Our son Soren is pretty much the most adorable little boy you could imagine. Observe. Soren’s the one on the left. That’s his “cousin” David on the right.
He is also fairly obedient. Truth be told—he’s been struggling with obedience lately, but still. He’s a really great boy. He loves his mama and dada, loves seeing “friends!” (anyone he gets to interact with), loves cleaning, loves helping, and loves snuggling. His enthusiasm for life is inspiring. He is tickled with the very existence of things. He is a true philosopher: filled with wonder. Not just curiosity about how things work, though he has plenty of that, but awe at the fact that they do. Awe at everything. Everything is peculiar to him. Everything is neat. He has an unquenchable thirst for life. More life!
I have a long list of worries. I am worried about discipline—I don’t know how to do it. I am worried about his education. I am worried about his relationships. I accidentally smacked him in the face in the dark the other night and I worried I had already done psychological damage he’ll have to work through one day in counseling. I am worried he won’t be charitable enough or hard working enough or know how much we love him no matter what. He woke up crying very abruptly the other night and Lindsey mentioned it was probably a nightmare and the very thought of my sweet little baby son having a nightmare broke my heart. When he cut his chin on the curb it really impacted him. He points to it in remembrance every time we explain to him that someone else has a hurt, and more recently every time he observes for himself that someone else is hurt. There was blood. He has a scar. The fact that it happened just knots me up!
Anyway we often get asked about parenting and how we get him to behave and what principles make sense to us because people know we (Lindsey) does a lot of research and has multiple relevant graduate degrees, etc. I think I’ve boiled it down to 5 principles that have so far stood out the most to me as being particularly effective for behavior modification, character formation, and general healthy development. Ask me in a couple years and the list may be different (and my child might not be one to make one ask, either; who knows).
Whatever we do, we try quite hard to do consistently. This means we all have to be on the same page. Not just Lindsey and me, but Lindsey’s mom too, as she watches him often enough to be considered something of a primary caretaker. Inconsistency confuses. Consistency convinces. Consistency makes habit.
Consistency takes endurance. Not Ironman endurance. Just more endurance than a one year old. Which is almost as strenuous, and to be honest, sometimes even more so, in part because it can be required at unexpected times.
If we say something, we try very hard to do it. This goes for keeping our promises, like “you may have a snack when we get home” (even when we know he doesn’t understand the vocabulary used in the promise), and it goes for threats, like “if you throw that food on the floor, then you’re all done eating for tonight”. This does a number of things.
Followthrough teaches language. If we say something and then do not exhibit it, how is he to understand what the words we used mean?
Followthrough teaches boundaries. If we make a threat that we do not followthrough on, how is he to understand where the boundaries are? How is he to learn obedience or to trust that we mean what we say—how is he to learn honesty?
Followthrough teaches parents. It taught us, fairly rapidly, not to make threats we cannot carry out or wouldn’t want to if we had to. Admittedly, this occasionally leaves me without anything to threaten. I sometimes feel powerless because I have no consequent to the antecedent condition I want to mitigate. But you know what would make me feel even more powerless? A 5 year old who knows I won’t do anything if he runs away when I call him back. An adolescent who feels free to strike his siblings because there won’t be any consequences for doing so. A teenager. And one who doesn’t believe his parents mean what they say or are willing to respect their own boundaries would be even worse.
3. Positive Reinforcement
We reserve the right to punish, and do punish. But we reinforce positive behavior far more often, and we could not be happier about it. How often do you see kids acting out for attention, and getting it! Oftentimes it is in the form of discipline or some semblance of it—but it’s attention, which is what they wanted. How often do those same kids do something right only to have it go completely unnoticed? It has been empirically shown that positive reinforcement is a more powerful modifier of behavior than punishment. The research is so strong in fact, that there is a movement to do away with punishment entirely. I’m not talking about some progressive new age bleeding heart movement motivated by a contrived sense of compassion. I’m talking about hard-nosed behavioral scientists just wanting results, and believing that pure positive reinforcement is the most efficient means to that end. We don’t go that far for several reasons, but the point is that positive reinforcement is effective. And to me it just makes sense on a higher level, too. The focus should ideally be on what to do rather than on what not to do. Refraining from crime isn’t nearly as powerful as engaging in charity. We should be facing forward.
Our behavior is far and away the single most powerful driver of Soren’s behavior. Whenever I don’t understand something he’s doing, I can think back to a time when he saw me doing it or something that looked like it to him. Almost every time. And the anomalies are probably due to my selective memory or general lack of creativity. I mean, it’s simply amazing. The other day I was leaning against a wall with my arms and legs crossed and after studying me a second he went and found a place to try it himself. Heart-meltingly adorable. I punished him a couple times for climbing on the coffee table after telling him not to (10-20 second time-outs after saying “if you climb on the table, then time-out”). Later on David saw me sitting on the coffee table and called me on it! Soren will take a rag to the floor when there’s a spill because he sees grandma doing it. He would rather push the stroller than ride in it. I could easily go on.
It’s usually adorable, but it’s sometimes frustrating. He’ll want to do things he can’t or shouldn’t. Sometimes that’s ok and even good, and we need to make room for it, even if it means it’ll take us longer. For example, he loves sweeping, but isn’t very good at it. Completing a sweep of the kitchen will take four times as long if Soren is helping. But it’ll be worth it when he is an 8 year old who sweeps regularly because he wasn’t constantly told to go play instead of cleaning up. To him right now sweeping is playing.
Sometimes though, it’s neither adorable nor frustrating. Sometimes it’s convicting. Realizing just how powerfully my behavior affects my son’s is frightening and inspiring. But mostly frightening. May God help me to be a better man for the sake of my son.
What good is external behavior without love? What good is anything without love? The whole point of all of this or anything else is relationship. And none of this could be pulled off well anyway if it weren’t motivated by love. It’s all about loving and being loved. If some parents raise well-behaved children but have no relationship with them, they have failed. Abjectly.