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.]

5 Lessons your mom taught you about parenting

Photo by Chris. P via Flickr

The lessons your parents taught you when you were young were meant to shape your behavior as you grew. Although they might not have intended these lessons to be advice for how to best parent your own kids, I think we should revisit those things your parents told you and listen now as parents and not children.

1. “If you dont have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”  Continue reading

Frustration Tolerance – How much can your kids handle?

How do your kids respond to frustration?

There are times in all of our lives when we have to push through a challenge, go past where we have been before, experience a little pain before the gain to improve our performance or simply make it to the end of the day. Our ability to do this is based on how we are taught from a very early age.

Here is a story from our house.

Christmas morning and in the living room sat a shiny red tricycle. Old school. Ribbons coming out the handlebars, bell on the left side, and the metal seat that looks like it fit more on a tractor than a kid’s first tricycle. Immediately, we took it outside for its first spin.

Our driveway’s gentle downhill slope gave our son enough propulsion to have forward movement on his maiden voyage. FUN. As he turned right onto the walkway, he experienced the gentle incline of this path as the pedals stopped moving under his feet and his forward progress was met with a slowing, a stop, and a slight backwards motion.

As parents do in this situation, we sat, video rolling, and offered our encouragement for him to “pedal,” “push down with your feet,” “turn around,” etc. Without warning he stood up like he had been shot in the rear, pushed the tricycle and screamed, “I CAN’T DO IT!” STOMP, STOMP. WHINE. CRY. COMPLAIN. GRUNT. STOMP.

Stop the camera, this just got ugly…quickly. Yikes. So much for the YouTube clip sent to grandpa in thanks for the trike.

This scenario plays out with all kids.

They are faced with moments when things don’t go their way and how they respond is critical. How you respond is even more critical.

If you want to teach a paper thin tolerance for frustration, help early, help often, and respond with the first signs of distress.

If you teach a paper thin tolerance for frustration you will teach dependence on you to solve problems. Terrible. You might want that now (don’t know why you would, but I have seen it), but soon, you will not be there and it will be a bad situation.

“Breaking through” frustration is learned through experiences when pushing through occurs (i.e. is allowed to occur) and reinforcement occurs as a result. Have you ever seen your kid beat the situation…face the frustration and come out on top? Awesome isn’t it? Why don’t we let them do it more often?

Another story from my house.

I recently got tired of fixing the shirt problem our son (same one) has when putting on his shirt (and the excessive whining that occurred with said problem). Although funny as hell because he puts his chin through first and can’t get the shirt over the top of his head so his face is the only thing showing, we decided to let him figure it out since he was doing it EVERY time, getting frustrated, asking for help, and receiving instruction and assistance from us. Tired of the whining and sensitive to the fact that his tolerance in this situation was pretty thin, we told him to have at it (“as soon as you get dressed you can go watch your show – its on by the way”).

Struggle, struggle, whine, struggle, “I can’t,” – SILENCE – “uurrrrgggh” – “YAY! I did it!”

The joy and satisfaction he got from doing it himself is something I could not have created. He did it, and that was enough. Lesson learned – for him and us:

After you have taught the skills, let them be frustrated. Let them learn. Let them experience it. Then, allow them to experience the rewards of pushing through.

Thought of the day – 4/23/12

Let’s face it….

Your kids’ behavior depends, in large part, on how you teach it. How you mold it. Yes, there is school, friends and others around, but parents are ultimately in control of most things that do, or can, affect behavior changes.


Sitting back and wishing your kid would behave differently, even if it is only under specific circumstances does nothing to improve or change the behavior.

In fact, it could make it worse if you continue to allow the circumstances and behavior to continue as they are.

If you are honestly concerned and truly cant figure out why a behavior happens or what you can do to make it better, let me (or another professional) know. But have you taken a good, honest look at it: when it is most likely to occur or when it is least likely to occur? Can you make it happen? How?  If you can answer those questions, you might be getting closer to a solution.

The bottom line:

Your child’s behavior will change when yours does. Change is hard. So is everything else worth doing.

Parent with confidence!


Parenting with confidence makes a difference

One of the things I have to ask a lot of parents to do when we are making changes with the way they interact with their children is to have a sense of confidence.  Many have a hard time doing it.

It makes sense.  Over the years, there have been many ways they have tried to help their children behave better, follow directions, do their homework, be more independent, and lead overall happier lives.  Unfortunately, for many parents with whom I work, those efforts have been met with continued tantrums, challenging behaviors, and hurtful words.  Essentially, the kids have punished their parents’ efforts to do better and it weakens resolve and makes them question themselves.  This leads to more inconsistency and more problems. 

This is very natural.  Every parent experiences this at some point or another.

Sometimes all I have to do is tell parents they are doing the right thing: “Hang in there, you’re right.  He’ll be fine, just hang in there for a bit.”  Yes, they might have made some mistakes in the past, but their current efforts are simply going to take time. 

