Tag Archives: child rearing

Happy Opposite Day

In honor of Opposite Day (which is today, January 25), this is an excerpt from our How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen book. You can check it out here:


or here:


Here’s the excerpt:

“Opposite Day” is a creative, albeit odd, game played by children around the world (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opposite_Day). Interestingly, this game is often advocated by adults as a means through which children can learn about paradox and inverse relationships. When someone declares, “It’s Opposite Day!” it means that everything stated thereafter holds a meaning directly opposite of the statement’s content. For example, “It’s a beautiful day!” means, “It’s an ugly day!” and “I’m so happy to see you” means “I’m so not happy to see you.” Declaring Opposite Day is complicated, because if it’s already Opposite Day, the declaration is false, which has led some to conclude that declarations of Opposite Day should always begin the day before or just prior to the moment the day begins.

If you’re confused about this, you’re in good company. Although we’re tempted to declare it’s Not Opposite Day, doing so could really mean it is and then we’d have to start emphasizing how much we hope you’re hating this book and how much we hate working with parents and children, and . . . .

More seriously, we bring up Opposite Day primarily because it creatively captures the strong natural tendency for parents to use basic behavior modification principles in ways that are directly opposite to how they should be used. This chapter is designed to help you help parents straighten out—or reverse—their backward behavioral strategies in a child-friendly and parent-friendly manner.

Backward Behavior Modification: Using Boring, Natural, and Logical Consequences and Passionate and Surprise Rewards

As we alluded to in Chapter 4, backward behavior modification is endemic. Not only do parents tend to pay more attention to negative and undesirable behaviors than they do to positive and desirable behaviors, they also tend to do so with greater force or affect—which further complicates the situation. As noted previously, we learned about this complicated problem directly from teenagers who were in trouble for delinquent behaviors (see Chapter 4).

If parents engage in too much anger, yelling, or passion when their children misbehave, several problems can emerge: (1) The child will experience her parent’s passion as reinforcement for misbehavior; (2) the child will feel powerful and in-control of her parent (which is quite strong positive reinforcement); or (3) the parent will feel controlled by the child, or out-of-control, both of which further escalate the parent’s emotional behavior.

To address backward behavior modification problems, we teach parents how to use “Boring Consequences and Passionate Rewards.” The opening case in Chapter 1 is an example of the power of boring consequences. If you recall, the parents of Emma, a very oppositional nine-year-old, reported their “family was about to disintegrate” because of continuous power struggles. However, when they returned for their second consultation session, their family situation had transformed largely as a function of boring consequences. In Chapter 1, we quoted the father’s report on how he found boring consequences to be tremendously helpful. Emma’s mother was similarly positive:

Thinking about and then giving boring consequences helped us see that it was about us and not about our daughter. Before, she would misbehave and we would know she was going to misbehave and so we would go ballistic. Giving boring consequences suddenly gave us back our control over how we reacted to her. Instead of planning to go ballistic, it helped us see that going ballistic wasn’t helping her and wasn’t helping us. It felt good to plan to be boring instead. And the best thing about it was how it made the whole process of giving out consequences much shorter.

The inverse alternative to boring consequences is the practice of passionate rewards. Parents can be encouraged to intentionally pay positive and enthusiastic attention to their children’s positive, desirable, and prosocial behaviors. Passionate rewards include parental responses such as:

  • Applause or positive hoots and hollers
  • Verbal praise (“I am so impressed with your dedication to learning Spanish”)
  • Pats on the back, shoulder massages, and hugs
  • Family gatherings where everyone dishes out compliments

Passionate rewards are especially important for preadolescent children. As you may suspect, because of increased self-consciousness accompanying adolescence, passionate hugs and excessive compliments for a 14-year-old may function as a punishment rather than a reinforcement—especially if the hugging and hooting occurs in front of the 14-year-old’s peers.

Surprise rewards, presuming they’re provided in a socially tactful manner, are extremely powerful reinforcers for children of all ages. For example, with teenagers it can be very rewarding if parents suddenly and without advance notice say something like, “You know, you’ve been working hard and you’ve been so darn helpful that this weekend we’d like to give you a complete vacation from all your household chores or this $20 bill to go out to the movie of your choice with your buddies; which would you prefer?”

