Shaping Your Child’s Behavior 

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It was a lot easier to parent in the old days. There was less judgment back then. If you fed your child and provided shelter and support, you were viewed as a decent parent, and no one thought to ask what “style of parenting” you professed to follow.

Nowadays, with chat rooms, blogs, and new books coming out every month, raising a child can be more stressful. We are having children at an older age, and we are setting extremely high goals for ourselves. We are aiming to be the perfect parent, perhaps even reflecting on our own childhoods and yearnings for something different or better for our children.

Many of the parents I see have worked 10 or more years in their area of specialty – top lawyers, entrepreneurs, talented artists – but when they’re faced with their own wonderful, 7-pound ball of love, they become uncertain. They’re not always sure if they’re doing “the right thing.” The newborn period definitely has its share of stresses. I call it survival mode sometimes, with the lack of sleep and a feeling of “who is the little thing, and what is it they want?” But caring for newborns is a no-brainer in one respect: You need to tend to their needs.

Newborns require immediate gratification. They were in a perfect, buffered environment for 9 months, receiving nutrition continuously from mom, protected from the cold, loud noises, and feelings of fear and hunger. So for the first 3 or 4 months, please do tend to their every need. At this point, they should not be toughened up or have to wait too long for their needs to be met. For these first few months, love them to death, and run – not walk – to help them.

Then suddenly something will change. It usually begins around 4 months old or sometimes even younger. Your baby will not only become interactive and alert, but also really engaged. There will be back-and-forths, perhaps even some talking in her own language, and she’ll start to express her desires. She is developing a personality!

Advice From The Experts

We used to underestimate the young ones. I think they are brilliant actually, and they really try to express themselves and tell you what to do. When they become older and easier to read, one of the most important and difficult questions arises: If your child knows what she wants, and you know what she wants, does that necessarily mean she should always get what she wants?

There are so many new books on parenting nowadays, but I like the old-fashioned advice to be honest – pediatricians like Dr. Brazelton, Dr. Spock, and the original Dr. Sears (not his pediatrician sons) are veterans that have each spent decades in this field, making observations and lending a helping hand to new parents without a hidden agenda. Nowadays, the goal has become to sell books or start the latest parenting trend.

I do like Dr. Karp’s Happiest Baby on the Block, as he elucidates just what these little ones are going through in the early, colicky months, and how to soothe them, but I don’t agree with all of his advice on how to deal with toddlers. I respect when people follow a specific method, but I would rather push parents to explore their own morals, values, and views on parenting, and then to really examine how they fit the developmental stage their child is going through. I don’t think there is one method or book that you should refer to for every interaction or confrontation, but here I’ll explore some general issues and offer some guidance for the ups and downs of raising a young child. 

Your Child's Point of View

I think the most important thing a parent can do is raise their child with unconditional love. Children need a base and plenty of support. But that doesn’t translate into them getting their way all of the time. Parenting is about choosing your battles. Just as you shouldn’t say yes to your child all the time, you should also limit how often you say the word no. The parent that says no all day long will lose the power of the word, and it will become background noise. Still, parents need to have some way of helping to shape the behavior of their budding child.

Let’s look at things from the child’s point of view, as it is important to see where they are coming from. The 9 month old baby says, “Hey, I have these parents who just love me. They used to get it wrong sometimes, feeding me when I was gassy or daring to put me to sleep when really I just wanted a bit more play time, but now – now I’ve got it good! Now they are really starting to learn the program! They feed me when I’m hungry, they change me when I’m wet, and I just tried out this new one where I point at something – or even just grunt and look in its direction – and boom! They bring it to me. Life is good!”

I think it’s wonderful how good that must feel, and there’s no need to take that feeling away from them. But what about when they innocently express their joy or energy by smacking another child in the face? Most of the time we can totally understand where the behavior is coming from; they may have skipped their nap, or may simply not know what to do with their boundless energy. Whatever the reason, this would be a perfectly opportunity for you to mold your child’s behavior.

When To Start

You’ll need to start at quite a young age. A 1 year old will tell you what she wants, and most of the time you’ll be able to tend to her needs and desires. And when what she wants is something she really shouldn’t have, most of us know what to do – distract her, veer her to a different path, one that is safe and appropriate. Often this will actually work. When a younger child gets frustrated, she can usually be consoled through redirection.

So how does that 1 year old become the 2 year old who is writhing on the floor of the toy store? Or that 3 year old who is acting rebellious, or the 4 year old who is so bratty that you just want to take her back to the baby store to see if she can be returned or exchanged?

Parents need to keep their mommy or daddy cards in their back pockets and be ready to play them when appropriate. It may be during a transition or an interaction with another child, or maybe she’s yelling at you or saying a word she shouldn’t be saying. Whatever the situation, you are in charge of helping your child change her behavior.

