Saying “NO” vs. Offering a Positive Alternative:
Redirecting Problem Behaviors
When a child does something annoying or destructive, it’s easy for parents to get the idea that their children are intentionally trying to be mean, and want to misbehave. Even if this were true, it wouldn’t be a very useful way to think about our children.
Instead, we can think of children as interested in trying out lots of possible behaviors. That’s their job. If they are going to grow up to become capable, successful adults, they need to try out lots of behaviors to find out how these behaviors work. “What happens when I do this? What response do I get from my parents? From those around me? From the environment?” By doing many things, some of which we love, and some of which we don’t like at all, children find out what works and what doesn’t. Rather than trying to stop children from doing things we don’t like, or that will be dangerous to our child, it’s our job as parents to help channel and direct a child’s behavior, showing the child where each behavior will work.
Example: Darian at 18 months has just discovered the wonders of hammering, and thinks the whole world can be divided up into “hammers” and “hammees.” He grabbed a toy clarinet, walked over to me, and gave my leg a pound, looking up gleefully.
“Darian, don’t hit Mommy with your clarinet. You can tap that pillow with your clarinet, though.” I show him how he can tap the pillow gently with the toy clarinet.
This gives the child the message that he is good, and even his behavior is good, it’s just a matter of learning the appropriate context in which to use the behavior–when, where, with whom or what. It’s not great to hammer people, but it’s fine to hammer pillows or wood.
Without this framework/attitude, children often get the idea that they are wrong or bad. If a child is told that hammering is bad and punished for it, he may stop hammering altogether. Later he may be confused when he is encouraged to hammer nails!
When parents act as if children should know better ahead of time, children unconsciously begin to expect the same thing of themselves, feeling they were wrong not to have known better. They may even begin to think that any new behavior may be punished, and become timid and fearful of new situations. By making it clear to the child that any behavior is useful in some situations and not useful in others, we can preserve our children’s natural curiosity at the same time that we encourage their behavior in appropriate settings.
Example: Three-year-old Darian was leaning on a kitchen chair, flinging his legs up in the air, and back down again. Mark, 8, was drawing a picture of a peacock on the other side of the table.
“Don’t bump the table, Darian,” Mark requested, “I’m drawing a picture.”
Darian continued his leg flinging, ignoring Mark’s request. He was obviously having a great time, and not about to stop.
“Darian, Mark can’t draw if you do that next to the table.” I repeated. “Would you like to find another place to jump? That chair over there would work. You can jump on that chair if you want to. Or, you can take the kitchen chair and move it over to jump on it.”
Darian decided on the kitchen chair, and began to move it.
“Oh, can you move that all by yourself?” I exclaimed?
“Yeah, I can!” Darian’s attention was refocused on his pleasure with his own strength. He continued his “jumping” out of range of the table.
Example: Dana, 7, was sitting in class singing to herself during drawing period. She liked drawing, and was absorbed in her drawing and singing, however the noise was distracting to some of the other children. Mr. Shelton, the teacher, wanted to avoid having all 25 children in the class singing different songs, while being positive toward Dana.
He moved over to Dana’s desk, leaning down to Dana’s eye level. “That’s beautiful singing, Dana,” he observed quietly. “Now is a quiet time for everyone to draw. If you want to, you can sing on the inside while you draw. Do you know how to do that?” Dana looked a bit confused, so Mr. Shelton continued. “Sometimes when I draw, I can hear a song inside my head. I can hear it, but no one else can, because I’m not singing out loud. Sometimes I like to do that, and I think it makes it easier to draw. Do you want to try doing that, and find out if you like it?”
Dana nodded her head, and smiled. She continued with her drawing, silently. In a few minutes, she forgot about the “inside” singing, and was singing out loud again. A gentle reminder from Mr. Shelton helped her remember again.
“Remember about the inside singing, Dana?” he asked, smiling.
“Oh yeah. I forgot.”
“And you can sing out loud during recess, and with all of us during singing class.” Several minutes later, as Mr. Shelton was circulating around the classroom, he paused by Dana’s desk. Touching her gently on the shoulder, he whispered in her ear, “Thanks for singing on the inside.”
Alternative that wouldn’t work:
Dana is singing while drawing. Mr. Shelton feels annoyed that one of the children is causing trouble again. It’s already been a long day. “Dana’s always causing problems,” he thinks to himself with exasperation. “She’ll probably get the whole class going now.”
Out loud, Mr. Shelton comments sharply,”Dana, no singing.”
