Children aren’t robots and parents shouldn’t expect to be able to ‘programme’ an individual child into certain patterns of behaviour. Each child has his or her own personality, likes and dislikes, and purposes and directions in life. Having said that, you can do certain things to make sure that things don’t go off the rails.
1. Monitor friendships.
From a very early age, it’s wise to watch your child’s friendships. With whom do they consider themselves ‘close’? Whom do they call their ‘best friend’? If you think those people are bad influences -as can sometimes be the case, even amongst infants- then step in and gently nudge the child into more positive friendships by broadening their social outlook and introducing them to healthier environments. Vigilance has to be constant and diplomatic -you don’t want to ‘spy’ or ‘interfere’. but neither do you want to leave these things purely to chance: your child’s close friendships are the most influential things on them beyond the immediate family. Get clever at picking out the ‘good ones’ amongst your child’s associates and do what you can to subtly build those relationships, while gently distancing your child from any ‘bad apples’. Get the school’s cooperation in this if needed.
2. Keep to standards of behaviour yourself.
By having open discussions about expected behaviour when a child is alert, receptive and cheerful you are more likely to get agreements and cooperation with even very young children. Talk about positive and uplifting behaviour as often as you can -but demonstrate it as much as possible yourself around your child. They are watching you like a hawk to see how things ‘should be done’ and you are role-modelling in everything you do, from talking to your own friends and colleagues, to talking to people in shops, to talking to them as a child. While you can and should get their agreement to behave in certain ways, this will come much easier for them and for you if you realise that they will spend a lot of their time trying to imitate you regardless of what you’ve verbally agreed.
3. Encourage right behaviour with important rewards.
Whenever a child and even a teenager does something with which you agree, don’t treat it as a neutral moment or ‘normal’: talk it up, reward it and make sure that something good happens as a result. Yes, ‘good’ behaviour should be considered ‘normal’ -but to get that kind of behaviour consistently occurring until it becomes the norm takes some effort sometimes. Reward, reward, reward everything positive, even if it is only with specific praise and smiles. Don’t take it for granted. In this way, you build up your children’s ‘behavioural muscles’ and set a pattern for their lives.
4. Keep your temper.
One way to drive children away from you and to drill them into giving you robotic responses is to try to use uncontrolled anger to get right behaviour from them. In other words, irrational fury doesn’t work. Their instinct for self-preservation comes first, just as it does with you: they will seek to defend themselves before they will listen to an angry barrage. Far better to get a grip on yourself and your moods no matter what the provocation. As soon as you lose your temper, a child (or anyone else for that matter) ‘has your measure’ and knows just how far they need to push something to get you riled. Staying calm is about more than your own state of mind -it projects confidence and certainty into a child’s environment and opens the door to them respecting you. It might not always be easy, but it brings immeasurable rewards. Children and teenagers innately respect stability and will come to you for direction if they are assured that you are safe and not going to explode.
5. Be stable.
Following on from not losing your temper, try to be a point of stability in a child’s or a teenager’s life. If you are approachable, you will get much more communication from them. Approachability also includes a certain amount of predictability: when are you going to be around? When are the best times for them to talk to you? Conversely, when is not a good time for them to be trying to communicate something incredibly important? ‘Being there’ is a basic grown-up requirement -part of the job description of parenthood, if you like. ‘Not being there’ is a recipe for trouble -if you can’t be contacted, or if they are backed off from talking to you, they will seek solace and advice elsewhere, and who knows where that might lead? A child’s and a teenager’s life can be confusing and fast-paced enough: being a stable point in that maelstrom can bring peace and order to their lives.
Right behaviour isn’t a matter of issuing instructions and expecting them to be followed -it’s much broader and more subtle than that. Communication needs to be both ways to build the respect and confidence that underlies any positive behaviour in life.