All too often in our parent roles, we feel like an ogre or the mean old witch, when we would much rather play the good fairy or the benevolent king. We have so many responsibilities, and want so much for our children, that we may feel under great pressure. How will we get our kids to behave properly if we don’t play the heavy?
Sometimes parents can’t help being cross, but there are tricks that can help turn horrible, tense situations into warm and happy ones. Learning such tricks is not easy, but just as a magician can learn a new trick or skill, so can we. And these skills can have a magical effect on our families.
These skills may sound as ordinary as a magic trick does after it is explained. Still, when you first try them, you may feel awkward and want to give up. But if you keep working with these skills, the magic will appear.
Trick 1: Noticing the Positive
When our oldest two sons were five and three years old, they went through a period that felt like forever but might have been less than a month, when it seemed they were constantly bickering, arguing, fighting. I began to get upset. I scolded, and lectured, and separated, and punished (especially the older boy), and rescued (especially the younger one), and asked, “Must you always fight?”
After the situation had gotten terrible, and everything I did seemed only to make it worse, I became desperate. In my desperation, I formed a desperate plan. I would start ignoring the horrible things my boys were doing and would try to notice something anything good that either one did.
At first I was limited to saying things like: “How nice, you walked through the door together” (without knocking each other into the door jamb), or “It was thoughtful of you to leave a cracker for your brother” (after one had eaten merely 12 of the 13 crackers in the box). Suddenly, though, both boys seemed to be doing lots of good things together. Their fighting subsided to an appropriate level, and I again thought they were wonderful kids.
What had happened? At the time I was so startled that I couldn’t figure it out. Today, I have three ideas.
- When I started looking for good points, I saw behavior I hadn’t noticed before.
- When I stopped getting in the middle of fights, fighting and arguing became less interesting to the boys.
- The boys, who were pretty smart, as are most 3- and 5-year-olds, realized that the game had changed. Now the way to get Mother’s attention was to do something good.
Whatever the reasons, focusing my attention on positive behaviors had brought about a wonderful change.
How is this possible? Can parents get children to behave better by spending more thought and energy encouraging good behavior and less energy on punishing bad? The way to find out is to try it yourself, but I myself am now convinced. Since my first trial, I have had many other experiences that have strengthened my belief in the power of focusing on desired behavior. I will mention just two examples.
The first example is an exercise used at a recent staff meeting to demonstrate the power of positive reinforcement. One person was asked to leave the room while the rest of us would plan a task for her. We decided she should walk into the room, turn right, go to the blackboard, pick up two erasers, stack them together, and put them on top of the director’s head. We could instruct her to perform this unlikely sequence of behaviors only by clapping whenever she made a correct move.
As she walked in the door we clapped, but when she began to go left we stopped. As she turned right, our clapping became enthusiastic until she passed the blackboard. When she moved back toward the blackboard, our clapping started again. So it went until by trial and error, informed only by our applause for each correct move, she finally, with great hesitation, put the two erasers on the director’s head. She then stood there, awed by what she had done. We joined in her amazement, surprised that we had directed her so easily.
My second example is from my counseling practice. A young couple whom I’ll call Nan and Keith Bock came to see me because they were much concerned about their children’s behavior and the serious unhappiness in their family.
As I talked with them, it became clear that everyone in this family was quick to criticize and complain, but no one praised or thanked the others. This is true in many families, probably to a lesser extent. It is easy to take for granted the helpful things one expects of spouse, children, or parents, but one is quick to express displeasure about shortcomings. In the Bock family, the amount of complaining was taking a serious toll.
I gave all the family members the task of starting a Collection of Appreciations. The Bocks taped a huge piece of newsprint on their kitchen door and tied a felt-tipped pen to the doorknob. I asked both parents and all three children to make a note of at least one thing they appreciated each day; the youngest child either drew a picture or dictated her words.
Each week the family brought in their latest collection to share with me. The first week there were few entries, but slowly new patterns began to emerge. After three weeks, one of mother’s notes said, “I appreciate it when you let me know what you appreciate!!!” and she certainly did. Indeed, within a month or two the simple practice of letting each other know what they liked seemed to change the whole tone of life in the Bock family.
Notice the positive. Notice, collect, and comment on all the good things you can about every family member. Treasure this collection and share it with your kids.