Why Do Kids Misbehave?

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By Michael Anderson and Timothy Johanson

The story goes that Willie Sutton, the notorious BANK robber and prison escape artist, was once asked by a reporter why he robbed BANKS. According to the legend, Sutton replied, “Because that’s where the money is.”

The story makes us smile because it reminds us of the human tendency to ask, “Why?” about others’ behaviors when the reason can be explained in fairly simple terms. Why rob banks? Because that’s where the money is.

A similar principle is often true in our parenting. Parents ASK QUESTIONS that presume that there is a complicated answer for troubling behavior they see in their children:

“Why won’t my 6-year-old daughter go to bed at night?”

“Why is my teen son so far behind in his schoolwork?”

“Why doesn’t my daughter ever stop arguing?”

In most situations, the reason a child engages in — and CONTINUES to engage in — any of these behaviors is not all that complex. There is a payoff for the child, some REWARD for the negative behavior. In other words, the behavior WORKS.

Why does 2-year-old Joshua whine so much? The answer is because whining works in Joshua’s family. When a 5-year-old picky eater says she hates pork chops and broccoli and gets macaroni and cheese instead, she learns that complaining about food works for her. A 10-year-old ignores his parents when they tell him to stop playing VIDEO games because he knows that he can keep playing for another 30 minutes before things get serious. Ignoring his parents works for him.

It’s true for older kids, too. Over time, teens learn that if they wear headphones in the car, Mom won’t ask if they’ve finished a science project. They learn that if they stay up late on Friday and sleep in late on Saturday, they can avoid cleaning the garage. Or that if they make a big mess fixing a sandwich, Mom might make the NEXT sandwich for them.

It can be a difficult concept for parents to swallow, but children misbehave because, in their home, it simply works. So it makes sense that one of the most important strategies in wise, effective parenting is to make sure that our kids’ poor choices stop paying off, either by removing that payoff directly or by creating consequences that make the reward too expensive to be worthwhile.

Removing the payoff

Sometimes you can easily spot what a child gains from a certain behavior. YOUR toddler asks for orange juice or another snack by whining. The whining is exhausting, so you pour her a glass of juice or get her some more crackers. The toddler has, once again, been reinforced to whine.

Every time a behavior is rewarded, it deepens the child’s ongoing perception that this behavior works. Even an occasional negative consequence won’t change the behavior because whining is still mostly being positively reinforced. Undoing a learned, reinforced behavior takes persistence. To do this, you must COMPLETELY remove whining as an effective tactic. The difficult process of kids successfully relearning these kinds of demands is best achieved through consistency.

Other times, the payoff may not be obvious to our adult way of thinking. For example, eye contact is a huge REWARDfor preschoolers. So is physical comfort and convincing a parent to stop giving another child attention. Consider a mother who is shopping with her two children. Justin, the 5-year-old, may think that Lisa, the 3-year-old, is getting too much attention. Justin realizes that this attention may stop if he lags behind or wanders away. He’s right. Justin wanders off, and the attention stops going to Lisa.

This mother’s challenge is to keep Justin with her without rewarding him with extra comfort and attention when he wanders off. She might simply take his hand and place it on the cart each time he STARTS to lag behind. She could also establish a system where the child doesn’t get dessert at dinner that evening if he doesn’t behave while shopping. Whatever small payoff the child receives from misbehaving may still remain, but the child eventually learns that, overall, it is too expensive to be worth the reward.

The bedtime blues

In many homes, bedtime is a good place for parents to start the process of removing REWARDS for a child’s misbehavior. Kids are geniuses at figuring out how to extend bedtime another half-hour or so, and parents are often no match for a creative kid who has nothing better to do than to try to get some extra needs and wants met. Some of those payoffs are obvious — a drink of water, another snack, another hug. But remember that attention and eye contact are also rewards in a child’s economy. Kids can be motivated simply by engagement.

