Behavioural management

Behavioural Management

It is relatively simple to start a baby and not so hard to feed it appropriately and keep it warm, but there are books and books to help you with this. The much harder job is managing a child’s behaviour, and it is the one job in the world where training is occasional – if at all – and can’t be perfect. Every day you and the child are changing. Your job is to equip the child to cope with a world you can not yet imagine. It is also one of the most rewarding jobs there can be. However, little can prepare you for the emotions you will feel when she disobeys again and again. There is this child whom you love more than the world itself and yet you would cheerfully put her on the next boat to the South Pole. Behavioural management is seriously complicated, but the basic rules are simple and clear.

Being pregnant is one of the most exciting things in the world, but it’s also one of the most frightening. How will you cope with a new baby, a tiny creature that’s totally dependent on you, delicate and fragile and needy? Lots of people guide you through pregnancy, sometimes scaring you half to death in the process, and after the baby is born, there are usually any number of people there to help you to feed the baby properly, keep him warm or cool, organise his injections and health etc. But how do you do all the other things? Bringing up a baby, being a parent, is the hardest job in the world and one of the few for which you are given no training. Every day you are faced with a new situation, a new person and a different you. Things alter day by day and you have to prepare your children for a world that you can not realistically predict. The way you were brought up might give you some clues – often parents either decide to do it Just like their Parents, or, Nothing like their Parents!!! – but that all happened many years ago, in a different world, and your memories are now that of an adult looking back. When you were a child, children were not comparing and demanding mobile phones. Each baby in the world is an absolute individual. Brand new babies, at one day old, are alert, sleepy, observant, crotchety, hungry etc. Each baby has different strengths and weaknesses, needs and wants. All babies are born demanding attention, though some need more and some need less. This is a feature designed to ensure that people get up to feed babies in the night, rush over to them when they need or want something and teaches the baby how to manipulate the people around them. As children get older, parents modify the attention they give, increasingly teaching the child to deal with his own wishes and needs, to wait for an appropriate time, to notice the needs of others and, ultimately, to enjoy the attention of others but not to expect attention on demand. Then the child can be a useful and welcome part of the family and of society.  Babies are brilliantly designed. Brand new babies elicit ooohs and aaahs from everyone, their big eyes, clear skin and gummy smiles arouse protective feelings in everyone and people automatically speak in a higher voice to infants, repeat the sounds a baby makes and hold eye contact. As the infant gets older, people feel a little less protective and the love aroused by most babies in most people becomes a caring feeling aroused very often in many people. Eight year olds are already considered to be making decisions for themselves, to be responsible when they are rude to adults or aggressive to other children. It is important, therefore, to help your children to learn to behave when they are still very young and can depend on the tolerance of others. There are fundamental Rules to behavioural management of children. They need to be modified according to the age of the child, but the Rules are clear.

1] Be consistent: with yourself – saying the same thing in the same situation -, and with other people who are managing this child.

2] Mean what you say: if you make a threat, make the threat happen. You would keep any promise you made to the child, he should be able to believe similarly in any threat.

3] Give attention for behaviour you want the child to repeat: think of behaviour as The Good, The Bad and The Irritating, Reward the good behaviour with attention, cuddles, praise, perhaps a treat. Deal with the bad behaviour, and do your very, very best to ignore the irritating behaviour

4] (a supplementary rule) The Rule of Three states: Ask once, Tell once, Make it happen. If you ask your child to do something, and nothing happens, tell him clearly; if still nothing happens, be prepared to get up and make the child comply. If you start this when the child is young, life becomes simpler, you are not likely to be accused of nagging, and your child learns to count very early!!!.

So far, so simple, but let’s clarify some points. Being consistent is critical. I know that if I speed in front of a police car, I am likely to be fined; if I steal, I shall be in trouble; if I don’t conform to the expectations of my boss, then she will ‘have a word’. The child needs to know that certain behaviours are desirable, others are not, and if he misbehaves, there will be a consequence. Obviously rules vary from home to home to school, Granny might give some extra money, Father might let you stay up later, school might expect the child Never to answer back, but fundamentally the child should be confident of knowing what is expected from him and what the outcome will be if he chooses not to conform.

