One of the things I’ve learned from teaching thousands of children and being a parent myself is that a little hard work, in the beginning, can make life a lot easier and help us to forge a much deeper connection with our children. With a little groundwork, patience and compassion we can build a long lasting foundation upon which we can have an incredibly positive relationship with our children.
Below are my top ten tips for promoting positive behavior with children. Using these ideas I’ve seen remarkable transformations in children over the years and hope you’ll find them useful.
1 - Use humor - I always joke and have fun with all my students. Firstly it stops me taking myself too seriously, but it also helps to create a more positive and enjoyable environment to be in. Laughing and joking also helps build a connection with the child and sets a positive default energy for the relationship.
2 - Be consistent - Children crave structure. Sometimes it’s very easy to be hard on a child when we are grumpy or too lax when in a good mood. In a stable environment, they will be able to relax. Having to constantly second guess how they are expected to behave will create anxiety, confusion and stress - all things that trigger negative behavior.
Follow through on your promises and rules (barring unforeseen consequences) and stay away from empty threats. This way children will know where they stand and what is expected of them.
3 - Don’t negotiate - I often joke that I will never negotiate with terrorists. We all want our children to be able to make the right decision so often it’s tempting to burden them with complex decisions that they simply are not psychologically ready for. Some children can seem very articulate when your speak to them but their brains are still developing. Children seek to be led by their parents, but most children will instinctively assume authority if no one else steps up to take the lead. It doesn’t seem like much of a problem with a 4 year old, but it’s a nightmare with older children.
This is where reward and consequence can be used. Tell a child what you want them to do and give them a simple choice. Reward and acknowledge the choice appropriately.
4 - Be a role model for good behavior - We can not expect our children to exhibit good behavior if we do not hold ourselves to the same standard. Children learn through observation and mirror the things they see within their environment. There have been times when I’ve corrected a behavior on the mat and realised that it was something they’d picked up from me. Our children will often respond to situations the same way we do. This is why we need to constantly work on our own habits and behavior to be mindful that we don’t unwittingly pass them onto our children.
5 - Consequences and Rewards - A reward isn’t a bribe. It’s something your child earns for correctly doing what you’ve asked. It’s something that they’ve earned. The same is also true of a punishment. With punishment, it's important to make sure it is administered with a cool head. It’s very easy to let anger dictate the severity of the punishment we hand out. Here is an excellent podcast by a Martial Arts coach called Melody Shuman that talks about discipline and rewards.
6 - Be a parent, not a friend - This is sometimes a hard one. Naturally, we want to be liked by our children, but sometimes we have to do things that cause us to seem like the bad guy. I hate telling a child that they’re not ready for a grading and it’s heartbreaking to have to send a child off the mat, but sometimes I have to. Children will naturally push boundaries, it’s what they do and how they grow. It’s the parent's job to help prepare a child for life and sometimes this means we have to do things they do not understand.
It doesn’t get any easier, but you have to ask yourself what is motivating you to be part of this child's life. Is it the need to have a friend or the desire to empower them for the future?
7 - Try to avoid emotional reactions - Sometimes children can be infuriating. It’s so easy to scream and shout at them. But what sort of message is this sending? Disciplining a child needs to be dispassionate and appropriate. If they’re screaming and we’re screaming there isn’t a parent in the relationship. That’s not to say you shouldn’t raise your voice. I use a change of volume, tone and pitch constantly on the mat. What I do try to avoid though is letting my frustrations pour out and colour my thinking and actions.
8 - Do not offer affection too quickly - An unavoidable consequence of having to discipline a child is that they will emotionally act out. Usually, it comes in the form of tears or a tantrum. I see a lot of parents who in my opinion are too quick with the cuddles. Children act out because they have lost control of the situation. They’ve wanted to do something and you’ve denied it. You’ve taken away their control of the situation. Automatically they start crying and reach out for you. In my experience, this is a power play and I’ve seen so many parents fall for this. First, the parent denies the behavior, then the child cries and then the parent cuddles, lets their guard down and very shortly after the child’s doing exactly the thing they were initially denied.
In my experience, this behavior escalates over the years. Children learn that if they make enough fuss they will eventually get what they want. In adulthood, this can lead to some extremely destructive behavior. I will not reward negative behavior. What has worked very well for me in the past is to gently hold a child at arm's length, compassionately talk them down and then offer affection as a reward once they have calmed.
9 - Don’t expect too much and be prepared to get it wrong - Every child is different and there isn’t a blueprint to get this stuff right. Behavioral habits take time to build and time to retrain. Set small goals and offer rewards when they are achieved. Also prepared to say sorry if you get it wrong. There have been numerous times when I’ve been a little bit too harsh with a punishment on the mat or misinterpreted a situation. When I mistake I will apologise to the child. It’s really easy to put too much pressure on ourselves or let pride get in the way of acknowledging a mistake. This too is an important thing we can pass on to our children. Nobody is perfect.
10 - Don’t linger on the negatives and big up the positives - Once you’ve corrected and dealt with a behavior move on. Don’t linger on it. Often we want children to REALLY appreciate what they have done so we spend an age making them understand the error of their way. The trouble is children just don’t have the attention span to take it all in. This then frustrates us because we think they’re not listening but really their poor little brains just can’t cope with that much information. Keep it short and move on. Don't lecture.
One thing you should always do is try to end on a high. Yeah, they may have just been the spawn of satan but you must try to finish on a win. Even if that win was the fact that they eventually did as you wanted. It gets rid of that bitter taste of the negative behavior.
A good example of this is something I hear quite a lot at the club. A child might have had an off day and will have been ‘corrected’ quite a few times during the lesson. I’ll always try to find something positive to finish the session off. Then the kid comes off the mat and their parent berates them for being naughty. Personally, I want the child to come off the mat thinking, “Wow, Sifu told me to sit still a lot, but he said my front kicks were really good today.” The child only usually remembers the last thing you said. Subconsciously they’ve had a whole lesson of being corrected on sitting properly, but they only remember being told how good their front kicks were. When a parent then tells them that they were naughty this becomes the last thing they remember. Always finish with a victory, no matter how small, keeps things positive.
These are things that I’ve personally found have worked consistently for me over the years. There are many other approaches and these are not meant to be taken as gospel, but I hope they will give you some ideas on approaching behavioral issues with your child.
If you’re interested in the strategies we use at the Rochford Martial Arts Academy please pop along to the Academy and have a chat with our team!