Catch your little ones being good

Bill and Imogen had three small children, ages 5, 3, and 7 months. Both Bill and Imogen worked outside the home and used a daycare to watch their two youngest while their oldest went to school. Their mornings were rushed as the couple to get everyone out the door on time and their evenings were full of tasks to complete like making dinner, giving baths, and putting kids to bed. It seemed to Bill and Imogen that they were constantly correcting their children to get them to move them through their routines. They felt frustrated that most days the last thing their kiddos heard were stern words demanding that they go to sleep. They wondered if there were a better way.

The modern family struggles to fit everything into a 24-hour day. It’s no wonder that Bill and Imogen felt rushed. Trying to get little ones to feel the pressure of finishing tasks is nearly impossible because small children do not understand the concept of time. Instead, they are focused on getting attention and connection with their parents. This difference in needs is what can make home life feel so stressful. Parents are pressured to move everything along quickly and children just want to slow things down and enjoy time with their mom and dad. When parents are rushed, it can be easy to only focus on the negative behaviors a child is having. So how can families keep the day moving along smoothly and make their kids feel great? The answer is to catch your little one being good.

Parents who have limited time to spend with their children and only focus on their kiddos when something negative is happening are actually teaching their little ones that bad behavior gets attention. Since small children developmentally need a close connection with their parents, the naughty behaviors that get negative attention are actually meeting their needs connect with a parent since no other options exist. This means that your little ones will repeat the behavior again and again in order to be seen by their parent. For little ones, negative attention is better than no attention.

Yet, there is a better way. Catching your little one being good is a great way to support positive behaviors. Saying, “thank you for listening the first time,” with a big smile is a wonderful way to motivate a child to follow directions. Praising a child for putting their dirty clothes in the hamper is an easy way to encourage them to repeat the action again and lessen the need for you to pick up their room. Cueing your little one with words like, “I know you will stay in your bed tonight after reading books,” and then rewarding them in the morning with big hugs and kisses for staying in their bed is a fantastic way to make them feel connected to you and proud about their ability to participate in the family.

Adding kind words to routine tasks can also be an effective strategy to helping your child feel connected to you. Examples could include:
• “Thank you for sitting still while I buckled your car seat.”
• “You are doing a great job standing still while we wait.”
• “It is so nice to see you eating your dinner so calmly, so your belly gets full.”
• “I like when you use your indoor voice when playing inside.”
• “You are such a big girl/boy for putting on your own shoes. Well done!”
• Giving a big smile or hug

These little moments of attention and connection can make your kiddos feel seen and loved. When children have their needs met, they feel less motivated to act out in an attempt to get their parents’ attention. A steady stream of small connections throughout the day is a very effective way to make the day flow more smoothly. Over time, these changes can free up time because there is less friction in the family and all the energy is moving towards positive interactions. Little ones thrive on receiving love and attention. By making this a focus each day, you will be able to better meet their needs as well as your own.

Owen, D., Slep, A., & Heyman, R. (2012). The effect of praise, positive nonverbal response, reprimand, and negative nonverbal response on child compliance: A systematic review. Clinical Child and Family Psychological Review 15(4), 364-385.

Swenson, S., Ho, G., Budhathoki, C., Belcher, H., Tucker, S., Miller, K., & Gross, D. (2016). Parents’ use of praise and criticism in a sample of young children seeking mental health services. Journal of Pediatric Health Care 31(1), 49-56.

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