A strategy called “the invisible game” WORKS well with some kids to eliminate excessive bedtime stalling. This involves the house functioning exactly as though the child had gone to bed. Go through the normal pre-bedtime rituals of eating a snack, brushing teeth, reading a book, tucking in, saying prayers, and so on. You can also thwart some foreseeable stall tactics by having them go to the bathroom or get a drink of water before bedtime. Remember to remove toys, gadgets and other distractions. But after you’ve said “good night,” leave the ROOM for the evening.

From this moment on, your child is invisible. If the child calls out, ignore her. If the child comes out of her bedroom, don’t look at her. You can go through some email, read a magazine or book, straighten up the kitchen — all without looking at the child or responding to any question or ACTIVITY by the child. It is important that all this is done with no emotion, approval or disapproval. If you say anything, it should be straightforward and said without eye contact: “I can’t talk to you now. You’re not supposed to be up.”

This simple, silent plan often solves the problem of bedtime. If it doesn’t work the first time, don’t worry. Just regroup with the added wisdom — and try again the following night.

Mired in the motives

Many parents fall into the trap of focusing too much on the child’s motives. In our efforts to understand the child’s REWARD for poor choices, we sometimes obscure the misbehavior itself. For example, innocently asking the child, “Why are you doing this?” can shift a conversation away from the important fact that a child has misbehaved. And, surprisingly, it can end up with the parent inadvertently making excuses for the child that will delay the child’s growth.

Imagine you have a teen daughter who just got a SPEEDING TICKET. You ask her why she was speeding, and she says she was speeding because you forgot to wake her or that she was late because you were asking about her plans after SCHOOL. Whatever her responses, they will most likely be the ones that work to get her out of as much trouble as possible. It might be a tearful, “I am so sorry.” She may not even know why she was speeding — sometimes there simply isn’t a logical explanation — so our very question may prompt her to make up an answer. All we need to understand is that driving fast is a behavior that has worked in some way for this daughter, and that all the extra dialogue JUST CLOUDSthe lesson. It’s a bit like looking at a bucket of mud after we have stirred it — when just moments ago it was clear water.

At this point, you might be thinking, How can I REMOVE the payoff for poor behavior if I don’t seek to understand what that payoff is? Depending on the infraction, it’s not always necessary to figure out those DETAILS. We just need to make the unacceptable behavior more costly than whatever the payoff is. For the son who has a habit of kicking the dining room chairs, losing his video game system or favorite toy for a couple days could quickly extinguish the chair kicking. It simply has to be a little too costly for the child to engage in the negative behavior.

Asking YOUR son, your spouse, your friends from church or a psychologist why your son likes to kick the chair would most likely START you down a complicated road that may take you so far from the issue that you never find your way back. All you really need to understand is the simple fact that the behavior is WORKING in some way. Your son kicks the chair because it gets him the effect he is looking for, maybe hurting his parents’ feelings or getting him out of a boring dinner conversation. These could all be REWARDS in a child’s economy. But those details ultimately don’t matter. Our focus must be on simply ensuring that kicking chairs doesn’t work anymore.

Decide what rules you will follow in your home and how your home will efficiently respond when those rules are ignored. You can often resist the temptation to wonder where the misbehavior is coming from and just calmly make it costly for him to do that. The problem behavior probably didn’t START overnight, and it doesn’t need to end overnight. The consequence just needs to be costly enough to extinguish the unacceptable behavior.

Preparation for the real world

As adults, we live in the same world we are preparing our children for. And we recognize certain costs of reality that our kids are just beginning to understand. For example, after bouncing a CHECK or two, or getting late fees on a credit card, we simply learn that the costs of some behaviors are too high to be worth it. Interestingly, our motives — the why we did something — are usually not part of these exchanges. Most likely, none of us have ever received a parking TICKET that asked why we were parked there so long. Nor have we received an email from our local library asking if we had a rough week and a good reason for not returning the video. As a result of why being out of the picture, a BEAUTIFULenvironment exists for growth. We commit an infraction, and we receive a reasonable consequence, and there’s no unnecessary drama.

