Orthodoxy Today
Smart Parenting I. Raising Well-Behaved Children

Consider Our Lord's words on the importance of our influence on our children: "And he said to his disciples, ..." woe to him by whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. (Lk 17:1-2). Parents have one of the most important vocations in the church. Namely to teach their children about Our Lord Jesus Christ and His message.

The first place we have to start is with ourselves. If we are not keeping a "life in Christ" how can we expect our children to do so? For example, in the past parents have come to me and presented a behavioral problem. Their 10 year old was smoking. Inside the shirt pocket or hanging out of the pocketbook of the parent would be a pack of cigarettes, This is this hypocrisy. It is nearly impossible to change such a child's behavior. Parents are supremely powerful models. I have never met one child who has bought into the usual "lame" explanations: "Well I can do it , when you get to me my age then you can make up your own mind" or "You are not old enough yet". Children are bright enough to see right through such parental justifications.

The Holy Spirit imparts grace in the sacraments. The parent has to bring the child to church where the Holy Spirit is sacramentally imparted. If the child is not baptized the child is not an Orthodox Christian. If the parent does not bring the child to attend Divine Liturgy the child does not receive the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ. If the parents bring their children to church but do not go themselves, children see right through the hypocrisy as in the cigarette example above. The message is: "Grown ups do not have to go to church." So the Child is no longer getting the grace of Christ. If the child hears a family conversation about a nasty neighbor or relative and a parent says: "That no good for nothing @#$%^". In church they hear preached from the altar Our Lord's words of love, forgiveness, and not holding anger against their brother and then they witness their parents doing just the opposite. Does this add to the child's faith and commitment to Christ? It destroys it! And we wonder why our morality and values are breaking down in modern times? On the other hand no one is perfect, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, bishops, priests, teachers. We all sin and fall short. What a beautiful lesson could be taught to a child we care for, when we do fall short, would be to go to the child and say, for example: "You know, I lost my temper today, it was not right , I am sorry I will try and do better, this is what Jesus would want us to do". No one will speak exactly like this. The substance of the message is however, I did wrong I will try to do better and I want to follow Our Lord's teachings.

Parents should inform their children what are the behaviors they want from their children. Reasonable boundaries should be set and then maintained by cognitive-behavioral management techniques. These techniques are based on behavioral science research. God made us in His image and we are called to be like Him. The Church Fathers have told us that one of the important ways we are made in His image is in our intellect. Therefore when we use the tools and techniques science offers us we are conforming to the image of God in which He made us. Also did not Our Lord tell us to "be wise as serpents" (Mat. 10:16). Using behavioral science tools in Christ's name is surely following His Divine Will.

Parents want their children to behave appropriately. To accomplish this we have to have in mind exactly what behaviors are appropriate and/or inappropriate. These behaviors (and their boundaries or limits) will change depending on the age, maturity, peers, and culture of the child, surroundings and family. As a general rule, boundaries grow with age. A little visual graphic of a series of boxes from small to large may be useful in explaining this. A child has freedom within the box, The sides represent the boundaries (set by parents, society and our Christian morality). As a child gets older the box gets bigger. Note however that there are still boundaries. [This is true even as adults.] As a rule the boundaries should be enforceable and not too different from the child's peer group. For example, bedtime set at 7:00 PM for a 13 yr old is 'to small a box', 1:00 am would be 'to large a box' (more suited for someone almost 18 years with supervision). Unrealistic boundaries undermine the authority and credibility of parents and invite rule breaking.

While appearing easy the next step: "pinpointing" behavior is usually the most difficult for parents to learn. The definition is easy: what is the child doing or saying, when, and where. It is the opposite of general descriptions. For example, describing a toddler's eating as "good" is totally useless. Telling a child "You were bad today ..." is equally meaningless. Words like "good, bad, hostile, considerate ...etc." are all abstract words, meaningless for behavioral management. If a teacher reports back to you that your son was hostile today. What does this mean? It could mean anything from the child using some rude word to a classmate, to picking up a baseball bat and hitting someone. These are examples of pinpointed statements: "While standing on the lunch line John kicked Shiela"; "While sitting at dinner Todd placed his milk glass an inch from the edge of the table and he hit into it when he swung around." Note the lack of abstractness but rather the specificity in these pinpointed descriptions. Pinpointing is a "verbal videotape" of what the child is saying or doing. There should be no interpretations. Pinpointed behaviors can be measured with some precision. This is to say that can be counted and charted. which would make it easy to track behavioral change. Abstract descriptions are almost impossible to monitor and are subject to bias (so called "guesstimates"). One last example, in giving instructions, parents often fall into the "abstraction trap": "When we get to Grandma's I want you to be "good" today. Compare this to a behavioral 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 something to eat or drink I want you to ask Mommie or Daddy. OK. Remember don't leave your play area unless you ask first." The child knows exactly what is expected from him or her. (This is also true for adults. Poor spouses, managers etc. ask others to "try harder" or be "more detailed" or "care more;" not realizing these terms are abstractions, having many different possible interpretations, and are ineffective in communication and in facilitating behavior change)

