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?!

The Importance of Being Heard

Pink Flower

© D Sharon Pruitt via WikiCommons

It always amazes me how something so apparently inconsequential can make such a big impact on meaning. In these two phrases, it is the simple change of one little vowel that makes all the difference:

One of those days … as in, where nothing seems to go right …

OR

One of these days … followed by a wistful wish for something

Language is beautifully, artistically, creatively giving. Yet it is simultaneously unforgiving in its demand for vigilance. A misplaced pause or a simple mispronunciation can alter the intent behind the words. Depending on your audience, the repercussions have the potential to be significant.

Now imagine you are a young child.

Your vocabulary and sentence construction are a work in progress. Your efforts at verbal communication are often further frustrated by a limited comprehension of the world around you.

You know what you need and want to say – but lack the tools and skills to vocalise it. What do you need in this moment?

  • A patient listener
  • Someone who is prepared to share a guess at what you’re trying to say
  • A person who will not mock you, but who will see your frustration and work with you
  • Suggestions to help you find the right words
  • And time …

When my children were learning to speak, I tried hard to meet all of these needs.

I still do, and always will.

Because no one – child or adult – can find the right words all of the time.

With this, I can truly empathise.

Part of my job as a writer is to play with words. I love this element of my work. Rolling them around in my head and seeing which way up they land. This is something that comes naturally to me in my native English. But is an eternal struggle for me in French, the language of my adopted country.

Every communication I make in French requires significant brainwork. And more often than not I know I’ve stuffed up big time on some element of grammar, or use of vocabulary.

Frequently when I was first learning French my attempts at communications were met with incomprehension or frustration. And it wasn’t pretty.

It was demoralising.

It made me want to cry.

It felt like my voice was irrelevant.

My self-esteem took a hit.

And every time we fail to hear our children we condemn them to the same.

To stay sane I would tell myself that ‘One of these days I’ll be able to speak well enough to make myself truly heard’.

After 10 years I have one of these days more often than one of those. But those days do still happen. They are a useful reminder of how vulnerable it can feel when you are struggling to make yourself understood.

So whenever I see that my children are having one of those days, I drop what I’m doing, and I pay as much attention as they need. For as long as they need it.

And I remind them (and myself) that one day, one of those days will become one of these.

The Conscience Gap

To Lie or Not to Lie?!

It all went quiet in the living room. That’s generally not a good sign. Between two kids and the dog there is usually some movement, muttered chunterings, outright yelling, the clunk, grind or blip of toys being used and abused. This is comforting. They are the sounds that say ‘All is well’.

But all went quiet.

All was clearly not well.

Thinking back, scraping the dim reaches of my subconscious, I had been aware of a sharper-then-normal clatter. The unnatural ‘crack’ of something that shouldn’t contemplate such sounds. These noises occur from time-to-time and something resonates deep inside when they do, like a primeval drive to leap in and sort whatever problem has arisen. Yet there also exists the parental-sanity-chip that overrides this drive. You know, the one that just hopes the sound never happened, and that the meaning behind it will quietly go away.

Alas, this time, no.

Joe appeared. Padding into the kitchen. Bowl in hand. Broken. He presented a studied picture of innocence. Pretty impressive in retrospect. He must have genuinely believed in the fabrication of a lie he was about to impart.

‘It’s interesting Mummy,’ he began … Even his body langauge had been sorted into a casual half-shrug and open-handed gesture of bemusement. He continued …

‘It’s broken, but I didn’t even throw it.’

Bam! In that simple phrase, at just three days away from the dizzy age of 4, my boy fell into the Conscience Gap. This is the name I give to the space that exists between the desire to Cover-Your-Backside-With-A-Lie, and the Knowledge-That-Honesty-Is-Best.

These two places are worlds apart, yet inextricably linked. And there is no way to reconcile them in the same sentence. The translation of my lad’s simple statement goes something like this:

‘Mummy, I know I shouldn’t have thrown the bowl, but the fact is I did. And it broke. And now I feel bad because I didn’t mean to break it, and I guess you’re going to be cross. I was just angry in that moment. It was an impulsive act, a burst of frustration that was never meant to cause damage. I want to be honest, but I’m not quite sure how to fess-up and avoid your wrath, so I’ll hedge my bets and tell an honest lie.’

‘It’s broken, but I didn’t even throw it.’

The Conscience Gap. A place where our children begin to learn about responsibility, and truth, and lies and consequences. It’s a tough place to be, but I’m glad he’s arrived and I can be alongside him to guide him through.

I don’t mind lies like this at all. They show me that he is slowly learning right from wrong. Their innocence means he is unafraid to test this new space he has found. And I can be there to hold his hand through his uncertainty. I’m proud that his conscience is kicking in. Maybe I’m doing something right after all.

