In my last blog I talked about the importance of teaching when you implement some consequence with your child. While many parents and even teachers serve out consequences routinely, it is critical that you explicitly teach your child what they should do when you describe what they shouldn’t have done. But the opposite is true as well. Too often I see parents talking, nagging, or endlessly rationalizing with kids in the guise of ‘teaching’. In these cases, a simple and quick statement of what is expected is all that is needed – but always paired with a real consequence.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. The other day my wife and two older daughters were walking in the park. We approached a very narrow bridge over a stream where only two people could walk side-by-side (stray farther and you would go for a quick dip). I suddenly heard a small bell ringing behind us and noticed a child of about 10 years old riding a bike with his father riding behind him. The child was ringing his bell and about to ride right through my wife and I (we were holding hands). His father, noticing his son’s behavior, yelled out “Johnny – remember we talked about waiting your turn and not getting to close to people” to which his son replied “Yeah, I know dad”. The moment the kid says this he literally rides his bike right through us, with his father apologizing as he continues behind his son. So the first question is, did the child know what he was supposed to do? It is likely that he did given the interaction with his dad. Did he really learn this lesson? I’d say no. There is a difference between knowing something and being able (or likely) to do it. Clearly this kid had not learned that lesson. Why not? Because there was no consequence when he behaved in an inappropriate manner and he had not had any practice at performing the appropriate behavior (waiting his turn). So the million dollar question – what should the dad have done in that situation? First, insist the child stop his bike, walk over to us, and apologize. In this situation, an apology is socially appropriate and again teaches the child what to do when they behave inappropriately. Then, and most importantly, apply a consequence. I’m a big proponent of ‘natural consequences’. In other words, what consequence would naturally follow one’s behavior in a particular situation. This topic is too big to explain fully, but in this situation a good natural consequence would have been to make the child get off his bike and walk it through the park for some distance. As the child walks the bike, then have a short conversation about 1. what the kid did wrong and 2. what he should have done instead. Then get back on the bike and enjoy the rest of your day.
Again, from anyone’s point of view we often do what is most enjoyable to us. And sometimes that behavior is not appropriate, whether it is hurting someone else, making a rude remark, crying for candy in the grocery store, etc. In these cases we must be explicitly told what we did wrong and what to do instead next time, and then we must experience some sort of punishment for that inappropriate behavior.