“Make good choices!”
Every parent knows how this is supposed to work. They’ve read the books, they’ve heard the advice.
The basic formula for teaching children to “make good choices” goes like this:
- Set boundaries
- Explain consequences
- Be consistent
- “Good behaviour” results in reward
- “Bad behaviour” does not
Some children do respond beautifully to this system. These children just need a quick reminder, and they slow down. They colour inside the lines. They figure it out.
What’s the difference between kids who “make good choices” and kids who don’t?
What about the children who don’t earn those gold stars, and end up on the side-lines in time out every gym class because they’ve broken the rules of the game again?
Parents and teachers often go back to this formula to solve the problem.
- They try getting stricter
- They add more tempting rewards
When rewards and punishments don’t help kids make good choices
This formula would be foolproof if kids were perfectly rational and identical little creatures.
After all, they love the treats. They love the praise. They love you. Why won’t they hold up their end of the bargain? Don’t they want to behave?
This is where a lot of parents start blaming themselves for failing to make the formula work. Sometimes kids get the blame too, and adults give them labels like “willful” or “defiant.”
The keys to “good behaviour”
To make good choices and to avoid getting into trouble, we need to do three things (psychologists call these types of behaviours “executive functioning skills.”)
- Hold back or slow down
- Imagine what might happen next
- Be flexible and problem-solve when something isn’t working
All three of these skills improve as we get older. We gain experience. We find out what works. We learn to avoid what we don’t like. We build up a “learning history.” We still get distracted, we still behave impulsively, and conveniently ignore risk as adults, but hopefully we do get wiser (eventually, right? We’re all a work in progress.)
Some children are able to learn very quickly in this way. Life experience works as a great teacher for them. Those executive functioning skills come in pretty handy! These children can slow themselves down, remember the rule, and make a choice that helps them stay out of trouble.
Some children really struggle when asked to use those same skills. They don’t seem to “learn the hard way.” These are the kids who get the most reminders, punishments, and time-outs, but still don’t fall into line. They can recite the rule from memory, but the rule doesn’t seem to slow them down in the moment, especially when they really want something.
Why do some kids get the same life lessons but behave differently?
Children grow and develop at different rates. One child wins easily at a game of tag, while another child seems to trip over her feet. One child sleeps soundly, while another child is awake at the slightest noise. One child picks up reading like a duck to water, while another child struggles to make progress. These differences are just part of how our bodies and brains work, although practice and experience can help to bridge the gap.
Remember those executive functioning skills? Self-control, planning and flexibility? These are all functions of the brain. Neurologists are starting to map out the exact structures and chemicals, but here’s what parents really need to know:
Sometimes it’s not just a question of motivation.
“Good choices” are not just about what we want or feel like doing. Dr. Ross Greene’s research showed that teaching flexibility and problem-solving has a powerful effect on young people who struggle to follow the rules.
Ultimately, every choice we make comes down to three things:
- everyday life lessons
- overall health and wellness
- strong self-regulation skills
“Mom, I want to behave, but I just can’t.”
If you see your child struggling to stay focused or keep calm, but those everyday “life lessons” aren’t sinking in, it’s time to dig deeper. Medication and therapy might be helpful, but let’s start with the basics.
How about overall physical health? Just like adults, kids struggle to perform when they are not feeling well or they don’t have the energy they need. Here are some ideas for supporting your child’s choices from the inside out.
- Better sleep. Sleep disorders have been linked to hyperactivity, inattention and poor cognitive performance in children. Talk to your doctor and explore what physical and behavioural changes your family could make to improve sleep.
- More exercise. Cardiovascular exercise is good for our brains, whether we are young or old. When schools increase exercise opportunities for students, they actually see the results inside the classroom: fewer visits to the principal’s office, and better focus and attention. Getting outside, playing sports, and just playing for the fun of it is bound to be time well spent.
- Sensory activities. Although the research on this topic is still in progress, parents and teachers agree that certain kinds of movement, pressure, sound and tactile experiences can help your child to be more alert and calm. Look at what experience your child is seeking and notice what patterns emerge. Swinging, climbing, squeezing or even just hugging could be just what they need.
- Food and nutrition. Some children do have trouble eating enough healthy food to meet their basic need for energy and digestion, which leads to tiredness or constipation. Other children eat a variety of foods but still have nutritional deficiencies (Vitamin D deficiency is very common) Ask your pediatrician or naturopathic doctor if your child would benefit from a nutritional supplement or change in diet.
Brains in training: helping kids think it through
When children struggle and “make bad choices” in the moment, they don’t have many opportunities to practice a better choice. To give your child more practice using those planning, flexibility, and self-control skills, try these exercises:
- Talk through an upcoming challenge together. “What would you do if…?” “What if we can’t…?” “How can we make sure that we…?” Your child may find it easier to come up with the answers and plan ahead when everything is calm. The more stress, noise and pressure, the harder it will be, but this kind of conversation give your child a head start.
- Play pretend! Talking is great, but doing is even better! Let your child be the grown-up for a change, and don’t be afraid to get silly. This kind of play is great for building flexible thinking and planning in a fun and relaxing environment.
- Once upon a time… some children have trouble answering direct questions, but love listening to stories. Stories from your own childhood can spark your child’s imagination, and as they get drawn in, you can pause to ask: “What do you think happened next?”
A healthy body, a flexible mind, and a supportive environment with predictable boundaries will eventually work together to help your child navigate the world. Be compassionate with yourself, and with your child, and you will find your way.
p.s. Speaking of good choices and life skills…
I’ve created a Recipe for Success for families to help parents understand what their child needs most, and when you book a free call with me, I’ll send you the checklist. We can talk about your child’s strengths and struggles, and which missing skills might be the key to cooperation and success at home. I look forward to speaking with you!