Surprise rewards are, in technical behavioral lingo, variable-ratio reinforcements. Across species, this reinforcement schedule has been shown to be the most powerful reinforcement schedule of all. Everyday examples of variable-ratio reinforcement schedules include gambling, golf, fishing, and other highly addictive behaviors where individuals can never be certain when their next response might result in the “jackpot.”

When coaching parents to use surprise rewards (variable-ratio reinforcement schedules), we emphasize that the surprise reward should be viewed as a spontaneous celebration of desirable behavior. Overall, we prefer this informal reinforcement plan over more mechanized sticker charts and reward systems (although we don’t mean to say that these more mechanized systems should never be used; in fact, when children are put in charge of their own reinforcement systems, these systems can be especially effective).


Upcoming Event: Strategies for Influencing Children

Missoula Forum For Children And Youth To Host Parenting Discussion

Oct. 08, 2012


University of Montana counseling Associate Professor John Sommers-Flanagan will lead a community conversation titled “Parents are the No. 1 Influence” from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 16, on the third floor of the University Center. The discussion is presented by the Missoula Forum for Children and Youth in partnership with Missoula Underage Substance Abuse Prevention.

The first of a three-part Community Conversation Series, the discussion will address the importance of parents’ impact on youth. Research indicates that parents are the primary influence on children, including when youth make choices about engaging in risk behavior or experimenting with substance abuse.

“Parenting is a wonderful gift, but it also can be difficult at times,” said Brandee Tyree, MUSAP coordinator with the Missoula Forum for Children and Youth. “John Sommers-Flanagan will give concrete tips on how to influence your child’s behavior for the best. As a community we can support each other as parents, which in return supports our youth in making healthy decisions.”

The event is sponsored by UM, Missoula Indian Center, the Missoulian, St. Patrick Hospital Foundation and Montana Marketing Group. It is free and open to the public, and refreshments will be provided.

The Missoula Forum for Children and Youth and MUSAP work to support and enhance prevention efforts in the community.

For more information call Tyree at 406-721-3000 ext. 1021 or email btyree@co.missoula.mt.us.

Four Roads to Helping Your Children Develop Positive Self-Esteem

Four Roads to Healthier Self-Esteem

This case and the discussion that follows is excerpted from “How to Listen so Parents will Talk.”

Father: I’m a single dad and so I have the job of two parents. It’s hard, but it’s especially hard because I’m a worrier. My girls don’t have a mom around and so I get obsessed about their self-esteem. What can I do to boost their self-esteem?

Consultant: That’s a great question . . . and a big question. But before we talk about the answer, tell me, what sorts of things are you doing now to build their self-esteem?

Father: I compliment them as much as I can. I praise them. I constantly say “I love you.”

Consultant: Can you give me an example of how you compliment them?

Father: Like last night. The girls were coloring and they kept showing me their pictures and I would say, “That’s beautiful!” and “That’s wonderful!” and “You two are great artists.” Stuff like that.

Consultant: I should say first that I think it’s wonderful that you’re so positive with your daughters. I wish more parents were positive like you.

Father: Thanks, but, uh, what else can I do?

Consultant: You’re great at using praise and compliments and that’s really important, but I’ve got other ideas about how to expand your self-esteem-building repertoire.  Can I share a few?

Father: Go for it.

Consultant:  Let’s take the coloring and picture-drawing example. You’re giving out praise and compliments, which is very important. But praise and compliments are what we call “external” or “outside-in” strategies. They build your daughters’ self-esteem from the outside in. You’re the outside expert and you tell them they’re great. There are three other things you could add to that. I’ll describe these three options now, but I have a tip sheet that describes them, too.

First, instead of praising and complimenting, sometimes you could use a technique called “mirroring.” Mirroring is more of an “inside-out” technique for building self-esteem. To use mirroring, you should watch your children and mirror their positive feelings back to them. For example, you could say, “You look really happy about your drawing,” or you could ask a question: “What do you like best about your drawing?” By using these mirroring responses, you’re encouraging your children to judge their own drawings. That’s why we call it an inside-out approach, because it draws out your children’s internal feelings and judgments.

