kitchen cupboard where the kids were all sure to see it (see Figure 3.1). Aside from this, Louise and I never said a word to the kids. Each day thereafter for 19 days I plotted the data, intermittently leaving notes on the cupboard door by the graph (as shown below the graph on Figure 3.1). Notice what happened on June 13th. This was the predictable "regression to baseline" phenomenon discussed. I didn't allow that to deter me. We just stuck with the program, and you can see the results. Although the problem was never completely eliminated, it was reduced to a tolerable level. To have completely eliminated the problem would have required either eliminating my kids, or making home such an aversive environment that they would have fled (which is essentially the same as eliminating the kids!).

In addition to the effect the treatment had on the problem behavior, it introduced a lot of humor into the family. We got a lot of good laughs out of it. It is quite possible to solve problems in the home and have fun at it.

Video Clip 3


Intro  ::   Rule 1  ::   Rule 2  ::   Rule 3  ::   Rule 4  ::   Rule 5  ::   Review

RULE 5: Stay close to your children.

As children grow from infancy through childhood and into adolescence, we notice some interesting things happening in the way parents interact with them. What we notice is a bit distressing, given the effects these things have on putting distance between parents and their children. Parents spend a great deal of time holding newborn babies close and cuddling them, stroking them, talking to them, looking into their eyes, poking them with their fingers, smiling at them, and trying to invoke smiles and laughter. But by the time children are adolescents, particularly boys, there is a remarkable decline in the frequency of touching, hugging, patting, or poking. There is very little shooting the breeze, chitchat, and casual talk, and in many homes, almost no laughter. The incidence of smiling has even taken a nose dive.

Note to children

We know that how much influence a parent has on a child's behavior is directly related to the proximity of the parent to the child. In other words, the closer parents are to their children the greater the influence they can have on them. This, of course, is particularly true with young children who are still at home, but it is true, as well, with children who are raised and out of the home. In this section, I have several suggestions for how to remain verbally and physically close to our children.

Remaining Verbally Close to Your Children

It wasn't until my children were nearly raised that I came to realize how important it is to maintain close verbal contact with them. It came on a winter day when my youngest son and I were returning from a day of skiing. It had been a wonderful day together. We skied and talked and skied and talked all day long. I was a bit surprised that my boy spent so much time on the slopes with me since he was so much better than I was and could certainly have had a more exciting time by joining some of his friends in the wilderness areas where I never dared to go. While driving home together that evening, my son said to me, "Dad, do you know why I asked you instead of a date to go skiing with me?" "No," I answered, "but I'm glad you did because I had a wonderful time being with you." "Well, I'll tell you," he said. "It's because I needed to talk to you about things I can't talk to a date about." I hadn't recalled talking about anything that was at all heavy. We just shot the breeze, laughed, and kidded around. We made a little ski jump out of packed snow, talked about the thrill he experienced jumping off it, and laughed about how I almost killed myself the one time I jumped off it. For the most part, I couldn't recall any particular thing we had talked about. But we did talk. Sometimes we talked loudly as we called to one another across the ski slopes. Sometimes we talked softly as we shot the breeze across the table during lunchtime in the lodge. But for the most part, it was just talk, small talk. At the time I had no idea how much that talk meant to my son. To this day, I'm sure he has no idea how much it meant to me.

As I have worked with families over the years, I have been impressed with concerns expressed to me by sons and daughters about how little they just talk with their parents about things that on the surface don't really seem to mean a lot. So often they tell me, "The only time my parents really talk to me is when they want to know where I'm going or where I've been or why I spent so much money or why I used up so much gas in the car or why I did this or why I didn't do that. We never just talk about things." Do you know what they mean when they say "just things?" Well, I'll tell you, Mom and Dad. "Just things" means talking to your kids without giving them advice, without teaching them something, without addressing some great moral issue, without being judgmental, or without setting the record straight. It means talking without telling, sometimes talking without saying anything.

A teenage boy was in my office recently and I asked, "What do you talk to your parents about?" He answered, "We don't talk much." I asked, "Why not?" He answered, "Because no matter what we start talking about, it always ends up in an argument about what I'm not doing right. It doesn't matter what we start talking about, it always ends up with a discussion about what I need to do better. I need to do better in school. I need to work harder around the house. I need to keep my room cleaner. I need to dress better and comb my hair better. It just isn't worth it to me, so we just don't talk." Parents, no matter how tempted or inclined you are to weave "talk" into a discussion about how your children could be better if they would just do this or just do that, don't do it. Carefully follow this advice (which is given full-page attention at the end of this chapter):

Unless what you are about to say or do has a high probability of making things better, don't say it and don't do it.

