Four Parent Hacks

by: Dr. Ann Weller

Psychologists have a thing for mice. We love to test those little guys. We put them in water, in mazes, in cages, and on lush, grassy fields. They’ve taught us about memory, anxiety, bullying, despair, and love. It’s humbling (and heart-warming) to know that we learn about ourselves by studying mice. They resemble us in behavior, biology, and genetic (and adorability). We’re animals, after all. A lot of our behavior is based in our biology. Way more than you might think.

So, we test mice. And they have taught us how to be good parents. We’ve learned that reward and punishment exert immense influence on behavior. You parents wield ultimate power: the power to reward or punish.

Stick with me through this one paragraph. It’s important. You’ll be on the other side of it soon. Rewards are things that people like. We like different things. Have you ever seen a kid open a birthday present of clothing? Then you get it.  Rewards often align with love languages. Does your child like hugs? Praise? Video games? Reading with you? Late bedtime? For older kids, it’s rewarding to be allowed to negotiate on rules. To earn your trust by having an unexpected, special privilege—such as taking the train to the city and back. A reward is also when you take something bad away. For example, one bite of broccoli is your kid’s ticket out of having to eat a whole bowl of broccoli. Or, they don’t have to clean their room one morning. Or, they get to avoid boring car time by staying home while you run errands. Think: what does my child like? (This will not be time-consuming. Lightning fast inspiration: “What would immediately stop my kid from whining right now?”) Research is clear. Rewards are the way to shape behavior. They are the key to parenting.

First Parent Hack: Retroactively reward good behavior (no time-traveling required). This hack is based on two things: (1) rewarding behavior makes that behavior happen more, and (2) your kids are really lucky. They get treats and presents and prizes and special time with you. All of that stuff can be used as a retroactive reward.

Here’s how. Whenever your kids get something nice, verbally link that nice thing to something good they did. If you decide on a whim to hit the Dairy Queen drive-through, tell your child: “The reason we are stopping for ice cream is because you were so patient while I was on the phone.” Or, “We’re going to the movies to celebrate how well you and your sister have gotten along lately.” Or, “This vacation is happening because of how hard you have worked in school this year.” (For you fellow mice nerds, this is an intermittent reinforcement schedule. There is nothing more powerful in eliciting good behavior).

Second Parent Hack: Catch your kid being good. Give your love, warmth, attention, and energy to your kids when they are being appropriate. Withhold all this when they are being bad. Here’s how: give specific verbal praise at small successes. “You are sitting so nicely at the table! Thank you!” “Thanks for making your bed on your own this morning. I love that we didn’t have to argue about it.” “You stopped your video game as soon as I asked. That was awesome.” Parents of multiples: give your attention to whichever child is behaving well, not the one who is misbehaving. Kids learn that they get the best of you when they are at their best.

Third Parent Hack: Tie good behavior to a character trait. Your kids will be who you tell them they are. If you tell them they’re lazy, they’ll be lazy. If you tell them they’re rude, they’ll be rude. Disrespectful. Selfish. Dramatic. Entitled. So, if you want good kids, tell them they’re good. Link desired behaviors to internal character traits. “Look at your amazing couch fort; you are so creative!” “You shared that with your sister; you are so generous.” “You’re going with us even though you don’t want to. You’re so easygoing and nice to be around.”

Fourth Parent Hack: Understand that bad behavior does not come from a bad personality. For example, your two year old is defiant not because they are rude, but because they are a natural scientist testing cause-and-effect (critical developmental skill). Your teen is avoiding homework not because they are lazy, but because they don’t want to do it (pretty understandable). Your child is refusing to participate not because they enjoy creating drama, but because they can’t find a way to participate enjoyably. All bad/unwanted behaviors are evidence of skills deficits, not of character flaws. This is the flipside of the Third Parent Hack: good behavior indicates the presence of good character, whereas bad behavior indicates the absence of a skill. Character is a permanent thing. You either have a personality trait or you don’t. You’re either extraverted or introverted. You’re either agreeable or disagreeable. You’re either close-minded or open-minded. When your kid misbehaves, and you think it’s their character, you’ll feel helpless, you’ll be mean, you’ll be wrong, they’ll be hurt, and…things will only get worse. Whereas character is permanent, skills are things we learn, practice, and improve. When your kids are acting badly, it’s because they lack the specific skills needed to act better. Your toddler needs to learn how to accept “no.” Your teen needs to learn how to activate to do homework. Your child needs to learn how to enjoy themselves in group activities. You need to be a scientist. Consider your kids as mice. How can you teach them? What do they need to learn? Here’s how. First, describe the situation factually. Second, try humor. Third, be curious with your child about the skills deficit. Fourth, teach a skill. Fifth: reward (even an approximation to) your kid when they does the skill. Here’s an example:

Parent: I have asked you three times to make your bed. It’s still not done. What is getting in the way of you making the bed?

Kid: *scowls*

Parent: OK. Well, let’s think. Do you know where the bed is? (laughs to diffuse tension).

Kid: *scowls*

Parent: OK. And you know what blankets and pillows are, right? (laughs, a little self-consciously this time)

Kid: *scowls*

Parent: Now, you’ve made your bed before. So, I know you can do it. But something stopped you from doing it when I asked. Let’s see if we can find what happened. Hmmm…did you want to start an argument with me?

Kid: “NO!”

Parent: I didn’t think so. Hmmm…did you WANT to make your bed?”

Kid: “NO!”

Parent: No?! You didn’t want to make your bed? Well, of course you didn’t. I don’t blame you. I never feel like making my bed. You know what else. I sometimes don’t feel like making your breakfast. But I always do. I make it because I love you. Many times, we have to do things we don’t feel like.

Kid: *scowls*

Parent: So here’s the skill I use when I have to do things I don’t want to. I tell myself, “Just Do It.” So, it’s the Just Do It skill. Let’s practice that now.

Kid: “NO.”

Parent: Well, I’m going to practice it for myself. I really, really, really don’t feel like sitting here and waiting for you to make the bed. But, I’m going to use my Just Do It skill, and I’m going to just sit here and wait for you to make the bed. (You could sit there for ten years, depending on how upset your child is. So, be ready to reward even the first inkling of compliant behavior).

Kid: Fine! *stands up and moves toward bed. Angrily shoves pillows at the top, sort of flops the blanket straight*

Parent: *gentle voice* There you go, kiddo. Good job with Just Do It. Here, let me help you finish up.

You use skills all day long. Life is hard. But you manage. You talk to someone even if you feel shy. You get out of bed when you are tired. You wait patiently when Target refuses to open more than one checkout lane on a Saturday afternoon. What skills are you using? Those are what you should teach your kid.

And now, a round of thankful applause for the mice!