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Be the CEO of Your Household

Parenting in the Age of COVID-19

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Well, here we are.  Confined to our homes.  Working, parenting, cleaning, cooking, foraging for supplies and, to make matters worse, serving as our kids’ teachers.  Yikes!  We are being pushed to the limit every minute of every day.  Many of you are likely wondering how you are going to survive all of this. I know I am, and I’m a child professional!        

So, as an expert in behavioral science, I thought I’d offer some advice about how to better survive all of this – starting with how to become the CEO of your households and effectively manage your kids’ behavior.    

When the world spirals out of control, taking control of things in your own life becomes vitally important.  Now more than ever, we need to trust science.  We need to trust the doctors and scientists telling us to stay home and obsessively wash our hands.  We also need to trust behavioral science, which has made important discoveries about how we all learn to behave, including how children learn to behave in maladaptive ways that drive parents completely nuts. 

Behavioral science has determined that we learn through the repeated reinforcement of our behavior over time.  As we behave, and that behavior comes into contact with reinforcing consequences in the environment, it increases in strength until it becomes established as a permanent part of our repertoire.  In other words, with enough repeated reinforcement over time, behavior becomes habitual.  Habits can be adaptive or maladaptive, and all habits are established through the same learning process: repeated reinforcement. 

Unfortunately, how learning occurs and how habits are established is widely misunderstood, which results in a lot of annoying behaviors being reinforced by accident.  In other words, kids learn a lot of bad habits like whining, crying, not listening, not completing tasks, not cleaning up after themselves, or fighting with siblings.  The good news is that, as annoying as these kinds of habits may be, they were all learned through their repeated reinforcement and can be effectively replaced by reinforcing adaptive alternatives instead.   

More often than not, parents react to their kids’ bad habits by yelling, nagging, lecturing, or using punishment of some sort – like removing privileges.  However, behavioral science indicates that we should reinforce good habits as much as possible rather than reacting when bad habits show up.  Parents need to be the CEO, determining when their children get paid.  Children are paid off by lots of things – parental attention, avoidance of demands, or access to preferred items and activities.   So, parents need to ensure that when their kids receive a pay off, it’s contingent on good habits rather than bad ones.   

To accomplish this end, parents need to reevaluate what their children have on-going access to.  Positive attention from a parent, a break from a demand, or access to screen time or another preferred activity should be provided when a child does something that we want them to continue doing.  If your child whines or complains about completing schoolwork – that’s not the time to pay them off with a break.  Whining and complaining should be ignored until the task is completed.  When your child completes a task, provide copious amounts of praise and access to a preferred activity of some sort. 

I have provided a lot of coaching to parents throughout my career, and my mantra has always been “Catch them being good.”  Rather than yelling or lecturing when bad behavior occurs, take the time to notice all of the amazing things your kids do throughout the day and praise them for it!  When your kids are playing nicely together, tell them how awesome it is!  Say something like, “You guys are playing so nicely, I’m so proud of you.”  Praise good behavior as much as you possibly can.  When bad behavior occurs, the best thing to do is not react at all!  I know that statement sounds nuts, but reactions to bad behavior can actually reinforce the behavior that you don’t want to continue to occur. 

More often than not, ignoring is the most powerful consequence for bad habits.  If your kids are fighting over a toy, remove the toy and walk out of the room without saying a word.  If your child is complaining about completing a task, calmly remind them of what they are earning and leave it at that.  They can refuse to complete the task, but they won’t gain access to their preferred activity until they do.  Don’t continually nag or remind them.  Tell them once.  “When you finish your math assignment, you get 20 minutes of screen time” and walk away.  End of interaction.  Conserve your energy and attention for when they are behaving the way you want them to.

Being the CEO of your household requires patience and persistence.  It requires that your children are continually EARNING access to privileges rather than having free access to everything they want and then losing that access when bad behavior occurs.  You need to flip that ratio around.  A CEO doesn’t pay their employees for back talking, whining or complaining, refusing to work, and sitting around staring at a screen.  Parents shouldn’t pay their kids off for this stuff either.  Manage your house like you would manage your business.  Reinforce hard work.  Set rules and provide lots of reinforcement when those rules are followed.  I promise, you’ll wind up with a household you don’t mind being confined in.

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