Misbehaviour often happens due to what parent educators call “Parent Traps”.
These traps usually come up when we are stressed, angry or frustrated and catch us off guard.
1 - The Accidental Reward
Sometimes our children will do things or behave in ways that are initially funny but over the long term become difficult to manage or even dangerous.
As an example, maybe your child is helping you put away laundry but instead of helping you fold the items they grab them off the pile and throw them on the floor.
Initially, it might be cute or funny but by providing your child the emotional reward of your laughter or cute talk your child will always want to achieve that again.
After all, if you’ve laughed the first few times, there is a chance you might laugh again and that is the response your child will continue to seek from you.
This doesn’t mean that if your child throws the laundry on the floor you get angry or just ignore it.
Instead, it means you need to show your child how to do the task the way you would like. “Watch me” interactions with your children are great learning opportunities for them to understand expectations.
Another example is rudeness or swearing. If you laugh, smile or get into lecturing mode with your child, the added attention you’ve given them may encourage them to repeat that behaviour, particularly during times when they feel you aren’t paying any attention to them.
This is similar in actions like running or bolting away from you. If they run or bolt and you jokingly chase after them, or say in a playful way “Oh, I’m going to get you!” children will understand this as fun.
In their minds they are thinking how great it is to be running and playing with you, they have no ability to determine when this behaviour might be safe (in the yard or the park) or dangerous (in a crowded place or a parking lot).
2 - Going to Escalation Station
Every parent in the world has travelled through escalation station.
As an example, you are shopping with your child and they ask for a cookie. You say no.
They ask again only this time they wail the request and cry. You are tired and just want to stop the screaming so you give them the cookie.
When children ask for something or want to do something it only takes once for them to decide that if they really want it, they just have to keep going because you will give in and they will get what they want.
The next time this happens you might decide you aren’t falling for it so instead of giving them the cookie you get louder with your “no!” They will see your “louder” and raise the ante to screaming and tears.
You raise the stakes with a threat, “ask again and we are leaving”. Your child calls your bluff with an epic tantrum.
Finally, you can’t take it and you give them the cookie. You’ve actually ended up satisfying your desire for calm and their desire for the cookie and in the process you’ve reinforced that if they just keep escalating, at some point you will give in.
A trip to escalation station does not only happen when they are asking for something. It also happens with behaviour in the form of defiance.
As an example, you are at the park with your child and you ask them to come and put their coat on. Your child doesn’t want to wear the coat so they pretend not to hear you. You make the request again louder but they persist in “not hearing you”.
The third time you shout and add a threat “do it now or no television when we get home”. They are escalating by not complying and you are escalating in voice tone and threats.
I have lost count of the times I have seen a parent chasing their child around a playground because the child won’t comply with the parent’s request or instruction. Children learn very quickly that you are not serious about whatever it is you are asking for until you really lose it and start yelling or threatening.
Even though in the end they’ve had to put on the jacket – however it gets on them, for that few minutes they had total and utter control of the situation and didn’t have to wear the jacket. My own children were “shoe fighters”.
I would say, “do you want to put your shoes on yourself, or do you want help?” Giving them a choice gives them a sense of control. Sometimes they wouldn’t like those options and would just run around the house. In those instances they would be reminded they can choose between those options and if they still refused a consequence is on its way.
The art was choosing a consequence I could actually enforce and not buckle and not follow through on. If I said, “choose how we are going to get your shoes on or you won’t be able to watch (whatever kid’s show was currently their favourite)”, I had to actually follow through.
If we were at the park and the shoes came off and I asked for them to go back on, they had one chance to follow through with my request or they were carried to the car.
If they yelled and screamed during that, I would repeat over and over, “I hear you, I understand you are upset, you are fine, it’s time to go home”. In all honesty, most of the time I was repeating it to keep myself calm but it also worked to calm them.
3 - Watch, Learn and Repeat
It isn’t brand new information that children learn by watching those around them. What we often forget however is that they are always watching.
That twisty face and grumble you make when you eat something you don’t like, they saw it.
What they learned was, when asked to eat something one does not like, one should squint eyes, turn mouth down and complain.
When you were angry on the phone with the gas company, pacing, rolling your eyes while you demanded to speak to a supervisor, they saw that too.
What they learned from it was, when angry and in need of getting one’s own way, one should argue and show physical signs of how upset one is.
When you became frustrated by the slow old driver in front of you in traffic and raised your voice and swore, they saw it.
When you yell, swear, or loose your temper, even when it isn’t with them, they see it and they learn how that is how to behave when one is angry or doesn’t get their way.
This often happens when children see adults argue. Children watch how you argue, and how you respond when people argue with you.
Based on what they see, they will learn how to behave when they are angry and upset. If you are in a relationship where your spouse or partner calls you names or swears at you when they are angry, or you do this to people when you argue with them, guess what?
Your children will repeat that when they interact with you, and the long-term impact of this is disastrous to healthy child development.
4 - Missing the Good Stuff
All children love attention, particularly if it is praise.
There is a phrase we use in the parent education world: “catch them being good”. Often when we think of boundaries, discipline and managing behaviour we become so focused on correcting children we overlook it when they get it right all on their own.
If you only talk to your child about their coat when it is on the floor and never notice any other time, which behaviour are they most likely to repeat of they want attention from you?
Any behaviour that gets a child no attention is less likely to be repeated.
5 - Inconsistency
Inconsistent boundaries and consequences have made mincemeat out many a good parent.
To a child, if a negative behaviour gets a negative consequence only some of the time, it means the rest of the time there is no consequence.
Further, if the negative consequence varies in severity your child never knows what to expect and therefore they are not sure what behaviour to display and this causes them a lot of distress.
When this happens children often revert to a behaviour with a known outcome such as escalating.
6 - Nebulous Tutelage or Supplication
This means giving unclear requests or overly complicated instructions, but it sounded confusing right?
When we ask our children to do things or complete tasks we have to understand their abilities and properly communicate our expectations. Try not to give too many instructions at the same time.
Listing off things you want done will result in an overwhelmed child. Not giving enough instruction is just as confusing.
- You say, “Put this toy away”.
- They hear, “Move this away from here”.
- You meant, “Put this toy back on the shelf in your room” so make sure to say what you mean.
Children are more likely to misbehave if they have to fill in any blanks. Try to not ask something of your child that is above their ability.
Asking a 4-year-old to properly fold or hang and put away all their laundry is a big and daunting task and invites a wide opportunity for things to go sideways.
Being consistent should be the most important message you take from this book and is the single greatest secret to successful parenting.
Consistency is truly the key to making it all work. Say what you’re going to do and then actually do what you say.
If you say there is going to be a certain consequence for a behaviour then it has to happen. This is why you need to think ahead and know what you are capable of following through on.
If you are shopping and have a cart full of groceries and you say to your child, “do that again and we’re leaving”, you better be prepared to abandon the cart and actually leave.
If you don’t, your child knows your words don’t mean much. On the other hand, you only have to follow through a couple of times and your children will learn you mean business.