Power of Positive Parenting – Getting Past Your Past

We all have models of how we do things. Over the course of our lives we learn how to be a husband or wife, father or mother, friend, etc from what we have been modeled. Nuclear families are not always the norm any more so I am going to write this very generally. For the most part fathers learn how to be a father based on what they saw their father do (a model) and the same is true of mothers, wives, and husbands. This is one of the reasons I normally ask couples in pre-marital counseling to imagine what kind of problems might arise if they could imagine the groom’s father married to the bride’s mother because there is a good chance those dynamics will be similar to the dynamics of this couple when they get married. We do what we know and we know what has been modeled for us. Why do people who were physically abused as a child have a higher likelihood of abusing their children? They don’t want to do that to their children but a fairly high percentage do because that was the parenting style that was modeled for them. Modeling is powerful.

There is good news and there is bad news. If you had good models growing up there is a higher likelihood that you will have a healthier parenting style. If your models were pretty poor then it is going to take a more concentrated effort to parent effectively (of course that is a generalization). One reason for that is called homeostasis is a word that basically means by default we will tend to revert back to a consistent pattern of behavior. That pattern of behavior is usually what we were modeled growing up. But the important piece of information is that we are not doomed to repeat our past. We can change it. To parent in a way different than how your parents did it is very hard and takes an intense amount of effort and will power to break the mold and consistently do things in a different way. Those who didn’t have the best models often have to get past their past. They have to gain momentum to jump over the hurdle of poor parenting styles they were modeled during their childhood. This is an important reminder for parents. The track you set for your child in how you parent and discipline them will likely continue on for many more generations. It is important that you parent effectively because if you don’t, the effects can be seen for years after you die.

How do you get past your past and become a healthy role model for  your children?

1) Identify the positive things your parents taught you about how to be a good parent. They probably never sat down and said, “This is what it takes to be a good parent…” but you know what these things are because you know what was effective in how they parented you.
2) Identify the negative things your parents taught you that were not good parenting skills. These must be identified and discussed with your spouse to give you support to make sure they are extinguished from your parenting repertoire. If your spouse had a tough childhood try to encourage them when you can tell they are really trying to break from their past.
3) Remember, children are constantly watching and learning. Children are active observers. Like little sponges of learning they are constantly soaking up information from their parents ranging from what to do when you get angry to how to deal with other people.
4) Children do what they know. That is called imitation. How do they know what they know? They learned from their role model – the parent. We often think of a role model as something healthy and it can be. Parents need to be aware that through their modeling children learn positive and negative behaviors. Be mindful that how you deal with stress, frustration, anger, obstacles, and how you deal with others are all observed an often imitated by your children.
5) Teach your child healthy conflict resolution. Many couples do not disagree in front of the children. I understand the sentiment but children also need to learn that it can be healthy to have a mature and controlled disagreement. How else are they ever going to learn conflict resolution if their parents don’t model it for them?
6) Children want consistency. If you are loving one moment and angry and screaming the next that doesn’t send your child a healthy signal and certainly does not contribute to giving them a healthy sense of self and well-being. Be calm and consistent even when they make you angry. Remember they are watching and if you deal with them in an angry way, chances are they will carry on that behavior into their future.

To read more posts from this series:
The Power of Positive Parenting
Defining Discipline
Understanding Functional Behavior
The Power of Attention
Dealing with Non-compliance and Commands
7 Rules for Consistent Parenting


Power of Positive Parenting – 7 Rules for Consistent Parenting

Consistency is one of the most important parts of effective parenting. There are a lot of parenting techniques and programs out there. The most important thing is that you decide what you are going to do to discipline your children and stick with it.

One of the reasons we have to be 100% consistent in our discipline is because of the power of reinforcement schedules. Studies have been done where children are rewarded 100% of the time for something, rewarded randomly, or not rewarded at all. Guess which behaviors were the quickest learned and repeated? I may have tricked you here. It was the behavior that was rewarded on a random basis. But I thought you said be consistent. Okay stick with me here. What I am saying is if you are wishy-washy on your discipline (letting negative behavior go unpunished part of the time or even reward it sometimes…through your attention, giving in by buying the candy bar because of their whining, etc) it is going to be the hardest thing to break them of. Be 100% consistent in  your discipline and they will be far less likely to pick up on negative behaviors.

