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When and How to Ignore Misbehavior

When your youngster misbehaves, are you sometimes unsure how to react? Do you ever wonder whether it’s better to put an immediate stop to the bad behavior, or just ignore it altogether? You’re not alone. Most moms and dads face this dilemma. They’re not certain if it’s worth the trouble to confront the behavior rather than simply ride it out – and they worry that their attempt to change the behavior may only encourage more of it.

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:
  1. Is it bothering other people? Potentially. Home-owners typically don’t like people on their property while they’re gone.
  2. Is it undermining your authority? Yes. He didn’t ask permission to go over there.
  3. 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:
  1. Is it bothering other people? No. He’s not screaming, after all.
  2. Is it undermining your authority? Not really.
  3. 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


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Mark, for responding so quickly. I bought your e-book last week, so I haven't completed all 4 weeks, however, what you say really does ring true to me. My husband (who is on meds for depression) thinks our son is fundamentally flawed and should be shipped to military/boarding school. Our son is the absolute opposite outside of the home (respectful to his teachers, neighbors, friends, everyone else), is in Boy Scouts (is given leadership roles and have done well...earning top awards), is very active, had back surgery last year (has not been able to be as active...which is also making him cranky).

The part of different parenting styles, I believe, is what has done us in. On the way to his doctor's appointment today, my son, finally opened up and said he would do as we say if he could have his computer back so he could do his school work. I said "yes" if he did not fight with his sister, came to dinner, contributed to light dinner conversation (no button pushing from all parties) and does his chores. He agreed.I was so relieved. I've been tied up in knots. I called my husband to say what happened and asked him to not add any other conditions. He agreed. It is exhausting to manage everyone's emotions and responses to all of this. I know I'm not supposed to, but I feel that I'm the only one seeing the light of day. That being said, I know I've really been bad at nagging (a bag offense that I MUST get rid of). This month has been a huge wake-up call. I am desperate to keep up my part and hope that my husband and my son will too.

The main thing that ticks off our son is that we (mostly my husband) add on to the consequence after we've told him what it is. He goes absolutely berserk. This time of no talking has afforded me to reflect on my and my husband's parenting styles. He and I are seeing someone who teaches the Parent Project as private consultations.

I want to thank you for your wisdom to read my email. I'm not a religious or even much of a spiritual person. I'm more comfortable with facts and research, however, I plan on "praying" every night by reading and taking in your 29 statements as you have outlined.

Thank you for your time and are doing a wonderful service to parents,


Anonymous said...

Wow. Lisa, I thought we were the only ones out here! Your comment relly sounds like a clone situation as to ours although unfortunately ours has coem to a head and boarding school has become our alternative. I'm so glad that someone out there has the ability to "see the light" so to speak and be able to share their comments here. Susan

Lisa said...

Susan, I feel for you. It must be incredibly difficult to make the decision to send your child to boarding school. Sometimes we forget to "breathe". I know I do. My husband and I are celebrating our 26th anniversary this weekend. We must have done something right to stay loving each other for this long even with our difficulties and differences in parenting. I hope the best for you and your teen.


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