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Use positive reinforcement instead of time outs — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

I have a 3-year-old son who doesn’t always listen to me. At least not right away. When he ignores me, I get louder or use threats which seems to just make him mad — which makes me madder. I threaten to put him in time out, which is what we call sitting on the couch with no toys or TV. It might take me yelling and him kicking and screaming, and I often pick him up and put him there. Then he gets up before his time is up, and we start all over again. Isn’t it supposed to work better than this?

Not A Warden

Don’t miss last weeks column Acting out before kindergarten — Good Parenting

Dear NAW,

Yes, and here’s why.

The behaviorists who first formally experimented with behavior modification in the early 1900s demonstrated the power of shaping behavior — with such theatrics as mice dancing on stage in expectation of a food treat. Whether the mice found this to be intrinsically rewarding, and therefore a behavior to continue for its own sake, was not the scientists’ concern. Human children, on the other hand, are being shaped by parents so that they will one day be on their own. They need a set of behaviors so they can live independently of watchful parents.

“Time out” is a behavior modification technique that has been popular — and often misunderstood — since the 1970s. The premise is that animals, including humans, tend to repeat behaviors that are rewarded and drop behaviors that are not.
Reprimands, threats and solitary confinement as a response to misbehavior is not what the behaviorists had in mind. In fact punishment, especially when it is random or delivered with strong emotion, can lead the child to retaliation against the punisher and self-defeating behaviors against himself. The child gets negative attention for his actions, which he finds is better than not being noticed at all.

Instead of forcing your son to sit on the couch for not listening to you, let’s shape his behavior toward calm focus, so he can hear that you have something important to tell him. This is a skill that will serve him well in many other situations. Pick a time of day when the two of you have few distractions and explain the plan. Together you are going to practice sitting quietly together so that he can hear what you have to say and move on with his day. A simple reward — a hug or a sticker on his sticker chart — is tangible evidence of his success. Success itself builds confidence, which leads to more good behavior.

There are two important ideas you need to understand and implement if you want to see success with this time out plan.

1) Underlying Causes
There is always a reason for behavior, and ruining your day was not his primary motivation. A child who is “not listening” is probably too busy having fun. Unfortunately, once your frustration is perceived, his emotions get riled up and now the two of you lock horns in a power struggle.
Does he know why you are interrupting his fun? Children don’t “hear” what the adult says if they don’t see the point in it. Make time out a quiet moment for the two of you to communicate what is coming next in his day. “We need to do X because in a little while you get to do Y.” A little advance notice before switching activities may be all that’s needed to get him in the habit of being more ready to stop a fun activity. Because of his in-the-moment perspective of time, you need to help him mentally connect with what comes after cleaning up — the next meal, outing, bath or snuggling up for bedtime stories.

2) Intrinsic Rewards
Suggest to him that taking “time out” to sit and listen to you, helps his day go smoothly. When he can hear your words about cleaning up and what’s coming next, he can put his toys where he can find them next time. Or he might appreciate that listening (and complying) produces a clear floor which gives him a big expanse on which to lay out his race tracks. When he recognizes, with your supportive guidance, that things turned out well with this new behavior, his internal reward system kicks in. For a day or two you might reinforce the “listening time out” lessons with encouraging words, “It was so easy for you to hear me ask to clean up when we sat quietly on the couch together. Isn’t it great that your toys are right where you can find them? You’re so good at this!”

And your success with this kind of Time Out will reinforce your confidence in your good parenting!

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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