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Thoughts on behavior intervention

This morning was an eye-opening 2 hours. I took time out of my Saturday morning to go to a seminar put on by our school district titled, "Common Behavior Strategies for Home, School, and Community." It was given by the district's brand new Behavior Interventionist who has her MSW and works with all the schools in the district alongside the social workers.

I picked up a few good tidbits here and there that I will find useful. But it was useful in far different ways, too. Parents in the room were more than willing to get into the behavior specifics of their particular children. And, sometimes, it's nice to do a check-in and figure out, "hey, I'm doing ok." What I walked away thinking was that we're doing a damn good job with our children. Not to say we're perfect and I won't be changing a few things in my parenting. And not to say that the parents in the room aren't doing a good job with their children.

On the whole, however, I came away noting that parents are very uptight and hung up on things. Part of our success, I think, is that we eliminate a lot of typical problem-areas for other families by not concerning ourselves with the topic at all. More on that later. But the way the presenter would phrase it, probably, is that you have to examine your values system...a lot of the problems encountered by the parents in the room was that their values system is in conflict with a few underlying principles of being a kid.

For example--let me think of one not used in the seminar, too, so I'm not violating any privacy--if you constantly fight with your child over them talking on the phone too much, maybe the problem there is that you've placed too much value in your system on quantifying the time spent on the phone. One theme of the meeting was not placing value judgments and instead asking if something is working. Well, the reason you and your child are fighting over the phone use is that you, as a parent, are getting all caught up in your value judgment of them being on the phone as negative.

Let me back up here to say that the foundation of the presentation is pretty easy to understand for anyone with a background in, say, animal training or psychology. Human behavior can be changed, it responds to the environment, and you can change the behavior by changing the environment. Got it? One question I would have loved to ask (I started, but didn't get a chance to really get into a detailed conversation with her) is whether or not she thinks this system turns behavior into an input-output system of duality.

By that, I mean that the talk and the parents in the room by and large are running on the assumption that you have a set of expectations of your children and we anticipate-and-change inputs or punish/reward to get different outputs. This assumption, I would argue, fails to produce independent, intelligent future behavior though. Which comes back to why I think we're successful in our household as parents is that we've actually opted out of much of that system. Being rigid, in my opinion, is not generally useful when it comes to kids.

There are, obviously, some situations that you can't opt out of that created conflict. Your child has to eat. Your child has to go to school. But a more easygoing attitude as a parent automatically lowers the stress level where you can set up modeling and guiding as behavior strategies more than reward for arbitrary hoops jumped through.

Rather than looking at the parent-child relationship as a "my job is to make sure my kid brushes his hair and does the dishes" an alternative is to have a limited number of out-of-bounds behaviors with a wide open field of possible, approved choices where kids are left to their own devices to make choices, see outcomes, watch you for learning, and open communication lines for the teaching to take place. One of the things that disturbed me about the model of parenting/teaching that was laid out in the session was that it presupposes a very opposing relationship even as it seeks to minimize that adversarial positioning. You still see it as a parent in charge of all aspects of a child's social, emotional, mental, physical, hygiene, whatever. No blame there though, I'm not pointing fingers at individuals. I'm saying our society tends to treat children as "less than" and parents have the "job" of molding our children into what we want/wish.

I don't buy it though.

Children already at age 2-3 are individuals, have distinct personalities, and are capable of giving you an opinion. My success as a parent largely comes from working with rather than against my children. Which is sort of what was being argued this morning. Though not totally.

Take computers, video games, social media and technology. I've written extensively about those so I won't go into detail here...but I will say that I found it very frustrating how frustrated parents get over their kids using these devices and the attachment they have to them. It's both an amusing generation gap and an unpleasant reality of being a modern parent that so many parents see these devices as the enemy. There's been a value judgment made that time with a computer or video games is bad, bad, bad. Then the parents are frustrated when they're in conflict with their kids over their use. Maybe the problem is with you, the parent! D'uh. You're in conflict with your child because YOU aren't listening about how important these things are in their life.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, most of good parenting is about changing parent behavior, changing your own attitudes and behavior. The kids? They're just being kids. It's your job as the adult to respond to them, alter your behavior to find a level of communication that works with them, and learn. We, as parents, need to quit banging our heads against a brick wall of "why won't my kid's behavior change" instead of asking "does the behavior really need to change?" and "if the behavior has to change then how can I help my child make that change?"

That, in my opinion, is what creates healthy, independent, responsible children is seeing an adult world that responds in a positive way to them, communicates, and evolves to bridge gaps. If you want to know why we have so many maladjusted kids you can start with maladjusted parents who think that saying something louder is the way to get a dog to run an obstacle course. Perhaps all parents should have to train a greyhound, ha! You will quickly find that A) greyhounds need a reward at the end if you want them to do anything and B) you don't just ask them to jump over a bar. You first have to show them, slowly, the right way to get the behavior you want. And, above all, keep things positive and end on a good note. Training our children isn't that different than training a dog. But how many people think smacking a dog's nose with newspaper is still a valid way to get them to stop peeing in the house?

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