Since it is highly unlikely that any couple, indeed any two people in the world, will be so highly attuned that they will agree on everything, it helps if all concerned discuss things first and try to agree on a common code. When, as is inevitable, something new crops up, an easy rule is for the first parent who is asked, to make the decision. The other adults might argue about the wisdom of the decision later, but it is much, much wiser never to disagree with what one parent has said in front of the child, and always to discuss these things after they have gone to bed or to school. The child must believe that all adults involved want the best for the child and agree that this is the way to achieve it. Unless you can do this, you find that the child often will say ‘But Dad, Mum doesn’t stop me doing that’ and will then sit back to watch the argument that ensues, their heads moving as if they are watching ping-pong. Perhaps you did the same to your parents when you were younger.

Mean what you say. If you promise the child the moon, you will do everything in your power to give the moon to your child. A threat should be every bit as believable as a promise. This means you have to think sometimes before you speak: too many parents have heard themselves say ‘That’s it, you won’t be coming on holiday with us this year’ when the child knows that the tickets have been bought, he will be coming. Similarly ‘You’re grounded for three months’ or ‘No more sweets till you are 15′: it’s not going to happen. Say what you mean, and then make it happen.

If you are so exasperated that nothing is too awful to say, then use a ludicrous threat: I’ve had enough, next time I shall bite off your nose/hang you by your ears from the Eiffel Tower/ feed you to the eagles in the zoo. Children don’t usually expect you to carry these through, but will understand that you are really angry.

Attention means a lot of things to a lot of children. Attention is taking notice, talking, being involved, and giving attention is absolutely the right thing to do. Most children love attention, and as adults we attend to children. Eventually – at about seven months – the infant realises that he can organise the attention he receives, and next discovers that it is usually easier to secure attention by naughty, undesirable behaviour, than by being good. A child who is playing nicely by himself allows you to do something; the child who hits the DVD player with his hammer ensures your immediate attention.

Try to spot your child being good, respond with taking notice, or a cuddle, or praise, putting stars on a star chart if he is older, even with added pocket money if this seems appropriate. The more you take notice of your child, the less he will feel the need to ‘steal’ your attention by unacceptable behaviour. [Just like any appetite, the amount of attention needed will vary from child to child, but if he is full, he has less need for more.]

The child steals your attention by asking why? again and again. Obviously explain the first couple of times, after that, the question just becomes a device for making sure you continue the dialogue. He steals attention by interrupting when you are on the phone – don’t say ‘not just now, I’m talking’ that is already rewarding the interruption with attention, leave it for a moment, wave him away and then turn and ask what he wants when there is a suitable gap in your conversation. He steals it by nagging and nagging until you have to talk to him or you’ll go mad; he steals it by going quiet so you keep asking him what the problem is, or crying, or biting his brother so you have to deal with it, or tantruming* etc etc. A child has a million different ways of ensuring attention. One boy kissed adults, fine when he was small and this meant kissing his mum and dad at home, less acceptable when he was eight and kissing teachers in the playground ; a girl always claimed she could not do her work, she could, but it was a lot more fun doing it with Mum and Dad.

Give your child lots of attention, try and notice your child doing special things; keep a special book in which you write wonderful things the child does and then read them out loud once a week so he knows you notice; give your children staggered bedtimes so that each child can plan on ten minutes of special time with a parent; take one child at a time shopping or on errands with you; listen to what they say, but listen when you have time, not when they demand it – the child never wants to tell you things during a favourite cartoon but usually when you are listening to your programme. Allow the children to hear you boasting about your wonderful children on the phone to your friends.

