Behavior Reinforcement

Up till about 6-8 months, your child is basically a ball of need and developing neural connections. Before this time you should never punish a baby of this age but there are things that you can do to help mold behavior. I remember very strongly the first time I watched Timmy doing something specifically to try and manipulate his situation -- he was 6 months old. Ro and I subscribe to the belief that you should never hit a child -- whether spanking or otherwise. This doesn't mean that we've not been physical with or son but it has been restraining him or carrying him to his room or out of a situation and we have never caused him physical pain. Tim is and has been a pretty good kid but even so, both Ro and I have been at the end of our ropes at times. Those of you with tempers need to be very aware of yourselves while around your child.

One of the things that the Burton White child development books talk about is what punishment to use at different ages -- this is extremely helpful. For example, the most effective way to punish your newborn child is to separate him/her from the primary care giver. Not in another room but 5 feet away behind a childproof gate. Ro used to be in the kitchen with Tim behind a gate in the family room, 5 feet away, with all of his toys, in plain view. This drove him crazy and was a very effective punishment. You give a warning "you throw that toy at me again and you will go into the family room" and then when it happens again you put them behind the gate. Other times all we had to do is to hold him tight in our lap with him facing away from us. Not hurting him in any way but restraining his movement. Wow did that work. Right now sending him to the stairs is the preferred punishment or to his room if starts yelling about it. No physical pain, no yelling, no scaring, but using these and other mechanisms you can extremely effectively demonstrate what behavior we do not want him to perform.

THE BIG TRICK (write this down right now) is that you must be consistent. If you tell them to not do something and they go ahead and do it again, you have to get up out of the chair, go over and do something about it. Either take away the toy that he is banging over his brother's head, make sure they know you are serious, or send them to the stairs. If you say "don't do that or I'm taking that toy away" and they do it and you don't take the toy away, you've just told them that what you say isn't always the law -- that they can get away with stuff. Time and time again I have seen parents tell their child four times to stop doing something or they will come over there. With Tim I always try to tell him once. You must consider your child from a behavior training perspective. Although it takes time initally, investing the energy in getting up to handle a situation quickly will save you loads of time in the mid to long run.

Now, this said, the primary care giver is under immense pressure because of this. Your child will far too quickly determine exactly what drives this person crazy. They will figure out how to push all of the envelopes and how to ride the line to get away with stuff. They aren't evil, rather they are trying to figure it all out. They don't have a lifetime of experience to understand that you are just trying to help them. Try to be as consistent as possible and encourage the other people in your child's life (grandparents, babysitters, neighbors) to be consistent too. Grandparents can be a problem and often will need to be reminded about why you are doing it a certain way. Be firm but polite. They have more experience than you but it was probably decades ago. Just with your child, setting expectations before they come over, is a good idea.

Punishment is not the only place where behavior training takes place. If you child is trying to get your attention and you ignore them until they start screaming, you have just trained them to scream to be heard. You need to acknowledge their request quickly and deal with them. This doesn't mean that they can interrupt you and you should ask them to wait (especially if you are having another conversation) until you are done -- waiting is extremely hard for a youngster. If they nag and nag and nag until you let them watch that program or have a candy bar, guess what, you are training them to nag you. Be firm, be consistent. NEVER GIVE IN. I'm serious. There were a couple of times that Ro and I would talk about something and would agree that I told Tim to stop when it was alright for him to do it. But once you say no, be very careful, of going back on your word.

When your child gets older, s/he will specifically challenge you on your authority. Sometimes Tim gets so angry over nothing that it takes a lot of time to get him back to normal. This is a completely normal part of child development. You need to stay firm but also give your child some latitude to be independent. My mother used to say all the time "just don't look" when Tim was doing something specifically to be told to stop. As always, give them good reasons for why a behavior is improper (not just "I told you so").

I also think it is important to choose your battles. If you child gets into an argument with another kid, don't jump in immediately but see if they can figure it out. Certainly you need to keep things fair but don't immediately jump in -- this especially happens on the first child. If you notice in large families, the youngest is often the toughest because they had to fend for themselves. You want your little one to be independent so sometimes you need to train their behavior and then step back and see if the training worked.

Tim's in kindergarden now and during a teacher meeting last week, his teacher said that her goals for the kids are to have them:

Well said.

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