Why Setting Expectations is Key to Encouraging Positive Behaviours in your Kids

© Karammiri - Dreamstime.com

© Karammiri – Dreamstime.com

Have you ever noticed how children seem to sense when you need them to behave … and do just the opposite?

I’ve become aware of a pattern developing in this vein hereabouts. I only have to mention that we’re off to the shops, Doctors, or anywhere that requires me to concentrate on something else for five minutes and they’re off. With a glint in their eyes and hands clapping in glee they shift subtly into planning mode.

‘How can we make mayhem for Mummy today?!’

They invariably come up with a set of behaviours that deliver maximum disruption for apparently minimal effort. Not to mention the fun-factor of watching me flounder and fluster as I wrestle to maintain dignified control in public. Of them. And of myself.

Rational me knows that they don’t actually go through this process.

Logical me understands that they are just being spirited, and its my own expectations that create the stress.

Detached me sees that they are looking for boundaries in a different environment, and that it’s my job to define them.

But in the heat of a busy situation, where I’m following an important adult agenda of one form or another, I’m not Rational, or Logical, or Detached.

I Am Stressed!!!

And that’s completely allowed. But that knowledge and freedom-to-be don’t really help much.

Last week I took Joe on an Admin quest. We have been registering our UK car here in France, and Gallic bureaucracy demands documentary-hoop-jumping of Olympic proportions. Flushed with the success of Phase One (which I had completed in blissful solitude the week before) I embarked on Phase Two with Joe in tow.

And a foolish level of optimism.

As we waited, he spotted a water cooler in the corner. He clocked a slightly older child playing ‘Snap!’ with the retractable corded barriers. He saw the pens, dangling invitingly from shiny chains.

Our number was called, and we approached the desk. From behind a dense plastic barrier, thick with grime, a lady babbled at me as I juggled reams of paper. I was distracted. Joe sloped off to explore. My Mummy radar was tuned only to keep track of his presence, not of his actions. My brain was too busy elsewhere.

Halfway through my game of document-tag with the lady I became aware of hushed murmurings behind me. I turned in time to see that Joe had balanced a plastic disposable cup brimming with water atop the pole of the retractable barrier. And was priming the cord for an impressive (and inevitably soggy) Snap!

Papers scattering, I lurched inelegantly for the cup and managed to avert disaster.

Joe looked miffed.

I muttered a few firm words about ‘behaving’ in his ear and returned to the now impatient lady in her plastic cave. Minutes later, glancing nervously behind me once more, I found Joe about to surreptitiously scribble on the wall with a pen. Cue more slightly panicky words on ‘behaving’.

Joe looked resigned. I could see he was already gearing up for his next episode of Mission Disruption. In a mad brain wave moment I lifted him up onto the narrow counter next to me.

He beamed at the lady.

She glared back.

I shuffled my papers together. Phase Two was just about complete. I allowed to relief to seep into my bloodstream a little. The stress began to slip away. I turned to smile at Joe …

Just in time to see him lick the plastic window and blow a loud, spittle-ridden raspberry at the lady.

I didn’t stop to see her expression.

So what is going on in these moments?

This Adventure in Admin was just one example of how the children act out when away from home.

In the supermarket they love to rush up and down the aisles. And steal grapes.

At the Doctor’s they seize the handheld cheque stamp on the desk and thump out ink onto hundreds of post-it notes.

In the DIY store I am forever liberating sharp things from tiny hands, or evicting one of my small charges from a kennel or dog basket that’s on sale.

These environments are new. Exciting. Different from home. The boundaries, rules, and unspoken understandings of how life works at home don’t apply.

Fresh places require fresh limits.

When I muttered to Joe that I needed him to ‘behave’ while on my Admin quest he really had no idea what I meant. Sure, he knows at an instinctive level that standing still and keeping quiet would probably deliver Mum-smiles.

But really … he’s only just 4. To his mind I could have been saying any one of the following:

  • ‘Behave’ … like you do when you’ve just had chocolate (running madly in circles)
  • ‘Behave’ … like you do when you’re tired (irritable and a displaying a lack of impulse control)
  • ‘Behave’ … like you’ve just been told off (subdued and upset)
  • ‘Behave’ … like you do at school (largely compliant and doing what he’s told, when he’s told)
  • ‘Behave’ … like it’s your birthday (bouncing off the walls with excitement)
  • ‘Behave’ … well, you get the picture ….

Asking a small child to ‘behave’ in an alien situation is like asking them to suddenly speak a foreign language. Without direction they simply don’t understand. And it’s their job to try out different modes of being in any given situation until they work out what is acceptable. And what’s not. It’s no surprise they opt to try out the fun stuff first.

‘What kind of ‘behave’ do you mean, Mummy?’

So now, when we go out anywhere I make sure we chat in advance about where we are going. I tell them what they can expect to find in the new place. We talk about what other people may be there, and how they will be acting.

I lay out a pick-and-mix of behaviours that are okay for them to choose from in that situation.

And I identify and share a few possible behaviours that will definitely not be okay.

This advance boundary-definition sets expectations that they can safely hang their hats on. They know what’s coming. They are prepared. They feel safe and secure in that knowledge. And they can assume some responsibility for their own actions.

I don’t expect my kids to be perfect (in fact, I hope they never strive to achieve this unattainable non-reality). But I know they expect me to let them know what’s expected.

How else can they be expected to learn?!

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