Rules for consistency in parenting:

1 – Don’t make promises you cannot keep. They will learn not to trust you and that you don’t mean what you say. Why behave in the store because they won’t reward me anyway?
2 – Don’t threaten punishments you aren’t willing to follow through on. If you have to go to grandmother’s house today don’t threaten that they will have to stay home if they don’t obey in the store or pick up their toys. There is no way to be consistent if you promise or threaten things you will not or cannot do!
3 – Don’t let the only thing you are consistent on be inconsistency.
4 – Come to an agreement with your spouse on what type of discipline you are going to use (specific rewards and punishments for specific positive and negative behaviors). If one of you disciplines in a different way when the other is not around or even fails to discipline at all it will short circuit the learning process you are trying to train your child with.
5 – Learn to consistently only offer commands one time. This teaches them not to dawdle and teaches them that you are serious.
6 – Consistently reward and punish swiftly. If you wait more than 5 minutes to discipline a young child they won’t even know what you are disciplining them for by the time you get around to doing it.
7 – Consistently set expectations of how they are to behave in advance of a situation. Most children really do want to know what to do, what is expected of them, and what good behavior really looks like. They really do want to please you. You may have trained them to try the wrong things to do it but that really is their desire.

Power of Positive Parenting – Noncompliance and Commands

One of the biggest challenges in dealing with children is how to deal with non-compliance. So far in this series we have only dealt with attention seeking behaviors. Attention seeking behaviors are not in response to a command. Instead, they are a bid for the parents’ attention. So what do you do with a non-compliant child or when a typically compliant child does not obey a command? This post will talk about how non-compliance can in part be increased by ineffective commands and decreased by effective ones.

One thing many parents have taught their children is that they aren’t really series about what they are saying until they begin working through their standard “I am finally getting serious” routine. This often involves counting, raising the voice, yelling, a certain stare, or using the child’s middle name. My question for all you parents out there who use such a technique is this, “Why can’t they know you are serious the first time you tell them to do something?” Children learn the verbal and non-verbal cues their parents give them and they will stall as long as possible until the frustration level has reached its threshold before they comply. Don’t even give them a chance to do that because you are the one who controls whether or not that happens by how you respond to dawdling, stalling, or outright non-compliance.

So how do you short-circuit this vicious cycle?

  1. Take away all the “I am finally serious” cues and start giving commands one time in a normal tone of voice.
  2. Don’t give confusing commands. Make them simple and direct.
  3. Don’t give commands you aren’t willing to follow through on with discipline if the child does not comply.
  4. Don’t give commands that are impossible to tell if they have been completed.
  5. Commands must be realistic and doable.
  6. Don’t repeat commands. This gives children time and they learn that you aren’t really serious the first time you say it. Say it once. Mean it. Give them roughly 5 seconds (of silent counting) for compliance. Follow through (discussed below).

The easy part is giving the command. The hard part is what you do afterward. There are only two possible outcomes and following responses from any command you give your child. There is either compliance followed by reward (praise – specifically a labeled praise “thank you for holding mommy’s hand” rather than just a “thank you”) or non-compliance followed by punishment. This has to be 100% consistent in order for discipline to work and for children to learn the importance of compliance.

We will talk more about methods of discipline for non-compliance in a future post.

Power of Positive Parenting – The Power of Attention

This is not about if you have ADD or a short attention span. This is about using your attention as a powerful force that is key to helping your children develop appropriate behaviors. Attention is powerful. Believe it or not your children want it. They value it. This is evidenced by the extreme measures many children will go to get your attention – whining, screaming, tantrums, making loud noises, banging things. These are all termed “attention seeking behaviors.” They are bids for your attention. Children often make these behaviors so aversive to parents that the parent will do anything in their power to stop it. How do they stop it? By giving the child what they want – attention. By doing so they ensure that the child will do that negative behavior again the next time they want something or want their parent’s attention.

Our attention is under our control. How we control it is a very powerful reinforcer to our children because children see attention as a reward. Because attention is under our control and it is a powerful reinforcer/reward to our children we cannot let the looks and stares of others in public influence us to give our children attention at inappropriate times (for tantrums, and all the rest listed above).

