I work with many parents who come to me with concerns about their children. Sometimes it’s a teen who has a defiant attitude and fights the household rules. Sometimes it’s school age kids who slack on chores… cleaning up rooms, helping out with yardwork or cleaning tasks around the house. Often times it’s the ever-present challenge of getting kids to do their homework.
Many times parents resort to what they saw their parents do, without really thinking about how well it works for them, even when it didn’t work particularly well when they themselves were kids. Parents ask around and find that other parents are having the same experience. Misbehavior is usually responded to with the tried and true nagging followed by punishments-for-crimes-committed. Alot of time and emotional energy gets wasted, and many times parents inadvertently stir up resistance from their kids through this somewhat negative approach, catching their kids in the act of doing something wrong and then doling out the appropriate punishment.
Studies have shown that this negative approach works well with behaviors that need a quick response. When a child starts to run into the street without looking, we need a swift obedience in order to protect them. Similarly, in the heat of a conflict, when children aren’t really in a mindset to learn any life lessons, it may only be possible to gain compliance.
But for longer term growth, and for building character, the punishment approach falls short. So what is a more effective approach for parenting?
I suggest to parents that they rethink their system. Many parents don’t stop to recognize that they are giving their kids lots of privileges without requiring anything from them to earn those privileges. Then they get frustrated when they are willing to give their kids so much, and then the kids drag their feet in responding to parents’ requests. Then when parents are expressing their frustration, kids see their parents as negative.
Parents can get to the same behaviors they are expecting from their kids in a positive way. If a parent puts some thinking into what privileges kids have, they can restructure their approach to kids: Rather than just giving kids toys, “screen time” (with computers, TV, or phones) or time hanging out with friends, kids can earn those privileges in small bites. For example, if a kid spends 20 minutes doing homework, they can have 5 minutes of “screen time.” Or, for each day their room is picked up before they go to school, they get to watch TV that night after their homework is done. There are different ways to structure it, but often parents can put all of their expectations of their kids in this form and have it explicit how kids earn their rewards.
Then, when you are interacting with your kids, you “catch them in the act” of doing good things and reward them for that part of their behavior. You put yourself in a much more positive light, being more of a “cheerleader” or “fan” who notices their good behavior. Even when a kid doesn’t get done what they are supposed to, a parent can respond by saying, “Oh! Too bad! I wanted to give you the money you need for the movies, but now I won’t be able to.” parents are placing themselves on the kids side, sympathetic to what the kid wants, but simply requiring the behavior as the “terms” for the payoff.
Try it. It works! If you need help structuring it, see a good therapist and within a few sessions you can get a new system of positive parenting in place.
One last tip: Break down your expectations into small chunks of behavior and reward them with small chunks of reward. Research shows it is much more effective to break up homework time into 10 minute increments, and reward those with a dollar each, instead of, “You’ll get a new Nintendo if you do your homework this semester.”