Father: Okay. I think I get that, but what if one of my daughters doesn’t like her drawing—or, even worse, what if she says ‘I hate my drawing’?

Consultant: Good questions. You’re so good at praise, your daughters may be depending on you for their compliments. If one daughter can’t think of anything positive, that’s okay. No need to get worried. We all sometimes produce things we don’t like. But you might try several things. You could just reflect back her feelings and see what happens by saying, “I guess you don’t like this drawing so much.” Or you could push her to identify to positives and negatives with a comment like, “Well, I see something about it I like, but I don’t want to go first. So, first you tell me what you like and then I’ll say what I like.” Or, you could help her focus on her next drawing with empathy and encouragement by saying, “Hmmm. You don’t seem too happy with this drawing. Maybe you’ll like your next one better.” The thing that’s important to remember is that false praise or too much praise doesn’t help your children build self-esteem from the inside out. Pretty soon, they’ll recognize that you always say something positive and they might start wondering if you really mean it.

Father: Okay. I get it.

Consultant: That’s mirroring. The key is to draw out or reflect your child’s judgments. It’s even okay to mirror back if she doesn’t like her drawing. This is part of respecting her judgment. If she doesn’t like the drawing, that’s okay, just reflect that back. You can even move a little bit away from mirroring and if you really like her drawing you can disagree with her and say something like, “I see you don’t like your drawing, but here’s what I like about it.”

Father: All right.

Consultant: The next method after praise and mirroring is character feedback. Character feedback is when you say something like, “You’re the kind of girl who loves to draw.” What you’re doing with this method is you’re making a positive behavior into a character trait. Try that out. Think of a character trait that one of your daughters has and put it into the sentence, “You’re the kind of girl who . . .”

Father: My older daughter likes to keep all her school stuff organized. So would I say, “You’re a girl who’s organized”?

Consultant: Sure. Almost anyway you say it is fine. What you’re doing is helping her build positive character traits so she begins seeing herself as an organized person.

Father: How about my other daughter? She’s very disorganized. Do I tell her, “You’re a disorganized girl”? That doesn’t seem like a good idea.

Consultant: Exactly. When we use character feedback, we almost always use it for positive character traits. With your less organized daughter, you might wait for a time when she displays even a tiny bit of organizational skill and then say, “I notice you can really get organized when you want to.” For character feedback, just think of yourself as a mirror that reflects positive behaviors and forms them into character traits. What’s interesting about this is that most parents, including me, tend to watch for our children’s weaknesses and negative qualities and comment on them. For example, lots of parents and teachers see children misbehaving and can’t resist making comments like, “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you keep your hands to yourself?” or “You’re lying again, aren’t you? You need to get over that lying problem.” Basically, when we repeatedly comment on our children’s negative behaviors we help them construct a more negative character. They end up thinking, “I’m the kind of kid who just keeps getting into trouble.” The magic of character feedback is that we can use it to intentionally construct positive character traits. I know it’s manipulative, but it’s being manipulative in a positive way.

Father: That’s interesting. I do have trouble not commenting when my daughters misbehave. Should I  ignore misbehavior?

Consultant: Not always. We should just focus most of our attention on our children’s positive behaviors and only a little of our attention on the negative behaviors. Sometimes our children need corrective feedback or input. But if we focus too much on the negative, the negative will tend to grow, because it’s getting so much attention.

Father: Okay. I think I get that. You said you have a handout on this, right?

Consultant: Right. And there’s one last method. The last method is called solution-focused questioning. Here’s an example with your less organized daughter. Let’s say she shows a flash of organizational skill. Then, you could ask something like, “Wow. How did you manage to get your school work all organized?” Be careful to be curious and impressed, but not too surprised. You know how some parents will say things like, “Who are you and what have you done with my child?” as a joke. Well, that’s a funny joke, but it plays on the fact that the child is acting in an unusual way. What we want to communicate is that it’s normal for your daughter to be organized when she wants to and so you’re showing curiosity about how she manages to get organized. Solution-focused questions with children almost always ask them to reflect on how they accomplished something positive. For example, you could say: “How did you manage to be honest and tell the truth in that hard situation?” or “How did you figure out how to get that puzzle together?”