We should constantly be molding the behavior of our children, teaching them what society expects and what aspirations we hold them to. Not that the 2 year old needs to be a model citizen – it’s to be expected that they will occasionally melt down or need things to just be a certain way. But we can aim to always react to their behavior in an appropriate manner.

You certainly don’t want to reinforce a behavior that you don’t like. Of course, children are constantly going through phases, and when your kid is in college she will likely not still be scratching you or rolling around the floor of the store – but we don’t want to extend these stages any longer than necessary. The hope is to extinguish this kind of behavior, which you can do by sending a clear and immediate message of disapproval.

It is not a good idea to get down to the level of your child and explain with a loving smile how hitting friends is wrong; this sort of message will likely be misinterpreted. Just a few minutes ago, you were perhaps not paying attention to your child, and now, after she has behaved badly, she has you at her level and you’re paying complete attention to her.

I have found that it’s best to simply remove yourself if you can, and ignore certain behaviors. And again, distraction really works. If you can find a way to head off a behavior or tantrum before it happens, you’ll be saving yourself a lot of trouble. But if the child is already in the middle of a tantrum, or has just kicked, scratched, or bitten another child, you need to make sure that they are feeling your disappointment and disapproval.

Time Out

There’s bad behavior, and then there are situations that warrant an official time-out. Some parents have flat-out decided that they don’t want to do time-outs, and I respect that. But my opinion, after reading all the research on childhood development (not to mention my own experiences as a parent, pediatrician, daycare counselor, umpire, tutor – you name it), is that time-outs are effective when utilized appropriately and strategically.

The idea is to send a message as well as a clear consequence to the child. Remove her from what she was doing, and give her a break – meaning no stimulation or interactions. That means not talking to her or hugging her while she is doing her time-out. After awhile, your child will come to dread time-outs, and you have it in your pocket for the future. You’ll be able to say to her, “If you do that again, you are going to get a time-out.” You choose the behaviors that elicit a time-out, but it needs to be consistent and structured – you shouldn’t be more flexible when you’re in a good mood, or more strict when you’re in a bad one.

For younger children, an appropriate place for a time-out might be the crib. There is no safer place for a toddler. I used the crib for my own children. For an older child, you could use a corner or step, where they need to stay for one minute per year of age.

At the end of the time-out, remind your child of why she got the time-out. After that you can say, “I still love you very much,” and then it’s over. Don’t prolong the discussion; just go back to smiles and fun. I feel that with young children (18 months to 4 years old), there’s no point in having a discussion before bed or reviewing their behavior like a news report – it just doesn't work. Quick negative reinforcement of a behavior works best for this developmental stage, as young children often forget within an hour what had happened earlier.

Time-outs may lose their effectiveness with some kids, especially if they end up there a lot. These children may need a sticker chart, where you choose a few behavioral goals and go over whether they are meeting those goals once or twice a day. They can earn small rewards for good days or a good week, but they may need to lose privileges such as TV time if they fail to achieve their goals.

Be realistic about your consequences. Don’t say, “You can’t watch TV for a week,” because you know on Day 4 you’ll change your mind. Don’t make empty threats such as “I’ll cancel your whole birthday party if you don’t stop.” Try to remain calm, consistent, and make the consequence fit the behavior. Make sure the message is always delivered as soon as possible. If the behavior happened at school, perhaps you should find out more about it before issuing a consequence (as you need to communicate with the teachers and all be on the same page), but in general, the sooner the better.

It’s not fun to be a robot parent who inputs data (your child’s behavior) and then reacts with an outcome (positive or negative reinforcement). But remember that these stages are really just stages, with a real end point. Your goal is to help your children come out of these stages as soon as possible, and then maybe you can get back to enjoying parenting!

Finding The Plan That Works

These are just some guiding principles, and they don’t apply to every child or every age group. Some kids are simply mild-mannered little angels, and some parents may find that the logical talk does work with their 2 year old. I never tell parents how to discipline or raise their child, but many parents have asked for guidance, so here I've tried to provide it.

On a related side note, there are children who really act out in a violent way or are truly depressed or angry. There are those who need therapy or more intensive counseling, and could greatly benefit from a real evaluation with a mental health professional. A good pediatrician will work with you to identify that child and guide you to the correct path. A school social worker is often a nice place to start, but many parents prefer private therapists, social workers, psychologists or psychiatrists. Unfortunately, insurance companies often balk at paying for these crucial and beneficial services.

The vast majority of children – and that includes those with the strongest personalities, the longest tantrums, and the most vicious bites – are still normal, healthy, wonderful kids. They are exploring, growing, blossoming. But it's important to remember that one of our roles as parents is to help guide and mold their behavior, while being careful not to stifle their independence or what makes them special and unique. It certainly isn't always easy to "do it right” with our kids, but with a lot of unconditional love and a small dose of discipline, your kids will turn out just fine!

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