Setting Realistic Expectations for Parenting

Have you ever noticed how publications on parenting lure you in? Whether it is “1-2-3 Magic”, “The No-Cry Sleep Solution”, or “Parenting Your Powerful Child:  Bring an End to Everyday Battles”, resources for parents can make some bold promises.  Although they may offer good advice to manage various issues, their titles are designed to sell books, not set realistic expectations for parents.  Certainly some kids are largely compliant and pleasant in most situations.  But research indicates that even the most cooperative of kids are only compliant 70% of the time.  Which suggests that crying and everyday battles are going to simply be part of our lives as parents to some degree.

This doesn’t mean that we as parents should resign ourselves to the same old struggles and conflicts with our children and adolescents. But it does mean that we need to reassess just how we go about looking at whether our offspring are making progress, and whether further interventions are helpful and/or are needed.  To do so, we should concern ourselves with three concepts: frequency (how often), intensity (how strong), and duration (how long).

Take, for example, the time-honored tantrum. If you have raised kids, you have experienced them, often in the most public, least convenient circumstances imaginable.  Four year-olds have an ability to really disrupt an otherwise pleasant day.  But, in taking specific steps to reduce how often outbursts occur, how intense they are, and/or how long they last, we will find that our day and their tantrums become more manageable.  We as parents should largely think about improvement, not elimination.  A 4-minute tantrum of moderate intensity that occurs once a day is manageable; an hour long tirade that happens twice a day can be a real trial.

Beyond recalibrating our goals, the first step is to understand why a behavior occurs. Not all tantrums are created alike.  Typically, behaviors serve one (or more) of three functions: escape, avoid, or gain.  How we react to a tantrum would be very different if a child was melting down because they were afraid of going to the doctor versus if they just wanted another donut.  Sometimes, too, the function of a tantrum is appropriate, but the method is not.  I might not mind if my child got my attention (function) by tapping me on the shoulder (method), but not if they start holding a high note like they are at a heavy metal concert.

Once we better understand why a tantrum occurs, it becomes clearer how we should respond and what we want to teach. In order to increase the likelihood of a positive behavior, though, three principles are critical.  The first is what we call “different reinforcement of acceptable behaviors”.  In other words, I positively reinforce—as immediately, concretely, and specifically as possible—a positive behavior that opposes a negative one.  For example, if my child starts talking to me to gain my attention instead of screaming and dropping to the floor (as might occur), then I could immediately say, “I really like the way you asked me nicely for a piece of paper.”  The child has now had an opportunity to learn that attention can be gained in a positive manner, not just a negative one.  This lesson is hugely important for the rest of his or her life.

Beyond differential reinforcement, the second principle is environmental adjustment.  As parents, we must look at our routines and environment, and ask the following question:  “Do I repeatedly fight the same battles over and over, at similar times and places?” If so, something may need to be adjusted.  Whether it is making sure that the bedroom is not an “entertainment zone” or not introducing snacks until after (not before) chores are done, environmental adjustments make a huge difference.  Finally, systematic ignoring is often necessary for many behaviors that are not significantly destructive or harmful, especially for young kids.  This means working to refrain from physical, verbal, and eye contact as much as possible for a behavior that we don’t want to inadvertently reward.

Ultimately, parenting is largely a discipline of percentages, not perfection. No matter what the books say, no magic is involved, but conscientious, informed decision-making surely is.

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