Wednesday, March 27, 2013

"Expect kids to behave and they will." What kind of voodoo magic is this? And will it work?

I recently wrote a post asking for help explaining the differences in behavior I've observed between Kenyan and American young children.  I'm not sure I'm a whole lot closer to cracking that particular complicated nut, but what I did get was a ton of wonderful advise on how to humanely "civilize" (for lack of a better word) toddlers and pre-schoolers.

All the comments seem to circle around the following:  Be empathetic to your young child's chaotic internal state; don't say "no" too often, but when you do, mean it!  This is said in a ton of different ways: Pick your battles, give your kids freedom within clear boundaries, allow them to explore but provide a sense of safety....

There's a lot of wisdom there and I see the same applied here in Kenya. My neighbor said something to the same affect recently about there being a lot of leeway for small kids, but when it comes to some things which are important, like greetings, parents are consistent and stern.

But there was something else that kept coming up in comments that I've heard throughout my life as a parent and which continues to mystify me.  It is: "Expect your children to behave, and they will."

WHAT IS THIS?  It seems like some kind of wishful thinking voodoo.

Still, being a desperate parent, I've actually tried it, in a "clandestinely trying to telepathically hypnotise my child into good behavior" kind of way.  I'll just visualize a positive response to a request (e.g. pick up your toys). As I'm visualizing the good behavior, I'll even change the way my voice sounds, breezy and casual as if OF COURSE you pick up your toys, hoping that the mystical positive vibrations in my voice will reach his core chakra and gently guide him to make the "good choice."   I may even telepathically send the message "You are a good boy.  You will pick up your toys and make your mother happy." just for good measure.

Is this what you people mean?  If so, I'm not sure it's working.  He mainly just looks at my clearly false serenity, scratches his head, and may or may not do my bidding.

Still, amid my mocking of this "expect good behavior" advise, I had the nagging sensation that I had heard this before.  And then I remembered.  

In my former life I did research on programs that support "disconnected youth" (formerly known as "delinquents" in less polite circles).  These are young adults who are not in school or working and may have cycled in and out of foster care and might even be homeless.  They are kids that most adults have given up on and who have the deck stacked against them. They probably frustration people who love them the same way young children do.

My job was to figure out how the programs who had the best success reaching these youth were doing it.  We interviewed dozens of these places, and do you know what kept coming up again and again?  Yup. "Expect good behavior."

But with older kids who are used to being distrusted and treated like criminals it's easy to think about how to realign this.  Give them more responsibility than they think they can handle, and show them you know they can do it.  Don't start off the relationship by talking about what they aren't allowed to do or what will happen if they break the rules.  Don't react to transgressions as if you expected them to make them.  Don't act too surprised when they act correctly.  Proud but not surprised.  .

OK.  So, maybe this is it!   Maybe the same applies for the little ones.  And maybe the way you say things does matter.  Like yelling, "Jesus Chrsto, Caleb if you do that one more time...."  could become a calm, "You know better.  But if I see that again I'm going to have to..."  

I'm sure there are a bunch of ways this can manifest itself without having to consult a shaman. Now, I'm just going to have to figure those out.  Your ideas, as always, are welcome!
Just a cute pic of Caleb.  Because he's truly a kind, sensitive, funny kid who's generous with his friends, and I've been overly focused on his periods of defiance and tantrums in the last few posts.
See what I'm doing here?

12 comments:

  1. This was what I observed in France, but I never said I figured out how it works :) In reality I think it goes hand in hand with the "firm boundaries but loose within those boundaries" and the trust principles. I think if thtere was a place in the world that had it all figured out, we would know. But because every child is different, we each do what we can and hope for the best...

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    1. Totally agree! Each child is different so once we have something partially figured out with one it doesn't mean it's gonig to work for the second. I've just been searching for some generally guiding principle and I think it's what you said "firm boundaries but loose within those boundaries." That's what I'm going for for now... ; )

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  2. No great answers for you here but I love the idea and I do think there is some truth to it. I'm sure our kids are already living up to our expectations in a multitude of ways but since that is what we expect of them we don't notice it as much as the areas we need to work on.