Don't judge, sermonize, moralize, instruct, reason, or advise-just talk!

Parents, just talk. Don't judge, don't sermonize, don't moralize, don't instruct, don't reason, don't advise just talk. This doesn't mean there will never be times when you will advise or instruct, but make those separate occasions when that is what the occasion is for. The following situations illustrate what I mean. They give examples (in the left column) of how to just talk, and (in the column on the right) how to really mess up an otherwise good talk.

Situation #1: Defending a Friend

  How To Just Talk How To Really Mess Up An Otherwise Good Talk
Daughter: I really feel bad for Helen. She's pregnant and her boy friend doesn't want to have anything to do with her anymore. I really feel bad for Helen. She's pregnant and her boy friend doesn't want to have anything to do with her anymore.
Mom: She must really feel terrible. I'm certainly proud of you, Honey, for being so concerned about her. What can we do to help her? Well, it was bound to happen. Just a matter of time. Play with fire and you get burned. I'm not the least bit surprised, nor do I feel sorry for her. She knew what she was getting into when she got mixed up with that loser. Just don't you get involved. Stay clear of her. It's her problem. Let her solve it.
Daughter: I don't know, Mom. It's so complex. But I am going to keep being her friend. Mom! How can you say that? Helen's a neat gal. She just made a mistake. No one is perfect! Not you or me. Don't be so hard on her.
Mom: Good for you. A true friend is worth more than gold. Certainly that's so in situations like this. You're a good girl, Honey. I love you. Neat girls don't go to bed with dumb guys. You bet she made a mistake, and she'll pay for it the rest of her life. As for you, young lady, don't you dare do a stupid thing like that.
Daughter: I love you, Mom. It's so great talking to you-even about difficult things like this. You really understand. I can't believe you, Mother! (as she leaves in a huff).

Situation #2: Defending Himself

  How To Just Talk How To Really Mess Up An Otherwise Good Talk
> <td>
Dad: That was quite a ball game last night. Your school really pulled it out of the fire in those last few minutes. That was quite a ball game last night. Your school really pulled it out of the fire in those last few minutes.
Son: Yeah. Squeaky, our point guard, was really hot. Yeah. Squeaky, our point guard, was really hot.
Dad: Indeed he was. And besides his ball handling skills, I understand he's a fine young man. Indeed he was. And besides his ball handling skills, I understand he's an excellent student who hits the books like crazy every night. What kind of GPA does he have to maintain to stay on the team?
Son: He really is. He's in a couple of my classes and he's super friendly. He is a good student. I have some classes with him and he does well. He has to keep at least a C average to be on the team.
Dad: The next time you see him, tell him what a great job I thought he did in that game. I'm amazed he does so well with all of his athletic responsibilities. By the way, what's your GPA this year?
Son: I'll do that. He'll be happy to hear it. I don' know for sure. Somewhere between a C and a C .
Dad: Let me know when the next ball game is. Maybe we can go together. Now, Son, you can surely do better than that. Surely you have more time to study than Squeaky does. I mean with the amount of time you have, you should have a solid B average-or better!
Son: I'll do it, Dad. Sounds fun. I'm doing all right in school. I'm passing. What's the big deal?
Dad: I'll look forward to that. Just passing! I know you can do better than that. If a kid on the basketball team can do it, you can. You're just as smart as Squeaky.
Son: Me, too. I gotta run, Dad. See ya. Hey, what's this all about? What has Squeaky got to do with me. He lives his life and I live mine, and that's just how I want it!
Dad: So long, Son. Have a good time. Take care. Love you. I'll tell you what it's all about. It's about your life. Without decent grades it's the end of school for you. Just look at Squeaky. I'll bet he not only gets accepted to college, but he'll get an athletic scholarship as well. He's got his head on straight. You could use a little of that head-on-straight stuff, young man!
Son: Love you, too, Dad. See ya. Forget it. I'm outta here. I don't need this crap!

I clipped an article out of my local newspaper that was titled "Unfavorite lines that parents say." Here are a few that several teenagers mentioned. Parents, avoid this kind of junk like a plague:

  • "Who said life was fair?"
  • "You just don't know how lucky you are!"
  • "Don't try to hide things from us because we're going to find them sooner or later."
    > <li>
  • "I pulled the same stunt with my parents, so it's not going to work for you."
    > <li>
  • "You want to try what?"
  • "There are kids in other countries who have it worse off than you do."
    > <li>
  • "Whatever happened to that nice, sweet, feminine girl you used to be?"
    > <li>
  • "Apologize to your sister!"
  • "When I was a little girl, I used to clean up the whole kitchen."
    > <li>
  • "This hurts me more than it does you."
  • "Do you want a smack?" To which the girl added, "I would love to say (sarcastically, of course): `As a matter of fact, I want you to do me bodily harm!"'

