By Michelle Marchant and K. Richard Young
All behavior is learned, sometimes incidentally and other times through formal or informal teaching. There are three ways in which parents can proactively teach acceptable behavior while attending to their children's emotional and social development:
. Establish expectations
. Promote social development through pre-teaching
. Prepare the child by teaching and prompting appropriate behavior when occasions arise
Teaching children reasonable expectations gives direction and helps set limits so children and youth do not have to "guess" what it is their parents (and others) expect of them. If parents expect their children to complete their homework before they can play with their friends, then it is wise for the parents to state that expectation to their children at the beginning of the school year and explain why it is important.
Establishing and discussing expectations up front is also likely to minimize the chance for conflict between children and parents. The ultimate purpose of establishing expectations with children and youth is to give them the necessary skills and allow them to be responsible for managing their own behavior.
Teaching an expected behavior or social skill before a child needs to use that skill is another proactive method of promoting social development.
A proactive approach to discipline offers opportunities for a child to actually rehearse the expected behavior in a safe and structured environment prior to using it in a more format setting (Young, Black, Marchant, Mitchem, & West, 2000). Taking a proactive approach to teaching allows the parent to identify a needed skill, break the skill into steps, describe and model the steps, and then have the child practice each step as the parent provides prompts, feedback and praise.
The following format is a useful guide for parents when teaching a child social skills:
· Name and describe the skill (e.g., how to show gratitude, make polite requests, invite someone to play)
· Give the child a reason why the social skill is important
· Model the skill
· Have the child practice the skill
· Give positive and corrective feedback and praise for practicing the skill (Young et al., 2000)
Prepare the Child
A proactive approach to teaching behavior is more likely to lead to successful use of appropriate social skills by children when the occasion arises. Consider this example of a mother teaching her child how to introduce himself to invited dinner guests prior to the guests' arrival:
"Mark, I am going to teach you how to introduce yourself to people because tonight we have guests coming to dinner, and I want you to greet them politely. When they come, I want you to look them in the eye, shake their hands, and say, 'Hello, my name is Mark. Welcome to our home.' This helps guests feel more relaxed and helps us make friends"
The parent then models these steps for the child and also has the child practice. After the child correctly performs the skill, the parent says, "Mark, you did a great job of showing me how you will introduce yourself to our guests tonight."
Positive feedback serves a variety of functions when teaching children pro-social behavior. One function is that It strengthens the desirable behavior that parents want their children to learn and use. For example, a three year old boy was told by his mother to stay close to his aunt while visiting a zoo.
Returning home, this three year old said, "Mom, I didn't go away from her," to which the aunt immediately replied, "Yes, I didn't have to worry because you stayed close to me and held my hand? This helped make our trip fun."
Another benefit of praise and commendation is the development of strong, positive relationships. When a person calls attention to the positive actions of characteristics of another person, this behavior typically creates a positive relationship between the two people. Negative criticism tends to have the opposite effect. Priase is an investment in a positive relationship; criticism has a weakening effect. (Young, West, Marchant, Morgan, & Mitchem, 1997).
But not all praise is equally effective. Immediate praise, rather than delayed praise, is more likely to improve a child's appropriate behavior and help strengthen the parent-child relationship. (Merchant & Youyng, 2001).
In addition to being immediate, effective praise must be sincere, specific, and contingent upon the occurrence of the desired behavior (Marchant & Young, 2001). In a research study conducted by Willner et al. (1977), children indicated to the researchers that they appreciate adults who use a calm voice, compliment them, and demonstrate enthusiasm.
Furthermore, adults should praise less when it is not deserved, reserving praise for times when the child exhibits appropriate behavior.
All behavior, whether appropriate or inappropriate, is followed by consequences (positive, negative, or neutral). A consequence is a direct result of behavior. Consequences may be natural or planned (Latham, 1994).
Latham indicates that a natural consequence is a result that is lIkely to occur due to the nature of the person's behavior; in contrast, a planned response is arranged by another individual. Within the contexts of natural and planned, consequences can be either positive or negative.
Latham offers four guidelines for selecting and implementing consequences. First, consequences need to be understood up front by parents and children in order to reduce the
likelihood of misunderstandings and to prevent parents from imposing illogical consequences during frustrating moments. It is wise to hold a family meeting in which the parent and child discuss consequences that align with family expectations. These consequences must meet the needs of each particular family and child.
Examples of positive consequences might include reading together, enjoying a physical activity such as bike riding, playing a game, watching a video, or enjoying a treat; negative consequences may include having no friends over that day, having toys taken away, or being refused use of the car or access to the television, the phone, and/or the computer.
Second, consequences must be reasonable, and parents need to select consequences that are aligned with the child's behavior. For example, if a child plays with his toys and walks away without picking up the toys, a logical consequence would be to have the child return and clean up the toys; in consequence, an illogical consequence would be for the child who does not pick up his toys to be put into timeout.
The consequences would be logical if a teenager who arrives home late to complete chores and homework even though she is very tired. This is a more natural consequence of her behavior than withholding all of her social privileges for an entire week.
A third guideline for establishing consequences is that they must be manageable. If a father promises a child that if he cleans his room the parent will play a game with him, the father must be sure that he has time in his schedule to play the game.
If the consequence for a teenager breaking his curfew is that he will lose his driving privileges for a week, the mother must be certain that she can transport him (or arrange transportation) to critical events.
When selecting a consequence, a parent must make sure the rest of the family is not "penalized" when the consequence is put into effect.
Finally, consequences need to be delivered in a precise, accurate, and consistent manner. If a father promised a son five dollars for mowing the lawn, the money should be given at a scheduled time after the lawn is mowed. If the father does not have the money at that exact moment, it is critical for the father to inform the child when the money will be delivered and to deliver it in a timely manner.
This Is similar to the principle of immediacy previously discussed in relation to praise. Follow-though is critical for all parent behavior.
These strategies are useful in helping parents enhance their parenting skills. Through the consistent application of these strategies, parents will experience positive family relationships, well-balanced and socially competent children, and a pleasant home. In addition, families will enjoy an atmosphere of respect with less contention.
© 2004 MARRIAGE & FAMILIES, used by permission.