Posted tagged ‘discipline’

What can be learn from vending machines and casinos to stop childhood whining?

December 19, 2016

The Pediatric Insider

© 2016 Roy Benaroch, MD

Megan, like all parents, hates the whining and nagging:

It’s driving me crazy. My children whine and complain until they get what they want. I try not to give in, but sometimes it’s just impossible. What can I do?

(That’s an excerpt from a much longer message. You get the idea.)

Let’s look at whining from a classic behavioral approach. Stay with me, here – behavioral theory is a big part of why we do the things we do, children and adults alike. It’s worth understanding.

What we’re talking about here is called “operant conditioning.” Basically, whether people continue to do something depends on the consequences. If complimenting your spouse gets you a friendly smile or peck on the cheek, you’ll keep doing it (assuming you like smiles and kisses.) If your child’s whining means she gets what she wants, she’ll keep doing that, too. A related term is “positive reinforcement” – that’s a reward or benefit that comes after a behavior. Positive reinforcements (giving a child exactly what she wants) make it more likely that the behavior (whining) will happen again.

So: step one of dealing with whining (or many other undesirable behaviors) is to remove the positive reinforcement. But there’s a twist, here – it turns out that the schedule of the positive reinforcers can change how well it works. This might not be intuitive, but it turns out that regular, always-given, predictable positive reinforcements are not as lasting or powerful as irregular, unpredictable, changing positive reinforcers.

Think about vending machines and casinos. With a vending machine, you always get exactly what you ordered (assuming the stupid thing isn’t broken – there’s an interesting behavioral lesson about that situation, too, but we’ll save that for another time.) People who get things from vending machines are positively reinforced, but they don’t typically crave vending machines. And: when the positive reinforcement ends (say, for 1 or 2 times you don’t get your bag of Funyuns), you’ll quickly stop using the vending machine.

But at a casino, you don’t know what your reward will be, or even if you’ll get one. In fact, most of the time, you get nothing at all. But that kind of reinforcement, the “sometimes-surprise” schedule, reinforces the behavior even more effectively. Think about people pumping money into slot machines, only to get occasional, unpredictable rewards.

Let’s come back to whining. If you reinforce the whining sometimes, or in an unpredictable way (“Here! Just have the whole bag of lollopops!”), you’ll unintentionally be encouraging the behavior even more than if you always said “yes.” If Megan is serious about stopping the whining, she has to stop reinforcing it, and shouldn’t give in. Ever.

What about punishment to stop whining? A punishment is an action you take after the behavior, a consequence that’s designed to stop the behavior. It turns out that behavioral studies in animals, children, and adults show that punishment is typically only temporarily effective. Yelling at your child for whining, or restricting privileges, or some other punishment – none of these will work well. That’s like the vending machine giving you a bag of stale chips. You’ll be mad, and might avoid the vending machine for a few days, but you’ll be back. Or, imagine, if a casino sometimes just took your money away from you. That’s a valid punishment, but it doesn’t really change a behavior as well as completely stopping the positive reinforcements (in a casino, the occasional big payouts.) If the punishment of losing money at casinos actually worked, they’d all be out of business.

Sometimes, there’s more to whining than just behavior and consequences. I’d consider the child’s development and communication skills, and overall parenting style, expectations, mental health, resource scarcity — lots of things beyond behavioral theory. But a straight-up behavioral approach is sometimes the simplest, best way to get children to stop with the whining. And if it works, Megan owes me a trip to Vegas. Or at least a bag of Funyuns.

Red wine pouring into wine glass, close-up

Red wine pouring into wine glass, close-up

Five tools to teach your child to behave

January 30, 2013

The Pediatric Insider

© 2013 Roy Benaroch, MD

Young children are naturally petulant, noisy, and self-centered. We’re all born with ourselves in the center of the universe, an impression reinforced by parents who must cater constantly to their young babies. But babies become toddlers, and toddlers become children. Sometime during this transition, parents have to teach their children that they are part of a family. For a family to function and thrive there must be rules and expectations for everyone to follow.

