This is the first post in a series on teaching skills to kids. Now when I say teaching, I mean that in the broadest sense. When a child or adolescent is either performing some behavior that is undesirable (let’s say screaming for a candy bar in the grocery store) or not performing some desirable behavior (let’s say continuing to watch TV when you told them to go brush their teeth before bedtime) teaching is critical to getting your kid to do what they should. Most parenting experts (especially behaviorists) will focus on implementing rewards and punishment (AKA response costs). I would argue that while rewards and punishers are important, we can’t forget to teach.
Let’s take the example of a child who won’t brush their teeth because they are ‘zoned out’ watching TV. The first part of teaching is to do whatever you can to create a ‘teachable moment’. In this case, it could be as simple as turning off the TV for a moment right before you tell them to brush their teeth, then turn the TV back on when you are done giving the command. If you leave the TV off – that is a small punishment and you take away the choice for your child to choose to watch TV or brush their teeth. So I’m not suggesting that. But by briefly turning off the TV while you are speaking, you are assuring yourself that they are less distracted. Now the critical moment, when the TV comes back on – what do they do? If they go brush their teeth – awesome! And when they do, heap lots of praise on them. But if they don’t, here’s a great chance to inject some teaching into the situation. You could say ‘Susie, since you aren’t getting up to brush your teeth, your bedtime just got moved back 10 minutes. Now I’m going to ask you again and if you brush your teeth when I tell you to, you can earn 5 minutes back. So let’s try this again’. Now, crazy as it sounds, turn on the TV (remember, we want to always give them the choice to behave well or poorly). Then tell her to go brush her teeth. If she does it say ‘that’s right, you got up to brush your teeth as soon as I told you to, so now you get 5 minutes added back to your bedtime.’ If she doesn’t get up right away then you could say ‘Remember when I tell you to brush your teeth, you need to say “OK, I am” and get up, walk to the bathroom right away, and start brushing your teeth. Because you didn’t do that you lost 10 minutes (total) from your bedtime.’ But in my experience, most kids are going to jump at the chance to earn back some of whatever they lost and will practice the correct behavior with you in that moment. If they don’t – oh well, there will be a lot more chances to practice with them.
So next time you give a request to your child, give this a shot. Remember, create a teachable moment, make a specific command, praise compliance or punish noncompliance, and give those who are noncompliant a chance to earn back some of what you took if they do what you say. Good luck!