After mastering behavioral pinpointing, parents should learn that behaviors are shaped by their consequences. In other world the events that follow a behavior will determine if the behavior gets stronger or weaker. There are basically two types of events that follow behavior: Rewards (or reinforcements) and punishments. Remember the goal of parenting is to increase appropriate or good behavior. However all behaviors" if followed by a reward will increase. If a child places their dirty dishes in the sink (a good behavior) and the parent says "Mary, I am proud of you for putting your dish in the sink," (and the child smiles noting pleasure at the praise) such good behaviors will increase. But suppose Joseph is told to drink his milk and he defiantly says "No" (a bad behavior) and you say "Yes you will" and he says "No" again (not only a bad behavior but now an additional bad behavior because he is talking back to you) and you say again "I told you, you will drink your milk" Such bad behaviors will increase. Why? Because they are followed by rewarding consequences. The parent is attending to bad behavior. [Note. In this case Joseph should be told ahead of time the consequence of not drinking his milk, (or better: the favorable consequence or outcome of drinking his milk) "Joseph if you don't drink your milk you will have an extra garbage chore to do." (or "You will not watch your 7:00 PM TV show." (alternatively: "Joseph, if you drink your milk, we will do your garbage chore for you today," or "You will get to watch that show on TV at 7:00 PM that you wanted."] Simply say it once and then apply the consequence.

Parents also want to decrease bad or inappropriate behaviors. This is done my making sure unpleasant or unfavorable events (punishments) follow inappropriate behaviors. Mike is playing Nintendo instead of doing his homework. His parent may say "Well Mike you decided to play instead of doing your homework, you will loose Nintendo for one day until this time tomorrow. (punishment) If you do your homework tomorrow right after school and finish by 5:00 PM you can earn back the Nintendo game." (This is expressed as reward for appropriate behavior). There is a very important lesson in this example. When using punishment a parent must make sure that it is followed by rewarding appropriate behavior. Research has shown that punishment by itself is ineffective. Also at all times punishment should be said in a soft tone. Follow the advise of Teddy Roosevelt: "Speak softly and carry a big stick." In this example the "stick" is simply the consequences of the inappropriate behavior. (e.g. in the loss of the Nintendo game). One more important point, speaking softly is very important because it keeps the child cognitively focused on the relation between his/her behavior and the consequence. If the parent gives the consequence in an angry tone the child thinks "Boy is Mom or Dad mean" ... they are right and the child just lost the connection between their own inappropriate behavior and punishment. The child's attention is now focused on the parent , [and the mean tone of voice]. The child does not learn and resentment builds. Often angry behavior modeled by the parent is performed by the child. This angry behavior would be considered by the parent as inappropriate for the child to display. If this happens the parent has lost out twice (the child does not learn the original homework-Nintendo connection and is instead learning (from the parent ) that angry behavior is OK.

Sometimes unfortunately, 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 did not do says to her: "You know Cynthia, you did not do the dishes today". What was the consequence of earning an "A" and showing her mother? A: "put down." What is the likelihood of Cynthia "wanting to earn and "A" or show her mother again? He answer of course is less likely. Cynthia was actually punished by her mother. Thus it behooves that parents and child caretakers make sure that good behavior is followed by pleasant consequences. Cynthia should be praised for her diligent work. The dirty dishes should be handled as a separate situation. Another common example is parents often taking good behavior for granted. William brings his book bag into his room after coming home from school (good behavior). This good behavior is ignored by his mother and/or father. This ignoring may seem to William that he is unappreciated and thus interpreted by him as a punishment. William is less likely to want to do such "good" behaviors. Catch your children "being good".

Remember our goal is to raise our children in Christ. These "smart parenting" techniques can aid us. Work as if all depended on you (diligently practice the above behavioral techniques) and pray as if all depends on Christ. Mistakes will be made by all. This is not to condone mistakes by parent or child, but an opportunity to be enlivened by Christ to go back and try again. Remember model Christ, by your own life in Christ. Have an "Orthodox Family Culture." An "Orthodox Family Culture" means the totality of family actions, behaviors and beliefs should be permeated by Orthodox teachings and practice. By marriage the Orthodox couple is ordained so to speak or commissioned to create an Orthodox home and family. The Orthodox wedding prayer states: "Unite them in one mind and one flesh, and grant them fair children for education in thy faith and fear [acknowledging the awesome, transcendent God]. By daily prayer together, scripture reading, attendance at Divine Liturgy and Services and bringing a Christian view of world events into the family, Christ can be at the center of every home. This smart and holy parenting.

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: September 15, 2005

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