There are no “magic solutions” to every behavior problem, and there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. Different kids and different parents have their own personalities and quirks, and what works well for one family might not work for everyone. However, I think there are still some basic tools that are essential for any family to use. The exact way you use these may depend on your situation, but teaching children to behave is going to include all of these ideas:

  1. Love. Children must feel loved and secure. Without an atmosphere of love and support, parents cannot teach their children anything.
  2. Clarity. Children will only learn rules if they’re applied clearly and consistently.
  3. Modeling. Parents should demonstrate good behavior, and also show kids what to do when their own behavior isn’t perfect.
  4. Rewards. Friendly words and encouragement, along with occasional and unexpected tangible rewards, are the best way to reinforce good behavior.
  5. Punishment. Some parents think discipline is only about punishment. That’s a mistake. Relying on punishments alone will not lead to long-term success. But parents should use effective punishments as one way to discourage bad behavior—along with the other 4 items on this list.

How should parents apply these five principles? There really are endless ways. I’m going to cover all of them in a little more detail, and give you some ideas to get started. Have you found other ways to teach your children? Please share in the comments!

Love

I know you love your children. No one’s doubting how you feel. But love, here, isn’t about what the parents feel inside—it’s about how parents act, most of the time, and how children perceive how their parents feel. To put it bluntly: if your child feels like he’s in the doghouse most of the time, you’re not going to be able to use discipline tools effectively. Too much yelling and criticizing (even if Junior “deserves it”!) undermines progress.

If there’s a lot of negativity flowing around your house—if you’re criticizing and correcting all day long– try this method to get back on track: Magic Time. It works best for preschoolers, and is especially potent and helpful when you bring a new baby sibling home. Bonus: it’s not actually any extra work! It’s just a little extra psychology.

Magic time is a set period of time, usually fifteen minutes, where one parent must focus entirely on the child. It must begin with a special announcement—a parent looks at a clock and says, “Hey! It’s time for magic time!” For the next fifteen minutes, that parent can do nothing but play with the child. Mom or dad should show with body language that they’re really engaged—lean toward the child, and use touch to stay connected. No interruptions of magic time are allowed. After fifteen minutes, magic time has to end. An announcement has to be made with inflection and emotion: “Oooo magic time is over (Say this sadly). That was great! (Happy!) We’ll do it again tomorrow! (Even happier!)” Magic time doesn’t have to be with the same parent nor at the same time every day, but it has to occur every single day without fail. Extra magic time should never be given, even if the child has been extra good; magic time must never be taken away, even if the child has been terrible. Also, don’t give magic time backwards—that is, you’re not allowed to say “We’ve been playing for fifteen minutes. That was your magic time.” It doesn’t count unless magic time is announced at the beginning. Magic time is an expression of love. It’s unconditional, it’s fun, and it happens every day.

 

Clarity

Being clear is an essential skill for parents. Your children should know exactly what is expected of them. They should know the rules, and they should know what will happen if rules aren’t followed. They should know that a parent’s word is akin to the word of God: if a parent says it, that’s the way it is. With clarity, your children will learn to listen.

Parents need to “Say what you mean.” Social niceties guide how we talk to each other as parents, and there’s certainly a place for those kind of language conventions when you talk to your kids. But if you want your child to do something, especially when you’re in a phase of trying to teach better listening skills, you’d better be clear the first time. Not “Why don’t you clean your room?” or “How many times do I have to tell you to clean your room”—but a very command: “Go clean your room now.” That isn’t mean. It’s clear.

Work on not repeating yourself—in other words, “Mean what you say.” When you tell your child, clearly, to do something (or to stop doing something), say it once, and make it happen. Repeating and threatening only dilutes your message and gets your child used to not listening to you the first time.

Parents are the models

Kids learn far more from watching and imitating than from listening to lectures. Parents need to model both good behavior and bad behavior (and its consequences). For example, family meals are a great time to model table manners, and also the skills of social conversation (regular family meals also help prevent obesity, truancy, and teenage drug use. Really.)