Just because your son screamed at you does not mean you should have cleaned his room for him.  Just because your daughter fell to the floor crying does not mean you should have given her that last piece of candy she wanted.  Learning takes experience over time…trials…to really sink in.  

Stirring the Kool-Aid

Think about this: you have just added the water to your two packs of Awesome Berry Blast Kool-Aid powder mix (after you licked your finger and tasted a bit of it out of the packet) and you get the trusty wooden spoon out to stir it in.  You stir, first in the counter clockwise direction.  The water gets spinning in that direction.  Kinda looks like a tornado.  Then you reverse the direction of your stir.  The neon blue water splashes a bit, you feel some resistance, but you keep stirring.   Clockwise now, you start to feel less resistance.  There are still some ripples and disturbance, but the ripples fade and the direction of the water is now with your stir. You have changed the direction of the flow. 

Now, if you just went back and forth without maintaining your direction for any length of time, there is no direction.  Often, there is more splash…more disturbance.  Harder to maintain any sense of order. 

Changing behavior is not that different. 

When changing the direction of a behavior, especially one that has some momentum, you might get splashed a bit at first.  But, maintaining your direction over time will get things heading in the right direction.  Going back and forth without any consistent direction will often cause more problems, more disturbance, more challenging behavior.

Lets say your daughter has been whining a bunch, and you are trying to get her to ask nicely to get things she wants.  This is a new behavior.  Not only are you trying to teach her that she needs to “ask nicely” and that is the correct way to get things she wants, you are also teaching her the old way isn’t going to work anymore…the way that has worked a good bit in the past.  That is not going to happen all at once.  She will likely react a bit as she learns the “old way” does not work anymore.  It does not mean you are doing anything wrong.  In fact, you might be doing something correctly! 

Give her plenty of opportunities to learn the new way…prompt her, role play, practice and praise her when she does it so she knows and has experience with what “asking nicely” means.

The path to confidence

If you are having a problem with a specific behavior, think about what you want to do to change it.  What is the new behavior you want to teach in place of the old (always teach a “to-do” when you are teaching a “not-to-do”)?  Talk to your spouse.  Consult professionals.  Do some reading.  Make an educated decision about what you are going to do.  Then do it.  Be confident. 

Your children can smell hesitancy and uncertainty.  Even if afterwards you wish you would have done something a bit differently, just do it differently next time.  At least you were paying enough attention to know what you should have done.

The time to make decisions about behavior and how you are going to respond to it is when you have your wits about you, when you can think with an open mind, while you are not hampered by the emotion of the moment.  Think it through, then be confident. 

Do it.  Hesitancy leads to inconsistency, which will likely lead to more challenging behaviors. 

If you are really interested, measure your results.  Is your child doing more of the “to-do” behaviors and less of the “not-to-do” behavior?  

Pay attention, be informed then be confident and consistent.  You’ve earned your Kool-Aid.

Horse pills for your parenting health


I hate antibiotics.  I really hate taking medication of any form, which means when I finally give up I have to take the nastiest, biggest pills for the longest time.  THREE A DAY FOR 10 DAYS?  But I feel better after the 3rd day!  I feel better and shake the extra large bottle that still contains 21 more horse pills and weigh out if I want to go through the next 7 days or just hope I have done enough to kill whatever it was that was turning my mucus a deep shade of green.

The doctor would tell you the prescription was written for 10 days for a reason.  A friend physician who doesn’t have to watch his language or bedside manner says, “Take the #$% pills you wuss.  You wanna strengthen your sickness to fight harder the next time?  Oh, AND you’ll be sick again in 2 days.  Let me know when you go to medical school.” 

GULP…20 more pills to go.

Behavior strategies are the same. 

I spoke about this a little when talking about Sticker Charts.  Think of your “medicine” having to work over time to maintain its effectiveness.  It worked immediately…cured?  NO.  It could have worked due to the novelty factor, or simply the fact you are finally paying attention to it.  Even though it worked, if you quit, you might suffer a similar fate as you would if you were to stop taking the antibiotics on the 3rd day: it would strengthen resistance against the “medication” and the “sickness” (your child’s behavior) would also be stronger. 

 A lot of families go through this.  They mention a strategy that used to work, but doesn’t anymore: “she keeps upping the ante…it takes more and more to get her to do what I want her to do.  She is manipulating this whole thing. Nothing works anymore.”  Yep.  Maybe they didn’t stick with it.  Maybe every time your kid sees a new sticker chart, a new behavior strategy, her experience is “oh, they are paying attention…I’m gonna get what I can out of this.” 

The Z-pack isn’t powerful enough…your kid now has the behavioral version of MRSA.

Treat early and maintain the treatment until you can slowly fade the strategies after the natural reinforcers have taken over and are supporting those more appropriate behaviors.  Keep working…your prescription was written for much longer than you might be willing to take it.  Gulp it down and keep it up…if its working, IT IS WORKING.