"On a recent camping trip," says a mother, "I found myself losing patience with my 7-year-old son, Danny. Whatever I tried to do, Danny was underfoot. He followed me into the tent, sat where I was going to lay his sleeping bag and then jumped on the air mattress while I was inflating it.
" `Look, Danny,' I snapped, exasperated. `If you're in here to help me, fine. But if you're here to get in the way, get out!' Danny looked at me and, with utmost sincerity, quietly said, `Mom, I'm in here because I love you.' "Kids are like that - often out of sync with adults and into their own world. Exasperating - but, if you can get past your own microscopic view, mostly just plain lovable.
How do you keep a child's endearing characteristics in focus, even under the worst of circumstances? Here's a philosophy of child rearing that may help:
- View children as little people - not short adults. Children see the world differently than adults and go through progressive stages of moral reasoning, which involves the development of values, of empathy and respect for others, and of a sense of responsibility, says Thomas Lickona. Lickona, author of a book called "Raising Good Children from Birth Through the Teen Years," also observes: "These stages of reasoning are like a natural staircase, which kids go up one step at a time. The higher the stage, the broader the child's respect for others.
"Kids, just like adults, often slip down the staircase and use lower stages," he says. "Some kids move faster through the stages. But moral development isn't a race; it's a process. The important thing is to keep the process going."
- From this perspective, accept kids as not having their acts together. They move in and out of egocentricity and, in the business of being children, they generally want what they want when they want it. They see the world through their lenses, and often they can only see themselves. One preschooler demonstrates: "I like it here," he says to his grandmother, "because there are so many things to get into." And when asked why he made a hole in the wall, he responds: "I just wanted to see what was inside."
- Therefore, treat kids as little people (rather than short adults) who are in a different world, and who have a unique perspective of their own.
And treat them as people who are doing the very best they can. Another preschooler says this very thing: "Why did Daddy spank me?" she questions. "Doesn't he know that I'm doing the very best I can?"
- Since children are a unique breed - little people who are well-intended but short-sighted - recognize that their behavior has everything to do with them and very little to do with you.
To put it another way, when kids don't follow through perfectly (or even nearly perfectly), their behavior has to do with their stage of development rather than a lack of caring. "I begin to personalize when my kids don't follow through," says a woman. "If they cared more, they would help more. Can't they see these things that need to be done? I've worked so hard for them and yet all they want to do is play. They must not love me."
- Stay calm. Says one woman: "Children evoke the `jerk' response - they push and push until you turn into a jerk." Says another hard-pressed woman who has experienced this response: "I get mad when the kids spill things, sometimes even when they just walk in the door after I've cleaned house, because I can see things are going to fall apart again. I end up yelling and screaming because I start feeling so bad about myself when I can't control the messes."
- Recognize that children's behavior needs to be "shaped" - not "forced." "I used to treat my teen like he was a big Mack truck, and I would stand in front of him with my arms up to stop him," says a father. "Now I just run along side of him, sort of shooing him here and there to keep him in the main lane."
- Plan on kids not complying - and then be pleasantly surprised when they do. This isn't an attitude to show kids - it's simply one to keep you from angering as quickly when you're disappointed that a child hasn't followed through. Remember, kids often WON'T follow through - that is the nature of children. Getting angry won't change that. However, telling children when they DO follow through, will.
- Utilize, then, the "shaping" approach. Think about it - by the time a child reaches adulthood, you want him or her to be trustworthy, reliant, honest, cooperative, generous, caring, industrious, trustworthy, responsible, and the list can go on and on.
How do you get a child with these qualities? Acknowledge them whenever you see even small evidence of their development, focusing on, say, a child's behavior when he IS telling the truth.
And what do you do if a child misbehaves? Deal with the specific behavior privately with these steps, which also constitute a "shaping" process:
- Describe the misbehavior. Say, for example: "When I ask you to do something you often argue and say things like, "You don't ever ask David to do anything" or "I'm always the one who has to do the dishes."
- Tell your child why you're upset by the misbehavior: "I get frustrated when you challenge my reasons for asking you to do things. I don't have time for that. And I don't like having problems with you. I want us to have good feelings toward each other."
- Describe the behavior you want: "When I tell you to do something, I want you to say, `OK,' and then do it."
- Stay on the subject. If necessary, gently but firmly repeat what you need several times. Get agreement from your child that he or she will try out the new behavior.
- Encourage the positive behavior. With younger children, use rewards like food or tokens that can be "cashed in" for something to increase desirable behavior. Carry M & M's in your pocket for a week, for example, and give your child one every time she says "yes" instead of arguing. (With teens, up the ante!)
- Also give a bonus for consistent performance. For example, give your child a bonus point each day she says "yes" five times without arguing. When she earns five bonus points, take her to lunch.
- Cheer signs of progress. Good behavior that gets no attention may not be repeated. So let your child know several times a day that you're pleased with improved performance.