Parents aren’t always perfect. When you do lose your cool or make a mistake, that’s a learning time for your kids. Everyone gets angry sometimes. What you want your children to learn isn’t “don’t get angry”—it’s what to do when you do get angry. Don’t just talk about that. Model it. Let your kids see that adults do make mistakes. And let them see how you handle that, in a good way that you’d like them to emulate.

 

Rewards encourage good behavior

By “rewards”, I’m including here the most useful, powerful reward: positive reinforcement. Kids need to hear when they’re being good, and why they’re being good, and specifically what they did to be good. The best rewards are immediate and specific. Rewards also work a little better if they’re unexpected—that means you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) give a reward every single time. If a reward is already expected, it’s less powerful.

One great method to help parents practice good postive reinforcement is “The Greenies”, which I’ve covered in more detail here.

 

Punishments discourage bad behavior

Again, as I’ve said, many parents equate discipline with punishment. They ask me, “How do I discipline my child?” – but the answer they’re expecting is really “How can I punish my child.” If you think discipline equals punishment, you’re not going to effectively teach your children anything. Discipline is one tool among the five I’m presenting, and it doesn’t work unless you’re also using the other four methods.

That being said, punishments are an effective tool when used well, and parents should feel comfortable using punishments when they’re appropriate. Punishment is never useful for babies, and between the first and second birthday should only be used to discourage physical aggression. Too much punishment, too early, will not be helpful. At any age, punishment should never be the main strategy of teaching behavior.

Punishments work best if they’re immediate and consistent. Threatening to punish is not a good idea—it weakens the message, and teaches kids they can get away with things a few times (or maybe more than a few) before anyone takes them seriously. If you do threaten a punishment, you’d better plan on following through and doing it.

One very effective punishment for preschoolers is the “Time Out”, which is removing them from the loving sphere of their parents for a short time. It works very well—if it is done correctly. Learn more about the best way to use Time Out here.

 

You can do it!

Children aren’t born knowing how and why to behave well. They need to learn this skill, just like they learn to write or ride a bike. Their most important teachers are their parents. Using a combination of these five strategies, consistently, is the best way to teach your children to do the right thing. It can be exhausting, and there are no quick-fixes or ways to skip these tough years. Teaching them these essential life skills, though, is a parent’s most important job.

 

Adapted from Solving Health and Behavioral Problems from Birth through Preschool

Help your child learn to listen

December 11, 2012

The Pediatric Insider

© 2012 Roy Benaroch, MD

We pay a lot of attention to hearing. Newborns get their hearing tested in most states, and periodic hearing screening is part of regular checkups. We know which children cannot hear. So why is it that so many kids don’t listen?

When we’re raising little kids, we know that we’re supposed to talk all the time. We yammer on in the grocery store – “Look! An apple! And that guy has a brown hat!” – because it is true that children exposed to more words from their caretakers get better word skills, quicker. Even if they’re not paying complete attention, talking to your children when they’re young is how they learn to communicate. But then something happens. We keep talking, and they stop listening.

This can be fixed.  It’s time for an action plan: How to re-train your child to listen. It will take some work, but in the long run they’ll be far less yelling and teeth gnashing. Do yourself a favor and tackle this before all of your hair falls out.

What I suggest is a period of “listening training,” during which both you and your kids learn new habits. Be consistent and strong, and use all of the steps below. As your child gets better at listening, you’ll be able to back off of some of these, gradually. But at first, it’s best to take big steps to make progress. You need to kick yourself and your kids out of the “not listening” rut, and it might take a bit of a push.

Stop talking so much. Your children are used to the fact that a lot of what you say isn’t really important, and doesn’t require them to respond or do anything. So they’re used to not really paying attention. Cut back on the chatter—or at least start to develop a different voice to use when you really need your kids to listen.

