Bag of Tricks

By Sara Teichman, Psy.D.

Are your children basically good kids who happen to drive you crazy when they want something? Or, perhaps they are better with your husband and, wouldn’t you know it, angels in school.

Let me guess. This is what it sounds like…..

Your five-year-old whines and nags until he gets it [Shabbat cereal, a new toy, whatever]. Lots of kids do that, but this is over the top. He can go on all day! And even in public places like the market. You try very hard not to give in, but it really gets on your nerves and it is so embarrassing.

Your eight-year-old daughter does not carry on but is not above lying. She will tell you “Daddy said…” or “Morah insists.” She will deny taking a cookie or breaking her brother’s toy.

You start to wonder: how do we get this stuff to stop?

Well, to get it all to stop, we have to first understand what is going on. For the sake of this article, I am going to assume that we are talking about children who do not have any physical or mental challenges that complicate the picture. Let’s assume that they are basically typical kids with some unpleasant behaviors.

As every young mother knows, each baby is born with a different temperament and different reactions. Their environment and interactions with their parents mold these reactions and create a pattern of behavior. What I am saying here is what you already know: we are not born behaving in any particular way, but rather learn how to behave from the way our environment and close relationships impact on our being.

Each one of us learns “a bag of tricks” to get us to our goal. Even as adults, we may be polite and respectful or dishonest and manipulative. We may criticize harshly or flatter shamelessly. Somehow, we develop a go-to strategy to maneuver through life, but, as we move forward we can, and, hopefully, do recalibrate and modify our script. We may decide to be more assertive, or less aggressive rather than passive or confrontational. In short, we give up some of our tricks and pick up some others instead.

Well, let’s apply this to our children. Somewhere down the road, they picked up some negative behaviors. I would guess that they even know that what they are doing is wrong, unpleasant, and damaging to their relationship with their parents. After all, they have seen our reactions, which more than likely includes some harsh words and/or negative consequences. So, why do they hold on to this bag? The answer is simple: because it works!

In all fairness, because they are so young, they simply don’t what to do instead. In their immature minds, they need their bag in order to meet their wants and needs. It is our job as parents to help them learn more prosocial strategies.

Why our children picked up this bag is not as important as getting them to drop it. For the curious, behavior that is reinforced lasts. I would guess that some of the whining does its trick, maybe when we were too distracted to put an end to it. So, for example, when your son begs for chips on the check-out line, you may have simply given in. But kids are smart. If a little kvetching begets chips, imagine what a whole onslaught might bring?! With each incident, the stakes are higher and the behavior is more firmly reinforced.

Similarly, I would bet that your eight-year-old daughter knows that she is lying and simply manipulating to get her needs or wants to be met. Eight-year-olds know the difference between fact and fiction. Why learn negotiating skills when she can simply create a scenario that gets her what she wants?

At this point, it’s time for a change. Change is a gradual process and needs our direction, but it can be done.

Begin by identifying what needs to change. Be limited and specific. Target one clear area. More important than saying what has to stop is saying what has to happen now.

Ask for whatever with a nice voice.

Tell me what really happened [not a made-up story].

Once the desired behavior is clear to your child (i.e. he knows what is expected of him), follow the two principles of behaviorism to make it stick:

Ignore- Easier said than done, but ignore other non-targeted behaviors when possible so that the focus is on what has to happen now. Also ignore small lapses. Remember, change is a gradual, not an all-or-nothing practice. 

Moishe starts off by begging and whining for a prize in the market but then stops short. He doesn’t exactly say “please,” but he does remember to finish in a quieter voice. Moishe has learned something; you can afford to ignore his opening shot.

Use positive reinforcement- We all learn best when rewarded. We work for pay, dress up for compliments, and study for a good grade. When a behavior is rewarded enough times, it becomes second nature. Positive reinforcement for good behavior pays off.

Every time Rikki tells it like it is- no embellishment, drama, or manipulation- she gets a big smile, compliments, and sometimes even a treat or prize. Eventually, she will learn that honesty does pay. 

What I described here is an outline of how we can help our children change. Obviously, there are many small steps and actions involved in the execution of this plan, far more than can be enumerated in this article. I encourage my readers to continue to seek answers by joining a parent group, reading articles and books, and listening to lectures. Change can happen, and it is for us to figure out the best ways to cause it.

Dr. Sara Teichman, formerly of Los Angeles, has moved to Lakewood, New Jersey where she maintains a psychotherapy practice. She can be reached at 323 940 1000.

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