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Help your child make the best choices

Recently, I attended a presentation on good parenting. The presenter was experienced, skilled and respected in the area of behaviour therapy with children. He knew his stuff and was deliberately provocative. “Some people think this stuff is fascist,” he said. “I’d like to hear what you think.”

The central theme of the talk was that parents know best, should be in charge and should offer children minimal choice. When it comes to a showdown, parents should crunch through. The rationale behind this behaviourist theme is that in order for children to become secure, contented and responsible adults, they must learn that they cannot always get their own way in life.

As a parent, educator and psychologist, I am not anti-behaviourist. I have no argument with helping children understand that life is full of give and take, and that, overall, kids feel good when they look after other’s needs as well as their own. Similarly, I have no argument with the notion that, because children need care and protection, adults must be in charge in terms of, for example, insisting that children wear seatbelts and stopping them from running onto busy roads, falling off cliffs and climbing over the fence to pat the tigers.

However, being in charge does not include telling children what to think or forcing healthy children to eat. What disturbs me about hard-line behaviourism is it fails to recognise the critical importance of offering children choice and of helping them learn how to make good choices.

Knowing how to be a responsible adult does not arrive on one’s 18th birthday; it’s achieved gradually over years of practice in making choices both good and bad.


Accidental training

Refusing to go to bed, throwing tantrums, swearing at teachers, calling out in class, hitting people or setting the curtains alight are some of the behaviours that can drive parents and teachers to responses ranging from mild annoyance to thoughts of infanticide, from vague concern to stomach-churning dread about where it will all lead. The wide spectrum covered by difficult behaviours suggests parents need to tailor their response to suit the particular situation.

Behaviourists point out how all parents and teachers are prone, accidentally or inadvertently, to training children (and others) to behave badly. For example, to repeatedly say to three-year-old Lucy, “No, you can’t have that” and then, because she has thrown herself into a raging tantrum in the supermarket, say “All right then, you can have it” is to accidentally train Lucy to take on tantrum-throwing as her life’s work.

To say “No” to a puppy yet do nothing to stop it leaping up on strangers is to accidentally train it to ignore you when you say “no”. To pick up after your partner because you are sick of nagging is to accidentally train your partner to leave stuff around for you to pick up.

Behaviourists explain how such accidental training occurs, ways of avoiding doing it and ways of undoing it, and most good parenting approaches make use of these behavioural principles. However, hard-line behaviourists sometimes inadvertently create problems because of the way they go about things. Just as parents want to avoid accidentally training children to do things they don’t want them to do, similarly they want to avoid creating unnecessary resentment. Resentment can come from feeling slighted or insulted, from feeling less than fully regarded as human beings with needs, desires and a mind of our own. If children sense that parents expect little of them or expect them to behave irresponsibly, they tend to resent it.

A few years of repeated experiences of feeling less than fully regarded can lead a child to believe that trying to do the right thing by others isn’t worth the effort, because, “They don’t think I’m any good, anyway”. Being told repeatedly (not just occasionally), “Do as I say because I say it” gradually diminishes children’s confidence in their ability to make reasoned choices of their own about how to behave appropriately. It might bring about compliance, but at what cost?

There are ways of helping children become cooperative that don’t entail such costs. Generally, it’s better for parents to respond to children’s behaviour in a way that both solves the problem and minimises shame and embarrassment. Shame and hurt fuel resentment and hostility; kids feel badly enough about their own mistakes without parents rubbing it in.

“People learn these things by themselves,” said the presenter. Yet the evidence is that most do not. As a university teacher, I faced the task of helping 20-year-olds find the courage and wherewithal to think for themselves. That the vast majority of my students had been taught (accidentally, one hopes) to lose faith in their own capacity to think and to make informed choices made my job that much more difficult. They had become comfortable with their reliance on others authority to tell them what to do and they recoiled from taking responsibility for making their own decisions for fear of failing.