Get your child’s attention before you tell them something important. It’s takes a few extra seconds, but it saves a whole lot of misunderstanding later on. Walk over, touch Pepe’s chin, make him look at you. “Sweetie, I need to tell you something. Stop playing and get your shoes on.”

Avoid vague adult phrases. You want your son to go kiss grandma? Tell him to. Don’t say “I’ll bet grandma would like a kiss” to a 14 month old and expect him to connect the dots. “It’s time to clean your room,” “Why don’t you stop punching your friend?”, and “I wish someone would help me clean the kitchen” are all vague and indirect and kind of, well, weenie-ish. During “listening training”, get more direct.

Avoid instructions you can’t enforce. During listening training, it’s best to avoid giving commands that you really can’t follow through. “Stop fidgeting” is tough to make happen—if your child don’t stop, how are you going to enforce it? “Don’t make faces,” “Be more respectful,” “Just hold still” are all reasonable things for advanced listeners, but at least at first you’re not going to be able to enforce these kinds of commands. During initial listening training, stick with specific, simple commands that you can make happen if your child doesn’t. “Turn off the TV,” “Pick up your socks,” “Stop pulling the dog’s tail” are good, simple instructions that parents can enforce.

Say it once, like you mean it—then make it happen. If he doesn’t turn off the TV, you do it. If he doesn’t pick up his socks, take him by the hands and make it happen. If he keeps pulling the dog’s tail, shut the dog up in another room.Say it once, and mean it, and if it doesn’t happen immediately make it happen. The idea here is that mom’s word is final. You say it. It happens. Always. (That’s why you need to avoid saying things you can’t actually enforce, at first. After a while, once your child gets in the habit of listening, you’ll be able to bend that rule. But first you need good listening habits!)

Don’t count. I know, I know. A lot of people like the “1-2-3” business, and they’ve sold a lot of books (far, far more than me. I’m not bitter.) I don’t like it. You count 1,2… and what you’re really saying is “OK, you don’t need to listen now… or now… but by golly soon enough I’m going to mean it!” I really prefer “say it once and mean it once”, and I think in the long run it works better.

 

Be positive. Children will not learn new behaviors if they’re always in the doghouse. If there is a lot of criticism going on, and you’re giving your child the impression that you’re mad a lot, this new listening training thing isn’t going to work. You need to make your relationship more positive, loving, and supportive first. The Greenies is one good method of bringing more positives into the lives of preschoolers. Once you’ve started listening training, make sure that every time your child does actually listen—the first time—there’s positive and specific and immediate feedback. “Thanks for taking care of the TV, buddy!”

But don’t turn your feedback into another opportunity to get a negative dig it. “Thanks for picking up your socks. Why don’t you do that all the time when I ask you to?” Just pushes him back to the doghouse. Stay away from negative comments after positive feedback.

Listening is a skill, like riding a bike or peeling an orange all in one stripe. It takes practice, and sometimes it starts with stopping some bad habits. Once you’ve started listening training, every success will help develop and reinforce a new habit. Kids can listen—if you help them learn to do it, and if you help them practice.

Time-out can work

November 8, 2012

The Pediatric Insider

© 2012 Roy Benaroch, MD

“I tried time out and it never works!”

Time-out is a great discipline tool for parents of toddlers to young-school-age kids—if it’s done right. Done incorrectly, time-out may make problematic behavior even worse.

First: time-outs are only one discipline strategy. If you use them too often, they won’t work at all. You can’t rely on time-outs alone to solve every problem. Also, time-outs only work if your child is usually in “time-in”. That is, if your child is always “in the doghouse,” being criticized and punished, then he probably doesn’t even know what “time-in” is like. For your child to learn lessons from time-out, he should be living in a world that’s full of love and smiles at support at least 90% of the time. That way, those periods of time-out are really shocking and powerful. If you’re feeling like your child is being bad a lot and needs to be punished a lot, it’s better to work on positive techniques than intensify your punishments.

