Kid got a bad attitude? Here’s how to change it
In an excerpt from her book ‘Laying Down the Law,’ Dr. Ruth Peters discusses the
need for consistent behavior modification
By Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D.
Updated: 8:15 a.m. ET May 20, 2006
latest installment from "Today" show contributor Dr. Ruth Peters' book, “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting
to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble & (Pretty Much) Under Control,” she shares advice on how to get better
behavior from your child. Here's an excerpt:
Connect Consequences to Behavior
guarantee you can get better behavior from your child. But there's only one way to do it. You must make it perfectly, unmistakably,
absolutely clear that what he does will determine what happens to him. No amount of nudging, cajoling, or, worst of all, threatening, will do a lick of good until you connect consequences to his behavior.
Psychologists have long struggled with the chicken-&-egg concept of what comes first - attitudinal or behavioral change. One group believes that folks must adjust their perceptions or feelings before they'll change their actions.
camp campaigns for motivating behavioral change first, with changes in desires, perceptions & feelings following.
As a behavioral psychologist I'm a dyed-in-the-wool member of the latter camp. I strongly believe that changing a person’s actions leads to changes in thoughts & attitudes.
using good study skill behaviors leads to homework completion & good grades, as well as increased knowledge in the subject.
child is well prepared for class, it's a more enjoyable & interesting experience. Usually that results in greater class
participation, even higher grades & a heightened academic self-confidence.
turn develops into feelings of mastery of the subject & increased interest. Voila! - a change that began as study skill behavior has resulted in the attitudinal advantage of interest & enjoyment.
Psychologists who favor a more psychoanalytic or Freudian approach wouldn't agree with me. They believe that folks can't change their behaviors until genuine attitudinal changes occur first.
with this notion, in my mind, is that I don’t want to take the time to talk people into considering change. Why waste weeks, months, or even years yakking about the need to see things differently when you can motivate your children to change their inappropriate behavior within a few weeks using behavioral methods?
more, behavioral changes lead to the development of valuable skills, such as increased frustration tolerance, self-discipline & perseverance, that not only help your kids during
childhood but will follow them into & thru their adult years.
their future spouses, employers & children will thank you for your diligence during this time!
I’ve found that the effective use of consequences & teaching what I call the “behavior-consequence
connection” are the most efficient ways of gaining better behavior as well as genuine changes in kid attitude.
law & the 2 that follow, you’ll learn the simple but effective parenting tactics that make changes fast & make changes that last.
Okay, let’s try some old sayings on for size. How about, “What goes around comes around,”
“You get what you pay for,” “You reap what you sow.”
these mean the same thing - that what you do (your behavior) determines what will happen
to you (the consequence). That, in a nutshell, is the essence of the behavior-consequence
connection. Try as we may to be new & innovative, those old sayings still fit. We simply can't avoid this inevitability of human nature.
believe that good things come to good people, that those who persevere & persist achieve their reasonable goals & that slackers end up bitter & resentful. Sure, some folks sneak by & get away with cheating once in a while or run a red light & avoid a ticket, but in the long run it all catches up with you.
we must teach our kids that they're the masters of their destiny. Blaming others for defeats or failures is a waste of time, energy & self-pride. Most of all, we need our children to take responsibility for their behaviors on a daily, weekly & long-term basis.
Kids Learn Fast
Let’s take a look at how this
learning occurs with your child. She wasn’t born with the knowledge of repercussions of behavior, but the training begins
almost immediately following birth.
a few hours your beautiful newborn started getting the hint that if she cried, she would be cuddled or fed. As a toddler she
caught on pretty quickly to the idea that holding on to a table top or your hand would help keep her steady as she learned
a little more practice, she probably felt confident enough to start cruising around on her own.
As she gets older the learning continues to grow in complexity. In preschool she won’t innately know that
she should sit still at circle time as her teacher reads a book - she must be taught to do so.
school she learns about following rules by being praised for appropriate behavior (turning
homework in on time) or by sitting out recess for horsing around during class.
With multiple teachers & classes to deal with in middle school, she may learn the behavior-consequence connection the hard way - by bringing home some atrocious report cards.
approach to the school day usually doesn’t cut it. This means incomplete homework or being unprepared for tests. And
her grades will show it. Mom & Dad are usually less than thrilled with the result & then the hammer comes down - being
pulled from certain after-school activities or grounded altogether.
In high school the pressures, responsibilities & dangers grow. With driving & curfews come rules that she may choose to obey or disregard, with drastic consequences.
As a teen she’ll meet kids with all types of values (ranging from horrific to terrific) & she must make behavioral
choices as to whether to engage in substance use, sexual activity, or slacking off academically.
worked with many teens over the years who ignore or flat-out deny that their behavior has real consequences, or they admit it but resent the adults who remind them & attempt to make their
lives miserable as a result.
