Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

Getting Your Child onto the Right Path

“You don't start training a killer whale by hanging a bucket of fish 22 feet high and commanding Shamu to jump.  Even though Shamu may want the fish, the proper connections have not yet been linked up with the sequence of development of Shamu's natural talents....The trainers actually started out with the rope under the water, at the bottom of the tank. Shamu was appreciated, patted, loved and rewarded when he first happened to cruise over the rope accidentally.  Once Shamu had experienced rewards every time he passed over the rope, he began to make the connection: if I swim over this twisted thing, I get a snack and lots of love.  At this point, the trainers could begin, slowly and incrementally, to raise the rope.  Hallelujah! The willingness of the trainers to start with the rope at the bottom, creating succesess that would not otherwise exist, directly leads to a faster path of learning...” -- Howard Glasser

So often in my coaching sessions with parents, I hear about a child who is well down a path none of us would want for our children.  It's not impossible to turn kids around and get them onto a better path.  But it's a whole lot harder than making sure they start out on the right path to begin with.

So how do you offer your child whatever support is necessary for him to achieve a desired behavior, so that he thinks of himself as a kid who can please you, rather than a kid who is always disappointing you?

Psychologists call this scaffolding, meaning that parents offer the child the necessary structure for her to develop a new behavioral habit. But we could think of it as starting the rope in the water, and then rewarding our child every time he passes over it, and very slowly raising that rope.  In other words, you get your child on the right path by rewarding every step in the right direction. 

I know, you think your kid should already be falling asleep by himself at night, using the toilet, taking responsibility for his own homework, _______________(fill in the blank.)  But as with Shamu, kids don't learn by being criticized for failing.  And they don't learn when we "get tough" and shame them.

Like most humans, children learn when we start from where they are and help them to succeed, one step at a time.  I'm not for a minute suggesting you should lower your standards. I'm suggesting that you help your child meet your high standards by starting where he is and teaching him how to get himself there. 

With sleep, we teach them to fall asleep by themselves one step at a time.  With potty training, we give our child the experience of success by letting her drive the process. With homework, we begin by being present while all the homework is done, insuring not only understanding but executive organizing, gradually stepping back as our child takes more and more responsibility.

In each case, this "scaffolding" takes more effort from us. But the end result is that our child internalizes a feeling of accomplishment that strengthens her character, her confidence, and her ability to manage herself. Your child  becomes motivated to please you -- and herself.  Discipline becomes unnecessary. Your child is on the right path.

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