In my work in schools, I saw the early dynamics of this accidental training. Time after time, group after group of primary and secondary students looked at me blankly when I asked them to tell me what they thought about the topic or issue at hand. Their eventual response was always a variation on the theme of, “What do you mean what do we think? How do we know what we think? Nobody has ever asked us that before. Nobody has ever given a toss about what we think.”

Behavioural principles are of enormous use to me in my practice as an educator and psychologist, but I am troubled by the hard-line view that parents should give children little choice. After all, it is by being offered choice within appropriate limits that children learn what it means to make informed choices, act responsibly and consequently grow up to become informed and responsible citizens. Does a community really need its citizens trained in knee-jerk obedience to authority? What about when authority happens to be misguided, behind the times, acting out of self-interest alone or just plain wrong? I also find it troubling because parents who are feeling bad about not knowing how to deal with their children’s difficult behaviour are particularly vulnerable to accepting simplistic solutions that promise to put them firmly in control. Whenever people feel unsure about what to do, they’re prone to seduction by the idea of simple, no-nonsense, guaranteed solutions.

Some hard-liners describe those who disagree with their views as pussyfooting around with or confusing children and wasting time explaining or negotiating. The implication is that dissenters are misguided rather than seeing things differently. It is true that some parents realise a little late in the piece that they have become entangled in an endless round of Whys and What Ifs, when all they wanted was for three-year-old Ty to go to bed. However, its not true that the only or best alternative is the “Do as I say because I say it”instruction.

Think about the difference it makes to Ty if his caregiver gives him this choice: You can go to bed now and I’ll come and read you a story, or you can have your story here and then go to bed. Which would you prefer? It’s not much of a choice for a child of 10, but it is an important choice for a three-year-old.

In addition, although I cannot be sure, even my two dogs seem to have learned about simple consequence statements such as, “Walk with me or you go on the lead”.

The right balance

  • Yes, it is better to offer sensible, immediate and age-appropriate (or species-appropriate) choices.
  • Yes, it is better to keep the negotiations brief and to the point and to guard against being sucked into the void.
  • Yes, it is better to draw clear lines in the sand and to follow up broken agreements with consequences.

That way, little by little, day by day, children learn that adults have regard for them and their needs and desires, and they are able to learn to balance their needs with the needs of others and make appropriate choices. Parents don’t want to accidentally deprive children of both opportunities and help to practise becoming what they want to become competent and self-regulating persons.

Adolescents who have been thus deprived and who suddenly find themselves in an adult world where almost everything depends on knowing how to make informed choices, can be overcome with despair or rage. Other luckier ones muddle through, often with the help of a mentor or two. Some never learn to think for themselves; rather, they seek out authority figures of one kind or another to follow, or partners who will decide everything for them.

The fortunate ones are those who, from the cradle, learned at their own pace, in their own time and through the opportunities, challenge, encouragement, support and guidance given by their caregivers how to make good decisions. What about the kids who are really hard to deal with, you might ask. Don’t they just need to be told, not offered choice? It goes without saying that children’s violent or coercive behaviour must be stopped. Children ought never to have a choice of behaving coercively, but it is to misinterpret the notion of choice to imagine that we would offer them such a choice.

In relation to children’s inappropriate behaviour, parents can design the choice to maximise the likelihood of a productive outcome, in terms of both stopping the behaviour and the child learning what it means to act responsibly. As a teacher, I learned how to use choice productively in some tough situations including violence, extortion, cruelty, bullying and theft. At no time did offering choice allow the problematic behaviour to continue.

If children break their agreements to stop the behaviours, the caregivers must enforce the consequences. If they do not, they will accidentally train children to ignore them. Choice can be of the type: “Do you want to stay here and behave appropriately or do you want to spend the rest of the period with the principal?” or of lesser or greater moment.

The whole point of choice-oriented approaches is that children learn to accept responsibility for the choices they make and the consequences of breaking an agreement. After all, to learn how to make good choices and accept reasonable consequences is at the heart of caring for our own health and wellbeing and of being responsible participants in democratic institutions, as opposed to being pawns in the hands of dictators.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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