When to ignore your kid's behavior, and when to change it.

Snapshots of life at home.
March 27 2009 12:18 PM

The Messy Room Dilemma

When to ignore behavior, when to change it.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly. Click image to expand.

Thanks to more than 50 years of research, we know how to change children's behavior. In brief, you identify the unwanted behavior, define its positive opposite (the desirable behavior you want to replace it with), and then make sure that your child engages in a lot of reinforced practice of the new behavior until it replaces the unwanted one. Reinforced practice means that you pay as much attention as possible to the positive opposite so that your child falls into a pattern: Do the right behavior, get a reward (praise or a token); do the behavior, get a reward. Real life is never as mechanically predictable as that formula makes it sound, and many other factors will bear on your success—including your relationship with your child, what behaviors you model in your home, and what influences your child is exposed to in other relationships—but, still, we know that reinforced practice usually works. If you handle the details properly, in most cases a relatively brief period of intense attention to the problem, lasting perhaps a few weeks, should be enough to work a permanent change in behavior.

So, yes, you can change your child's behavior, but that doesn't mean you always should. When faced with an unwanted behavior, first ask yourself, Can I let this go? Sometimes the answer is Hell, no! If your kid likes to spend hours at his window in full-body camo and a Sad Clown mask, tracking the neighbors in the sights of his BB gun, you'll probably want to put a stop to that right now. But a lot of behaviors fall into the lesser category of annoying but not necessarily worth addressing. Ask yourself if changing a behavior will really make a worthwhile difference in your child's life and your own.

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Many unwanted behaviors, including some that disturb parents, tend to drop out on their own, especially if you don't overreact to them and reinforce them with a great deal of excited attention. Take thumb sucking, which is quite common up to age 5. At that point it drops off sharply and continues to decline. Unless the dentist tells you that you need to do something about it right now, you can probably let thumb sucking go. The same principle applies for most stuttering. Approximately 5 percent of all children stutter, usually at some point between ages 2 and 5. Parents get understandably nervous when their children stutter, but the vast majority of these children (approximately 80 percent) stop stuttering on their own by age 6. If stuttering persists past that point or lasts for a period extending more than six months, then it's time to do something about it.

There are a lot more behaviors, running the range from annoying to unacceptable, in this category. Approximately 60 percent of 4- and 5-year-old boys can't sit still as long as adults want them to, and approximately 50 percent of 4- and 5-year-old boys and girls whine to the extent that their parents consider it a significant problem. Both fidgeting and whining tend to decrease on their own with age, especially if you don't reinforce these annoying behaviors by showing your child that they're a surefire way to get your (exasperated) attention. Thirty to 40 percent of 10- and 11-year-old boys and girls lie in a way that their parents identify as a significant problem, but this age seems to be the peak, and the rate of problem lying tends to plummet thereafter and cease to be an issue. By adolescence, more than 50 percent of males and 20 percent to 35 percent of females have engaged in one delinquent behavior—typically theft or vandalism. For most children, it does not turn into a continuing problem.

Now, we're not saying that you should ignore lying or stealing or some other potentially serious misbehavior just because it will probably drop out on its own in good time.  There's an important distinction to be made here between managing behavior and other parental motives and duties. Parents punish for several reasons—to teach right and wrong, to satisfy the demands of justice, to establish their authority—that have little to do with changing behavior. You can't just let vandalism go without consequences, and it's reasonable to refuse to put up with even a lesser offense such as undue whining, but don't confuse punishing misbehavior with taking effective steps to eliminate it. Punishment on its own (that is, not supplemented by reinforced practice of the positive opposite) has been proven again and again to be a fairly weak method for changing behavior. The misbehaviors in question, minor or serious, are more likely to drop out on their own than they are to be eliminated through punishment.

Especially as your child gets older, more independent, and more capable of holding her own in a household struggle over behavior, you will need to practice parenting triage—asking, Is it worth drawing the line here? Be especially wary of slippery slopes, falling dominoes, and other common but not necessarily relevant rationales for intervening in your child's behavior.

Consider, for example, an adolescent's fantastically messy room, a typical flash point for household conflicts about things that really matter to kids and parents, like autonomy and respect and the rights of the individual in relation to the family. Messiness is a habit, a set of behaviors, so it would not be difficult to define a positive opposite of mess-making, set up a system of rewards for cleaning up, and replace a bad habit with a better one. But let's first ask a basic question: Why focus on the messiness of your child's room? There may be good reasons to. It may be that your child never has presentable clothes to wear because they pile up dirty on her floor. Or her room could present a real sanitation problem, if there are dirty dishes or discarded food in there. Maybe there aren't enough clean forks in the house because they're all on her floor, in empty TV dinner trays.

These are significant matters that would need to be addressed right away, but what if the problem is not presentable clothing or sanitation or the household fork supply but just sloppiness? You could fix it, probably, but is it really that big a deal?

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