We all respond very well to positive attention – once upon a time in another country, my nephew took a bike from another child and pedalled away. My instinct was to find him and make him give the bike back; instead, my uncle spoke to the child who had lost the bike and offered him some special activity as compensation. Nephew came pedalling fast to give the bike back and to be included in to the special activity. He got praise for giving the bike back – so very much more effective than my plan which had been to give him the attention for taking it away!!!

Tantrums are a slightly different issue. Small children have tantrums because they can not express themselves well enough and feel very strongly. Often they are overwhelmed by their feelings and don’t know how to calm down. Two methods are appropriate for dealing with tantrums: either stay close by and wait for them to calm down, or, more effectively, try to hold the child tightly so that they feel safe and can calm down securely. Then talk about what happened, and how to deal with it next time.

Of course you have to deal firmly with unacceptable behaviour. Appropriate punishment depends on the seriousness of the offence and the age of the child, as well as what the child enjoys doing. All children respond well to withdrawal of attention. The three year old can be sent to his room for a couple of minutes until he decides to be good, or to the bottom of the stairs or to a naughty chair. He has to be there without your attention, and this is the punishment. As children get older, the length of time you might ask them to stay away gets longer, so that a twelve year old might be sent upstairs for thirty minutes – Think about what you have been doing for half an hour; then if you feel you can behave, come back down. Notice the responsibility is always on the child to decide he can behave or make reparation.

Similarly, if a small child breaks something on purpose, he might be sent away to think about it, or he could ‘lose’ one of his toys for half a day. Older children can be asked to pay for the repair. It is fun to smash things, but less fun if you have to buy a replacement.

Grounding, stopping the child from playing with friends is useful, but only works with a child who has friends. For this child, grounding for an hour or even for half a day is a great beginning. Make this a longer punishment on the second or third occasion, but be wary of overdoing it. If someone is grounded for two weeks, he may well do increasingly naughty things as there’s nothing left to lose. Parents in this situation will go mad with a naughty child complaining and in the house without a break.

Other children respond well to losing television privileges for a little while, or having their best DVD confiscated, or going to bed early so that they can ‘sleep a little longer and wake up more pleasant’. Another useful method of dealing with a problem is to reward the other children. My son would not brush his teeth until I started to buy his sister sweets – explaining that I would be a bad mummy if I bought him sweets when he didn’t want to brush his teeth. Stay calm. One parent said she would love to give her son a lift to his friends but she had to tidy his room first as he hadn’t done it. Another parent gave one daughter a present for being so tolerant of her naughty sister; yet another allowed one child to stay up later than usual because he was not crotchety and argumentative.

A very useful technique, adapted from the work on Assertive Discipline, is to have a marble jar. Take a large glass jar and put a mark on it with nail varnish. Explain to the child you are trying to help, that he can earn marbles whenever he does something good – with small children this might be putting toys away, or saying ‘please’, or being kind; with older children you might be expecting some help in the house, or doing homework without complaint, or being pleasant to siblings. Discuss with the child what reward he can earn for reaching the mark on the jar. Since he should be reaching the mark in about three days, the reward should be modest. If you are trying to encourage friendship between siblings, the other children should be rewarded when the mark is reached – everyone will go out for a meal, there will be a trip to the cinema etc [this has the added effect of reducing the tendency of the others to tell tales]. And then give marbles. Look for any excuse to give marbles to start with, make a fuss and a loud noise when you put another marble in the jar. Give quite a few each day so that the child gets used to a positive reaction to desirable behaviour and learns to enjoy the positive attention. Make sure others are impressed too. Never take marbles out – if he is naughty, he will not earn marbles; if he is really naughty, he will be punished, but he won’t ever lose marbles he has earned. Most behavioural programmes work well initially – children enjoy being important and winning praise, whether it’s through Marbles in a jar or stars on a star chart. If your expectations stay the same for a couple of weeks, and the child continues to perform, then make it a little harder to achieve the target. Remember, children have spent years learning to behave the other way, they will take a little while to learn to behave in the new way.