…and why it sabotages their parenting
In my job as a behavior analyst, I have a front row seat to people’s parenting behavior. The parenting mistakes and the wins. I get to be in the trenches with people as they are working on being the best parent they can be and it is an honor—and I am not just saying that—to watch people humble themselves enough to be willing to let someone else give them advice on how to parent their child.
We have this idea that parenting is supposed to be something that people just know how to do. Parenting mistakes just shouldn’t happen. And because we feel that way, it’s so, so hard to accept help with parenting. It feels like a give-up. I am always so grateful when someone will have the willingness to admit they may have made some parenting mistakes and be guided away from things that aren’t effective and towards things that are. Also, nobody just knows how to be a good parent. Even people with advanced degrees in child development and behavior mess things up on the regular. Ask me how I know.
So I have a list of six parenting mistakes—the BIG ones—that I see parents do, mostly with the best of intentions that completely sabotage their parenting.
Feeding the function monster.
Behavior happens for a reason. All behavior is communication. Behavior is sustained by its function. These are the basics of behavior that really matter if you want to construct good behavior for your children. Very often parents don’t understand the function of behavior, and inadvertently feed the behavior the exact thing it loves. Function is the why of the behavior. It could be attention or getting something you want, or to get away from something you don’t want, or just because it feels good. As long as these things are provided after the behavior occurs, it keeps the behavior going.
Parents give these things all the time when they DON’T want the behavior to keep going at all. This happens when your kid whines and they get out of their chores—the function of that behavior is escape and the kid got to escape, so they just keep whining when they want to get out of their chores in the future. Score one for the function monster. It wins. You lose. Wah-wah-wah.
Giving into the function means you just keep seeing the behavior. This is why you must, must, must know what the function of the behavior is so you know how to respond. If you don’t know the function, it is a complete shot in the dark.
Assuming the child won’t, when they can’t.
Can’t and won’t are two different things. Parents can get stuck in a place where they respond to everything as if their child is a terrorist who definitely is holding them for ransom. Sometimes kids behave a certain way because they don’t have the skills to do it differently. Parents have to pay careful attention to their child’s skills and see what might be missing before they assume that the child is being terrible.
Warning here: you have to assess what the child CAN do and not what the child SHOULD do. Maybe they are old enough to be toilet trained, but if they can’t pull down their pants yet, there are skills missing. Maybe they are at the age where they should be expected to clean their bathroom, but if they can’t complete a three-step sequence, there are skills missing. This is great news! Start working on filling in the gaps.
Pushing themselves to their margin and not having resources.
Parenting takes tons of energy. Amen and hallelujah! Now, please turn in your hymnal to the page where parents are often overworked, overstressed, and just over everything. It is impossible to accurately analyze and respond to behavior if you don’t have the resources to follow through and be logical, even in the face of whatever ridiculousness your child presents. Find ways to recharge your own battery with fervor.
Providing distracted play or attention.
Parents have to multi-task to survive. Folding clothes while talking about Minecraft or answering emails while watching a talent show are just what has to happen to get everything done. And that’s fine, but not all the time. Kids need undivided, rich attention and focused play. Because attention is a big reason why kids misbehave, making sure that their attention bucket is completely full of rich attention is a major preventative measure. Parents shoot themselves in the foot (and exhaust themselves: see #3) by providing play and attention that is distracted. For kids, distracted attention is often an empty investment. It just doesn’t even make it into the attention bucket, so they seek attention in other, less pleasant ways.
Making requests when they mean to make a demand.
When you say, “Would you like to take a bath?” you are implying that your child has a choice. The answer could be yes…or no. Don’t ask a question if you aren’t comfortable with either answer. It’s confusing for your child and it sets you up for frustration. If you mean for your child to take a bath without question, tell them, “It’s time to take a bath,” and then follow through. Conversely, if you don’t care what your child does in that moment, give them a choice rather than issuing an edict. Use your strong parenting requests for when it really matters and give choices when it doesn’t
Using punishment first.
Punishment can be effective, but it’s not as effective as reinforcement, by a long shot. Punishment has all kinds of side effects and undermines lots of things, including the parenting relationship, especially if we use it exclusively or heavily. Unfortunately, we often equate parenting with punishing when it comes to behavior. Those are the tricks people talk about–spanking, time out, taking away toys, restricting screen time–but ya’ll, there are so many other, much more effective tools to use. And that’s why you are here, I hope.