Father: Okay. This one is about focusing on solutions.

Consultant: Right. Let’s try one. What’s something one of your daughters did well this past week?

Father: My organized daughter had a terrible tantrum and then apologized to me.

Consultant: That’s great. What would be a solution-focused question?

Father: Um, how about this? “What were you thinking when you decided to apologize?”

Consultant: Yeah. That’s pretty good. But that might feel like you’re investigating or analyzing her thoughts. I might change it a little and throw in a positive character trait, like, “How did you find the courage to come and apologize to me?” That sends her a message that it takes courage to apologize and as long as you agree with that, it might be a nice way to combine a solution-focused question and a little character feedback.

Father: I like that.

Consultant: I should also say that often when we ask solution-focused questions of children they just shrug their shoulders and say, “I don’t know,” which is perfectly fine. The point is that hopefully we’re building into them a tendency to reflect on how they managed to do something that was positive or successful.

Father: Right. I can imagine my daughter saying “I don’t know.”

Consultant: Now, I know we’ve covered a whole lot of ground in the last few minutes, but parenting can be complicated sometimes.

Father: You’re telling me? I’ve got two daughters and pretty soon they’ll be attracting boys and that will be even worse.

Consultant: Yeah. I guess I don’t need to tell you that parenting is complicated, but what I want to say is that I’ve got this tip sheet for you on praise, mirroring, character feedback, and solution-focused questions and you can take it and just try out the ideas we talked about today that are in this tip sheet. Just practice away and see what happens and we can talk about it more next week.

In this case we see the consultant squeezing lots of nuanced parenting information into a brief time period. This is a very educational approach and most likely to work after the practitioner has established a positive working relationship with parents who are in the action stage of Prochaska and DiClemente’s (2005) transtheoretical model. Even in the action stage, most parents can’t absorb all this information at once, which is why tip sheets and homework assignments can be so important.

Although the methods illustrated (praise, mirroring, character feedback, and solution-focused questions) are fairly complex, most parents intuitively understand the differences. These methods are only partly designed to improve parent–child relationships; they’re also good behavior management and self-efficacy-building techniques and so they can be used with parents who are being either too negative or too positive with their children.

You can find the “How to Listen . . .” book at: http://www.amazon.com/How-Listen-Parents-Will-Talk/dp/1118012968/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1345003465&sr=8-1&keywords=how+to+listen+so+parents+will+talk


Parenting Advice: Don’t Say it More than Three Times

A Visit to the Mall

Here’s what a parent of a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old explained when she came in for a consultation:

Parent: My friend invited me and my two kids to meet her and her two-year-old at Bellevue Square for dinner and shopping. I knew better. This friend makes me feel insecure. We met for dinner at this nice café and there’s nothing there my kids will eat. After a while, they start running around the café. I settle them down and we walk around to shop and my five-year-old son is running way ahead and I keep trying to get him to get back with us and he won’t listen. We eventually get to a pet store and my two-year-old is climbing on stuff and my five-year-old is knocking on the pet-cage glass right where it says “Don’t knock on the glass” and he won’t stop. Finally, I drag them both to a bench and make them sit there and I yell at them and they start crying and I’m humiliated and have to carry them both outside to the car and yell at them some more. I was one of those parents you see who has out-of-control children and then goes berserk.

Consultant: So, eventually your kids started listening to you? [Focusing on how the negative behavior sequence finally stops can be revealing.]

Parent: Yes. Because they knew it was over.

Consultant: When you tell that story it reminds me of how kids can sometimes almost read our minds and know when something is really important to us and know when they can take advantage of us by not listening. But then when we somehow make it clear that the fun and games are over, suddenly they get it and cooperate.