Dana’s face drooped. She felt like she had done something wrong, and felt a little ashamed. Now she didn’t feel like singing, so she wasn’t a problem anymore during that drawing period. However, Dana’s drawing became somehow less lively–more somber.
Examples with Very Young Children:
Little children are ready to try out lots of new behaviors, but they know nothing about where and when to do the behavior.
As a small child, Mark displayed a great amount of persistence in a variety of contexts. When he wanted something, he was often quite persistent in trying to get it. Some children, for example, respond immediately when you say “No,” and stop doing the problem behavior without any redirection or “consequences”. Not Mark.
As a parent, I could feel annoyed that my child was “more difficult” than some. Or, I can notice that he has the quality of persistence, and think about how that quality will be useful to him in the future. Persistence will certainly be an important ingredient in his later success in any endeavor he chooses. Already in preschool, his teacher commented on how long he stays with an art or construction project. Rather than looking for the ways in which it could limit him or me, I can look for the ways in which this quality will be useful. Both are true. By looking for how it’s useful, I can help Mark channel this trait in a useful direction.
Beginning at the age of 1, or younger, changing context has been an important way to get our children to act in ways that are both satisfying and safe for them, and acceptable to us.
Example: Mark, at 2, took a big metal serving spoon from the kitchen, and walked over to the window to start banging on the glass with it. If I told Mark “No, you can’t do that,” I’d be in for a battle. Stopping a behavior is hard, maybe impossible. Instead, I took him in the kitchen to find a wooden spoon, then I took him back in the living room and showed him how to pound on the pillows and the couch with it. Mark just likes to pound. It’s as much fun to pound on pillows as on windows–may be more fun, because you can fall on pillows, too. (I made sure I pointed out this advantage to Mark.)
Each of our children went through phases when they wanted to bite on everything. (Little children do this when they are teething, or just exploring what they can do with their mouths.) Again, this behavior can be diverted. When they tried to bite us, we offered a pillow or a soft plastic toy. “Here Loren, this is to bite on.”
If the child keeps biting you, you may need to do something in addition to giving the child something else to bite. With a one-year-old who is teething, you can give a quick tap on the head to interrupt and stop the biting. If you decide to use this approach, be sure to tap the child immediately, as he is biting, so that it disrupts the biting and he connects the tap with the biting. Saying “Ouch” and jerking also works for the same purpose. If an older child bites, and redirecting doesn’t work, you can consider time out, finding the positive purpose, or another method discussed in “Positive Self-Concept: Setting Your Children Up For Success” and “Positive Consequences–Rewarding Cooperation”.
Some people prefer not to use any slapping at all, and I can certainly respect this decision. My approach is to use as little as possible. With a very small child, a light slap can provide a kinesthetic (feeling) interrupt for behavior. I may even use a small bite, to let the child know the feeling he is creating in another person. I use as little as possible of this, and watch the response of the child to guide me in deciding whether to use this approach. I don’t want the child to feel punished, only to stop the biting, and know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of biting.
Recontextualizing Behavior With Older Children:
I think of raising children as being constantly on the lookout for positive behaviors to encourage and build on. No matter what a child is doing, there is something positive and useful about it.
One way to think about this is that every behavior is useful in some context. When your child does something you don’t like, or you think is a “bad” behavior, ask yourself, “In what context would this behavior be useful?”
“I’m glad you know how to imitate so well, Sandy. You’ll be able to imitate people who do lots of things well, and learn to do them yourself. Did you know that excellent skiers do that? They watch other really good skiers, and pretend that they’re the good skier. You can use that when you want to learn to swim or ski.” You can even go farther: “Who else do you want to imitate right now?”
Even if you don’t say this out loud to your child, having this idea in your mind makes the obnoxious behaviors your child will inevitably bring home more tolerable. And by responding calmly to them, these behaviors won’t last as long, either.
Outline: Redirecting Behavior
- Think of some annoying or problem behavior that your child does.
Jennica imitates a snotty girl in her class.
- Ask yourself, “In what context would this behavior be useful?” When, where, and under what circumstances would you be delighted, or at least willing, to have your child do this behavior. Every behavior is useful somewhere.I would like Jennica to use her ability to imitate with creative or talented individuals.
- Plan how to tell your child when and where this behavior will be useful, encouraging him to do it there.
“You’re sure good at imitating, Jennica. That sounds exactly like Erica. Did you know that imitating is a very important thing to know how to do?”
“Yeah, that’s how many talented people become so talented. Good musicians usually get their start by matching the sound of someone they admire. (Jenica is interested in music) And even babies learn to talk to imitating. That’s how you learned to talk.”