In the article "Smart Parenting Part I," I emphasized that if you want to teach your children the Christian virtues, you must live them yourself. Practice what you preach; do as I do and not do as I say. All else is hypocrisy.
In this second part I will present some behavioral management techniques to help parents deal with some everyday problems more effectively. These techniques are based on behavioral science research.
God made us in His image and we are called to grow to be like Him. The Church Fathers told us that the intellect is one characteristic of God's image in us. For this reason we should not hesitate to consider if the findings of behavioral researchers are beneficial in helping us raise our children when they are applied with the proper discernment.
Stable parents want their children to behave appropriately. To raise well behaved children however, we first have to know what behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate. These behaviors, as well their boundaries or limits, will change depending on the age, maturity, and peers, of the child, as well as his culture, surroundings, and family.
As a general rule, boundaries grow with age. Imagine a series of boxes from small to large. The sides of the box represent the boundaries set by parents and society and the child. When a child is young he inhabits a very small box. As the child gets older the box gets bigger as the boundaries expand. Note however that boundaries always exist (a rule that remains true even for adults).
The boundaries should be enforceable and not too different from the child's peer group. For example, bedtime set at 7:00pm for a 13 year old is too small a box but a 1:00am bedtime would be too large. Unrealistic boundaries in either direction undermine the authority and credibility of parents and invite rule breaking.
"Pinpointing" is another important step in raising healthy children but often difficult for parents to learn. The definition of "pinpointing is easy enough: be concrete in describing your child's behavior; indicate what was done and said, and where and when it was done or said. Use concrete terms to describe the behavior.
For example, telling a toddler that his eating is "good" is meaningless because he does not know what behavior to associate with the term. Telling a child "You were bad today . . . " creates the same lack of any concrete context. Words like good, bad, hostile, considerate, etc. are too abstract and thus useless for behavioral management.
Consider this point from another direction. If a teacher reports back to a parent that his child was hostile at school for example, how should the parent interpret the comment? It could mean that the child used some rude word to a classmate or picked up a baseball bat and hit someone - or any behavior in between.
Pinpointed statements use concrete terms. Examples of pinpointed statements are, "While standing on the lunch line John kicked Sheila" or "While sitting at lunch Todd placed his milk glass on the edge of the table and knocked it over when he swung around." Note how abstract words are avoided and how the specific behavior is mentioned. Pinpointing functions like a verbal videotape. It intentionally leaves little room for subjective interpretation.
Pinpointed behaviors can be counted and charted, often with a good measure of precision. A parent can keep a day by day account of the number of occurrences of spilled milk, for example. Keeping a chart makes it easy to track behavioral change. Abstract descriptions are almost impossible to monitor and are subject to too much interpretive bias.
When parents give instructions, they often fall into the "abstraction trap." They might say for example, "When we get to Grandma's house, I want you to be "good" today. Compare this to a pinpointed instruction: "Elizabeth, when we get to Grandma's I want you to play with your Barbie doll at the table and if you want to have something to eat or drink I want you to ask Mommy or Daddy." Note how the child knows exactly what is expected from her.
This works the same in the adult world. Spouses, managers, or bosses ask others to "try harder," "to be more detailed," "to care more," or to "be more respectful," for example. They don't recognize that these terms are abstractions that have many different possible interpretations and are ineffective in facilitating behavior change.
Consequences and punishment
After mastering behavioral pinpointing, parents need to work on applying the proper consequences for behavior. There are three types of events that follow behavior: 1) rewards (or reinforcements); 2) punishments; and 3) neutral events (we will not focus on neutral events in this essay). The events that follow a behavior will determine if the behavior gets stronger or weaker.
All behaviors - good and bad - will increase if followed by a reward. For example, if a child places their dirty dishes in a sink (a good behavior) and the parent responds with "Mary I am proud of you for putting dishes in the sink," the behavior is reinforced and will increase.
