The Social Experiment in Your Living Room

Much of what looks like “bad” behavior is really just exploration and experimentation.   Kids are naturally curious and it is their job to figure out how things work and how to get what they want or need.  Like scientists, they do “experiments.”

These “experiments” are in two primary domains:  the natural world and the social world.
 
The natural world includes what adults generally think of as “physics” (yes, the water will spill if you invert an open cup), “chemistry” (when you pour milk into Dad’s beer it makes a multi-colored mixture), “civil engineering” (when you flush Mom’s ring down the toilet it disappears and does not return), and so on.

The most important experiments that children do, however, are in the social world.  This is where you come into the picture.

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Do You Overfunction For Your Kids? (Probably)

Over-functioning takes many different forms, but the common denominator is doing something for your children that they already can, or can learn to, do for themselves.   Here are some common examples:

  • Reminding your child to do her homework
  • Finishing your child’s homework or science project
  • Making school lunch everyday for your 10-year old
  • Bringing your 5-year-old’s coat (or lunch or homework) to school after she left it at home (again)
  • Accepting your child’s garbage as he hands it to you before running off to play after snack-time

Parents often over-function without even realizing they are doing it.  We do this partly because life is busy and we are just trying to get through daily tasks, partly because we can do things better and faster than our kids, and partly because we prefer not to see our kids be uncomfortable or not do well.

Why is over-functioning problematic?

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Kids Not Respecting You? Here's What To Do

Although every parent would likely agree that their kids should treat them with consideration and kindness, and are also vigilant about how their kids treat others, many parents unintentionally allow their children to treat them poorly.

You can see examples of this on a daily basis:  kids who interrupt their parents, kids who ignore their parents, kids who speak disrespectfully, kids who yell or push or pull their parent’s hair. 

Parents unintentionally “allow” this poor behavior for a number of reasons:

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Want to Curb Kids' Whining? Here's What You Need to Know

When we find ourselves rushed and trying to get dinner on the table while our three-year old is incessantly whining for a glass of milk, it can be helpful to remind ourselves that our child’s behavior (annoying as it may be) has a worthy goal:  to get our attention and get a glass of milk.

We can understand and even appreciate this goal; there’s nothing wrong with it.  What’s wrong is the method being used to achieve the goal.  In this example, the method is whining, and the goal is milk and/or our attention.

If you think of examples from your own family experience, you’ll likely find that in most cases, you would agree that the goal your kids are pursuing is worthy; it’s their method that is problematic.

So make a distinction between methods and goals when you address the behavior. Consider what their goal is and show them how to achieve it through other, more acceptable means.

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Kids testing you? Consistency is key

Consistency means doing what you say you will do; it means being predictable.  With consistency, testing of boundaries is minimized since children quickly learn that you can be expected to follow through.  Without consistency, the effectiveness of rules and boundaries is greatly reduced.

Kids whose parents are inconsistent will generally keep testing their parents’ limits and boundaries, since it’s part of learning how Mom and Dad work (and as a side benefit, the kids might also get away with whatever they’re doing).

In my workshops, I like to use the concept of gravity to illustrate the principle of consistency:  if, when you dropped something, it occasionally (or even just once) did not fall down, you might keep dropping things to see if and when it would happen again. 

Consistency is key to the effectiveness of consequences. 

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How to Give Consequences That Work

Kids need to experience the consequences of their actions.  Consequences help to improve judgment and facilitate learning, thereby increasing kids’ ability to act autonomously. 

Kids who don’t experience the consequences of their actions are insulated from critical learning experiences. 

So, how should parents use consequences in order to facilitate learning? 

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10 Things Great Parents Do

1.    Do what you say you are going to do
This goes two ways: 1) Don’t make rules you can’t, or won’t, enforce consistently; and 2) Keep your commitments. It’s important for kids to know that you mean what you say; this builds trust and respect.

2.    “Catch” kids being good, and tell them specifically what you liked
Kids really do want to please their parents and they thrive on constructive, positive feedback.

3.    Harness the power of natural consequences
Let kids experience the natural consequences of their actions or choices (unless health or safety is at risk). This is essential to learning.

4.    Show them the way
Punishment only suppresses behavior. Be sure also to tell kids the behavior you want to see instead, and then praise it specifically.

5.    Beware over-functioning for your kids
Making mistakes and experiencing “failure” and disappointment are essential life experiences that provide the opportunity for kids to learn and practice good coping skills.

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