To help parents increase the level, and improve the quality, of their verbal interactions with their children, here are a few do-able suggestions.

  1. Keep a 3 x 5 card and a pencil handy and make notes of the things you hear your children talking about or expressing interest in. When you hear them talking to their friends or to one another, quietly make note of the things they talk about. The topics they bring up on their own and spend time talking about provide you with the best clues available about what is of interest to them. If you need to, bone up on some of those topics so you can discuss them at least somewhat knowledgeably. Then when the time is right-at the dinner table, sitting around the living room, driving in the car together or whatever-casually bring up a topic and start talking about it. Remember, just talk. Leave the lessons for another time.
  2. Talk to your children in a very natural way. Make sure it doesn't come across as a formal discussion. The character of the conversation should be one of just shooting the breeze.
  3. Don't try to be too "hip" as you talk to children. Avoid the use of terms and language the kids use. Use terms that are most familiar to you and the most characteristic of you, but which the kids understand. Kids don't like it when their parents try to talk like kids. It turns them off, and it embarrasses them when you do it in front of their friends.
  4. Watch for signs that tell you you've talked long enough. Ordinarily, conversations with children about "just things" don't usually last very long. For that matter, kids don't typically spend very long talking with their friends about such things. They bounce around from topic to topic, and thing to thing, never spending much time on anything or going into much depth. When you pick up cues that tell you the child is losing interest in the topic or in the conversation, gracefully bow out by moving on to other things.
  5. Keep the conversation dignified. Avoid gossip, profanity, off-color jokes, or turns-of-phrase that compromise your adult level of dignity and civility. Remain a cut above "just one of the guys." Children want their parents to have class. They want their parents to be someone to look up to. The quality of your conversations with them can go a long way in establishing that image of you in your children's eyes. An occasional, appropriate joke is a very good thing. While the family is gathered around the dinner table is a wonderful time to share a good joke and bring a little humor into the family. In my family, they are called, "Dad jokes," with "Dad" being somewhat equated with corny.
  6. Avoid ethnic jokes or any kind of joke or story that puts another person or another people down or that evokes humor at the expense of someone else. Maintain your dignity as an adult by showing respect for other cultures. Children really appreciate that.
  7. End the conversation with a brief up-beat parting statement: "It was fun talking to you about that, Son. It was really interesting." Or, "Thanks for visiting with me, Honey. It's always nice to just shoot the breeze with you." These kinds of statements help to assure the child you are a safe person to talk to and will keep the door open for subsequent conversations. But best of all, they will invite the children to come to you to talk about serious matters when they really need your help.
Children who learn good verbal skills are more likely to also have good social skills.

Regarding jokes, appropriate, clean humor is a characteristic of low-risk families. In such families there is a lot of smiling, laughing and lots of happy times. The curative effects of humor are well documented by the work of Norman Cousins and his "Anatomy of an Illness." A few good laughs every day is a great approach to keeping physically and behaviorally well. Come to the dinner table every night with a couple of good jokes. You'll learn in a hurry just how beneficial humor is for a family! During a hearty laugh, your throat goes into uncoordinated spasms, sending blasts of air out of your mouth at 70 miles an hour. Your body starts pumping adrenaline; your heart rate increases and your brain releases endorphins and enkephalins (natural painkillers). As your lungs pump out carbon dioxide, your eyes cleanse themselves with tears, and your muscles relax and lose their tenseness. It's actually pretty good exercise. Laughter is also good for your concept of self. Jimmy Durante, the great American comedian with the ponderous nose, who was known affectionately as "the Schnoz," was miserable as a boy because of his looks. He learned, however, that he was able, through humor, to turn what otherwise was a deficit into a great asset. Later in life he observed, "When I learned to laugh at myself, I knew I was safe from the world." What a great way to look at life, and at one's self!

In addition to the positive effects parent-child chitchat has on families there is some impressive research being reported in the study of verbal behavior that shows a direct relationship between verbal skills and social behavior. In other words, children who learn good verbal skills are more likely to also have good social skills, and the implications of that are simply immense!

Parents, spend time talking to your children. Model good verbal behavior. Teach your children through example and involvement how to express themselves, how to listen, and how to engage in conversation one with another. That is among one of the greatest skills you'll ever teach your children. It will keep them close to you for your entire lives. A young mother was recently in my office distraught over her relationship with her parents. "I go home to visit my parents and we just sit there looking at each other, or watching TV. We really have nothing to talk about. I'm not sure we even know how to talk to each other." (I might add, parenthetically, that she was also having trouble "just talking" to her husband.) Verbal skills are learned, and parents have the first responsibility to teach them to their children.

