When our kids are driving us crazy it’s easy to get locked into negativity. They’re being terrible, we’re trying to get them to quit being terrible, which often causes us to also act terribly and then we’re all being terrible with and at each other and that’s where many people are by the time they land in my office.
When this happens, one of the best things parents can do is to look for times their kids are being good and then praise the heck out of them. (Even if they’re not being all that good.)
To explain how this works, let’s use Goofus (as in Goofus and Gallant) as our example. Do you remember them? They’re from Highlights Magazine and Gallant does all the good stuff and Goofus is just plain rotten. (As a kid I didn’t really like either of them because Gallant was so good he made the rest of us look bad and Goofus seemed like the kind of boy I wanted to avoid during recess.)
For absolutely understandable reasons, Goofus’s parents are likely pretty sick of parenting him. Per Highlights:
- Goofus barrels through people in the way and bosses them around.
- Goofus is rude when responding to others’ ideas.
- Goofus uses his book with dirty hands.
- Goofus berates the bus when he misses it.
- Goofus yells when he can’t get what he wants.
- Goofus takes the last apple.
Man, Goofus, seriously. GET. IT. TOGETHER.
What all this means is that Goofus’s parents probably sound like this all of the time:
- Watch where you’re going!
- We do not talk that way in this family!
- Stop touching that!
- What is wrong with you?!?
- Go to your room!
- Put that back!
Given his track record, it’s no wonder Goofus’s parents are always steeling themselves for yet another Goofus screw up. They’re behind him before he’s done anything wrong saying, “Careful! Watch it! You better clean that up when you’re finished!” and he’s got it in his head that he’s a lousy person, someone who does mess up all of the time so why even bother?
Seeing as we’re the ones with fully developed frontal lobes, it’s up to us parents to disrupt the pattern. Goofus’s parents are the ones who have to help themselves (and help Goofus) see him as someone who can and will do better. And often this starts with finding ways to say, “Good job!”
When Goofus grabs his book with dirty hands his parents could ignore the urge to tell him to go wash up and instead say, “Goofus, you are such a great reader!” (Unless the book is a priceless edition or belongs to someone else, it can always be replaced so ignore the grubbiness for the sake of paradigm changing.)
Of course some things demand intervention — safety issues, for example. Parents can’t ignore it when Goofus (per one Highlights example) brings glass into the pool area but because they’ve learned to let go of things like dirty hands on books, Goofus is more likely to listen. First they can say, “I love the way you pay attention to your thirst signals, Goofus! That’s a smart thing to do in hot weather” before adding, “But let’s get a plastic cup to be sure you stay safe.”
Some days it’s a lot harder because some days Goofus is probably even more awful than usual. On those days, parents can and should find any little way to praise him. Even if it’s just, “I really appreciate the way you walked across the room there, buddy, without bopping your brother on the head.”
Goofus’s parents need to start looking for the good in him and pointing it out so that Goofus can start finding the good in himself. This can be really hard to do if you’re locked on molding your kid to be more like Gallant — it can feel like you’re allowing mayhem into your home if you’re not offering lots of correction. But you know that “be the change you want to see” quote? You need to SEE the change you want your kid to be before it ever happens.
Trust me, most kids know when they’re being rotten and they would like to find another way to be but they either don’t know how, or feel stuck in the immediate gratification or they think that’s the best way to get their parents to put all eyes on them.
Goofus’s parents need to see it for him. They need to ignore the filthy socks on the floor and instead say, “Thanks for changing your socks everyday.” They need to download one of those “100 Ways to Say Good Job” posters and memorize it so they have a whole bunch of phrases at the ready.
Now this is not empty praise; it’s finding new things to praise. It’s changing the atmosphere between parent and child and finding new ways to interact. It takes time to create a new way to be and it can be scary. It can feel downright neglectful not to call your kid out whenever he does something wrong so it’s important that both parents get in on the plan and have a clear idea about what’s non-negotiable (safety) and what they’re willing to ignore for the sake of building back a positive relationship.
For kids who are really entrenched, I think it makes sense to find a therapist. Many of the children I see who are acting out are struggling with other issues — anxiety, low self esteem, etc. It’s not fun to be Goofus, at least not all of the time.