Rules for good time-outs:

Never warn that at time-out is coming, and never threaten. If you’re warning Junior about a time-out, you’re not doing a time-out. As soon as your child earns one—say, for hitting—immediately start the time-out. Don’t talk about it, don’t warn, don’t give dirty looks, don’t threaten “next time, one is coming.” Just do it. In fact, if you can’t do an effective time-out, it’s better to ignore the behavior than to make a half-hearted warning that is going to be ignored.

Start your time-out with a two-word statement of the rule, saying something like “NO HITTING.” Say this strongly, with emotion, and even a little anger. You’re supposed to look mean and unloving at that moment. But do not keep talking and explaining! You’ve said everything you need to say. Now do the time out.

Physically place the child where he or she cannot see you. Alone in a room is best, in a corner is probably OK—but sitting in a special chair facing you is not going to help. The idea of a time-out is that your child has lost her place in the family, is not welcome, and is excluded from your love and your presence (temporarily!). If your child can see you and watch you, that is not a time-out.

Leave your child in time-out for about 1 minute per year of life. Do not check on him. Do not talk to him. Ignore him for this period of time. If you have to lean on the door or hold the knob silently to keep him in his room, do it. Do not talk!

When the time is over, your facial expression should completely change. You are no longer angry. Hug him and say you love him, and repeat the broken rule once, in a loving voice. “No hitting.” Do NOT keep talking or explaining or discussing the rule. Do not stay angry—even if you are angry, pretend you’re not. Remember: time-out only works if the child then returns to time-in afterwards.

When parents start using time-outs correctly, many children will have a temporary increase in negative behavior. They’re testing you. Don’t escalate the punishments, don’t make time-out longer. Just keep doing them exactly this way.

Time-outs are one very effective tool to help younger children learn to behave. They work best in a loving, supportive house where lessons are also being taught with positive reinforcement, modeling, and very clear rules that are always enforced. I know, it’s a lot of work to teach children to behave. Being a parent is a tough job. You owe it to your kids to do your best.

Adapted from a post that first appeared on WebMD’s Your Children’s Health blog.

Picking scabs

November 28, 2010

The Pediatric Insider

© 2010 Roy Benaroch, MD

S.A. asked, “What kind of discipline strategy can I use to get my daughter to stop picking at scabs. She’s three years old, and she has a lot of scars already.”

I don’t think a traditional “discipline strategy” is really what you’re looking for—at least no one based on rules. You shouldn’t “forbid” the picking, or make a rule that says “No Picking,” because you won’t be able to enforce that kind of rule. For young children, it’s important that any rule you make is 100% enforceable, all of the time. That’s the best way for children to learn that rules are rules, and rules can’t be broken. If you make a “don’t pick” rule, as soon as you turn your back the picking will resume. So what your daughter will learn is “I don’t have to follow rules when mom isn’t watching.” And she’ll still be picking!

Instead of trying to forbid the picking, try distraction instead. When you see picking, give your daughter a toy, or suggest something else to do. Something that’s new or different is more likely to get her attention, and a game with mom is always fun.

You can also make a positive reinforcement chart. You can work out the details, but you could start with something like: If a day goes by without picking, she gets one sticker. Three stickers earns a trip to the dollar store; six stickers ears a trip out for ice cream.

Once wounds heal, they won’t attract picky fingers. Help minor skin wounds heal faster by washing them gently every day with soapy water. Afterwards, rinse, dry, put on a dab of antibiotic ointment (like Polysporin), and cover it with an adhesive bandage. Colorful or cartoony Bandaids might be more likely to discourage picking. If any of the sores are draining, painful, or spreading, take her to her doctor.

Though picking can make sores and scabs more prominent, and can learn to dark spots, it’s rare for these spots to be permanent. They may take a while to fade, but superficial sores, even picked-at ones, rarely leave any permanent marks. If your child is truly digging at these things aggressively and constantly, talk with her doctor to make sure that there isn’t a more-serious developmental issue going on.

Bring on the Greenies!

