I attended a training a few months ago at which the presenter made a statement that has really stuck with me. He said, “Adults (specifically parents) are a child’s favorite toy.” I really like this analogy and find it to be a helpful reminder of the importance of praise versus punishment. Think of yourself as a toy for a moment. If your child pushes one button, she gets a loud siren (yelling and/or punishment), but if she pushes another button, she gets a fun song (your praise). It may seem as though your child would prefer the fun song, but what if I told you she prefers the siren because it lasts longer? I know it sounds ridiculous, but it is the truth.
Typically, we spend more time and energy focusing on bad behavior than we do on good behavior. Let’s say you give your child a direction and he ignores you. Think about how much time and energy you spend addressing and correcting this. Now, let’s say your child has spent the morning doing exactly what you want and expect him to do. Do you simply tell him he did a good job and move on? Do you say nothing at all? Think about how much time and energy you spent on that. Is there a difference? It’s easy to see, when we think of expending our energy in these ways, that the extra energy given when the child misbehaves reinforces that misbehavior; it teaches the child that he can get more of your attention and energy when he is bad than when he is good.
The moral of this story? Expend more energy on good behavior. Catch your child doing well and praise him or her when you do. Remember, your praise cannot be too enthusiastic and doing well can be something small and simple, such as your child getting dressed when he gets up in the morning. Let your child know ahead of time the consequences of misbehavior and consistently enforce this consequence. Time out can be a really effective consequence when you think of it in terms of your child losing your energy. Set the expectation that your child needs to use the time out opportunity to calm down or “reset.” When your child is in time out, ignore his cries and pleas until time out is up. Once time is up and he is quiet (even if it’s just for the last 10 seconds), praise him for staying in time out for the amount of time he should have and for quietly accepting his consequence. This may feel awkward at first and will definitely require practice, but if you are consistent, your child will get the message and you will see results.