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.

Cinderella: 5 Lessons on Raising A Modern-Day Princess

Their first meeting with Cinderella.

Their first meeting with Cinderella.

I recently took my girls to see the latest release of Cinderella and we just loved it! Well, I love all fairytales because somehow they depict life as it should be. Oh there’s plenty of trouble that threatens the protagonist, but we all know how it ends. Prince Charming saves the day and they all live happily ever after.

I believe every life has fairytale potential, and since I have two young princesses and one almost grown one, I intend to do all I can to ensure they not only dream of a happily-ever-after, but that I give them the tools to find it. However, since I spent most of my young life as a tomboy who’d rather chase snakes than stars and who preferred denim to lace, I’m not the perfect princess role model.

So, I took some lessons from Cinderella:

My own Cinderella

My own Cinderella

1- “Be courageous and be kind.” Cinderella’s mother tells her this great truth, adding that “there is great power in kindness.” I agree. As I said in my last post, I believe kindness changes everything.

2- Love others with “an open heart and an open hand.” Though Cinderella ate from the leftovers of her selfish stepmother and stepsisters, she was generous with what little she had, considering others’ interests ahead of her own.

3- Overcome evil with good. In regard to why she tolerated such ugly treatment from her new family, Cinderella answered, “They treat me as well as they are able.”  Oh if my girls can smile in the face of criticism and unfair treatment and deflect it with grace and peace, they will always be able to not only protect their own hearts but possibly change others’ as well.

Princess in training

Princess in training

4- Be who you are. As Cinderella comes down the steps with her soot-stained face, bedraggled hair, and ratty clothing to meet the prince, we hear her uncertain thoughts, “The greatest risk for any of us is to be seen as we truly are.” Isn’t that the truth! My girls need to know that who they truly are has nothing to do with clothes or hair, but a heart of goodness and beauty within.

5- Believe in something greater than yourself. For Cinderella, it was a Fairy Godmother. For me, it’s God. All of us will reach a point where we know our own strength is not enough. I want my princesses to know that when they have nothing left to give, God has more than enough, and all He gives lasts well beyond midnight.

My girls aren’t likely to ever wear a real crown or live in a castle, but I believe that if I encourage kindness, love, grace, a knowledge for who they are and for Who is greater than they are, then they can live a life that rivals any fairytale.

Wishing all your princesses a Happily-Ever-After Life!

My fierce pirate princess thanks to big brother's influence.

My fierce pirate princess thanks to big brother’s influence.

More help from big brother

More help from big brother

A princess still must work :-)

A princess still must work 🙂

Not quite the complete look

Not quite the complete look

With their crowns

With their crowns

My 3 princesses today

My 3 princesses today

A Journey to Kindness

Kaila and Kieran, my grace givers

Kaila and Kieran, my grace givers

I remember the moment I spat the ugly words, punctuated with a piercing stare, “You act like children of the devil!” It was directed at my oldest children, who were then around nine and twelve years old. In the angry stillness that followed, Kaila, who has always been a mild-mannered child not given to back talk, looked at me with all her innocence and said slowly as though pondering some great mystery, “Mommy, if we are children of the devil, what does that make you?”

Time stood still and no one breathed as we waited for what would happen next.

The wind left my sails as I considered the answer and the truth in it. An apology followed and we salvaged what we could of the rest of the day, but my heart was pricked by yet another ugly stain on my checkered mothering past. We’ve since laughed about the day (along with others) Mom lost her mind and when they both were sure Kaila would lose her tongue, but secretly I’ve cried many times.

I’ve cried because I know love is kind, and I was not always kind. I was many things, but I was not kind.

I was intentional. I was nurturing. I was self-sacrificing. I was compassionate. I was generous. But I was not kind.

Kindness has been a journey for me, one full of determination and disappointment, but one also full of grace, both from God and from my children. I share it with you in the hopes that if you struggle with kindness, your own journey will be shorter.

My two youngest kindest teachers, Samara and Avielle

My two youngest kindness teachers, Samara and Avielle

Please don’t think I’ve arrived. I’m still broken many times over by my weakness in this area but I’m also reminded that it is my weakness that keeps me dependent upon God’s strength and that my children get to witness a life and a heart that is continually being changed by His strength as I remain teachable. I’m learning to love well as I learn to be kind.

Kindness changes everything. It softens hearts. It mends relationships. Kindness transmits love from head to heart, from knowing to feeling.

