Three ways to avoid “behave, or else” parenting


Recently, I read Turn This Ship Around by L. David Marquet, a former commander of a nuclear submarine who turned one of the poorest operating submarines in the fleet into one of the highest performing in a variety of different ways. Interestingly, he did so by enacting many procedures that were in direct conflict with the standard operating procedures of the military.

I think there are a lot of things parents can learn from his experiences.

One realization he had early on was,

“The reward [for good performance] was no punishment”

The way they handled performance was to punish the bad and reward good and even optimal performance by carrying on as if nothing happened-

basically hoping the avoidance of punishment was enough to maintain optimal performance.

He found a variety of side effects of this strategy (with the obvious fact that it resulted in a very poor performing ship):

  1. the men on board did not know what they did correctly when they did things well
  2. there was ZERO morale amongst the crew
  3. the men were so controlled by the “follow the rules or else” strategy that they did not make good common sense decisions for the ship.

This lead to failures, which led to punishment, which led to deterioration of morale–you can see where this goes.

What does this have to do with parenting and teaching better behavior with children?

I think a lot of parents adopt a “behave or else” strategy–and it fails.

1. Think about your child’s behavior-is the reward avoidance of punishment?

If so, you need to turn your ship around. You may be in the nasty cycle of punishment and not able to get out of it. Think differently about this. Do not let good behavior go unnoticed just because “he should behave,” “she should sit quietly,” or “he should be nice to others.” (see my earlier post about what kids should do).

2. Specifically recognize the behaviors you want and tell your kid about it.

Tell them exactly what they did right when they do it. Be immediate. It costs you nothing. Pay attention. This is especially true if they do something well in a situation when they have previously struggled. For example, if your daughter consistently interrupts you while you are on the phone and, by some unimaginable reason, she is quiet one time when you take a call, let her know that it was awesome that she waited and was quiet! Do it in a positive way (“thanks for being so nice and quiet and letting me talk”). Don’t pass up the opportunity.

3. Be impulsively positive.

When the kids do something special or behave in a way you want them to, or have been exceptionally good, be impulsively positive by allowing extra time with the iPad, a chance to pick the movie or TV show, a popsicle on a hot summer day or pick a song for the ride to school. Anything. Just do it in the moment.

Please remember that good behavior is sometimes the hardest to notice…pay attention and you will not regret it. 

[Also see an earlier post about a similar effect with child behavior with a video from a favorite movie of mine: Office Space.]

Two errors parents make when behaviors do not improve


by Alec Couros via Flickr

Sometimes one of the most important parenting decisions we can make when it comes to our child’s behavior is admitting when something we are doing simply is not working.

If your kid is giving you fits with a specific behavior and you just cannot seem to make it better…you may need to swallow your pride and head in a totally different (and often un-natural feeling) direction.

Here are 2 common errors when things are not working: Continue reading

Why am I trying to reason with a 5 year old?

via soundfromwayout @ Flickr

via soundfromwayout @ Flickr

Because I’m a parent…that’s why. It is what parents do. BUT, does your child too often ask “why?” or otherwise try to get into back and forth discussions about things you have asked them to do? Maybe when you have said, “no?” Do you have an attorney in training? Do you feel like your 5 year old would be a pretty good hostage negotiator? Sometimes “because I asked you to” is the most honest and truest answer. Continue reading

I yelled at my kids…and IT WORKED!

by Evil Erin via Flickr

by Evil Erin via Flickr

We were in a hurry… OK, I was in a hurry because I slept late and was not feeling it this morning. I dragged out of bed and didn’t feel like dealing with the kids yet, so I took a shower – a long one. When I peeked at the clock from underneath my towel as I dried my hair, I noticed I had fallen even further behind. Half-dressed, I stormed into to kid #1’s room, flipped on the light and said, “get up, get up–WE are late and you need to hurry!” As she rubbed her eyes not knowing what happened, I threw open the door to kid #2’s room, turned on the light and shouted orders like a scene from some Navy Seals training documentary. Fifteen minutes later of getting my stuff together and 45 seconds of microwaving something that even Aunt Jemima would not recognize as a waffle, I checked on the kids again. Continue reading