Parent: I felt so uncomfortable with my friend and her potty-trained little girl and I couldn’t even come close to controlling my kids. And later that night, when I was talking about it to my 5-year-old, I apologized for yelling and losing my mind and I asked him why he didn’t listen to me and he said, “I listened, I just didn’t do what you said.” I couldn’t believe it!

Consultant: That’s amazing. So, he really did know what was going on.

Parent: He did and he still didn’t cooperate.

Consultant: Can I share some ideas with you?

Parent: Yes. I’d love some ideas!

Consultant: We used to have a parent educator here who taught a class called, “They only listen when I yell . . . and other parenting myths.” The point of the class was exactly what you’ve been talking about. It’s not that our kids only pay attention when we yell, it’s that they only comply when they know we’re completely serious. Tell me, how many times did you have to ask your five-year-old to cooperate before he finally did?

Parent: It had to be twenty times. I was trying to get him to sit down at the café, to come back to us when we were shopping, to stop knocking on the glass at the pet shop, and he would sometimes partly respond and sometimes not at all, until the end, when he sat on the bench and started crying.

Consultant: Here’s what I’m thinking. You already said you set yourself up with this dinner with this friend and her practically perfect two-year-old. I’ll bet somewhere inside you were really wanting to avoid a confrontation with your kids and the embarrassment that goes with it. And they sensed you were a little bit afraid to confront them and afraid to give out firm consequences and so they just chose not to listen or cooperate.

Parent: I know. I know. I don’t even take my two-year-old grocery shopping any more because it’s too much. And obviously they knew I didn’t really want to follow through with any consequences. But what can I do?

Consultant: I have two ideas and the first one will sound really weird.

Parent: Just tell me.

Consultant: This is crazy, but you need to start looking forward to when your children have tantrums or misbehave.

Parent: That is weird.

Consultant: I know, but unless you look forward to it, with confidence that you can handle whatever they do, they’ll sense your dread and fear and they’ll be the ones who are confident they can do whatever they want—like run ahead in the mall and knock on the pet store glass cages—because they sense you’re afraid to stop them.

Parent: Okay. I get it. But I don’t know how I can look forward to a meltdown in the mall.

Consultant: And that’s exactly why we need to develop a nice and clear and practical plan for the next time this sort of thing happens. You need a very simple plan for limit-setting with your children. Because if you have to ask them to cooperate twenty times, they know they don’t have to pay any attention or respect to you—until the twentieth time when you’re yelling and screaming. The plan should have one or two warnings and then a small consequence. For example, in the mall situation, it might have been embarrassing, but the first time your kids didn’t respond to your requests to sit down or walk with you, you could have given a clear warning, something like, “Okay, if you don’t walk with me, then we’ll go outside and spend some time on the bench until you’re ready to come back in.” Then, the second time one of them didn’t cooperate, you’d calmly collect them and take a brief timeout on the bench or in your car. Then, if it happened a third time, you could turn to your friend and say, “I’m sorry, but it looks like my kids aren’t cooperating right now and so I need to take them home.” I know that might have felt embarrassing and awkward, but it would communicate very clearly to your children that you are a serious mom who’s confident in her limits and decisions.

Parent: It wouldn’t have been half as embarrassing as the way things turned out.

In this case, we developed a very simple limit-setting system. It involved three steps:

1.  The first time the children misbehave, give a clear warning.

2.  The second time the children misbehave, take them into a brief and boring timeout from the fun.

3.  The third time the children misbehave, the fun activity ends.

In addition to these three steps, we discussed managing the children’s physical needs by checking if they were hungry, tired, sick, or hurting and planning in advance for outings. We also discussed how she could review with her children, in advance of the outing, exactly what she expected and exactly what would happen (brief public timeout, followed by a disappointing trip back home) if misbehavior occurred. Finally, we suggested that she set up some practice outings where she could quickly and effectively implement the consequences without the pressure of a friend looking on. The purpose of these outings was to practice the plan and demonstrate to her children exactly what would happen if and when public misbehavior occurred.