August 4, 2009

The Pediatric Insider

© 2009 Roy Benaroch, MD

Gretchen has a behavior quandary: “My 3 1/2 year old is suddenly having major behavior problems and is really wreaking havoc on the household.  She is whining, hitting, calling everyone ‘bad’ and has started ‘hating’ everything and everyone. I’m sure this is just one of her many phases and is probably worsened by summer boredom but do you have any ideas as to how we can minimize the frustration?   I feel like I am constantly yelling and punishing.”

We all have behavioral “ruts”—patterns of doing things that we end up doing over and over, soon enough becoming habits. It’s easy to make a rut, and easy to stay in a rut. Some ruts might even be a good thing, like a toddler learning to clear his plate or put his toys away. But other ruts can be aggravating, like Gretchen’s example. It sounds like the child is in a new negative rut, and mom has formed her own rut of “constantly yelling and punishing.”

It’s time for a new plan: The Greenies!

This is a method of discipline that relies on positive reinforcement. It’s especially useful to break a cycle with a child who is “constantly” disruptive or disrespectful, and is most suitable for ages 3-7 or so.

Every adult in the house should carry a washable green magic marker with them at all times.

  • Catch your child being good at least once every ten minutes.
  • Give immediate feedback that is specific:
    • Good: “Thanks for helping!”
    • Better:  “It’s great when you get yourself ready.”
    • Better: “That was great when you helped by putting your own shoes on. Thanks!”
  • Along with your verbal praise, use your green marker to make a quick dash on the back of the child’s hand.
  • Within a few hours, there will be many dashes.
  • At the end of the day, the backs of your child’s hands should be covered with green marks.
  • At bedtime, go over some of the marks—point to one or two, and say things like “Remember that one? That was when you kissed grandma! And this one here—this one was when you put your dinosaur toy away!” Again, your praise should be as specific as possible.

This is a method only for positive reinforcement. There are no punishments, and the child cannot “lose” any green marks. It builds only on positive praise.

Give it a try, and let us know who it goes!

Toddlers and dogs

January 18, 2009

A question from Sophie about dogs: “Do you have any recommendations on how to discipline a 14 month old who is continuously abusive to the dogs in his home? We are having serious issues with our son literally attacking and hitting our small dogs. He laughs and giggles if we say no in a firm voice. We aren’t sure if he is old enough for time out? We are scared eventually the dogs will fight back or he will really harm the dogs (the dogs only weigh 9ish pounds). Thank you!”

Another dog question! That makes me wonder what ever happened to Beth and her doggy wishes. Hopefully her parents won’t see this post and change their minds!

You’ve really got two issues here: how to teach your child to behave with the dog, and how to keep your child safe. At 14 months, I’m not sure you can rely on discipline strategies with your son to make sure that he doesn’t get hurt. Even a 9 pound dog can give a child a nasty bite, especially on the face. So even once you’ve implemented the teaching part of the plan, you’ve still got to ensure that your son doesn’t get attacked by keeping him and the dogs under close supervision.

Teaching a toddler how to behave with a dog isn’t very different from teaching a toddler other skills. Use a combination of these tools:

  • Modeling—be good with the dogs yourself, and show with your actions how you treat animals with respect.

  • Positive reinforcement—give your son good feedback when he does the right thing. Your positive comments should be immediate and very specific. Since your son in so young, you probably won’t find it helpful to make a more elaborate positive reinforcement strategy like a sticker chart. Just positive comments and affection to reinforce good behavior should help.

  • Punishment—you shouldn’t tolerate cruelty, which includes hitting people or animals. Review the action plan for stopping aggressive behaviors in this post, and follow those directions whenever he strikes one of the dogs. Do it immediately, with no warnings or count-downs.

Even with all of these teaching steps in place, you’ll need to be careful. A dog who feels threatened will bite, and even your little dogs could really hurt your son. Until he’s old enough for you to depend on his judgment and behavior, he should not spend unsupervised time with your dogs.

Further reading