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    1. That's a great point. Maybe we're just not focusing on all the things they are doing because we've written it off as what they are "expected" to do.

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  3. I think we sometimes expect too much from our children. To "behave" every single moment they are with us. And then: define "behave"...there's a wide array from "not to be heard, not moving, so that nobody notice their presence" to "do whatever you want just let me do my things". It depends on the culture and on our very personal expectations. Children do need to have "space" (like we all do!) and boundaries, of course (for their own and our sake), but they need also to know when it's time for example, like you said, to tidy up. It's all in the way we talk to them. If we say 100 times "tidy up", they won't even hear the message, they might only here a strange sound (I call it mama-sound, and every child doesn't pay attention to that sound if it hears it too often). So, what to do? To make them listen and understand is not easy. It depends on their age, yes, but basically it's about the way we talk to them. And this, again, is a very personal thing (in some cultures you speak with a loud(er) voice, in others this is considered rude etc.). I could write for hours on this subject. I've published a post on my blog about listening. As about a way to communicate with children and make them make choices (yes, even when it comes to tidy up), I've liked the "Love and Logic" approach. It gives us parents enough inner distance (to stay calm) and to our children the opportunity to choose. It takes some time to get into this routine, but it worked with my kids.

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    1. So many people have found success in the "love and logic" approach. I also like the positive parenting approach (especially Becky Bailey). At first I though her book "easy to love, difficult to discipline" was weirdly self-helpy, but I've come to realize that you can't really reach a child unless you have yourself under control. And lord knows half the battle is keeping yourself under control when you're harried and sleep deprived. So that's at least half the battle, right?

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  4. All I can think of is how I wanted to smack B. F. Skinner when I read his theory that only positive reinforcement ever be used with children (and people, in general). I'm sorry, but clearly the man never had a four-year-old unexpectedly hang all 35 pounds of herself off the neck of his shirt (exposing his boobs in his bra) in public while screaming, "POO POO PEE PEE!!!" and laughing like an imbecile at the top of her voice 2" from his face.

    There's no way not to lose your shit when that happens.

    When that happens, I'm a firm believer in bodily removing said child and snarling at her that if she ever does anything remotely like that again, you'll throw out the entire contents of her room, including the furniture.

    But I have a really weird relationship with my offspring.

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    1. Hilarious! Yes. All this stuff is terrific in theory. Real life is a lot more messy, and as much as you focus on the positive the negative will come up and bite you on the ass (or expose your breasts in public...)

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  5. I agree with Ute- I don't even like to say that the children "behave", since I associate it with "being told what to do and doing it". I do, however, ask them to help me or their sisters etc. And, no, I don't get good results all the time. I believe that whatever you'll choose as your parenting method won't work all the time. We change. Children change, situations change. Which means that we have to adapt our methods. Also, children are not machines- it's not "press that button, child will behave". For me, it's always finding ways to understand my child and trying to accomodate their needs- and mine.

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    1. So true! I guess that's why parenting is an art and a constant challenge and so much instinct. And why it's hard to simply pick a parenting philosophy and stick tooth and nail to it. They change, we change, the same thing doesn't always work in different contexts.

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  6. Hi, Kim. You probably came across the classic Rosenthal/Jacobson study in your "disconnected youth" research (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pygmalion_in_the_Classroom). So there is some evidence that expectations really do matter. It's why I value the Baha'i principle of seeing the good in others so highly. But I don't think anyone on this planet expects this approach to have immediate effects in a specific situation, nor do I believe that this means ignoring bad behavior from children (although responding to such behavior is a different matter - back to your recent posts). Beyond that, I claim only the kind of expertise that comes from making many parental mistakes myself, as someone close to you can probably testify. :)

    Thanks for sharing more of your questions and insight.

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    1. Thanks for the link! And I agree. Focusing on the behavior you want more of just makes sense and seems to be the gentler and more affective approach because you're not locking horns as much. I don't think any of this stuff is mutually exclusive. You can focus on the positive at the same time you give consistent consequences for the negative stuff. I'm not terrific at either (as someone you know might also testify. ; ))

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