Encouraging Positive Behavior in Children


Written by Regine Galanti

Picture this: You are playing Legos with your 6-year-old son, and he’s having trouble putting two pieces together. He begins to get frustrated, throws the pieces on the floor, and stomps, “this is the stupidest game EVER!” As a parent, what do you do?

Most people will respond to and address this misbehavior in some way. After all, what better way to teach acceptable behavior than to correct misbehavior? This tendency to address misbehavior is normal, but even if done well, this method is only one piece of the parenting puzzle.

I’ve previously blogged about the power of positive attention, but I’d like to take this a step further and focus on the power of praise. Parents tend to spend a lot of time thinking about what they’d like their children to stop doing. Instead, spend a few minutes thinking about what you’d like to see your children doing. One way to accomplish this goal is to think about the positive opposite of the behavior that you’d like your child to stop exhibiting. For example, if a parent would like to see less Lego throwing, they might choose to focus on playing gently with the Legos and/or keeping the Legos on the table. Focusing on praising this positive opposite allows parents the opportunity to teach a child what they should do, rather than only providing information about what not to do. Further, providing praise allows a parent to increase their child’s self esteem, and maintain the warmth of an interaction rather than engage in a cycle of negativity around the misbehavior.

To praise the positive opposite, first pay attention to your child’s behavior. Think about what the behavior you would like to see looks like and how you would describe it. Then, catch your child exhibiting that positive opposite using specific praise of that behavior. If your child kicks his or her feet at the dinner table and it drives you bonkers, “catch them” sitting with their feet on the floor, and jump in with a labeled praise, like, “thank you so much for keeping your feet on the floor!” Telling a child specifically what you like about their behavior using labeled praises lets them know what to expect, and encourages them to repeat it.

Here’s a bonus tip: ignoring is another powerful tool in the parenting toolbox. If misbehavior is minor and isn’t hurting anyone or breaking anything, a parent can safely ignore it. Withhold attention by turning away, avoiding eye contact, and not talking about it, and then use a labeled praise immediately when you see any positive behavior. This shows a child that good behavior is a reliable way to get parental attention, and highlights the difference between misbehavior (which is ignored) and positive behavior (which is praised, specifically, with warmth and enthusiasm). Ignoring negative behavior also avoids that power struggle that often occurs when parents focus on misbehavior but don’t have the time or stamina to follow through. In practice, this means ignoring your toddler when he throws food on the floor by turning away and avoiding eye contact, but showering him with praise for eating nicely and keeping the food on his plate as soon as the throwing stops.

Using labeled praises strategically, in combination with ignoring, can drastically reduce the amount of time a parent spends on discipline, as well as allow for a more positive parent-child relationship.

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