Monday, August 26, 2013

On Getting Children to "Be A Good _______"

Today I was shopping (ok I was at Target - be quiet you) and I observed a man talking to a shamefaced little boy who focused on that spot on the floor. "Do you want to be a good boy?" the man asked him. No answer. The man repeated the question. Still no answer. So the man walked away from the child (leaving him standing in the foyer of Target alone - pretty sad sight actually).

But I'm not going to focus on that. The man's statements bring up a good question - what does being a good boy MEAN? How does one do this being a good boy thing? Can anyone do it? What do I have to do? What do I have to avoid? Some of you may be thinking, "They should know." And you know what, older kids should for sure. But when we're talking about a really small kid or a kid who is in a brand new environment, we can't say "they should know." We don't know what's expected of us sometimes even as adults. And that's what it boils down to - not knowing the expectations.

As an adult "in charge" of a child, we have to think at their level and speak at their level. I recently took my two sons (ages 3 and 1) to an atypical memorial service. I had options. I could expect them to "behave" or I could let them know what "behaving" meant in this situation and take into account their ages and cognitive abilities to understand instructions in a new situation and follow those instructions. I did the latter. As we drove to the memorial I told Sials (the older one) where we were going and what we could expect to see. I told him how we were expected to behave. There was a whole slew of kids there, so they all kind of banded together and attacked this large hill with lots of rolling and laughing and dirt and the parents (well most of them) were fine with that (but everyone was fine with them enjoying themselves). One child shied away from the others, not even walking up to the hill and watching other kids. "Be careful, don't get dirty, stay by me," I heard his mother say.

Whether we agree with her or not, she set the "be a good boy" limits for him and he did follow them. If we want children to behave, think of it as a game. I can't play if I don't know the rules. I can't play well if I don't know where the playing field is. What's allowed? What's not tolerated? How do I score? If we can't give them these bits of information, then how can we expect them to follow the rules that we haven't given them access to?

So how do you get your child to "be a good XX or XY?" You tell them how. You reinforce the behaviors that move toward the goal ("You're doing such a great job listening today. I really appreciate that."). We punish (or ignore if possible) behaviors that don't move toward the goal ("We already said there's no jumping off the bleachers, didn't we? What did we say would happen if we did? That's right, time out, so you're going to sit in time out for 3 minutes."). Let them know the rules. Level the playing field. Allow the child to play "right" instead of punishing them or chastising them for not playing right.

What behaviors have you tried to instill in your children to make them "good" boys or girls? How did you do it?