Don’t Require Your Kids to Misbehave
Remember when your kids were little?
“Watch me! Watch me!”
Children love it when parents pay attention to what they are doing.
“Yes, I see you, Timmy, that’s wonderful. Now stop bothering mommy—I have important things to do.”
Sadly, children do eventually stop the watch me’s, but they never stop wanting attention and approval from their parents. Have you ever watched a football game on television and observed three-hundred pound linemen turn to the camera, grin and say “Hi mom!” They’re still performing for the only audience that really counts—mom and dad.
Teenagers are no different. They thrive on attention from their parents. If they can’t get it one way, they’ll try to get it another way. If they can’t get affirmation, they’ll take admonishment. Either way, they just don’t want to be ignored.
That’s why some kids seem to enjoy being in constant trouble. They misbehave because it’s the only way they can get their parents to notice them. Like hypochondriacs who stay sick because of all the attention they get from well-wishers and care-givers, some kids thrive on being the center of attention, the reason for everyone’s concern.
The power of affirmation
In the same way, kids who get an abundance of praise and affirmation for positive behavior will be more likely to repeat it. Affirmation truly is a powerful motivator that not only encourages positive behavior but builds self-esteem. Teenagers unfortunately get very little of it from parents or anyone else. One researcher has claimed that every day, the average teenager hears nine negative or critical remarks for every one that is positive or complimentary. I’m not sure most kids even get that one.
One of the best ways to raise healthy, self-reliant kids is to catch them in the act of doing something good as often as you can. This sounds easy, but it’s not. It takes considerable effort to remember to notice and reward positive behavior. As parents, we sometimes tend to think that good behavior is “expected” and shouldn’t require praise. But what seems obvious to us rarely is for kids. If they don’t get affirmation from someone for what they do, they are unlikely to do it. There’s not much in the way of a pay-off.
I’ll always be grateful to my parents for being a wonderful audience to play to as a kid. They were my biggest fans. They not only gave me affirmation when I did well, but they were constantly bragging about me to everyone they knew. Looking back, I realize now what a gift that was to me. I wasn’t exceptionally talented or smart or well-behaved, but they sure did make me feel like I was.
Did they get on my case me when I messed up? Absolutely. Their discipline was swift and unambiguous, but they didn’t blow my indiscretions out of proportion or make me feel like a complete failure. None of my mess-ups were able to reduce the amount of self-esteem they had deposited into my emotional bank account.
One of the fondest memories I have of my father is how much he enjoyed my jokes. He would howl with laughter at the dumbest jokes that I would tell at the dinner table. I never realized the significance of that until my own kids became teenagers and started telling jokes at the dinner table. They aren’t very funny. It’s hard to laugh at your kids’ jokes! But my dad laughed at mine, God bless him, and as a result I became a pretty good teller of jokes. And believe me, that has been a valuable asset to me as a public speaker and youth worker.
Perhaps you are a positive person by nature and praise comes easy for you. But for the majority of us, we have to be intentional about it and work at it. I for one have found it helpful to remember the following points and to put them into practice regularly:
- Be there. Unless you are there to notice the good they do, you won’t be able to affirm it. Spend plenty of time with your kids. Go to their activities, games and performances, giving them the unmistakable support of your presence. I know this is tough for today’s busy parents, but kids don’t understand why a business meeting or a prior engagement can be more important than they are.
- Practice the vocabulary of love. I’ve heard parents comment, “I really don’t know how to communicate to my teenager how much I love him.” Actually, the best way is to use words. Just say nice things to your kids once in a while. Say please and thank you and I love you and I’m proud of you. Don’t assume your kids know you love them. Tell them to their face and they’ll get the message.
- Be specific. Affirmation is always most effective when you look for specific behaviors to praise. For example, it’s better to say “Thanks for helping bring in the groceries,” than “You’ve been a good kid today.” Being a good kid is certainly positive, but does that mean he’s not a good kid if he doesn’t help with the groceries?
- Look for qualities of character you can praise. If you notice your teen being particularly helpful or courteous or courageous or inventive, mention it. Praising character traits (the things that are on the inside) are worth more than flattery (things that are on the outside.)
- Don’t worry about the response you get. Sometimes we wish kids would say “thank you,” “you’re welcome,” or “Gosh, Dad, I really appreciate those words of encouragement.” Forget it. Kids don’t know how to respond, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want the affirmation. Keep doing it anyway.
- Praise progress, not perfection. Sometimes we withhold praise because they didn’t get it exactly right. Teenagers rarely do. They usually can’t do anything as well as their parents, and their parents—being the perfectionists they are—refuse to give them their approval until they do. Look for small steps in the right direction, attempts to do well, even if they don’t get it perfect.
- Avoid flattery. Be sincere when you praise. Don’t invent compliments just so you can say something positive to your kids. If you tell your daughter “You are definitely the smartest girl in the school,” she won’t believe it because she knows it isn’t true (even if you think it is.) If you tell your son, “You played a great game today,” when, in fact, he played poorly; he’ll know you aren’t shooting straight with him. It’s better to be honest, yet positive.
- Praise publicly. Even though kids will sometimes act shy and pretend they are embarrassed by public praise, deep down they love it when parents brag on them to friends or extended family. By displaying their artwork, showing off newspaper clippings, inviting them to perform on a musical instrument or read something they wrote for guests, putting pictures of them on your desk at the office, or on your web page, or even on the refrigerator door—these are some of the ways you demonstrate publicly how proud you are of your kids and just how well they are doing. When kids know that they have a reputation outside the home to live up to, they just might do it!
According to Scripture, “As a person thinks in his heart, so he is.” (Prov. 23:7) If you let your kids know that you are proud of them and that you believe in them, there’s a strong chance that they’ll start to believe in themselves, too.
Wayne Rice is a life-long youth worker, Christ-follower and bluegrass music nut who spends most of his time these days writing, speaking, consulting, playing his banjo and trying to be a good husband, father and grandpa. Wayne co-founded an organization called Youth Specialties, as well as a parenting organization called Understanding Your Teenager, which is now part of HomeWord.com. Wayne has written over 30 books, including the parenting book, Generation to Generation. You can follow Wayne on his blog at WayneRice.com.