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.

10 Truths For Moms

With Mother’s Day around the corner, I thought I’d write a few truths we moms often forget. I pray you are encouraged and reminded that there is no one like you, you are enough, and that despite the hard places along the journey, you are an irreplaceable part of God’s design for your family.

1—There is no one who can parent your child better than you.

Your kids don’t need a perfect mom; they need a real mom. Or in my 9-year-old daughter’s words:FullSizeRender

Comparing yourself to others is a defeating trap—No one has it all together no matter how it may seem. Learn from other moms who do something well, but don’t think they could do a better job with your children than you can. God makes no mistakes and He gave your children the best mom ever.

2—You cannot assume all the credit for your child’s success or all the guilt for their failure.

God was a perfect parent raising His children in a perfect environment and Adam and Eve were still rebellious. A fallen world and free will guarantees there will be poor decisions that are made. We can do our best to sow in God’s word, water it in your children’s hearts, diligently pluck out the weeds that spring up, and then trust God for the outcome.

3—Great lovers make great parents.

Keep your spouse in his rightful first place and everyone thrives. This doesn’t mean you can ignore the urgent things of being a mom, but you can’t let them replace the more important things of being a wife. Give your children the gift of a mom who loves their dad even more than them. My parents modeled this well and it gave me greater security than anything else in the world. During the most turbulent years of my life, the fact that nothing I did could shake their love for one another held me steady and saw me through.

4—Your beauty is not measured by the scale or the latest fashions, but by the kindness and love you display.

Your children will likely never tell their own children one day how much they liked your hair. However, they will tell them about how you stopped what you were doing and looked them in the eye when they had a story to tell. They will recount how you used to lay in bed with them and whisper about the day.

1 Peter 3:3-4 (ESV) reminds us, “ Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear, but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” While I’m not recommending that we pay no attention to our outward appearance, I do think we must be sure it takes a backseat to the issues of the heart.

5—Raising holy children is more important than raising happy children.

The first will lead to the last, but the last will not lead to the first. There are more gadgets and opportunities today than ever to eat up our time and our attention, and your children will convince you that they need them all in order to be happy. Don’t buy it (literally)!

Happiness cannot be achieved with more things or more activities. Remember that true joy can only be found in serving God and serving others. That won’t happen miraculously when they are adults if you have not purposed to lay the foundation now. Teaching them to Invest in eternal rewards and in people will always reap a greater blessing than investing in more stuff.

6—Self-care is not selfish.

Properly caring for your body means you can more properly care for your family. A mama is supposed to be like fresh water pouring into her family, but she can’t do that from a dry well. This doesn’t mean a daily spending spree at the mall or weekly spa treatments. It means taking the time to nurture and care for your own heart, mind, and body. Eating well, getting adequate sleep and exercise, and spending time in activities that rejuvenate you are vital for both you and your family.

7—You cannot do it all and that’s okay.

The laundry will never be done, the floors will always need to be vacuumed. This is not a reflection on your parenting. Productiveness as a mom cannot be measured by a to-do list but by the silent unseen sacrifices for the sake of those you love.

When you are feeling like what you do doesn’t matter, remember this from Andy Stanley:

“You greatest contribution to the kingdom of God may not be something you do but someone you raise.”13166076_10209419439273723_1325231446447934723_n

8—You are not invisible.

God sees you and all your sacrifices even if it seems no one else does. Those rainy day snuggles with the same book, the 1000th peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and the umpteenth time you’ve kissed an imaginary boo-boo will reap a harvest one day.

All those ordinary moments that seem so insignificant will one day string together to make an extraordinary life.

9—Prayer fixes a multitude of sins.

The word says, “Love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). It is God’s love for us that prompts Him to hear our prayers and move on our behalf. Are you blowing it? He knows, and He’s not moved to condemnation but compassion. Ask Him to fill in the gaps and cover all your sins and He will be faithful to do it.

