“Am I naughty?” The little boy with dark brown eyes and generous eyelashes would ask every now and then. His asking, was not necessarily related to any misdeeds; he was just trying to make conversation.
At 8 years old, even with cerebral palsy he was the most charming little person you would ever meet. He would look up to you with wide eyes and a warm gap-toothed smile and say “I love your hair” or “I love your nose” and your heart would melt in an instant. However, when he was angry, he would have been a match for the Incredible Hulk. A dark shadow would form around his eyes and the corners of his mouth would be turned up in a scowl. His cheeks seemed to radiate with heat and a swift back hand would be flung at an unsuspecting victim. A kick or two would also be thrown in your direction. Would I say he was naughty? No. You see, children are not naughty. Wait! Before you crucify me, let me finish…. Children are not naughty, I repeat, but children do naughty things.
The fact that children do naughty things is a good thing because those naughty things are behaviours that we can pin point and describe. What is the good news you ask? Behaviour can be changed! At this point, I should drop the mic and walk away but I won’t.
Behaviour can be changed because behaviour is learned; ergo, it can be unlearned. The question then is how do we learn positive behaviour and unlearn negative behaviour? The answer is in the consequences. Let me give you a classic example, what would happen if, you said hello to your neighbour and they did not respond? On day one, (depending on your personality) you would excuse your neighbour and say “perhaps he/she woke up on the wrong side of the bed.” But what if the same thing happens for three more days? As much as I would like to believe there are some really patient people from amongst us, I tend to think a majority of us would say “three strikes and you’re out baby!” Conversely, we say hello to people who say hello back because it is reinforcing. When you flash your sunniest smile and get an equally enthusiastic smile, it makes you feel good and you want that moment to replicate itself over and over again.
The same thing applies to children. When a child behaves in a certain way, the consequence of that behaviour determines whether he/she will repeat the behaviour. One of the things I learnt when I was working with children with special needs is that the range of things that can be used as renforcers* for children are as wide as the earth. You have said, “Baraka don’t do that!” with your arched eye brows and your most stern voice (maybe even a yell) so many times and he still does it? Why? There is something that is reinforcing that behaviour and it may be the stern voice with the arched eye brows. Baraka might find it amusing unbeknownst to you. So, what do we do? We shift focus to the positive things our little ones do. As a mother, I can tell you that, that is easier said than done. But we have to try and hopefully we will succeed. This requires that we be proactive and take notice when our children do positive things and make a big deal out of it, nay a huge deal.
I am talking about praising your child with intense positive feeling. Think woohoo! Yay! And Hurray!
As we shift our focus to the positive things our kids do it is paramount that we praise the specific behaviour. “Good boy” or “good girl” does not cut the mustard. Instead, go for “hurray, you are sitting so well”; “good tidying your toys” and with hands clapping “well done for finishing your food!” The more your child receives praise for the specific good deed she has done, the more she will want to repeat the deed. It will no doubt feel weird and unnatural the first couple of times you give specific praise but with practice, it will be embedded into your speech. When our children do negative things, we need to correct them without overreacting. Like I said, the range of reinforcers is very wide and some children just love the attention that comes with mummy breathing fire over their misdeeds. The child is probably thinking (unconsciously) “the only time I get such strong emotion is when mummy is upset so let’s do this again.” On the other hand, if the negative deeds get a negative consequence with neutral emotion, then the allure of repeating the misdeed will dissipate.
In conclusion, your child is not naughty, they just engage in naughty behaviour. Behaviour can be learned or unlearned through positive or negative consequences. We need to focus on our children’s positive behaviour and give lots of specific praise when it occurs. And finally, let’s not give too much attention to negative behaviour because negative attention is still attention. So let us praise our children into behaving better.
*reinforcer – an object or action that causes a behaviour to occur again.