May the Force-Field be with you

??????????????????????

 

‘What does this button do Mummy?’

Joe’s twitchy finger flies towards the On/Off switch on my laptop.

‘Noooooooo! We don’t touch that one sweetheart.’

The kids are fascinated by how I spend my time when I’m holed-up in the office working. They will regularly use all their guile to convince Daddy they are playing peacefully, and then sneak out of the house and run down to my writing cave to say ‘Hi’, brimming and grinning with their own cleverness. Unless I have an imminent deadline I don’t mind these brief interruptions – in fact, I love that my freelance life creates this possibility.

But.

I do wish my laptop was equipped with a protective force-field button. They gravitate towards it like orbital bodies on a collision course with planet Mum. Of course they do. It has winking blue lights. It beeps. And Peppa Pig lives inside the U-shaped-Tube hidden beneath the shiny back-lit keys. It bestows the gift of black-and-white colouring sheets to the printer on demand, and magically creates playlists on the ipod of all those chirpy songs from Disney movies. What’s not to like?

I can imagine that in their eyes the laptop receives an irritating chunk of my daily attention quota and has, therefore, assumed a somewhat mythical quality – ‘If Mummy devotes so much time to this piece of electronic wizardry it must be pretty special, right? And I’m a kid, so if it’s special – I WANT ONE!!!’

Hmm. I feel a make coming on. Surely a laptop can’t be that hard to create? And if it distracts jam-covered digits from my working lifeline for at least five minutes then it has to be worth the effort …

It was. Here’s how it played out:

What you will need:

  • Cardboard or thick card
  • Scissors
  • Paint
  • Plastic document sleeve
  • Sticky tape
  • Glue stick
  • Blue tac
  • Circular stickers
  • Colouring pens
  • Thin black or blue marker pen
  • Velcro

How to make it:

  1. Find or cut out a piece of cardboard or thick card that is just a little more than A4 length (30-31cm), and about 2.5 times A4 width (51-52cm). Lay it flat??????????????????????
  2. Mark a line at 15cm in from each end and create an inwards fold along each line – this will create a centre section that is just slightly larger than A4 in all dimensions
  3. If you have the time (and patience!) you can paint whatever colours you like, on both sides. My mini-Mummys were too excited to wait, so we skipped this step. Brown is the new black in corporate-kid world
  4. Take a plastic document sleeve (like the ones you clip into ring-binders) and place it squarely in the middle of the centre section. Use sticky-tape to secure it down its long sides. The strip with holes in can pass onto one of the folded sections and be secured there. This is you laptop ‘screen’??????????????????????
  5. Turn the card so that the narrow end is towards you and the length stretches away from you on the table. The strip of hole in the document sleeve should be on the section closest to you. Take some Blue tac and place a small blob under the bottom two corners of the card. Press them down onto the table in front of you to keep it still??????????????????????
  6. Reach for the top fold of the card, and lift and bend the top fold upwards and towards you, creating a triangle that acts as a stand for your ‘laptop’. Use two more blobs of Blue tac under on the top edge of the card to keep the stand upright
  7. Take some stickers and make a line of 11 small-ish shapes along the row of holes in your document sleeve. Use the marker pen to write the numbers 0-9 on the stickers. On the last one draw the On/Off symbol (incomplete circle with a small line cutting into it vertically from the top)
  8. Using other stickers if you have them, or colouring pens, create a ‘Keyboard’ of letters and other symbols on the flat section of your laptop. For small kids the Alphabet in the right order and a Space Bar is probably sufficient??????????????????????
  9. Ask you child to choose a few favourite pictures and insert them into the document sleeve. Place their favourite on top. This their ‘Screen’, and show them how rotate the pictures to keep it interesting. They can add new ones as they create them
  10. There is one final flourish to add. Unpick the Blue tac but leave it attached to the card. Fold the smaller sections in over the ‘Screen’ – the bottom section first, then the top one. Make a mark in the middle of the overlap on both folding sections. Take a small square of velcro and glue the fluffy section the bottom, and the scratchy section to the top. Now your kid’s laptop is portable??????????????????????
  11. Et Voila! A laptop – just like Mummy and Daddy’s??????????????????????

My two kids (6 and 3) loved this – I suspect any children much older than 8, or any that already have a wealth of electronic gadgets of their own may not be so easily fobbed off with something that doesn’t actually switch on, but you never know! It may not be a force-field, but it could just provide enough distraction to prevent your own kit being destroyed by inquisitive little fingers. It kept mine busy for about 30 mins (Ella) and 5 mins (Joe). Less time than it took to make. Naturally. But that’s not the point is it? Spending time away from the real thing and actually doing something with the kids is what it’s all about 🙂