When children’s behavior interferes with their parents’ needs, as it inevitably will, parents naturally want to try to modify such behavior. After all, parents do have needs. They have their own lives to live and the right to derive satisfaction and enjoyment from their existence. But parents make two serious mistakes.
First, much to their regret, many parents ignore unacceptable behaviors and watch their children grow up to be terribly inconsiderate or even oblivious of their parents’ needs. If parents permit this, they will develop strong feelings of resentment and even grow to dislike such “ungrateful” or “selfish” kids. Secondly, most parents choose punishment as their first approach in trying to modify unacceptable behavior. If parents permissively ignore behavior they don’t like, they suffer; if they rely on punishment, their kids will suffer.
Very young children present a special problem for parents, because they may be unable to understand verbal messages. Nevertheless, it is actually quite easy to influence infants and pre-verbal children to modify behavior unacceptable to parents, provided the right approach is used. Parents can choose from four different approaches – all very effective.
When infants behave unacceptably, there is a good reason, but you have to try to guess what it is.
The Guessing Game
Effective parents must learn to be good guessers with infants and toddlers, simply because these children can’t tell us much about what’s going on inside them. Jenny, 6 months old, starts to cry loudly in the middle of the night. Her parents are awakened from the sleep they need and naturally find this behavior unacceptable. But how can they get Jenny to stop? Quite simply, they start guessing. Finding the cause of her crying so they can remedy the problem is not unlike a puzzle:
Maybe she’s wet and cold. We’ll check first on that. No, she’s still dry. Well, could it be we didn’t burp her enough and she is feeling uncomfortable with gas? Let’s pick her up and start the burping process. Bad guess again – Jenny won’t burp. Wonder if she’s hungry? There is still some milk in her bottle, but it got pushed down to the end of the crib. We’ll act on that hypothesis next. Success! Jenny sucks for a few minutes and then gets sleepy. They put her back into her crib gently and she falls asleep. Her parents can go back to bed now and get their own needs met.
Sometimes parents will find the guessing game easy, other times more difficult. The cliché, “If first you don’t succeed, try, try again”, is the soundest advice I know for parents. Actually, parents can get quite good at the game, because they get to know their offspring better and better. Parents have told me that they eventually learned to tell the difference between a wet-cry, a hungry-cry and a gas-cry.
That is an example of the guessing game, an approach that parents have to use very frequently with infants – when they whine incessantly, when they are restless and pestering, when they can’t get to sleep, when they throw their food on the floor. The guessing game works so effectively because when infants do things that are unacceptable to their parents, there’s a reason for it – usually a very logical reason. When parents start using the guessing game, they stop resorting to punishment.
When you can’t accept one behavior, substitute another you can.
Let’s Make a Trade
Another effective approach for changing unacceptable behaviors of infants and toddlers involves trading – substituting for the unacceptable behavior another behavior that would be acceptable to the parent.
Laura, your curious 1 year old, has found a pair of your new nylons which she finds enjoyable to touch and tug on. You find this unacceptable, because you’re afraid she’ll snag or stretch them into being unwearable. You go to your drawer and pull out an old pair, already snagged beyond being wearable. You place this pair in her hands and gently take away the new pair. Laura, not knowing the difference, finds the damaged pair equally as enjoyable to touch and tug. Her needs are met, but so are yours.
Kevin is jumping up and down on the couch and mom fears he will knock the lamp off the end table. Mother gently but firmly removes Kevin from the couch and proceeds to jump up and down with him on the pillows which she removed from the couch and put on the floor.
Christy, age 18 months, starts to get up on her dad’s lap on the very night he is dressed in his freshly cleaned light-colored suit. Dad notices that Christy’s hands are covered with jam mixed with equal parts of peanut butter. Dad gently restrains Christy, but then immediately goes to the bathroom, gets a wet washcloth and wipes her hands clean. Then Dad picks Christy up and puts her on his lap.
Again, when parents start thinking in terms of trading they stop using punishment.
Let kids know how you feel, even if you can’t use words.
The Non-verbal I-Message
Older children often modify their behavior after parents send them an honest message that conveys how the parent is affected by the child’s behavior as in “I can’t hear on the phone when there’s so much yelling.” “I’m afraid I’ll be late, if you take so long to dress.” “I love that little dish and I would be sad if it got broken.”
But children too young to understand words won’t be influenced by such messages (called “I-Messages”, because they convey to the child, “Let me tell you how I am feeling.”) Consequently, the I-Message has to be put into a non-verbal form, as in the following examples:
While Dad is carrying little Max in the supermarket, he starts to kick Dad in the stomach, laughing with each kick. Dad immediately puts Max down on his feet and continues walking. (Message: “It hurts me when I get kicked in the stomach so I don’t like to carry you.”)
Annie stalls and pokes getting into the car when Mom is in a terrible hurry. Mom puts her hand on Annie’s rear and gently but firmly guides her onto the front seat. (Message: “I need you to get in right now, because I’m in a hurry.”)
The key to employing this method of trying to modify unacceptable behavior is avoiding any kind of behavior that will be punishing or painful to the child. After all, you only want him to know how you are feeling. Slapping, hitting, thumping, pushing, jerking, yelling, pinching – all these methods inevitably communicate to the youngster that he’s bad, he’s wrong, his needs don’t count, he’s done something criminal and he deserves to be punished.
It’s often more efficient to change the child’s environment than to change the child.
Changing the Environment
Most parents intuitively know that one effective way of stopping many kinds of unacceptable behavior is to focus on changing the child’s environment, as opposed to efforts at changing the child directly. What parent has not watched a whiney, pestering, bored youngster get totally (and quietly) immersed when her parent provides her with some materials that capture her interest – clay, finger paints, puzzles, picture books or old scraps of colored cloth. This is called “Enriching the Environment”.
At other times kids need just the opposite. They’re keyed up and hyperactive just before bedtime, for example, so the wise parent knows how to “Impoverish the Environment”. Overstimulated children will often calm down if they are read a fairy tale, told a story (real or fiction), or perhaps, a quiet period of sharing their day’s events. Much of the storm and stress of bedtime could be avoided if parents made an effort to reduce the stimulation of their children’s environment.
Most unacceptable (and destructive) behavior of toddlers can be avoided by serious efforts on the part of parents to “Child-proof the Environment”, as with buying unbreakable cups and glasses. Putting matches, knives razor blades out of reach. Locking up medicines and sharp tools. Keeping the basement door locked. Fastening down slippery throw rugs.