Hopefully, this is all good news. If your child is exhibiting problem behaviors, the hardest step might be acknowledging that, most likely, this behavior has somehow been rewarded and reinforced. No committed parent deliberately tries to create a home atmosphere that REWARDS whining or arguing or kicking. But the NEXT step is worth getting to: Many problem behaviors can be eliminated without prolonged analysis or digging into motives. We just need to hit “reboot” and make sure that negative, disruptive behavior is not only no longer rewarded, but also receives a consistent, commensurate cost.

This isn’t easy. But it’s likely easier in the long run. Understanding a child’s economy of rewards — and responding calmly to him or her with consistent responses — can actually extinguish the larger problem behaviors that have stressed or strained the relationship between the child and parents.

Michael Anderson is a licensed psychologist who has spent 30 years STUDYING the ways kids grow up. Timothy Johanson is a pediatrician with a deep commitment to helping parents find better ways to support their children’s development.

This article first appeared in the April/May 2016 issue of Thriving Family magazine. If you enjoyed this article, read MORE like it in Thriving Family, a MARRIAGE and parenting magazine published by Focus on the Family. Get Thriving Family delivered to YOUR home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.

Love Wins!

New Year’s Eve 2015 greeted me with anxiety and dread.  The fear of repeating the events of the past year was overwhelming. Would I let the anxiety catapult me into a year similar to the one I was bidding farewell, or would I open my heart to my Father to transform the upcoming one?  That in itself was a scary proposition.

The temptation to give in to fear came from years of practice, but this time I made a different choice.  In the face of fear I surrendered and asked my Father for a plan (James 1:5). Afterall, doing things over and over again expecting different results is insanity and I had had enough of that (2 Timothy 1:7).  He illuminated the fact that we had no goals in place individually or as a family, so I set two:

  1. A craft project for the family
  2. The Love Dare for Parents, a goal for me personally

During our New Year’s Eve dinner I asked everyone to think of a word that expressed something they wanted to work on in the upcoming year.  Their responses left me awestruck. It was as if they had just been waiting for someone to ask.  I realized I do not need to keep telling them what they need to work on, they already know.  They just need to be encouraged, so they will feel free to overcome.

The physical result :

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The emotional and spiritual results are still developing.  It is freeing to be able to ask my children in the midst of a struggle are you being (fill in the blank with their word)?  We have checked in a couple of times as a family to hear how everyone is doing.  I also encourage them when I see their words displayed in their behavior or actions, which is helping me practice “nurturing” them.

My personal goal although a seemingly clear and simple one has proved to be much more challenging.   It exposed things in my own heart that need to be healed and pruned.  Day 1 of The Love Dare is “Love Blooms” and instantly I was challenged, which is how my word became so clear to me, “NURTURE.”  For some it may be the simplest of dares, but as I read it, my own woundedness and imperfections were obvious.  I was grieved with how difficult it was, but was determined to complete it.    I think my children were startled by the spontaneity of affection, but began to soften under the words, “I love you.”

What if God never expressed His great love for us?  What if we did not have His Word to remind us daily of that great love?  How would we know He loved us if we were not in constant communication with Him and Him with us?  It is the same with my children, it is not enough to just “know” mom loves me, they need to hear it – verbally and often.

Can you easily let “I love you” escape your lips or do you struggle with it?  What has helped you overcome?  Do you have another area of nurturing your children that is more difficult for you?  I would love to hear your heart and pray for you.  We are not in this journey alone.

Father, may we be so rooted and established in LOVE that it will overflow into everything we do.  Replace the fear in our hearts with Your perfect LOVE.  Thank you that Your LOVE won on the cross and wins eternally.  Amen.

Before I Was a Mom

thumb_12711248_10208670476670126_7701215921334925346_o_1024I still remember it. Those baby days when life was all about the urgent like  blowout diapers and lost blankies–those days that rarely included a daily shower and shaved legs were a luxury.