The most powerful way to extinguish attention seeking behaviors is through withdrawing attention. That is called ignoring. “So you mean to tell me that when Junior starts a tantrum in the checkout line that I am supposed to ignore that?” Yes. Think back to functional behaviors. When a child wants your attention they often learn that the only way to get it immediately is through inappropriate attention seeking behaviors that is reinforced by our immediate response with our attention. This becomes functional for children. They get what they want because we give it to them. Why do we do that? Because to ignore it makes us look bad in public and is uncomfortable. The cycle has to be broken and the only way to do it is to not give children what they want (equals don’t reinforce it with the reward – attention). Your gut level response is to shout at them, “Stop that!” The better response is to ignore, turn your back on them, and continue on with what you need to do.

But that is only half of the solution. The next is critical. When they stop the attention-seeking behaviors and start acting appropriately we give them a short and specific labeled praise for the positive opposite behavior. If they were yelling and they start talking at an appropriate level you turn back to them and say, “I like it when you use your inside voice.” If they were on the floor kicking and screaming and they get up and stop their whining you say, “I like it when you stand next to daddy like a big boy.” You get the point.

How do children respond to this? It is critical that you know what will happen 99% of the time once you start ignoring those things you have always given attention to. And remember negative attention is still attention. We wouldn’t think they would like for us to yell at them, etc but they are getting what they want even in that moment – our attention. So how will they respond? They intensify and escalate! They will get louder, worse, tantrum harder, bang things harder. Our gut says, “Make it stop!” But you cannot give attention. Keep ignoring. Hold on tight to your attention. Now is the worst time ever to give attention because if you do they have now learned that tantrums must be louder to get your attention! If you give in, you lost the battle and the next one will probably be even worse. So be strong. When they stop find the positive opposite to praise and give attention to.

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.

The Power of Positive Parenting – Definition of Discipline

I am going to be referring back to principles contained in this post in upcoming posts so it is important that if you are going to follow this series on parenting that you understand the concepts contained here.

When we think of discipline we often think of punishment for doing the wrong thing. That is only one side of the coin. The other side of discipline is giving reward or reinforcement for doing the right thing. My working definition of discipline is

A sequence of positive rewards and negative punishments administered to
increase desirable behaviors and to decrease undesirable behaviors.

Punishment teaches children what is wrong and what not to do the next time. It discourages inappropriate behavior. Parents often find themselves saying “Stop doing that.” “Don’t touch that.” “You better not go in your brother’s room.” Okay, now they know what they are not supposed to do. That is half of disciplining a child. The other half of discipline informs a child of what is appropriate and gives them positive feedback or reward for appropriate behaviors in order to encourage those behaviors to happen more often.

One problem is a lot of parents give non-specific (what some called “unlabeled”) praise. These are praises like “thank you” or “good job.” This often leaves younger children wondering which part of what they did was right. A better way of giving praise is more specific (what is called “labeled”) praises. These tell the child exactly what the parent liked about the child’s behavior. These are statements like, “Thank you for using your inside voice” or “I like it when you sit on the couch like a big boy.” Discipline works best when rewards and punishments work together to teach a child what is appropriate and what is inappropriate. I am going to spend more time on positive reinforcement and negative punishment in an upcoming post. I am just trying to lay down some basics here.

Proverbs 22:6 – “Train a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not turn from it.” We have often interpreted that verse to mean that we must punish children for the wrong things they do in order to discipline them. Notice that verse says we are to train our children in the way they should go. Punishment shows them the way not to go. If we want to train our children to grow into a healthy maturity level they need both sides of the discipline equation – rewards for appropriate behavior and punishments for inappropriate behavior. More on that in future posts.

Part 2 – Understanding Functional Behavior

The Power of Positive Parenting

I have alluded several times to a part of my education that has been a tremendous help to my ministry. When I went to Harding I majored in psychology and went on to work on a Ph.D. in clinical and health psychology at the University of Florida (which I withdrew from to do ministry). I specialized in clinical child psychology and did a lot of work with parenting, specifically, teaching parents how to be play therapists for their children. I want to pass on some parenting help in a series called The Power of Positive Parenting.

Several of the topics we will be covering will include: Discipline, Modeling, Expectations, Boundaries, Consistency, Attention as a Reinforcer, The Power of the Positive Opposite, and Dealing with Non-Compliance. There may be a few more and some may be combined but all the posts will focus on principles and practical application.

What other topics would be helpful to you?

Here are the parts so far:
Part 1 – Defining Discipline
Part 2 – Understanding Functional Behavior
Part 3 – The Power of Attention
Part 4 – Noncompliance and Commands
Part 5 – 7 Rules for Consistent Parenting
Part 6 – Getting Past Your Past