Overall, this procedure is consistent with what we know from the science of behavioral psychology. As Kazdin (2008) states: “Here’s a rough rule of thumb to go by: if you say it twice (the initial instruction plus one reminder), that’s reminding; if you say it three or more times, you’re nagging and nagging can undermine [your credibility and power]” (p. 172). In addition to Kazdin’s good advice, we like to emphasize to parents that most children are amazingly intuitive—like dogs, they can sense their parents’ fear.

Give Information and then Back-Off: A Choice Theory Parenting Assignment

Parent Homework Assignment 8-1 — From How to Listen so Parents will Talk . . . http://www.amazon.com/How-Listen-Parents-Will-Talk/dp/1118012968/ref=sr_1_8?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1341892854&sr=1-8&keywords=how+to+listen+so+parents+will+talk+and+talk+so+parents+will+listen

Choice Theory Communication Skills Training: How to Provide Information and Then Back Off, Instead of Trying Too Hard to Control Your Child’s Decision Making

As a loving parent, if you’re concerned about your children’s behaviors, you’ll probably have a strong and nearly irresistible impulse to tell them how to live their lives. After all, you’re the adult and they should listen to your excellent advice. You may feel the urge to say:

  • You need to clean your room now because being disorganized and undisciplined is a bad habit that will make your life miserable.
  • Alcohol and drugs are illegal and so if you go out and behave illegally, I’ll call the police and have you ticketed.
  • You need to start caring about your grades at school and that means scheduling time for homework and studying for tests.
  • Swearing is unacceptable in this house and if you do it again, I’ll wash your mouth out with soap.

Unfortunately, as you may recall from your own childhood, when parents are bossy and insistent about how things should be, children often become more stubborn and resistant. Then parents begin to nag and lecture and the pattern of advice-giving and advice-rejection deepens. This assignment is designed to help you communicate important information to your children without starting an all-out power struggle or negative nagging pattern. The following suggestions are appropriate only if the situation isn’t dangerous and you don’t need to jump in and directly and forcefully protect your children:

1. Ask permission. If you have a strong opinion that you’d like your child to hear, try asking permission to share it. Say something like, “Can I share my opinion on this with you?” Then, either your child will say “yes” and you can share your opinion or she’ll say “no” and then you’ll need to accept her boundary (in response to a “no,” you might say, “Okay. Thanks for being honest with me. Let me know if you change your mind” and then walk away).

2. Express your intention not to express your opinion. You could try telling your child, “I have an opinion on this, but I trust that you can work it out, or that you’ll ask me for help if you need it. So I’m going to try to keep my mouth shut for now.” This gives your child the message that you’re trying to respect his ability to work out his own problems. You can also add humor into this or other power-sharing techniques by adding: “You should really appreciate this, because you know how hard it is for me to keep my mouth shut and not give you advice.”

3. Provide your information or opinion and then back off.  If you can’t resist giving your opinion, just do it and then back off and let your child consider your input. The key to this strategy is patience. Undoubtedly, you’ll provide excellent advice and then your child will look like she’s not considering your advice and so you’ll have the urge to repeat your advice over and over until you see action. Instead of falling into this pattern, try saying, “Look. I’ve got an opinion, which you probably already know. But instead of staying quiet, I’m just going to say it and then let you make your own decision on how to handle your situation. It’s your life. You have to make your own decisions. But I love you and can’t stop myself from telling you what I think, so here it is.”

As you probably already know, if you express your opinion you may get a strong emotional response (e.g., “I’m fifteen years old and I can make my own decisions!”). Although this seems weird, if you give lots of advice, your children may see your ideas and opinions as evidence that you don’t believe they’re competent to make their own decisions. This is why you should always express your advice with love and concern; avoid sounding as if your main goal is to control your child’s behavior.

Finally, if the situation is dangerous or potentially so, skip the less direct parenting recommendations listed above and instead think strategically about how to deliver direct advice that will be heeded. You’ll probably need to use a more direct approach than is described here, and you may need to consult with a professional.

More assignments like this and more are in the book, How to Listen so Parents will Talk — http://www.amazon.com/How-Listen-Parents-Will-Talk/dp/1118012968/ref=sr_1_8?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1341892854&sr=1-8&keywords=how+to+listen+so+parents+will+talk+and+talk+so+parents+will+listen

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