I came across this post today at “The Other Johnsons” and thought I’d share it because although I’m past that baby stage, I still have a tendency to let the urgent rather than the significant govern my time. This Valentine’s Day though, I think I’ll toss the sweats and don some lace for the man who still thinks I’m hot and wants to catch my eye. The kids will have to survive for a bit without me ;-).

I hope you’ll also be encouraged to remember that you were a woman before you were a mother, and that your husband likes to see her every now and then also. Happy Valentine’s Day.

The Other Johnsons

With Valentine’s Day just a few days away, I’m thinking about what my husband and I will do to celebrate. We actually have a babysitter for the afternoon, so Aaronand I get to take a much needed break andenjoy one another’s company.

I think that this Valentine’s Day will be my favorite because I actually need Valentine’s Day.This is my first Valentine’s Day since becoming a mom. Before I was a mom, Valentine’s Day was just anextra celebration thrown in each year that made us turna nice date into an extravagant date and a simple “I love you” into a long romantic dissertation.

This year, Valentine’s Day has arrived to remind me that before I was a mom, I was a wife. Before we had Desirae, we only had each other. With a baby and no regular babysitter, it’s easy to forget that sometimes. Smelling likebaby spit up and spending…

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For The Fixer-Upper Family–5 Things You Need To Know

I live in a turn of the century farmhouse with an old charm I love, but I also remember the work that went into making it that way. My parents bought this fixer-upper house when I was 15 and invested countless sweat hours, money, and tears into making it our home. It was stripped to undo the years of neglect and refurbished from the ground up. Since my husband and I bought it 14 years ago, we too have worked to make “our” space a place we always want to be.

4681572110_1e72d91afe_zRecently, I found myself looking at “This Old House” for ideas on updating our kitchen. I couldn’t help but see the parallels between making a fixer-upper house functional and beautiful and making a family the same. With a little knowledge and a lot of hard work, we can be assured both will become a place of sanctuary and rest instead of a dilapidated mess.

5 things to keep in mind when working on a fixer-upper:

1—They’re all fixer-uppers. Whether homes or families, they all need constant attention. It’s easy to look around and think you’re the only one with problems like yours. Don’t believe it. Every home, including the brand new ones requires work. The same is true for families. Your family is unique, but your problems are not. And remember that just because something is beautiful on the outside, doesn’t mean it’s not a landmine on the inside. Comparison is the surest way to envy what you don’t have and be ungrateful for what you do have. If you were to switch places, you’d quickly find yourself with just a different set of issues.

2—Start with the foundation. My husband was a builder for 25 years, and he can tell you that the foundation is the first thing to get right and keep right. No matter how well everything else is done, it all will eventually crumble without a solid foundation.

For us, it’s a home built on the principles of God’s word. We believe that “everyone who hears these words of [God] and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock” (Matthew 7:24-25).

3—It requires constant inspection, maintenance, and investment. There is never a time we’re not working on our “fixer-upper” home. We seem to constantly be fixing cracks in the walls, leaking faucets or pipes, or unsealed windows and doors—you know what I mean. We’re often tired and without the money in the budget to make repairs, but to ignore the problems means bigger problems later.

We’ve found the same is true in our family. Problems don’t go away just because we ignore them. They simply build up under a façade that’s waiting to collapse.

We routinely seek to inspect our family for “cracks” to determine what’s getting in that we aren’t aware of and what’s leaking out that we want to keep. When attitudes and behaviors that we are uneasy with begin to creep in, we try to take stock, assess the cause and go to work on repairs. The longer it goes unattended, the longer it takes to fix, but be patient. Nothing falls apart overnight and nothing is fixed overnight either.

4—When the job is too overwhelming or beyond your expertise, call in the professionals. Why does this seem smart in regard to a house, but like a failure in regard to a family? Can I just revert to my growing-up-country-girl-days and say plainly, “That’s dumber’n a doornail”?

My husband is the best carpenter and fisherman around, but let him under the hood of our car and someone might die. He doesn’t have the knowledge or skills for it, so why jeopardize our lives to prove himself in this area? We can be just as stubborn in our families. We lack the knowledge and skills we need but we jeopardize everything rather than ask for help.