“So, here I am…A desperate single mom begging for help”


I recently responded to a friend’s request about a struggle she is having with her daughter. I think she was brave to say what others have not, so here is her email to me and my response to her within her email. It is long, but so are nights struggling with your child because he or she will not do homework! Please comment with your thoughts…

So, here I am… A desperate (embarrassed, possibly mortified) single mom begging for help…

My daughter has decided she won’t do class work in class. (she is in the second grade). The teacher puts them in groups to do the classwork, but she refuses to do it, or chats up the others, or coaxes them into not doing the work.  So, the teacher has had to put her at her own desk– I guess shaming her into compliance?– but my daughter acts like this is a reward.  And, still doesn’t do the work. When asked why she isn’t doing the work, she told the teacher “it is pointless”.  She now has a folder filled with “unfinished work” and the teacher is going to start giving her zeros…  If she does the work, it is rushed and done just to get to do something else– so she gets Cs on work for which she is capable of getting As.

My response: Does she appear to be motivated to avoid the zero? It seems she is not that motivated by the achievement of the A. Sometimes this can backfire if the zero is not aversive.  Continue reading

The error of punishment often not talked about…

Sometimes the most harm done with punishment is the fact we often punish the wrong behavior.

As we all settled into our seats at the dining room table, we looked out the windows to see the nasty and dark Florida evening storm clouds that had popped up from nowhere. When we were all looking outside, we noticed a car driving by and then a dog leaping out the window.

Did you see that? Did they just throw that dog out?

Continue reading

The expectation of reward for good behavior

A comment I frequently get when talking about rewarding behavior is, “won’t he just learn to expect some kind of reward for everything?” Another version of this is, “well, if I do that, then she won’t she always ask for something in return?”

My answer? NO, and it does not really matter at this point anyway. This is especially true if you are working on changing a problem behavior.

A personal story
One of the things we have worked on in our house is “accepting it,” which basically means, “don’t freak out if something does not go your way.”

So, to do that, we started praising and specifically rewarding when our kids “accept it.” Also, occasionally, we reward calm “acceptance” with what they wanted in the first place. For example, if we told our son to turn the computer off and he did so without doing the bouncy, whiny thing (or some version of protest), we would say, “dude…thank you for accepting it and closing the computer. You can have more time on the computer now that you accepted that.”

Fast forward to a few weeks ago when he accepted something that was a pretty big deal. I cannot remember exactly what it was, but I was happy how he accepted it. He turned to me and said,

“so, since I accepted it, can I keep playing it?”

There was also another time soon after that when he said,

“since I did good, can I have a treat?”

Am I worried about that becoming a pattern? Good gracious, no.

Do I think he will start manipulating the situation so he only does something if there is something “in it for him?” Nope. Does not cross my mind.

Do I sometimes give him the treat or let him keep playing? Sometimes. (We actually have a rule that you don’t get a reward if you ask for it…but that’s another story).

First things first…I am pretty happy when I have focused on teaching a certain behavior and it begins to occur more and more, even if I have to heap praise, high fives and some extra time with the computer on top of it. The more the behavior occurs, the less I will have to reward it. The behavior is occurring, at least, and I can fade out the rewards as time goes on.

Second, if your child says he will only do it if he gets a treat, that’s ok. Do not get into a back and forth with him about it. I would suggest waiting until he wants to do something or asks for something and then you say, “well, you need to ______, then you can have/do that.” Do not get cranked up about it…it really does not mean a whole lot at this point other than the fact he has caught on to the fact that he does something for you and it can benefit him in some way (not a bad lesson to learn anyway).

So, if you are somehow worried that your child will only behave because there is a piece of candy or extra time playing games at the end of the good behavior, worry not! They are kids. You can worry about “intrinsic motivation” or “doing it because they should” later.