But suppose Joseph is told to drink his milk and says "no" (a bad behavior). His parent responds with "yes you will," and Joseph again responds "no" (bad behavior now compounded by talking back) prompting his parent to snap "I told you to drink your milk!" This exchange will spiral into increasing bad behavior because the parent is inadvertently rewarding Joseph.
Joseph's parent is attending to bad behavior. The parent should instead clarify ahead of time what the consequences of not drinking the milk are, or even better, what the consequences of drinking the milk will be. The parent could say, "Joseph, if you don't drink your milk you will have an extra garbage chore to do," or "Joseph if you drink your milk you will earn watching your favorite TV show tonight." An alternate response could be, "Joseph, if you drink your milk, we will do your garbage chore for you."
Parents also want to decrease bad or inappropriate behaviors. This is done my making sure unpleasant or unfavorable events (punishments) follow inappropriate behaviors. For example, Mike is playing Nintendo instead of doing his homework. His parent may say, "Mike you decided to play Nintendo instead of doing your homework so you will loose Nintendo for one day until this time tomorrow (punishment)." "But if you do your homework tomorrow right after school and finish by 5:00pm (note the pinpointed behavior) you can earn back the Nintendo game (reward for appropriate behavior)."
An important lesson is hidden in this example: punishment must always be followed by a reward for appropriate behavior. Behavioral research has shown that punishment without an attendant reward is ineffective. After punishing a bad behavior, find a good behavior to reward.
Punishment should always be carried out in a soft tone. Follow the advice of Teddy Roosevelt, "Speak softly and carry a big stick". The "stick" is simply the consequence of the inappropriate behavior such as the loss of the Nintendo game in the example above.
Speaking softly is very important because it keeps the child cognitively focused on the relationship between his behavior and the consequence. If the parent gives the consequence in an angry tone, the child thinks that mom or dad is mean. The child is focused on the tone instead of the content of the message.
The angry parent loses the connection between behavior and punishment. The child's focus shifts to the parent and his tone of voice. As a result, the child does not learn. Resentment builds and the child starts to repeat the angry behavior modeled by the parent.
Yet the angry behavior exhibited by the parent is often considered inappropriate in his child. When this happens the parent has lost out twice. The child misses the connection between behavior and consequences and learns instead that angry behavior is acceptable. The hypocrisy of the parent reigns!
Sometimes parents inadvertently punish desirable behavior. For example Cynthia comes home and shows Mom an "A" on her report card. Mom still smarting from a sink full of dirty dishes that Cynthia was supposed to wash tells her, "You know Cindy; you did not do the dishes today."
The consequence of earning the "A" was an angry comment about the dirty dishes in the sink. Here the mother's comment served as a punishment. Cynthia would be less likely to earn the good grade and show it to her mother the next time around. The practical parenting lesson is to make sure that all good behavior (or as much as possible) is followed by pleasant consequences.
Another common mistake is to take good behavior for granted. William brings his book bag into his room after coming home from school (good behavior). This is taken for granted by his mother or father. William feels the behavior is unappreciated and thus interprets it as a punishment and may be less likely to behave well. The lesson for parents is to look for the good behaviors that children display. Catch your children being good.
Remember that the goal of good parenting is to raise children in Christ. Work as if all depended on you and pray as if all depends on Christ. Everyone makes mistakes. Mistakes however, are also opportunities to go back and try again. Be a parent in the imitation of Christ. Direct, teach, and most importantly, love, with intelligence, mercy, and forgiveness. Strive to be like Jesus who said, "Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 19:14).
Morelli, G. (2005, September 17). Smart Parenting Part 1. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliParenting.
V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist, Coordinator of the Chaplaincy and Pastoral Counseling Ministry of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, (www.antiochian.org/counseling-ministries) and Religion Coordinator (and Antiochian Archdiocesan Liaison) of the Orthodox Christian Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion. Fr. George is Assistant Pastor of St. George's Antiochian Orthodox Church, San Diego, California.