Let’s face it, we can’t know everything or do everything and it’s just smart to ask for help.

5—It’s all worth it. We’ll never be done fixing up our homes, and we’ll never be done fixing up our families. But with the time and energy and money we invest, both grow in value.

My kitchen is a mess right now. After sanding and painting, and sanding and painting, I think I may find sawdust for years. But it’s a good reminder that this process of improvement is a slow one and things definitely always look worse before they look better. Keep the end in sight and don’t grow weary. The dividends are worth the investment.

 

Where are you today in your fixer-upper family? What do you think might need a little extra attention? Happy renovating!

 

5 Tips For Becoming The Mother You Want To Be

Being a mother is a beautiful gift that can bring joy and fulfillment to our lives. Sometimes, though, we let the burdens and failures of motherhood make us feel inadequate and guilty. We get caught up in the fact that we don’t measure up or that others are doing a “better job,” and we can become critical of our efforts.

It’s okay. We’re all in the same boat here.

My sister has a magnet on her refrigerator that sums up how I’ve often felt. It says:

pabloLet’s face it—parenting is easy until we have kids. Once we do, we realize how little we know and wonder if we’ll ever figure it out.

As we head into the new year, please take a minute to remind yourself that you love your children more than anyone else could and that you are enough for them. Settle that first.

Then, we can look for areas we’d like to improve. And it’s never too late. Whether our kids are adults or are still in the baby stage, there is always hope.

So here are 5 tips to help on your road to being the mom you want to be.

1—Pray. This is my starting point for everything. I have 4 children, two of whom are adults, and I still find myself wondering what in the world I’m doing most of the time. I ask God regularly for ways I can improve and He is good at whispering His ideas into my mind throughout the day. He promises to give us His wisdom generously and “without finding fault,” (James 1:5). But He won’t intrude, so you have to invite Him.

2—Focus on one area you’d like to improve. Just one. Let’s say you’d like to have more fun with your kids. Maybe you could take an hour one day a week to go to a park or playground, or maybe take 20 minutes a few times a week to play a favorite board game. Once you feel you’re doing well in this area, then focus on the next. Tackling more than this can be overwhelming and defeating.

3—Find a mentor and learn from her. I have always enjoyed time with moms more experienced than me. It has helped me find ways to deal with challenges, and it has offered me hope to know that the “great moms” I look up to mess up also. One thing to keep in mind though is that you are you. You can benefit from the advice of experienced moms and learn from their mistakes, but take what suits your personality and parenting style without trying to be someone you’re not.

4—Take time every day to connect with your child emotionally. Hugs, smiles, and relaxed chitchat do wonders for our relationships. We never have to look very hard for opportunities to “train” our children, which means we are likely either telling them what to do or correcting them for what they didn’t do. Every moment can become an exercise in “character development”, which to them may translate into criticism.

During those times, my son used to give me this advice (which made me want to pinch his lips shut at the time, and still does actually). It was simply, “Chill Out Mom”—GRRRR! It was so annoying, but it was also great advice.

5—Have regular family meetings. Children often feel like they don’t have a voice about all the things that concern them. If there are regular times to come together to talk about what needs to be different and what is working, then everyone feels more valued. Teamwork is established and the family becomes a unit rather than the “parents against the kids” mentality and vice versa. My only advice here is to establish rules of respect. It can’t be a bash session on anyone, but rather a time of open communication where everyone feels safe to share without criticism or anger, whether they are agreed with or not. These times of sharing give great insight into your children’s hearts as well as communicate to them their importance.

Remember that failure is an integral part of the journey to any success. Parenting is no different, so look at failures as opportunities and let them teach you, not paralyze you. As we enter the new year, I hope you will embrace motherhood without fear of failure but instead with the expectation of becoming more like the mother you always wanted to be.

Happy New Year!

I’d love to hear from you. What is it you think you do best as a mother? What do you know you need to work on?