Connective Parenting Promotes Holiday Opportunities to Focus on Positives in Children’s Negative Behavior

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The “Crews Missile”—the email from a dad to his adult children expressing his “bitter disappointment” in them—highlights the need for a parent to find the potential in a child’s behavior rather than criticizing the negative. Holiday demands from children offer parents the opportunity to focus on what they want to encourage in their children.

child, Christmas tree
Why is it effortless to highlight what children do wrong instead of what they do right?

All parents at one time or another have been annoyed, angered, and disappointed in their children. Parents know the feeling of failure when hopes for future brilliance are dashed in a nano second when a child does exactly what he was told not to do. Suddenly the parent castastrophizes to jail-time and a life of no friends, no employment, no responsible behavior.

Failures provoke over-controlling reactions in a parent’s attempts to finally get it right—so the children will get it right. Parents yell, threaten, punish, and bribe believing that negative reactions will motivate children to behave. Unless children live in fear of the parent’s reactions, they are thinking of their own agendas—getting what they want—which is natural.

This week, New York Times columnist, David Brooks commented on the now viral letter of disappointment written by Nick Crews to his adult children. Whether Crews is simply blowing off years of pent up steam with no care about how his message lands or whether he truly believes his words will inspire his children to change, his letter berating their failures has shocked many and emboldened others who support his indignation.

It’s hard to imagine saying to one’s children, “It is obvious that none of you has the faintest notion of the bitter disappointment each of you has in your own way dished out to us.” All parents are guilty of losing it—of blaming and criticizing their children—but this goes beyond the pale.

As Brooks says, “The way to get someone out of a negative cascade is not…to attack their bad behavior. It’s to go on offense and try to maximize some alternative good behavior. There’s a trove of research suggesting that it’s best to tackle negative behaviors obliquely, by redirecting attention toward different, positive ones.”

In Harris’ book, “Confident Parents Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With”, the 6th principle is, What I Focus On Grows. Whether the focus is positive or negative, a parent’s attention becomes a magnet for the child’s attention yet not in the way parents assume. If a parent complains, “Why do you always have to hit your sister?” or “How many times do I have to remind you before you do anything?” the child’s focus turns to being a hitter and incapable of following direction. The child learns, this is who I am.

Why is it effortless to highlight what children do wrong instead of what they do right?

Parents must focus on what is desired. With Christmas and Hanukah around the corner children are likely to behave in disappointing ways—demanding, begging, craving material “junk” when what is hoped for and expected is appreciation and thoughtfulness. How to grow appreciation may seem counter-intuitive. Parents need to excavate the potential in demanding behavior.

“I have to have that game. Everyone has it. You have to get it for me!” may sound rude and presumptuous. The temptation is to counter with, “I don’t have to get you anything, and I’m certainly not likely to if you keep this up.”

Instead: “You know what I really admire about you? You set your mind on something and your determination doesn’t let up. That’s a good quality to have. It’s going to get you far one day.”

The parent is not giving in to the demand; she is highlighting a positive quality in the child. That quality is simply being expressed in an immature way—because he’s a child.

When unpleasant behavior becomes annoying, instead of criticizing it, the parent can uncover the child’s resolve, perseverance, spunk, and stead-fastness and find ways to admire the child’s desires, hopes, and dreams. Soon these children will be following those dreams.

A parent’s disappointment may be the single most damaging effect on a child. It says to the child, you are not who I want you to be, which translates to you are not good enough; I can’t love you. One would never intentionally say that to a child. The parent must take responsibility for the messages children receive.

A parent may be disappointed by certain behavior but must understand that behavior does not define the child. A child’s job is to get what he wants when he wants it. That is to be expected. A parent’s job is to support the desire beneath the behavior, not necessarily the object of desire.

About Connective Parenting:

Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed., parent educator for 25 years, founded Connective Parenting in 2003 with the release of her first book, "When Your Kids Push Your Buttons". Connective Parenting is based on principles that focus on the child's strengths rather than inadequacies while creating a balance between the child's needs and the parent's. Harris teaches parenting workshops, professional trainings and gives speaking engagements internationally. For more information, call 603 924-6639 or visit http://www.connectiveparenting.com.

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