The Power of Positive Attention
"Why won't my kid just LISTEN?" is probably the most common complaint I get from parents of children of all ages. They want to know why their child seems to zone out the minute they're asked to take a shower, or to put on their shoes. They want to know why they need to ask fifty times before their child brushes their teeth.
My first tip is always to focus on giving the child more attention. The parent-child relationship is the most important one we have, and when it's strong, it can be a valuable tool to give children the right kind of attention: praise.
Research shows, time and time again, that behavior that gets rewarded will be repeated, while behavior that is ignored will be weakened. In reality, this dynamic plays out in parenting daily, as any behavior to which a parent responds (positively OR negatively) will likely be repeated. Parents typically do a lot of noticing of a child's negative behavior ("get down from there!" take your hands out of your sister's ears!"), but it tends to be harder to notice the positive things. Paying close attention to your child's behavior gives you an opportunity to notice what they're doing right -- AND tell them so.
Picture this scenario:
Sarah and Hannah are coloring nicely at the table. As a parent, you notice them, feel proud of them playing so nicely together (or at least not biting each others' heads off), and think about commenting on how nicely they’re playing. Then you realize that it's a perfect time to make a cup of coffee without a child hanging on each foot.
Staying away is probably (let's face it: definitely) easier in the moment, but you would lose out on a fantastic opportunity: the chance to catch the kids being good! This is the opportunity to reward your children for their cooperative play using that focused attention in the form of praise.
Not all praises, however, are created equal. If you, as parent, decide to forgo your alone-coffee-time in favor of praise, you can walk in, tell Sarah and Hannah that they're doing a great job, and leave the room. They'll feel good about themselves (which is great in itself - we know that praise boosts self esteem), but will they know what they did right? Is parent happy because they used pretty colors in their picture? Did mom like the way they were sitting? Did dad enjoy the song they were singing while they played? "Great job" just isn't specific enough for kids to know exactly what they did right.
Therefore, When you catch a child engaging in behaviors you'd like to see repeated, make meaningful, descriptive and specific statements about the behavior you liked. This allows a child to know exactly what the you're looking for, and repeat it in the future. So, instead of “great job,” try, “I love when you two share crayons with each other,” or “I love when you play nicely with each other.”
If you consistently give children specific, meaningful praise for good behavior, you will begin to notice behavior change. Children naturally crave their parents’ approval, and providing focused attention and specific praise to constructive behaviors is the first step towards establishing a solid foundation for discipline and a positive parent-child relationship.