The scriptures say in Romans 2:4 that it is the kindness of God that leads to repentance. Doesn’t it make sense then that it is the kindness of a mother that leads to the same in her children? Why then do we often choose harsh words, fierce stares, and cold responses when we love so much? For me, it’s been because I like results and I want them yesterday. Kindness, however, requires patience. It is selfless and humble.

In the day to day, kindness cuddles a toddler when he’s fussy instead of scolds him, realizing we all have bad days too.

Kindness gives a soft answer instead of yelling at children who are yelling at each other AGAIN.

Kindness looks a pre-teen in the eyes and recognizes the doubts and insecurities instead of labeling it rebellion.

Kindness reminds teenagers to be faithful with what they have instead of telling them how ungrateful they are for all they’ve been given.

Each day, it is kindness that compels me to say I’m sorry to my husband even when he’s wrong, and it shows me how to fight fair. I’m good at fighting. I can hurl my endless words and he can’t compete and I can win the argument, but I lose him in those moments. Kindness shows me how to fight for him and for us instead of for my rights so we can both win.

Still the one I learn the most from

Still the one I learn the most from

Love is kind.

And if I want my love to translate to my family, if I want them to not just know with their minds, but feel with their hearts, that I love them dearly, then I must not love without kindness.

Memories of my failures often threaten to bog me down in the quicksand of guilt. The tears well up and spill over even now as I type. Still, I have to choose to let grace, not guilt, cover my yesterdays and carry me into my tomorrows. I hope you will do the same.

When I do, I am sweetly reminded of a good God who will never give up on me and of a husband and children who have always extended more grace than I have deserved. And in such moments, I am grateful that I am the daughter of such a merciful God, wife of such a kind man, and mother of such forgiving children.

And I’m grateful to all of you who visit me here and see my heart through all my flaws.

God’s 2015 Promises For You and Your Family–Will You Claim Them?

IMG_2117 - Version 2Well, I always have plenty to say, but I thought as we close this year and head into the new one, I’d say less and let God say more. His words are more important and reliable anyway. So instead of giving you my list of resolutions, I thought I’d share just a short list of His promises for you and your family instead. He is anxious to see them fulfilled in your life, but

There is a catch: You have to claim them.

It’s true God’s promises are real and powerful, but they do typically require our faith and cooperation. Think of it like this. If you receive a paycheck for services or goods, that check is a promise, but unless it is cashed in, unless it is claimed, it is useless. You can stare at it all day and it will not put food on your table or clothes on your back until you deposit it or cash it in.

God’s promises are likewise. They do not automatically come to pass. You must receive them as truth in your heart and take them to Him in faith and claim, “Lord, you’ve said this and I believe it”. Then Oh! what miracles take place when we pray God’s word with expectancy over our children and our homes! And let me add, whatever faith you have to believe them is all the faith you need. He will meet you where you are and grow your own faith through His faithfulness.

So, here are just a few of the many promises of God. I keep a journal of them so I can find the ones I need when my heart is anxious and I don’t know what to do. Perhaps you’d like to write down those that speak to you most and do the same. I promise you this. As you learn God’s heart for your family and speak His promises over them, your own heart will find more rest.

God Bless you and yours in 2015!

Promises of Provision:

“…those who seek the Lord shall not lack any good thing.” Isaiah 34:9-10

“And my God shall supply all your need…” Philippians 4:19

“Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.” Matthew 6:31-32

Promises of Salvation and Deliverance:

“…the children of the godly will go free.” Proverbs 11:21 NLT

“For I will contend with him who contends with you, and I will save your children.” Isaiah 49:25

“Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, along with everyone in your household.” Acts 16:31 NLT

Promises of Blessings:

“I will pour My Spirit on your descendants, and My blessing on your offspring.” Isaiah 44:3

“The generation of the upright will be blessed.” Psalm 112:2

Promises of Protection:

“In the fear of the Lord there is strong confidence, and His children will have a place of refuge.” Proverbs 14:26

“The Lord shall preserve your going out and your coming in from this time forth, and even forevermore.” Psalm 121:8

Psalm 91–the whole chapter! My go-to chapter for all that frightens me concerning my children.

