Can Good Behavior Be Taught?

Words to live by

Do these rules really work? Sorta...

People often come here looking for “rules for kids to be nice in child care.” I put the quotes around that because yeah, you can have rules and give kids timeouts if they’re not nice, but it’s really hard (read: nearly impossible) to control kids’ behavior just through rules and consequences. What’s the first thing most kids do when someone gives them a rule?

Try to break it. (Same goes for you – admit it.) So when it comes to teaching kind behavior, I’ve always seen it as encouraging, modeling, guiding, and repeating yourself again, and again, and again, and again…

Someone observed that a child in my program was having trouble sharing. I said, “Well she’s only been with me six months.” My friend thought she should have sharing down by now. But six months isn’t long enough to learn how to share all the time. Really.

Don’t have a heart attack, just realize that this is what working with kids means. Adults sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that we can say something once – like “Put your dirty socks in the laundry pile” – and our kids will always do it.

Poor, deluded adults.

So it helps to realize that teaching children “how to be nice” is constant. It’s really the most important thing I’m doing, all the time. And here’s how:

Be kind to the person who’s hurt. This is one of my favorites. Little one whacks another and waits for you to swoop in, grab them, scold them good, and carry them off to timeout. Well why does that kid get to be carried around and talked to when someone else is nursing a bruise? So I usually put my body in between them (back to the aggressor – you get nothing!!) and love and hug that little hurt one as if they’re the most precious thing in the world. Take that, bully.

Then after the hurtee is calmed down, obviously, go back and give an appropriate consequence to the hurter. Make sure they see that you’re upset, and the person they hurt is upset, but they’re not getting an hour lecture because then they get all the attention.

Be aware of your tone. Try to channel your inner preschool teacher and have that sing-song, everything’s happy, let’s just move on shall we? voice turned on as much as possible. At the same time, be firm, clear, consistent, and don’t raise your voice unless it’s absolutely necessary. Have you ever spent hours on a beach with a child who is throwing rocks in the water? Cause and effect. The bigger the splash, the more they want to throw. Soon they’re chucking in boulders instead of pebbles because WOW! Look what I did! When they see they’re setting you off, and you’re escalating, they just go for the biggest splash they can get. And once you start down that path, you can only get bigger. What happens when screeching doesn’t work, and it’s really kinda entertaining them? (Pam gets all the credit for the rock in the pond – I use it all the time and it’s one of the best descriptions of young kids’ behavior I’ve ever heard. Go Pam!)

You also don’t have to go right to yelling. Asking politely but clearly, “Please get off the bookshelf. Come on down,” or inviting the child to the next activity, “Guess what? Snack time!” can be just as effective. Of course, help them along if they’re not accepting your invitation.

Separation instead of timeout. This is one of the best tricks I’ve learned. You (hurter) go over there, and when you can be nice you can come back and play with us. It’s not sit-in-this-chair-and-serve-your-timeout (because if they get out of timeout 100 times they’ve still got your full attention for ten minutes), but it’s still a separation. No one will want to play with you if you’re mean, jelly bean.

Help them make good choices. Kids know there’s a right and wrong way to do things. Ask them, “Is that the best way to get what you want?” They usually know the answer. When they get it right, let them know. “You made a good choice and I’m so proud of you.”

Ignore bad behavior. Any bad behavior is a ploy for attention. If my kids lose sight of me, how long do you think it takes before someone is screaming to get me to come running back? If the behavior is not hurting anyone, stay back and see how the kids handle it. Sometimes they’ll surprise you. They need to learn naturally from each other, and a little peer pressure at this age is a good thing. Especially if, one day, someone’s doing EVERY BAD THING you’ve ever told them not to do, you will spend your day chasing them around doing just that. If she’s climbing on a chair – so be it. Let her fall and learn that climbing on a chair is a bad idea by herself.

My dad came up with this great phrase that I’ll never forget. He said, “Kids need to get used to a little benign neglect.” I loved that. It is ok to challenge them and let them figure out some things for themselves. I would never put anyone in harms way, but at the same time, let them stretch a little and see what they can learn all by themselves.

Turn it around. Redirect what’s happening into what you want to happen (ooo that sounds so new-agey). We were making banana bread the other day and the toddler was having a BLAST with the kitchen cabinets. After all my pleas, “No Miss A, stay out of the cabinets. Miss A, close that door. Miss A, stop dumping cereal all over the place!” I finally realized what I was doing. Then I said, “Miss A, come here – it’s your turn to stir.” Bingo. You can also use this when kids have had a run-in. Use the moment to teach them how to comfort someone, instead of punishing them for doing the hurting. When my boys fight my standard line is, “Go make it right.” They know it’s more important for them to work out the problem than to apologize to me and get punished.

...count to 10.

...growl it out!

Teach self-defense. If the adult is regulating every situation where someone is being victimized, the kids will never learn for themselves how to handle it. One of the first things I teach is to use your voice to say “Stop!” firmly and clearly (which is more effective than “NOOOOO!!! She’s touching MEEEEEEE,” which is sort of going right back to the pond). I also tell the kids that if someone is grabbing you or your toy it’s OK to push their hands away or hold on tight. We also sing the “If you’re angry and you know it stomp your feet” song to try to teach them how to handle their anger, instead of just saying no no no you’re bad and repressing it until they have three-year-old angst and depression.

Actions speak louder than words. We like to talk talk talk talk and explain to kids why things are bad and how they should behave and why what they’re doing is wrong and how they can’t live a decent life if they spend it pulling people’s hair – how much of that does a 2-year-old get!? Really! Use your body language: remove them from the situation, don’t make eye contact, give them the cold shoulder. Don’t give them what they want until they’re behaving the way you want them to. When that happens, shower them with love and praise!

