Oh, Behave!


Sometimes, parental epiphanies just can’t be gleaned from textbook knowledge. Today, Tracy shares her realizations about the ever-shifting, ongoing process that is behavior shaping in kids:

“You’d think that, as a psychologist, I’d be able to use my skills as a therapist to assist my children in learning right from wrong, what is appropriate, what is not. In a nutshell, how to behave. And, at the very least, you’d think I’d have a firm appreciation for what stage and age they are at, and the “button-pushers” that go along with it. You’d think.
I fall prey to the anxiety-ridden, faulty thinking that I’m sure other parents have experienced, too. I forget that almost everything is a “phase,” and that the successful negotiation of it (i.e., when the behavior stops happening because they don’t need it anymore) is a necessary part of growing up. In the midst of these lapses of mine, I can – often almost feverishly – try to brainstorm the next great behavior modification trick, which will miraculously (and immediately, I often expect) change my children into “good behavers.”

Except…I can’t actually find these tricks. I now think that they don’t actually exist. I went through a recent tough period where I really thought that the correct technique, consequence, or amount of consistent follow through was just around the corner. When I found it, I thought, all of the bad listening would miraculously go away. Um, no. I would try this or that technique, which only sometimes worked, and continue to feel frustrated that somehow I was missing the good parenting boat. I read books, looked up websites, hoping to find the next big thing.

A few recent experiences opened my eyes a bit, though. A visit in a restaurant with friends from out of town is one that sticks in particular. After firmly asking my older son not to open a heavy door in the restaurant because our friends’ daughter was on the other side trying to come in, he stopped, stepped back and patiently waited for her to come through. My friend’s husband stood there blinking and said, “Wow. He listened.” At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of the comment. Was he hinting that he hadn’t expected my child to listen? Or, that his experience with 6 year olds generally is that they don’t listen? Or, was he just impressed that, in the throes of visiting excitement, my son was able to listen?

A couple of weeks later, we hosted a BBQ. The dads and sons played soccer while we waited on supper. At some point, things were getting rowdy, and in rapid succession our 6 year old had kicked the ball into the middle of the appetizer table on the deck, run into his younger brother (who was not looking where he was going), and tripped and bumped his knee. After soothing boo-boos and bruised egos, the boys returned to playing without the men. A few moments later, the soccer ball was again where it should not be and I (rather sharply) said that soccer was over until after supper. Upset, but obedient, my older son stowed his ball, and came to sit with the adults. My friend said, “Your boys are so well behaved.” For a split second, I just about replied, “My boys?” And then I stopped. Because they were behaving.

I realized after processing these experiences that I really needed to cut myself some slack. And, I definitely needed to let my expectations for the boys relax a little. I realized that shaping behavior is an ongoing process with an ever-shifting target. Part of behavior modification is to keep in mind where your child(ren) is/are at developmentally and adjust accordingly. We will have good days and not-so-good days, and that is what parenting is. The best I can do is try as well as I can to be patient, tackle behavior shaping as the process it is, and glory in the successes the boys have in the right moments.

After finishing this post originally, I came across this quote: “Our children are not machines that need to be repaired through a series of mechanical steps – they are relational beings whose souls grow through the mystery of their relationships.” -- Dan Allender

So, that part about trying to find the perfect “mechanism” by which to change my children into behavers? I’m done with that. I’m going to try to keep in mind the relational aspect of parenting in teaching appropriate behavior. I’ll let you know how it goes.”