Promises for Guidance:

“You will guide me with Your counsel…” Psalm 73:24

“I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will guide you with My eye.” Psalm 32:8

“Your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ ” Isaiah 30:21

Promises for Wisdom:

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” James 1:5

“For the Lord gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding;” Proverbs 2:6

Promises of a Plan and Purpose:

For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. Jer 29:11

“The Lord will work out his plans for my life.” Psalm 138:8 NLT

More Promises You Can Count On:

“I will teach all your children, and they will enjoy great peace.” Isaiah 53:13

“He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ ” Hebrews 13:5

“Therefore know that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments.” Deuteronomy 7:9

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.” Hebrews 10:23

 

 

Gratitude, Not “Attitude”–7 Ways to Teach Thankfulness

My greatest blessings minus one :-(.

My greatest blessings minus one :-(.

I have always told my children that there is something to be thankful for in all situations, but finding just one in the port-o-potty of a Lancaster farm earlier this month was difficult for me. Although I was suspended between the door and the potty hole for mere milliseconds, to me it seemed much longer–long enough, in fact, to have a dozen possibilities race through my mind. You see, somehow I thought I could maneuver my way through the whole process of going pee in a 1X3 foot area with a cell phone in my right hand and the door slide in my left because, for whatever reason, it wouldn’t latch all the way. Somewhere in the midst of this task, I lost my balance and had a decision to make. Do I lurch toward the door and risk falling out with my pants down or do I lean back and…well, you know?

I chose dignity over sanitation and came down on my hip with a thud. Now any reasonable woman would know she can’t actually fit down a port-o-potty hole, but I was not exactly a reasonable woman at that moment, and I was certain there was the chance I’d be forever humiliated for having to be rescued from my toilet fiasco.

In any event, it all ended with little more than bruised pride and a bruised hip for which I was not the least bit grateful. Annoyed, I kept my little incident to myself and wanted nothing more than to take a bath in Lysol. Unfortunately, I couldn’t stop my own words from creeping out from the corners of my mind, “Give thanks in all things.” Um, No. But after all day of listening to that nagging phrase, I finally threw up my hands and declared, “Lord! Thank you that my butt was too big to fit through the port-o-potty hole.” I know, it was pathetic and not very sincere, but sometimes gratitude is hard work. However, as in all things, practice makes perfect and the dividends are worth the investment.

For instance, new studies by R. A. Emmons, Ph.D., at the University of California at Davis show that a heart of gratitude actually makes us feel happier, healthier, and behave with more kindness and goodwill toward others. Who wouldn’t like to see more of that in our families?

7 ways to move from attitude to gratitude that have worked in our family:

1. Say thank you. To everyone. The teller, the clerk, the waiter, and most importantly to those in your own house. Just the habit of saying those two words is very powerful and your children will catch on.

2. Teach your children not to compare themselves to others. They will always find someone who has more. Model this mamas. Please don’t let your children hear you wishing you were in someone else’s house or driving someone else’s car or living someone else’s life. Yours is an amazing one without someone else’s stuff.

3. Teach them to give and serve. This is huge and it doesn’t require much effort to find ways to reach out. Whether it’s as involved as serving regularly as a family at a shelter or nursing home or as simple as inviting a lonely person to dinner, making others a priority will help your children develop not only a heart of gratitude but a heart that cares.

4. Give thanks in all things. And now I’m back where I started. They’re really not my words, but the apostle Paul’s from 1 Thes. 5:18, and I have stood on a rather large soap box and preached endless sermons about this one to my children. I wholeheartedly believe that there is something we can be thankful for in every situation. Look hard; it’s hidden somewhere. While I’m still not grateful I beat myself up inside a smelly port-o-potty, I am extremely thankful I didn’t lose my phone in a pile of poop.

Courtesy debspoons at freedigitalphotos.net

Courtesy debspoons at freedigitalphotos.net

5. “Count your blessings, name them one by one; count your blessings, see what God hath done!” It’s a great hymn and great advice. Whether you intentionally talk about them daily or encourage your children to write them down, recalling blessings helps us be conscious of all we have instead of focused on all we don’t. Let’s not limit it to a once-a-year ritual.

6. Pray. Gratitude is not easy so ask God to cultivate it in us and our children. James 4:2 says “You do not have because you do not ask”, so ask and believe.

7. Keep at it. Let your children know it’s okay if they are only going through the motions but don’t feel grateful at first. Eventually it will move from an exercise of the mind to a response of the heart. It will.

There will always be too many reasons to grumble, but if we choose instead to move from attitude to gratitude, things won’t only feel better, they will actually get better. I’d say that’s a reason to be grateful.