What is it you’re in need of? Do you need wisdom? Ask Him and He promises to give it “liberally and without reproach” (James 1:5). Are you scared for a wayward child? Ask Him to protect your child and to give you a “word fitly spoken” (Proverbs 25:11) when the opportunity arises. Pray for and over your children believing that we do not have because we do not ask (James 4:2).

10—It’s never too late!

No matter where you are in the process, so long as there is a breath to be taken, God is at work. If your family has fallen apart and in need of repair, I have good news for you: Every family is a fixer-up family and God is in the construction and remodeling industry. There is no problem so big that God cannot solve it.

His redemptive work on the cross stretched behind and ahead, so we should expect no less from Him in our families. What has fallen into decay, given to Him, He can rebuild. What Satan has robbed, He can restore. What we have torn down, He can redeem. He is the great rebuilder, restorer, redeemer, and He waits for us to hand him the ashes of our lives so that he can give us beauty in return.

What other truths have you learned along the way? I hope you’ll scroll down and share them.

 

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.

Burning Red-Hot Anger

I am so grateful to have Jessica Lederer share on here today. Jessica is a gem. She is a beautiful and sincere woman, wife, mother, and friend. So I was thrilled when she accepted my invitation to post for Mothers With a Mission. She shares openly what most are afraid to speak of, and I know you’ll appreciate her candidness and transparency.

12363267_10153687550415734_377748452145311748_oI consider myself a blessed mother of 5 amazing children. My oldest will be 8 in a couple short weeks and my youngest celebrated a year of life on the outside on Christmas Eve. Life is chaotic, messy, unpredictable, and a hoot everyday.

BUT there are some days when burning, red-hot anger explodes from inside like a volcano and all I can do is holler at the bystanders to take cover. The kind that makes my kids call me “Hulk Momma”! Can you imagine! THIS has been one of those weeks!

Coincidentally (NOT) I am doing a Beth Moore Bible study called The Patriarchs. Wanna know what we are talking about–BURNING RED-HOT ANGER. Day 1 was Judah and David’s burning anger. It may surprise you to know they were burning with anger at their own sin; they just didn’t know it yet. Conviction? You bet!

The Bible talks of God’s refining fire and how He uses it to purify us and test us. Praise GOD my faith has proved steadfast, but unfortunately sometimes so does what He is trying to purify me of! That leads to the flame burning hotter. Unlike the LORD’s refining fire, my burning is the farthest thing from purifying as possible, no matter what I tell myself in the heat of the moment!

My burning is a rage I didn’t even know was possible! Any others out there know what I mean? It is what only those closest to me get to witness. It is shameful and NEEDS Jesus! Most of the time it comes from a place of a loss of control. It is never necessary but somehow I can’t get myself to CLOSE MY MOUTH.

In sharing my battle with other moms, I’ve found that despite the enemy convincing us we’re the “only ones”, many moms routinely fight their anger.

So what do we do when those situations occur? Well I can tell you what I do.

PRAY. PRAY. PRAY. HUMBLE. HUMBLE. HUG. KISS. LOVE. APOLOGIZE. PRAY. PRAY. PRAY.

  • Pray for the Lord to forgive me. Confess what I’ve done.
  • Pray for the words to speak and that The Father would stand in the gap and cover my loved ones from the repercussions of my sin.
  • Pray for the Lord to convict my spirit and allow correction.
  • Humble myself and go to those I’ve hurt and without rationalizing or explaining, just ask for their forgiveness.
  • HUGS and KISSES and I’m sorrys. LOTS of hugs and kisses.
  • PRAY some more. Ask for a Word, a promise, something to hold onto when life gets me red-hot.
  • Believe the LORD for the forgiveness He has given me, accept His Grace, and His Help.

Sometimes the circumstances may seem like they justify the outburst but believe me there is a better way. One day I will find my way there every time, but for now I’m still on the journey. Oh how I pray to be more tender and gentle! Especially with my little ones. I hope it encourages you in your journey to know that you are not alone if you have ever had “that moment”.

Let’s pray for each other whether this is you or not. Let’s ask the LORD to help us. You may not know the name of the momma you are praying for but the LORD does!

