Three ways to avoid “behave, or else” parenting

6292013princess

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.]

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The expectation of reward for good behavior

Varuca
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.