May Tip: Pay Positive Attention at Neutral Times


As we talked about in April's Parenting Tip, power struggles are especially destructive to the adult’s efforts to instill a sense of responsibility in the child. When the parent or teacher lectures, advises, reminds, warns, scolds, even by so subtle a method as arching an eyebrow or using a blaming tone of voice, “Now you’ve done it, and after all the times I’ve warned you,” it becomes easy for the child, who is trying to protect their inner sense of integrity and self-worth, to blame the adult. The child begins to feel that he or she is the injured party. In the eyes of the child, the adult becomes the cause of the child’s misbehavior, or negative behavior.

One thing that can make a world of difference in your child's willingness to follow directions or stop their misbehavior is to  take steps to improve their sense of self and feelings of belonging. In our culture it may seem that it would be counter productive to help our children feel better about themselves as a way to have them follow directions and requests without argument or constant struggle.  In the past it was often common practice to be sure the child understood they were doing the wrong thing through punishment. 


However let's take a moment and rethink that idea. In the book, Caring Discipline, chapter 2,  JoAnne Nordling describes the three basic behaviors as positive, neutral, and negative.  Positive Behavior is not hard to understand or recognize as  adults generally feel good about it, the child's behavior is pleasing to adults.  Negative Behavior is, generally, also easy to spot. To quote JoAnne, "the child is doing something the adult does not like. The child may bring home a poor report card even thought they are capable of average work. The child may whine, steal, fight with siblings, avoid doing chores, and on and on." 


Neutral  Behavior is, however, harder to notice.  Again, as JoAnne says, "At these neutral behavior times we hardly even notice the child.  The child may be reading a book in the school library, petting the cat, lying outside on the grass watching ants, or helping big sister build a model car. When the child walks through the kitchen as you are working at the sink, or walks into the classroom on the way back from the restroom, for example, they are engaging in a neutral behavior. There is nothing special about neutral behavior.  At these times the child is neither a bother nor a help. The child is just there, alive and breathing, doing their own things in the world. When adults do notice this kind of behavior, the adult usually does not feel much of anything about it. In fact, the child's neutral behavior is often taken for granted and generally ignored."

In Caring Discipline, the recommendation is to pay attention in a positive way to neutral or positive behavior 4 times for every one negative attention from the adult.  Seeking out and noticing neutral behavior is critical in being able meet that need. The positive attention can often be best given in a non-verbal way; a smile, a touch on the head or shoulder, a heartfelt greeting at the end of the day, recognition and a thanks for something they did that is not out of the ordinary for that child.  If you consider it for a moment you may be able to see how much the parent or other adult paying attention in a positive way may boost the child's sense of self, feelings of belonging, and feeling that they are loved just as they are, unconditionally loved. 


A reminder is important here: The behavior you pay attention to will usually be the behavior you will continue to receive from your child.  

If you are intrigued and want more information about this idea, check out chapter two in Caring Discipline or join us for a parenting class!