Increasing Appropriate Physical Interactions

The skin is the largest organ of the body, unfurling to about 20 square feet for a person weighing 150 pounds. It weighs more than any other organ of the body and contains more nerve endings than all the other organs of the body put together. For a great majority of people, it loves to be hugged, rubbed, and scratched. Unfortunately, as children, especially boys, grow older, being hugged by parents, especially fathers, decreases dramatically. This is too bad. My number three daughter had the following sign on her bedroom wall:

Four hugs a day for survival
> Eight hugs a day for maintenance<br> Twelve hugs a day for growth

If my wife and I did anything right at all in raising our children, it was that we took every opportunity to hug them. To this day, as adults, we still do a lot of hugging. Recently, our oldest son met me at the airport near the town where he lives. He's a big boy, standing a good 6 to 7 inches taller than me. Though the terminal was crowded with people, he hurried to me, unashamedly threw his arms around me, gave me a big hug and a kiss and told me that he loved me. That was pay day for Dad.

Not only does hugging feel good, it's good for you.

Not only does hugging feel good, but it's good for you. There is a growing scientific literature about the beneficial effects to our general health and well-being from hugging. Some parents have told me, "I just can't hug that kid. He looks so bad." To which I respond, "Then close your eyes while you're hugging." Others have complained, "I don't like to hug my kid because he/she smells so bad." To which I respond, "Then just don't breath in while you are hugging." There is not one, single, solitary, reasonable excuse for not hugging your kids, no matter how old they are, how bad they look, or how awful they smell. I read a really touching article that reported briefly on the work of Dr. Melvin Morse, a Seattle pediatrician, who has extensively studied the near-death experiences of children. One account involved a 7-year-old girl who, on the threshold of death, chose to return to mortality and to her family. "I decided I wanted to go back." She said, "I thought about my mom and about never being able to hug her again." Think about that one, Mom and Dad!

In addition to hugging, appropriate touching, tapping, rubbing, patting, scratching, and jabbing are wonderful ways of communicating with our children. Arm wrestling, playfully scrapping on the playing field, a good back and shoulder rub at the end of the day-this is the glue that binds. Of course, it goes without saying that all of this contact should be appropriate, proper, and wholesome beyond any shadow of a doubt. The U.S. Surgeon General recently published a 5,234 page report in which researchers concluded the following: "Hugging is non-fattening, naturally sweet, and contains no artificial ingredients. It is wholesome and pure and, most important, fully returnable." A study recently published by the University of Miami revealed that drug-addicted babies who were regularly massaged had a significantly higher survival rate, and were able to leave the hospital 6 days earlier than babies who had not been regularly massaged.

If hugging is something you haven't been doing with your children, ease into it. Rather than starting off with great big bear hugs, begin with a pat on the shoulder, a warm pat on the back, a stroking of the fingers across the shoulders, a gentle touch on the arm, or squeeze of a hand. It can become so wonderful. There is no feeling that I love more than the soft, smooth cheeks of my daughters', or the rough stubbed cheeks of my sons', against my cheek. It is altogether appropriate to accompany every greeting and every parting with a hug and a kiss. Make it a rule for every day you are with your children. It is a rule my wife and I have observed in our relationship with one another. Though at times our children would express embarrassment at our hugging and kissing in their presence, they loved it, and they still love it. It is a great model for your children and will serve them well for a lifetime of marriage and parenting. Recalling the observation of Dr. Brent Miller, College of Family Life , Utah State University, "Female teenagers involved in sexual activity are more likely to have strained relations with their families ... and view ... their parent's marriage as being less close and warm."

It is altogether appropriate to accompany every greeting and every parting with a hug and a kiss.

In this chapter I have addressed several very specific things parents can do to create a healthy environment in the home and to establish and maintain a healthy relationship with their children. Everything suggested in this chapter can be done without any formal training or special expertise.

For any number of reasons, however, some behaviors and some environments are so difficult that their treatment needs exceed the skills and resources of most parents; hence, they go beyond what I have covered here. For example, autism is a disabling condition that is very difficult to treat without professional help. (In fact, it is sometimes difficult to treat with professional help!)

In addition, abusive parents, years of deprivation, and psychological trauma are just a few of the plethora of conditions that can produce behavior problems so severe that professional, including clinical, treatment might be necessary.

