Recently a mother came into my office with her healthy ten-year old daughter crawling on all fours. The girl hadn’t been into the office before so she wasn’t coming into an environment that she was familiar with or amongst company she knew. Her mother was exasperated and whined at her to get up and act her age but she ignored her mother and continued to crawl as if she were a baby.
I stayed out of it. However when the girl crawled under one of the desks and was about to become entangled in computer wiring I thought it was time to intervene. Putting on my best authoritarian voice and I asked her to stand up and move away from the desk. Polite but firm was the approach.
She was on her feet in no time. She pushed the limits with her mum but she wasn’t sure about this strange male so she wasn’t taking any chances. She got the message that this was my territory and she needed to act according to my rules.
It always easier to manage kids behaviorally when they are not your own!
So how to help this mother who was clearly exasperated by her daughter’s behavior?
First, let’s figure what the behavior is about. The behavior was attention-seeking and boy did it work! Her mum noticed her! My office manager noticed her! Everyone present focused their attention on her like laser-beams except me who just kept on working. But this smart little girl even found a way to get me to take notice by crawling amongst the computers! Some things you just can’t ignore.
The behavior was also about power as she let her mother know that there was little she could do to stop her. ‘I’ll crawl if I want, where I want’ was the message she gave her mother by her refusal to stop.
So how to react to attention-seeking, you-can’t-stop-me behaviors? Quite simply, change your reaction. Rather than give loads of B-grade attention to behaviors that don’t warrant it minimize the attention that it gets.
Rather than whine at her daughter to get up this mother could have done a quick double-take and retreated to her car to get a forgotten purse or bag. My bet was that in her absence her daughter would have followed her or waited on two legs for her to return. Alternatively, as soon as her daughter refused to get up she could have politely excused herself and said she would be back later leaving her daughter to deal with the consequences of her behavior.
Maybe her mother could have said nothing about her behavior and left it up to the office owner to deal with. This is a difficult option, as most of us believe our children’s behavior reflects on us so we tend to intervene so that we look like responsible parents. No approach is guaranteed to work but when kids continue to get lots of attention for poor behavior and they don’t get much attention for good behavior then they will generally settle for the negative stuff every time.
Misbehavior becomes cyclical. I misbehave therefore I get attention. I want attention therefore I misbehave. The cycle needs to be broken.
Second, this mother probably needs to ensure she gives her daughter sufficient A-grade attention. That is, interacting with her when she is behaves well and also providing plenty of encouragement. Children who generally resort to attention-seeking behaviors are generally discouraged so they need parents who show confidence in their ability and focus their comments on effort, improvement and contribution.
This mother could try the reward option. That is, give her a reward if she behaves well in public however I have a feeling if this happens then she had better be prepared to give lots of rewards as this can quickly become the norm. “No reward, no cooperation" is the response from some hard-nuts I have met.
As always when parents meet with children’s mystifying behavior in public step back and look at the purpose of misbehavior – it will be about attention, power or retaliation every time. Be prepared to change the way you usually behave so that your child doesn’t get the same old reaction. A tough option but a viable one as long as a child’s safety is not jeopardized.
Vitamin for parents – encouraging risk-taking behavior
Taking risks is an important part of life. It also takes courage to take risks. There are three types of risks that children and young people take – dangerous risks, socially challenging risks and growth risks. Dangerous risks include drug taking, riding a bike without a helmet and taking on the neighbor's pit bull terrier to get a wayward football.
Socially challenging risks include those behaviors that can alienate you with different groups. For instance, teacher-baiting can make you a hero with your peers but put a student on the outer with adults.
Growth risks are those behaviors that are not personally dangerous or alienating but put your ego or esteem on the line. You risk failure and maybe even rejection and derision but usually this comes from groups who don’t take risks themselves.
Parents obviously need to steer children away from dangerous risks and socially-challenging risks but not be afraid of children taking growth risks so that they can stretch themselves into new areas.
Every day children meet new situation that require them to take a risk. Many of these are ‘growth risks’ so it is important that parents be aware of these opportunities for growth and encourage children to step out of their comfort zones.