By Meika Rouda
If someone tells you to not react to being hit on the head over and over again you would think it absurd. How could I not react to it? I am being physically hurt! But this concept is basically the credo of new modern parenting. Or maybe it is the credo of ancient parenting when adults ignored the bad behaviors of their children. If you don’t react, then you are not validating their behavior, giving them negative attention, giving them power to get to you. If they get attention then they will do it again. It is a conditioned response. What? Again, this seems crazy. Aren’t we as parents supposed to teach our children how to behave? How does ignoring bad behavior teach?
It has taken me a long time to get with this program. I have read countless parenting books about how to listen to your kids so they will talk, how to discipline with 1,2,3 Magic, how to parent the defiant child, basically how to reason with primates and turn bananas into telephones and nothing has worked.
I have had my own mom tell me to ignore my son’s obnoxious behavior. I have reasoned with myself hundreds of times to not get mad or upset at him for his poor decision making, or hurting his sister, or his constant refusal to eat, anything, or his endless ability to not listen when I ask him to do something or more importantly not do something. I have taken deep breathes, practiced mindfulness and had one too many glasses of wine to numb my reactions. I have tried 1,2,3 magic, time outs, positive reinforcement, the star chart, threats of taking precious things away like legos or screen time and even considered corporeal punishment which if I remember from my childhood, worked for me. The threat of a spanking worked magic when I was a kid, even though I was never spanked. But nothing seems to make me or him feel better about the situation and an explosive incident ignites leaving us both in tears and feeling like failures. We have tools and therapists and techniques but nothing seems to work. Or it only works for a short time and then stops working.
But then something happened. I don’t know how or why but the light got turned on and I started to realize that I didn’t have to engage with his bad behavior. That I had a choice, really I did. And the choice was actually for me more than for him.
When I don’t engage, when I ignore his behavior, he ends up stopping or het tries to fix what he has done. And since there is less tension in the air from me watching him and starting to get upset but trying to hold it in and then it builds and builds and builds like a crescendo into the full symphonic deluge of disharmony. That is the normal pattern. Things happen, I am patient, I have a lots of patience and I am not just saying that, I am very patient with children, to a fault really. But my son is tenacious and he pushes, he knows me and knows how to test and how far to go until I break. I often feel like I am a general who needs to outsmart my potential foe, we may be allies now but inevitably, he will turn and I need to be prepared to combat his insubordination. This is my normal state of parenting which I know isn’t healthy or normal. But when I remember that I have choices on how to react, that I actually do have impulse control which he doesn’t and that I don’t have to engage, even when he is acting terrible, it is better for all of us. I am going to reprogram him, a new conditioned response that he is only praised for good behavior and bad behavior is just bad behavior. How do you teach a dog to stop begging for food, you stop feeding him. I am going to stop feeding my son negative responses by not reacting. I will think of my son as a puppy who has some bad habits we need to break. My son is a lot like a puppy, he loves to play ball, cuddle, is always happy to see me and most of all, we share a lot of unconditional love. Let the training begin.