To preserve parental sanity, sometimes you will need to run a tight ship in certain situations. In other areas, you will need to be more lax. Wise parents learn to ignore “minors” and concentrate on “majors.” A “minor” is a behavior that’s irritating, but doesn't harm humans, animals, or property – and even if uncorrected, does not lead to a “major.” This type of behavior-problem will most often correct itself with time and maturity. “Selective ignoring” helps your youngster learn to respect the limits of a parent's job description (e.g., "I don't do petty arguments").
One evening, two 8-year-olds were playing in their front yard, and they got into an argument over who was going to hide first in a game of hide-and-seek. No one was getting hurt. They tried to drag their father into the drama. He simply said, "You boys are too big to act like little kids. What difference does it make who hides first. I'm not getting involved." Then he walked away. The children got the point and settled the problem themselves.
As it turns out, the best course of action depends on the nature of the behavior problem. To help you determine your response, here are three questions you can ask yourself (your answers will help you decide whether it’s wisest to ignore your child’s behavior, or to take action):
- Is it bothering other people?
- Is it undermining your authority?
- Is this behavior dangerous to your youngster or someone else?
Let’s apply these questions to two different scenarios:
Scenario #1— Your next-door neighbor has gone on vacation for the week, so no one is home at the time. Your 6-year-old son decides to jump the fence and play with the dog in this neighbor’s backyard.
Now, ask yourself the three questions:
- Is it bothering other people? Potentially. Home-owners typically don’t like people on their property while they’re gone.
- Is it undermining your authority? Yes. He didn’t ask permission to go over there.
- Is this behavior dangerous? Potentially. There’s nobody over there to monitor your child’s activities.
Scenario #2— Your family has decided to go out to eat for dinner. Your child declares he only wants macaroni and cheese – nothing else! Despite your best efforts, your child refuses to consider any other food item on the menu and begins to whine and pout. Should you continue trying to persuade him to eat something more substantial?
Again, ask yourself the three questions:
- Is it bothering other people? No. He’s not screaming, after all.
- Is it undermining your authority? Not really.
- Is the whining and pouting dangerous? No.
In this case, it’s best to ignore the behavior. By doing so, you don’t reward your child’s poor behavior with your attention. Instead, simply place your order and go ahead with the meal. When your child stops whining and pouting, you can order for him. If he doesn’t stop, he misses out on a good meal, in which case he doesn’t have to eat the dreaded green beans that he was not in the mood for – but he also doesn’t get the mac n’ cheese. This technique may strike some parents as a bit harsh, but it works. Kids quickly learn that they can’t manipulate their moms and dads with whining and pouting.
You will discover that harmless (yet annoying) behaviors occur less frequently as your tolerance-level widens and as your reactions don't reinforce the child's misbehavior. It's helpful to get some practice in “selective ignoring” during the early years of your kid's life to prepare you for the challenges yet to come (e.g., a teen’s unconventional dress and hairstyles, loud music, and moody behaviors).
NOTE: Ignoring undesirable behaviors works best if you often praise desirable behaviors. Also, ignore the misbehavior, not the child.
My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents