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Are You Unintentionally Encouraging Bad Behavior? Here’s How to Switch That

encouraging bad behavior

Parents want to encourage good behavior from their children. But do you ever have a nagging suspicion that you’re actually encouraging bad behavior? Somehow, do all those well-meaning corrections and conversations end up encouraging hurtful behavior?

The energy we give to kids based on their behavior is like fertilizer. Whatever behavior we focus on gets “fertilized” for future growth.

It’s similar to the power of guided imagery or visualization in high-level athletes. Rehearsing what’s gone well can prepare them for more success. But if they “unintentionally have recurring images of missed opportunities, injuries, mistakes, and losses,” that also feeds a pattern of more of the same.

Let’s apply this principle to parenting. At Connected Families, we teach that “Focus is Fertilizer!”

Yes, your lectures may actually encourage bad behavior

Does this sound familiar? Your child does something you know they shouldn’t do again. It was a mess up. Now, it’s your job to go have a “chat” with them and make sure they know it was wrong…right?

Well… maybe you do need to talk with your child, and it’s true it’s important for your child to know what went wrong and why. However, sometimes we don’t give our kids enough credit. They often already know what went wrong. In fact, with a few simple non-shaming questions, they may tell you what went wrong, how they can fix the situation, and maybe even avoid it in the future.

Letting your child tell you the problem and encouraging them for their wisdom is great – because the more you criticize your child’s bad behavior, the more you fertilize it. Researchers concluded: “Parents may use critical statements to express disapproval with their children’s behavior or attitude. However, using criticism can undermine their self-esteem, lead to greater child defiance and aggression, and increase the likelihood of their developing behavioral problems.”

Here’s an alternative: Look for the good to affirm

Of course, you have to have some tough conversations with your kids, but it helps to attempt to give more attention to the good behavior than the bad.

However, here’s a tip: if you just start randomly affirming how great your child is, that might not encourage good behavior either. There’s a world of difference between, “Johnny, you’re so wonderful!” and “Johnny, wow, you saw the garbage that needed to be taken out. Thank you so much! You are getting to be quite responsible, and taking out the garbage will keep us from smelling the baby’s diapers.”

The first example may increase anxiety because Johnny doesn’t know why he is so wonderful or what might make him not so wonderful. The second one builds an identity of responsibility and grows wisdom about the helpful impact of responsible actions.

You can see that effectively fertilizing desired behavior requires thoughtfulness. That’s why we’ve developed the “ABCs of Affirmation” as a guide for parents. We hope this simple acronym helps you throw a little “Miracle Grow” on your children’s good behavior. (These concepts are not meant to be in a specific sequence, so rearrange the order as appropriate.)

The ABCs of Affirmation

ACTION – What positive Actions did you observe? With a smile and gentle eye contact, make specific statements that objectively describe what your child did or a positive attitude you observed.
Ex: “You cleaned up your markers and came right away to set the table.”

BENEFIT – What was the Benefit? Point out the natural benefits of the action or attitude to everyone involved, including the child. This builds wisdom about how life works and motivation to make wise choices.
Ex: “Now your markers won’t get dried out, and the table is ready for dinner.”

CHARACTER – What Character did it require? Make a statement about maturity or a specific character quality that was needed.
Ex: “It takes flexibility and self-control to stop doing something you love when it’s time to be done.”

Keep these affirmations short and sweet. At another time, you can help your child see that growing character is a beautiful “working together” of our wise, faith-filled choices and God’s work in our lives. “…continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” Philippians 1:12,13

Encourage your child’s good choices again and again

It usually takes less than 20 seconds to encourage a child with a few sentences of effective affirmation.

That said, it does require a heartfelt commitment to encouraging your child.

Intentionality about this is important because the researchers also found that parents tend to “overestimate their use of praise and underestimate their use of criticism.”

Philippians 4:8 has inspired many parents to “fertilize” their child’s helpful behavior with grace and affirmation – “…if there is any excellence, and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.” If your child is struggling with a particular attitude or behavior, be on the lookout for small instances of even a tiny step forward in that area – “anything worthy of praise.” Then, put some thoughtful detail into how you affirm your child. (Note: This helps with spouses and coworkers, too!)

This simple method can begin to change a family’s tone in a beautiful way. Patti, a mom in parent coaching, began to really focus on doing ABC affirmations with her challenging 10-year-old son, Devin. This kiddo felt grown-up when he emailed with his parents, and one day he actually sent Patti an affirmation email!

In his email, he wrote, “I liked yesterday how you commented on the good things I did rather than the bad things. And you didn’t do anything bad to the dog when he ate Luke’s birthday cake. If I had made a cake and spent my time on it, I would have really yelled at that bad dog.” Then he goes on to mention his dad, “I’ll think of nice things to say to you too, Dad, but I think today Mom needs it more.”

It wasn’t long before Patti also began to notice how much easier it was for Devin to say, “I love you, Mom.” The remarkable impact of a little more affirmation and encouragement!

Discipline That Connects With Your Child’s Heart registration is now open!

Are you looking for ways to tone down the chaos in your home? Maybe you feel stuck in default responses to discipline and know there must be a better way. You’re not alone. Once a year, registration opens for the moderated and supported version of Discipline That Connects With Your Child’s Heart. Don’t miss out! Registration closes on September 30th. Change your parenting for good.

Ready to dive in and learn more?

Learn more about our 8-session online course, Discipline That Connects With Your Child’s Heart.

Parent with confidence.
Discipline with love.

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Jim and Lynne Jackson
Jim and Lynne Jackson
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