Power of Positive Parenting – Understanding Functional Behavior

The last post talked about the two sides of discipline. This next post is about how the things children and even adults do almost always make sense on some level. When you examine the majority of psychosis or dysfunctional behavior in children and adults you normally find something that used to “work for them” on some level but over time the intensity, frequency, or adaptability of the behavior made that behavior maladaptive. Take, for example, someone who has worked in a high security job for decades. They have learned to be careful with information, to make sure things are secure and put away and that things are kept locked down. In the proper context that is functional. Give that person 30 years of doing that and start observing their home behaviors and you may, over time, begin to see dysfunctional behaviors – repeated door checking, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Anxiety, and even paranoia. In different context what used to work well becomes maladaptive.

This same process can happen with children. Children learn what behaviors work in order to accomplish their intended goals. One challenge of parenting is to look at your child’s behavior and try to understand where it came from and how it “worked” for that child at some point in the past. When trying to understand behavior it never hurts to ask the question, “What was in that for them?” Taking that information the parent is armed with the tools to eliminate the behavior (if it is negative) or to increase the behavior (if it is positive).

Example: You are in the checkout line with your child. Do you know what those evil companies place between what you need (groceries) and where you have to go to purchase them (the cashier)? A huge rack of candy! So you step in line with junior. He immediately notices the candy. What options does he have to get what he wants? He can either ask nicely, right…. Or he can throw a tantrum, get loud and physical. What is the best way to ensure with nearly 100% accuracy that the next time you are in the store with junior that he will throw another tantrum in the checkout line? Give him the candy.

What just happened? In essence junior is drawing negative attention toward you from fellow store patrons which results in the parent feeling the pressure and giving in to giving junior some candy. Junior just taught the parent to reward tantrums because it is easier, quicker, and less embarrassing to give him candy and stop the tantrum than to face all the evil stares from the other people in the store. Parents self talk with statements like, “They must think I am a bad parent.” or “I sure wouldn’t want someone else’s kid doing that in the store.” So many parents do the expedient thing to stop the tantrum rather than do what it will take to stop the majority of tantrums from that point forward. Tantrums are functional when they achieve the desired result. Children do not have the wisdom or experience to be the parent so don’t let be the parent. You are the one teaching them how to behave and not the other way around.

Never let someone else force you into bad parenting. Never let negative attention, stares, or rude comments about how bad a parent you must be stop you from disciplining your child and train them how to grow into a mature adult. No one has the right to manipulate you into quieting your child by inappropriate means (a candy bribe) in the checkout line or wherever. Those people won’t be with you and your kids the next 499 times you are at the store. They can put up with a tantrum for a few minutes if it means you have a teachable moment with junior.

Dealing with Tantrums:

What are you supposed to do in that situation? You cannot let the behavior (tantrums) work (result in candy).

  1. The key is to never let the child get what they want if they go about getting in through inappropriate means. Never reinforce a behavior that you are not comfortable seeing at least 100 more times.
  2. Make sure if they do ever ask appropriately that you praise them for it because that is the flip side of the coin. Encourage what you want to see and discourage what you don’t want to see.
  3. Set an expectation of what is going to happen and how you expect them to behave before you go into the store. Set an expectation of what will happen if they behave and what will happen if they misbehave.
  4. This next thing is critical to the success of the whole operation. WHATEVER YOU TELL THEM YOU ARE GOING TO DO – DO IT! 100% without fail. Punish what you said you would punish with the consequences you laid out. Reward what you said you would reward with the reward you promised. Never fail at that. Consistency is key (more on that in a later post). If you aren’t consistent with punishment they will learn your threats are empty words. If you are inconsistent with reward they will learn they might as well throw a tantrum because they aren’t going to get anything anyway.
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About mattdabbs
I am a minister, husband, and father. My wife and I live and minister in Saint Petersburg, Florida. My primary ministry responsibilities include: small groups, 20s and 30s, involvement, and adult education.

7 Responses to Power of Positive Parenting – Understanding Functional Behavior

  1. preacherman says:

    Matt,
    As a father of 3 young sons.
    My oldest today is 7 years old.
    I am striving to be the best father I can be.
    If there is one area in my life that I would want to be sucessful other than my relationship with God; it is my family. As a young parent I constantly ask God for help and patience. I want you to know that I appreciate so much this series. It has been a true encouragement and blessing to my life as I know I need to work on being a better father and the best one I can be for them in order to make a our home peaceful. God bless you brother so much for this post. It’s great! I hope you have a great day and blessed we in our Lord Jesus.
    In Him,
    Kinney Mabry

  2. dannydodd says:

    Matt, I am enjoying and needing these posts! Very good stuff.

    Hey, can you come over to my house sometime and help? My youngest is going thru the terrible twos! 😉

  3. mattdabbs says:

    Preacherman,

    I am sure God will grant you success if you lean on him.

    Danny,

    The two’s can be pretty bad. Feel free to ask away. I have seen a lot and help parents overcome some pretty intense stuff. God bless

  4. Justin says:

    Great post Matt! When I was about 4 I threw a tantrum in the grocery store, and my mom took me out to the parking lot and beat me (for lack of a better word).

    I never threw a tantrum again…

  5. Justin says:

    I should probably add that I’m not condoning child abuse! However, a good spanking worked wonders for me!

  6. Philip says:

    These are great. Keep ’em comin’, Matt

  7. thatsbignzy says:

    Hi ! All parents need a good parenting resource of their own. Since parenting is such a tough occupation a parenting resource can help make things easier for any parent. I have got a site which gives valuable tips and ideas for your kids.

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