Montana Parenting Homework, Part II: Backward Behavior Modification


Parent Homework Assignment 9-1

Backward Behavior Modification

One amazing thing about parenting is how easy and natural it is to do things backward. For example, imagine your 7th-grader comes home with a report card that has five A’s, one B, and one C. If you’re like most parents, you’ll take a quick look and say something like, “Why’d you get that C?” or, “How can you raise that B to an A?”

Even though these questions make excellent sense, they’re in direct violation of a very basic principle of human behavior. That principle is: Whatever you pay the most attention to will tend to grow and whatever you ignore will tend to shrink. Despite this powerful principle, our human and parental tendency is almost always to pay close attention to the F’s and C’s in life, while only offering a passing glance at the A’s.

Another version of the same problem happens with parents who have two or more children. Your children may coexist very nicely together 60 percent of the day and fight like cats and dogs for the other 40 percent. Unfortunately, in that situation the natural tendency is to give almost all your attention to your children when they fight and very little attention to them when they’re playing nicely.

The consequence of violating this basic principle is:

  • Your 7th-grader feels his efforts are underappreciated and becomes less motivated.
  • Your children, sensing that they can get more of your attention by fighting than from playing together nicely, may begin fighting even more.

Our first point with this homework assignment is to reassure you that it’s perfectly natural to pay more attention to “bad” behavior than “good” behavior. But, it’s equally true that even though paying too much attention to bad behavior is natural—it’s not helpful because it can become a reward for bad behavior.

Our second point is that you should work very hard to:

Pay more attention to your children when you like what they’re doing than you do when you don’t like what they’re doing.

Or, better yet, try this:

When giving out consequences, be boring, but when giving out rewards, be passionate.

I had this lesson driven home to me many years ago. While doing therapy with teenagers who were in trouble for delinquent behavior, they started telling me how much satisfaction they got from making their parents angry. When I asked about this, they said things like, “I love it when my dad’s veins start sticking out of his neck” or “It’s cool when I can get my mom so mad that she spits when she talks.”

Keep these images in mind the next time your child does something that gets under your skin. Then, instead of a long lecture complete with bulging veins and spitting, be short and boring. Use a monotone to say something like: “I don’t like it when you do that.”

Then, when your child comes home on time, or gets an A, or plays nice with her brother, or makes an intelligent comment about virtually anything—that’s when you should launch into a passionate and positive lecture—complete with bulging veins and spittle.*

*These rules may not hold perfectly for your unique child. For example, some teens may not like much positive attention. That’s why you’re the best judge of whether a particular parenting strategy will work with your child. We’re also kidding about the spittle; that’s hardly ever a good thing to see.

To look at the book this blog is based on, go to: http://www.amazon.com/How-Listen-Parents-Will-Talk/dp/1118012968/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1341534736&sr=8-1&keywords=how+to+listen+so+parents+will+talk

 

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