James 1:19-20 My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry,  because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.

 

Love Letter To My Grown-Up Children

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Kaila and Kieran–Austalia, January 2016

Dear Kieran and Kaila,

I hope you don’t mind that I’m openly sharing this personal peek into my heart. I was going to mail this letter, but then I thought about all the other mamas who are where I am or will be one day and I wondered if they needed words to attach to the jumble of emotions that are inevitably part of this “letting go” process.

I can’t believe this moment took me by surprise. After all, I’ve had two decades to prepare for it. Still, it hit me pretty hard that you two are turning 18 and 21 in just a matter of days. The reality of what that means has left me a bit breathless, and to be honest, a lot scared.

I feel like I’m short on time, and I wonder about all the things I left unsaid and untaught and undone. Never did I think it would be so hard. I always thought moms knew instinctively what to do to settle their babies, and to conquer life for their children, and then to launch their adults, ready to face life’s challenges.

But I quickly found out I was not one of those moms!

I was a blundering mom, trudging my way through every new phase wondering what the right thing to do was. I was sure I was going to have to pay for your counseling sessions one day (thank you for sparing me that expense…so far 🙂 ). Every day, I asked God to parent you because I was certain I was messing it all up on a large scale. It’s okay if you agree. You still turned out amazing despite me.

But here I am again.

Kayla's first day in the world--Feb 8, 1998

Kaila’s first day in the world–Feb 8, 1998

Trudging through.

Scared.

Asking myself questions like,

“Did you know how much I loved you or were you unsure of the priorities of my life?”

“Did I hold you enough while there was still time or did I let my to-do list trump my heart?”

“Did I model to you how to love your spouse and live with their best in front of you, or did you see me seek my own way over Dad’s too often?”

“Did Dad and I prepare you to be a servant in your homes and communities by modeling that or did you see too often that our flesh and selfishness took over?”

“Did we authentically live out our faith before you, or did we cripple your faith with our own weaknesses and doubts?”

“Did Dad and I teach you how to really build a life and a home and give you the tools to do it?”

Those questions and more keep wiggling their way into my consciousness and making me feel a sense of urgency at the disappearing days. I can’t take back the years. I can only pause in this blink of a moment to tell you what I hope you already know, but want to make sure you do.

1—I have failed you and will continue to fail you, but God never will. He is a perfect parent who is never too tired to listen, or too selfish to see what you need, or too insecure to handle all your emotions. He is always good, always kind, always right. He will never let you down. Ever.

2—I’m sorry. I am. You know I could list a gazillion ways I got it wrong. I never meant to. I’ve prayed through the years that the scripture be fulfilled that claims, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” If my love isn’t enough, I know God’s is.

3—Love others better than they love you. Love without fear of getting hurt or getting behind. Love when it’s hard. Be the one who says, “I’m sorry.” Be the one who forgives first. Be the one who gives in. It may not gain you the promotion, or the recognition or even any appreciation, but it will allow you to live a life without regret.

4—Be patient with me as I release you. I once was your home. My heart beat to keep you alive. It always will. Only, you’re grown-ups now. You don’t need me for survival anymore, but I’ll forget that sometimes. Not because I don’t trust you, but because I’m learning how to trust you to the One who has been the true Sustainer of your lives all along. It’s hard but I’m trying.

Friends always.

Friends always.

5—I am so, so proud of you. You are amazing. There aren’t enough words to fully convey that to you. Of all the things I’ve accomplished in my life, nothing compares to our family collectively and individually. Not because I take the credit. But because you are evidence of a Living God who can and will do what I cannot. He traded my inadequacies for His sufficiency. I asked Him to parent you and He did. The proof is in the fact that you look more like him than you do me.

So, you two, it is with some yearning that I look back on years that went by much too quickly. But I also look with promise into the future that is before you now. You are ready for it. Be patient if I’m a little behind the curve; I’ll get there.

I love you both so much,

Mom

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Kieran-always a snuggler.

Sweet Kaila.

Sweet Kaila.