When you want to change or redirect a young child’s behavior, remember “Show and Tell”!
It is simple, really. Here’s an example. Your three-year-old throws a toy or object in a not safe way, and clearly to get your attention while you are talking with another adult.
Two things are at play here—your child’s need for attention, and your child’s need to know what is and is not acceptable behavior. When the goal is establishing a healthy relationship with your child, and helping your child build inner discipline, use the Show and Tell approach. Here’s the script:
You walk over to your child, or call your child to you if that seems like it will be agreeable. You are setting the stage here for good relationship-building.
You say, with kindness in your tone and in your loving eye gaze (because this is not an “out of control” situation, you want to set a tone of friendly, authoritative calm, NOT issue authoritarian my way or the highway directives) :
“Jenny, watch me and I will show you how to put that toy away.” (You areshowing and telling your child “the what, the something” that you are going to show him or her how to do —this is much more powerful than just telling your child what to do.)
You proceed to thoughtfully, carefully, and while sharing a genuine smile or two with your child, put the toy away. Make sure also to share some intermittent eye contact with your child–a friendly glance in your child’s eyes lets her or him know you are really paying attention to her or him and also to what it is you are doing (what you are showing her or him how to do).
Then, you immediately take the toy out again, step back, hand it your child and say, “Your turn! Show me putting the toy away.” Again tone of voice, loving eye contact, and kind mannerisms are crucial to good relationship-building. You are teaching your child much more than social manners—you are teaching your child to relate to his or her world in a satisfying and life-affirming way. DO NOT SKIP this step–it is powerful in-the-moment teaching and your child’s turn to practice!!
You watch your child with obvious appreciation, and either nod your head, or acknowledge in some other way that it is a job well done, using specific language when you do say words. This language is a part of the shared response to the situation. It shows your child that you appreciate the effort your child has made. You can say something like: “Putting the toy on that shelf works well doesn’t it?” or “I like how that fits right on that shelf, don’t you?” or “You sure know how to be careful putting that away!” and sharing a smile with your child. Look for your child’s response to that…when you have set a friendly tone, most often your child appreciates that as much as you do, and will most likely nod or agree, that yes that way of doing things does work out well for everyone!
Close that part of the episode by saying something like, “Now you know how to put that toy away carefully, and can do it whenever needed.” You have just empowered your child with an inner discipline tool–the capacity to make a helpful and sensible choice!
Finally, make a brief plan with your child as to what will be happening next— “Jenny, would you like to sit on my lap while I finish talking to my friend, or would you like to build me one of your tall, tall towers while I finish talking?” When possible, we can help build our children’s autonomy and decision-making capacities (inner discipline ingredients) by offering choices to our children.
A word here about shared response to the situation—remember your role as a parent is to love your child, and because of that you teach your child, as best as you can, how to live a fulfilling, satisfying, responsive, responsible, and most of all, loving, life. Shared responses do not commend behaviors after obedient behavior–rather shared responses acknowledge that something is “right” or working out well, and that you both put an effort in and both have a stake in the “positiveness” of the outcome.
You notice that built into all of this is your giving your time and attention to your young child, while still respecting that as an adult, you also have needs and desires that are to be valued. For a wide variety of reasons, young children cannot always wait for you to be ready for them. We are helping them learn to navigate life.
Dr. Maureen, Thank you for helping me expand the language of my young students! I can use your examples in my Kindergarten classroom as well! I connect this to when I was playing an apple tree counting game with children. After they showed me their skills, I could have reinforced and empowered them by telling, “You just showed me you can count to five ” or “You can do addition by adding those apples all together”! Maureen you are a language and childhood development genius. Thank YOU for your kind teaching!
Thank you so much, Laura. I appreciate your comment very much, and agree…once we get used to honing our language to reflect empathetic, encouraging, and empowering words, they begin to flow from us without effort it seems. It forms in us a new way of thinking…and the bottom line is always our genuine care for who the children are! That’s why your attention to whatever they are proud of, struggling with, or working toward is so important. Your attention lets them know that you know “who” they are!