A friend of mine, who also happens to be a Marriage and Family Counselor and BCBA, often gave what I considered a fantastic speech during trainings we used to do together. He would ask our audience during which scenario more energy was being displayed. Then he would dramatically shout something like the following:
“What are you doing?! I told you not to touch that!!”
then calmly say something like,
“Hey, thanks for putting your toys away.”
Of course, the audience always correctly chose the first statement as the one that was the most energetic.
His point was that we put more energy into behavior we don’t want to see, and often not enough energy into the behavior we do want to see. Could you imagine if we flipped that? What would happen if we paid more attention to, and gave more energy to, the way our children politely asked for something, the way they played well with each other, how they got dressed in time to leave, how they tried some new food even though they were apprehensive? This is much like the old phrase we’ve all heard, “catch them being good,” except it goes a bit further. Knowing how much energy we put into the different behaviors our children are exhibiting shows us (and them!) which behaviors we find the most important.
For some children, the only time they really get any reaction from their parents is when they do something inappropriate, or something the parent doesn’t like. They’ve learned that when they want attention from Mom, they only have to do the thing that made Mom respond to them in the past (no matter if that response was angry). Have you ever heard a parent say, “My child only seeks negative attention,” or “My child seems to thrive on negative attention!”? Maybe you have even said this at some point? Try to limit the attention being given when the child exhibits an inappropriate behavior, or if attention has to be given, limit the amount of energy you’re putting into that attention. Give much more attention, and much more energy, to the things your child does that you like. Do this for a few weeks and notice the changes!
It’s generally easier to try to increase a behavior we want to see more of, than to decrease a behavior we don’t want to see. In this way, I like to tell parents to give their attention, their energy (which is usually very reinforcing for a child) to the appropriate things their child does, while giving as little attention or energy as possible to the things the child does that may be inappropriate.
By making this simple change, we’re sending a pretty powerful message to our children: the things they do that we like…their appropriate behavior, no matter how simple or small…are SO important to us! So significant! We value their kindness when they give one of their toys to their little sister, their thoughtfulness when they take their dishes to the sink or put their dirty clothes in the hamper! Whereas the behavior they exhibit that may be inappropriate, no matter how frustrating, just isn’t a big deal and not exactly worth too much of our time.