The key to changing bad behavior – work toward the goal, not away from it

The key to changing bad behavior – work toward the goal, not away from it

As a psychologist, I have talked with parents about my share of behavior plans, sticker charts, chore charts, visual schedules, you name it…I have done it! And frequently, it is a similar story from most parents:

I want my kid to stop hitting his sister. I want my daughter to stop having attitude every time we ask her to do something. I need for him to stop getting suspended from school.

Our typical reaction to bad behavior from our kids is to take something away from them. To “punish” them.

Unfortunately, the way that most of us go about trying to change our kid’s behavior may really only be asking for additional problems.

Let me give you an example.

  • Imagine your partner says to you, “If you don’t do exactly what I want you to do, I am going to take something you love away from you.” For instance. If my husband said that he would take my morning coffee away if I didn’t make the bed every morning, I would be really irritated.
  • If he said he would take away my favorite pair of boots if I didn’t fold my laundry immediately after it came out of the dryer. I would resent him (Big time).
  • If he got frustrated with me when I told him that I just didn’t feel like doing the laundry today and he said, “Well if you don’t do it right now, you can’t have Starbucks ever again…” or “I don’t care if you feel like doing I, you HAVE to get it done right now.”

As you read this, all of this sounds absolutely ridiculous.

However for many of the families that I worked with, this is often how things go with our kids. We tell them that if they disrespect their teacher at school, then we will take away their favorite toy or video game. If they don’t complete their homework on time, then we take away screen time. If they tell us they don’t feel like doing their chores right now, we tell them that they have to because that’s when we want them to do it.

In general we simply don’t tolerate those parts of ourselves that we see in our children.

What we really need to do is to focus on working toward our goal rather than away from it. In other words, we want to work up to the things we want kids to do rather than away from the things we want them to stop doing.

The key to changing bad behavior – work toward the goal, not away from it

Let me give you an example of it this way.

  • Instead of taking away video games for being disrespectful…Flip this to work toward the goal rather than away… He EARNS 60 minutes of video games when he is respectful at school all day. He earns 30 minutes if he has been respectful all day at school with one instance of disrespect. Do you see how either way, he is getting video games? It is just how we approach it that really matters.
  • Instead of taking away screen time when she doesn’t complete homework… Flip this to work toward the goal rather than away…She EARNS 40 minutes of screen time when she completes her homework successfully. She earns an extra 15 minutes if her teacher reports she turned it in on time. Again. Same thing here. Either way, she is getting screen time. It is just our approach and her attitude about earning it that is different.

While this may seem like a small shift, it really makes a huge difference for our kids. And frankly for us, as adults, as well. Think about the example above. If I earned a new pair of boots after folding laundry immediately, I would be folding that laundry every day!!

So, as you think about the things your child is doing that you don’t want him or her to do, consider stepping away from using punishment as the answer. Holding that consequence over their head is not the way to get them to change. Helping them work toward the goals that they want is exactly how you teach them appropriate behavior, and long-term goal setting.

Give it a shot! You (and your child) will be glad that you did!

2 thoughts on “The key to changing bad behavior – work toward the goal, not away from it”

  • “In general, we simply don’t tolerate those parts of ourselves that we see in our children.” In my case, “She gets her drama from her Mama.” I like the idea of earning the privilege by first doing the responsible thing, rather than taking away or punishing for being like me.

    • YES! We have some things at our house that my oldest son does (like leaving his shoes in the middle of the floor) that I see myself do ALL.THE.TIME. So it is hard for me to reprimand him for doing something that I so clearly have been modeling for him all along. Monkey see, monkey do.