Drop your own anger and resentment. If you put a child in the category of “bad,” you’ll never get past it. Everything they do will annoy you, and nothing they do right will please you. Stop that right now. You are the adult – recognize that this child needs your help to learn how to grow up right. (I tried to find a link to Teddy Roosevelt in “Night at the Museum” telling Larry Daley to stop slapping the monkey because he’s the evolved one, but all the giggling teen clips on YouTube left that part out.) Realize that instincts drive us. The easiest thing for a little human being (who can’t talk) is to grab something when they want it, and hit the person who grabbed from them, and scream if they’ve been hurt.

Know your kids. Will this child respond to a timeout? Or are they motivated by praise? For some kids, all it takes is the stink eye to straighten them out. Or asking, “Is there a better way to do what you’re trying to do?” Sometimes they just need to be walked through the steps. I do a lot of talking for my kids. “Miss C, Miss M wants to use that toy. Can she?” (No, dummy.) “OK when you’re done with it will you let her have it?” Sometimes they’ll hand it over. But I always keep an eye on the toy and make sure the one who wants it eventually gets it. If the first child is clutching the toy for hours in spite of the other’s wanting it, out comes the timer.

And that leads to being trustworthy – do what you say you’re going to do. NO EMPTY THREATS! And:

Be fair. If your sweet darling who is always lovely and joyous suddenly bashes someone in the head, don’t let it slide because she’s not usually like that. Address it. Recently I had a tough day with one of my kids and I told his mother I’m not letting up on him because he knows what’s naughty. He’s not even three yet. Kids are smart – they know if you’re playing favorites.

See everything. I sometimes hear myself muttering, “You really think I’m dumb, don’t you?” So I’ll repeat something that’s happened without saying who did it, and the child looks at me with shock in their wide saucer eyes. Yes you, little person, I know what you did behind my back. And it was wrong and you know it. It helps if they think you’re omniscient.

Praise good behavior. You have to do this for all children, the aggressors as well as the victims. In my classes I often talk about training our kids almost like you would train a dog. You need them to understand what behavior you want to see, so when they get something right (even if it’s bringing a cup to their friend even though they’re not supposed to touch other people’s cups), tell them they did a good job.

I know at 40 years old I still crave praise. When someone tells me I did something right my little heart grows three sizes. This is how our kids feel too. I don’t know why we forget this. We’d rather nag and yell at them constantly when a little “You did a good job” will fill that child up for the rest of the day. And make them more willing to help the next time (really!).

By the way I thought people might be offended if I related teaching children to training dogs, and I asked my neighbor about it. She said when she was a childbirth educator she would watch how couples handled their dogs, and she could tell by that how they would be as parents. So don’t be upset, I’m not saying your kid’s a dog, I’m saying you need to use the same method of consistency, firmness, praise and rewards for good behavior, and yes, letting them know when they’re being bad. We get all caught up in complications when really, when it comes to kids – the simpler the better.

Use natural consequences. Ahh, the hardest concept to understand, especially in finding one that matches the offense. When my oldest son was almost three I remember screaming so loud I thought I might cough up a lung. I just have to get louder, then he can’t ignore me any more! I’ll teach him! And if nothing else I’ll scare the crap out of him! Somewhere we decided that we have to get our kids to submit to our will, rather than treating them like independent beings who need to learn how to make good choices. So we think the bigger the punishment, the more they’ll learn from it.

Think back to your childhood. Did that ever work for you? Or did you just resent your parents for acting like jerks?

So go for the obvious – AND SIMPLE – response. You don’t have to have a nuclear meltdown if a kid misbehaves. If a child takes a toy away from someone, return the toy. That’s it. The toy-taker doesn’t need to be yelled at and thrown in timeout. They just can’t have that toy and they need to go do something else. OR, walk them through asking for the toy and waiting their turn (if you want to get really crazy you can ask them to say they’re sorry for grabbing, but it’s not imperative. That’s a whole other can of worms).

Do have very clear rules about what is forbidden: hitting, biting, kicking, pushing, hair-pulling, screaming at people, teasing and taunting, manipulating, and blaming your behavior on others is never acceptable. (Which means you can’t do it either. Ha ha, that’s just a little day care provider humor there.)

HAVE FUN. For God’s sake, please, just relax, keep the flow moving, let go of the bad stuff, play, laugh, sing, be goofy. That’s all kids want. There is so little time in the rest of our hectic lives to simply enjoy ourselves – try to make their day with you at least a little fun. They WANT to laugh, you just need to give them an excuse. (Don’t ask me to demonstrate their favorite songs where I have to stick my tongue out and sing like a freak.)

Before I end this novella of a post, there is a very tricky situation that I feel the need to address. Adults don’t always understand this, and for me it was one of the hardest things to learn when I began working with young children: they are crying out for boundaries. When you open a day care you imagine that you are going to be filled with the sweet angel-love of babies – and then in an instant you’re living out the Lord of the Flies.

You have to be in command of that island. Firm, but fair. These are the rules, I will not accept meanness, you will not be allowed to act out, the word No is my friend, and do you know what will happen? The kids will love you. They’ll feel safe and protected. Your consistency will allow them to grow. You love them the most by being the grownup, even if it’s the hardest thing you’ve had to do, and it really hurts sometimes. (Parenting: it’s not for the weak of heart.)

And realize that for some kids, all your teaching and modeling and efforts might not be enough. You just do your best and hope they get something good from you.

You may have noticed that this post was less about the kids’ behavior than about ours. Always remember that the grownup sets the tone, not the kids (unless it’s just one of those days). So go out there and be nice to them today. If you set the example, they’re going to follow it. I swear.

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