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Behavior Change in Younger Children

I’ve been appreciating Brian’s posts on parenting teens. I’ve learned a lot from it. Recently, I read this article on getting behavior change in younger children and I thought it was both helpful and hurtful. First, let me explain the helpful parts.

First, he accurately notes the problems that I often see with parenting approaches to younger children:

Picture an explosive parent who responds to a child’s misbehavior by ranting, screaming, and perhaps hitting. Now picture a calm, patient, gentle parent who responds to the same misbehavior—no matter how provokingly awful—by reasoning and explaining. The rage-ball goes ballistic; the patient explainer works hard to see what’s going on inside the child in order to get the child to understand why the behavior must change.

Obviously, the two parents have different effects on their kids. They model different responses to not getting the behavior they want, and research tells us that children tend to reproduce what happens at home when interacting with peers. The child who is yelled at and hit is more likely to yell and hit to get other children to behave a certain way; the child in a reasoning home is more likely to remain calm and persuade.

But the two parents have one important thing in common: They’re likely to be ineffective in changing the unwanted behavior (italics mine). Their different approaches have different side effects, so to speak (and, of course, managing behavior isn’t a parent’s only responsibility), but when it comes to changing behavior, the rage-ball and the patient explainer are startlingly close neighbors on the ineffective end of the spectrum. They embody our natural tendency to fixate on unwanted behavior and unwittingly reinforce it by giving it a lot of attention—and then persist in trying either to punish or to talk it into oblivion, both of which almost never work.

He’s right. Neither patient explaining nor yelling and screaming ultimately get behavior change – and I’ve seen both at the grocery store!

Second, he turns to what he believes will get behavior change:

You begin by deciding what you want the child to do, the positive opposite of whatever behavior you want to stop. The best way to get rid of unwanted behavior is to train a desirable one to replace it. So turn “I want him to stop having tantrums” into “I want him to stay calm and not to raise his voice when I say no to him.”

He’s right. Too often, we make a mistake in parenting (me, too): we correct bad behavior but don’t replace it with good behavior. In order to change the behavior of a child, we must explain the behavior we want, and reinforce it when we see it. My wife is a master at this (In fact, I watched her do it just a few minutes ago). When the child does things the right way, we need to mention it at that moment, and not wait for a moment of discipline.

However, he seems to miss the mark in one very important way. See if you can spot the error:

Don’t confuse improving his behavior with improving his moral understanding; just make clear what behavior you’re looking for and when it’s appropriate, and don’t muddy the waters by getting into why he should do it.

The problem is, as Christians we do not just want behavior change in our children. What we really want (as Brian has said repeatedly) is Biblically wise adults. Therefore, the child must understand that we want correct behavior for a reason – because it honors God. We need to train our children that God has a standard that He expects us to meet. When we teach our children of a higher standard, we are sharing the gospel message with them.

Ultimately, the goal for parenting is to show our children that there is a standard they cannot meet it; thus, Christ met it for us. At the same time, we want them to know that God’s standards are the only acceptable way to negotiate life.

Ultimately, following the path of the article will only get behavior change (which is still important – it won’t hurt you to follow some of the advice in the article). When we get proper behavior, we will have children who are successful by the worlds standards. They will likely have good jobs, stable marriages, and stay out of trouble. But that’s not Biblical success. Biblical success will give us children who honor God, love others, and faithfully carry out God’s mission to the world.

For my wife and I, that’s what we want. And she’s a master at that, too! (Thanks, hon)

  1. brianmcl
    April 14, 2008 at 8:31 am

    Great words John.

    I remember (before I had kids) one of my good friends parenting his 1 year-old child. Often he would pull his child aside, talk to him about the Word of God, explain to him the appropriate response to whatever situation he was facing and why it was appropriate. I remember thinking, “this 1-year-old doesn’t understand anything you are saying!” But, over the years, he has continued to model good parenting and he has one good, biblical little boy in his house. It is harder with young children, but we need to parent correctly from day one!

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