Next Step Therapy Blog: ‘Raising Well-Behaved Children – Lesson One’

Tracy 1Tracy Cowles, CEO and owner of Next Step Therapy, submitted the following article – “Raising Well-Behaved Children – Lesson One.”

Twenty-plus years ago I was doing outpatient speech therapy with a three year old we’ll call Allan. He was being raised by his single, young mom, Alice. Allan was talking very little, was having lots of temper tantrums, and wore his mom out by the end of the day. My role, I thought, was to get Allan talking more. He was doing very well in therapy, and making progress weekly.

One day, Alice drug Allan by the hand down the hallway from the waiting room to my office. You could practically SEE the steam coming out of her ears, she was so angry. She was huffing and puffing, and I thought, “Ut oh, what did I do?”

So, I pulled on my big girl panties, and asked, “What’s wrong?” Alice replied, “Some old biddy in the waiting room yelled at Allan.” “What did Allan do?” I asked. “Oh, he was taking the magazines off the end tables and throwing them on the floor.” So I asked, “And did you just sit there and watch him do it?” “Yes, because he’s only three,” she replied.

“Alice, will it be okay for Allan to throw magazines on the floor when he’s seven?” “Well no, he would be too old for that.” “How about when he is five? Will it still be okay then?” “Uhhhh…no, I guess not, because that would be Kindergarten age.” “So, what is going to happen between today and when he turns five to make him stop doing that? Is he just supposed to figure it out by himself?”

Mom and I talked for quite a little bit about not allowing behaviors to start that need to be stopped later, and setting expectations for behavior. Alice had an epiphany that day…that Allan could not be expected to exhibit good behavior if he had not been told what good behavior was.

From that day on, Allan made tremendous progress in therapy, and was discharged within a few weeks. Why? Because Alice told Allan that she expected him to use his words and talk. She told him that grunting and pointing was no longer acceptable, and that she would only respond if he verbally expressed his needs. Did he throw a few tantrums? Yes, he did. Did he start talking more? You bet.

Babies are born as pretty much a group of poorly connected neurons (notice the jerkiness, lack of ability to control their hands). Other than the reflexes they are born with (suck, swallow, cough, cry) EVERYTHING else is a learned behavior. Even going to sleep for the night is a learned behavior. For instance, if you rock your child to sleep, and then put them in a crib, they will learn to go to sleep while being rocked. This is sweet, and loving when your baby is a newborn. Not so sweet when your child is two, weighs twenty five pounds, now needs rocked for a half an hour to go to sleep, and you are expecting baby number two.

Bottom line: Lesson one of raising well behaved children that you can take (proudly) anywhere – do not allow behaviors to start that you KNOW you are going to have to stop later. Do not allow your child to destroy things, do not allow your child to run around like a maniac, do not allow your child to make huge messes, do not allow your child to dictate the bedtime routine. Although it is in a child’s inborn nature to get into things and test boundaries (which is good, intelligent, and produces growth) it is the parents’ responsibility, even when they are small, to say “NO!!!! Do not do that,” and “YES!! I LOVE it when you do that.” Ask yourself if this is a behavior that you wish to still be dealing with 3-5 years from now, and if it isn’t, deal with it right now.

Along with not starting behaviors that are a problem to be dealt with later is setting clear expectations of what behaviors are acceptable (and therefore rewarded) and which are not (and will therefore invoke consequences.)

Will a 12 month old throw their bowl of food on the floor? Yes, they will. To them, it’s a wonderful game, and a great cause/effect experiment. However, for the parent, this is a mess to clean up, a deterrent to taking a child to a restaurant or friends house, and NOT something you still want to be dealing with when they are three. When the food hits the floor on purpose, the parent needs to put on the stern face, and say, “No! Throwing food on the floor is not ok. It makes a mess that I have to clean up, and that makes me angry. Don’t do that again.” The next time you put your child in the high chair, say, “The last time you had food here, you threw it on the floor, which made me angry. Do not throw this food on the floor. IF you do, I will put you to bed. Do you understand?” Feed the child. IF the food ends up being thrown on the floor, take the child out of the high chair, tell them that they broke the rule, and put them to bed as you said you would. How many times do you think you will have to do that? For many kids, once or twice, and you’ll never see that behavior again. And no, it’s not mean – it’s parenting. Parenting is a full contact sport – not a passive, sit by and wait and see what happens endeavor.

Now, here’s the flip side….let’s say your child listened to what you said, and the food does not get thrown. Give that little one a huge smile and TELL them, “I am so happy that you did not throw your food today! You weren’t messy at all, and I LOVE that. I’m going to give you a big hug and kiss! You know what? Let’s go out on the porch and blow bubbles (any favorite activity) because you were such a good eater today.”

Clear expectations of approved behavior. Rewards for a job well done, consequences for not following the rules. Nipping a problem behavior in the bud, while encouraging the behavior you want to see. Lesson one.


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