What is discussed in this book, though altogether appropriate for children with severe behavior problems, might not be altogether sufficient in some particularly difficult situations. This is not a manual for the clinical treatment of severe emotional or behavioral problems. It is more a "well child"/prevention/first aid manual. Its first intent is to shape healthy behavior and to keep age-typical behaviors from becoming unhealthy. Figure 3.2 illustrates my point. On the left is the typical, well understood medical treatment model. On the right is a parallel behavior treatment model. As with medical treatment, we hope that behavioral treatment and first aid will be sufficient to keep our children well. But, for one reason or another, children sometimes get "sick" and treatment demands skills beyond our abilities as lay people. For example, if a child cuts his finger we clean it, put a bandage on it, show compassion, kiss it better, and the healing process is well on its way. However, if the child's hand is lacerated with an ugly wound, is bleeding profusely, and vulnerable to infection, a parent would be irresponsible to simply put a bandage on it, show compassion, and kiss it better. Providing professional medical attention would be the only responsible thing for the parent to do. And so it is with behavior. Applying the principles and employing the strategies discussed here are generally adequate for treating the age-typical, day-to-day behaviors of children. However, when children are threatening or attempting suicide, tampering with controlled substances, flagrantly defying parental expectations, repeatedly running amuck of the law, showing unusual signs of withdrawal and depression, or exhibiting neurotic and psychotic behaviors, parents should seek professional help-and the sooner the better! A behavioral injury or "disease" is no less worthy of professional treatment than is a physical injury or disease. Also, as with medicine, occasionally one's behavioral health will be so damaged that there will be no treatment effect, even after the best, most well-administered efforts. But this is rare, compared to the successes that can be expected when good medicine (including behavioral medicine) is skillfully administered.


Intro  ::   Rule 1  ::   Rule 2  ::   Rule 3  ::   Rule 4  ::   Rule 5  ::   Review

Now To Review

By strategically applying sound principles of behavior, parents can greatly increase the probability that their children's growth and development will progress in the right direction, and life in the family will be remarkably better. The following parenting rules are recommended:

  1. Clearly communicate to your children those behaviors that will get your attention.
  2. Ignore inconsequential behaviors.
  3. Selectively reinforce appropriate behaviors.
  4. Stop then redirect inappropriate behaviors.
  5. Stay close to your children verbally and physically.
Figure 3.2 - Parallel Treatment Models
Medical Model Parenting Model
Good Health Practices
Good Parenting Practices
Medical First Aid Behavioral First Aid
Professional Attention of a Physician:
> <ul> <li>by phone<li>
  • in the office
  • out-patient care
  • hospitalization
Professional Attention of a Therapist:
> <ul> <li>by phone<li>
  • in the office
  • out-patient care
  • hospitalization
No Treatment Effect No Treatment Effect

The remaining pages of this chapter contain items I encourage you to pay careful attention to. There are some wonderful, wonderful messages there. I encourage you to use the last one as a cue to you to have lots and lots of positive interactions with your children. Make a copy of it and tape it to your bathroom mirror as a constant reminder.

Code for Parents

The boys at a youth correction center were asked for clues as to why they had ended up in that institution, and were then asked to draw up a code for parents. Here it is:

  • Keep cool. Keep the lid on when things go wrong. Kids need to see how much better things turn out when people keep their tempers under control.
  • Don't get strung out from too much booze or too many pills. When we see our parents reaching for those crutches, we get the idea that nobody goes out there alone and that it's perfectly okay to reach for a bottle or a capsule when things get heavy. Children are great imitators. We lose respect for parents who tell us to behave one way while they behave in another.
  • Bug us a little. Be strict. Show us who's boss. We need to know we've got some strong supports under us. When you cave in, we get scared.
  • Don't blow your class. Stay on that pedestal. Don't try to dress, dance, or talk like your kids. You embarrass us, and you look ridiculous.
  • Light a candle. Show us the way. We need to believe in something bigger and stronger than ourselves.
  • Scare us. If you catch us lying, stealing, or being cruel, get tough. Let us know why what we did was wrong. Impress on us the importance of not repeating such behavior.
  • When we need punishment, dish it out. But let us know you still love us, even though we have let you down. It will make us think twice before we make that same move again.
  • Call our bluff. Make it clear you mean what you say. Stand up to us, and we'll respect you. Kids don't want everything they ask for.
  • Be honest. Tell us the truth, no matter what. Be the straight-arrow about everything. We can take it. We can smell uncertainty a mile away.
  • Praise us when we deserve it. If you give us kids a few compliments once in a while, we will be able to accept criticism a lot easier!

> <h3 align="center">NOTE:<br> Unless what you are about to say or do has a high probability for making things better, don't say it-don't do it.

An ounce of don't say it is worth a pound of I didn't mean it.