I’ve also met many kids who are rarely allowed to feel the repercussions of what they do. Mom or Dad may
“fix” the problem for the kid (repair a damaged car without the teen pitching
in with some of his own money), defend the child inappropriately (“My Tommy would never come up with the idea of sneaking
out at night. Your Johnny must have pressured him into it!”), or ignore the behavior altogether (not checking or commenting upon poor report cards).
well-meaning, folks who don't allow their children to be held accountable for their inappropriate behavior actually deprive them of learning the behavior-consequence connection & perpetuate the myth that whatever they do is okay.
One of the best examples of a thickheaded kid not being trained to respect the behavior-consequence connection was Chance - a real cutie whom I first met when he was 12 years old. His mom brought him to see me because he was about to
be booted out of his private-school classroom for acting up as well as failing to complete homework or to study for tests.
class, Chance was hysterical - he could break up the class with his stand-up comedy at a moment’s notice & he was usually game for some impulsive risk-taking, especially if it involved entertaining the troops by making rather gross body function noises.
thing was that although he spent more time fooling around than paying attention, Chance consistently
made great grades, report card after report card. His parents weren’t concerned that he displayed few, if any, study skills & they thought that his antics were actually amusing.
After interviewing Chance, though, I found little humor in his irresponsible attitude toward his studies as well as his behavior toward his classmates & teachers. At 12 years of age & in the 6th grade,
this intellectually gifted child was able to get by academically by depending upon his excellent memory & terrific verbal
a knack for eliminating incorrect answers to multiple-choice questions & could produce an essay with ease. That is, in
the 6th grade. I cautioned this young man that his intellectual & high-level reasoning prowess would take him only so far & that in the not-too-distant
future his lack of organization, planning & study skills would catch up with him.
Chance wasn't buying into my predictive abilities & since his folks didn’t seem to care whether he did his math
homework or not (as long as the grade on the report card was acceptable),
he chose to continue his irresponsible ways.
end of the school year, the administration had had it with him, & his admission contract wasn't renewed. So, off to public
school he went.
I next caught wind of Chance in his senior year in high school. Although no longer quite the cutup of his middle-school
years, he still didn't see the need to do things that weren't particularly interesting or fun.
was sloppy, if completed at all & he continued to rely on his intellect to get him thru his classes. But it was no longer
working - Chance was learning the hard way that without the proper behavior (studying),
negative consequences would occur (a poor grade point average & low SAT scores).
brought him to see me at that time because Chance was becoming depressed. Most of his friends were headed to 4-year universities in the fall, yet Chance hadn't been accepted at any of his choices. He'd have to do his time at the local community college & if he got his act together & made
good grades, perhaps he'd be able to hook up with his buddies for his junior year in college.
years old, Chance was finally getting the message & was beginning to regret his irresponsible ways. But he was going to have to pay the price & bear the consequences of his previous actions.
Think your child is just going to pick this up on her own? Willing to bet her lifelong happiness on it? That’s really what you’re doing if you’re not actively involved in teaching this lesson.
she’ll run into some consequences with teachers & friends along the way, but there are so many more teachable moments
available to you at home & during family activities. She doesn’t have to learn thru pain. It can be done in a normal, everyday
fashion - without the dreaded sit-down formal lecture.
- When your little one grabs her favorite
cereal box off the shelf at the grocery store (behavior), say “no” & have
her replace the box on the shelf (consequence) & move on. If she asks politely &
it’s a reasonable request (behavior), say “yes” & have her put the
cereal into the shopping cart (consequence).
- When your grade-schooler “forgets”
about some homework until bedtime (behavior), set the alarm clock for 30 minutes earlier
the next morning (consequence) so that she can get it done before school.
- If your middle schooler leaves her lunch
money at home (behavior), don’t deliver it to her. She can either go hungry that day
or mooch some food or cash from her friends (consequence).
- Your heavy-footed (behavior) 17-year-old can pay for her own speeding ticket or attend Saturday driving school for a few weeks
(consequence) rather than you taking care of the bill for her.
The faster that kids learn the connection between what they do & the effect that it has upon others, the faster they begin to understand the idea of responsibility & outcome.
to think before acting, are less impulsive than their peers & are often socially & academically successful. In addition, home life is much more comfortable as you find yourself having to nag & remind less, activities not only frustrating to you but very annoying to your child.
Moreover, the ultimate goal of guiding your child into a self-disciplined adult is achieved. Kids who are allowed & encouraged to learn the behavior-consequence connection evolve gracefully into responsible adults.
chores or obligations are handled appropriately & challenges are seen as just that - something to be accomplished, not problems to be avoided.
Living the Law
It’s never too soon or too late. Realizing that brand-new babies
begin to make the connection between what they do & what they get should solidify the idea that your 13-year-old daughter can understand the concept also.
give up on her - even if she professes to “forget” or to “just not get it,” don’t buy into that.
She’ll figure it out quickly if there's something in it for her - be it positive or negative.
Take advantage of teachable moments. Although
you don’t need to go on & on about the behavior-consequence connection, if you see an opportunity (& there’s probably at least one
each day), bring it to your child’s attention.
that doesn’t mean that you’re constantly criticizing the kid. You’re just teaching her that making fun of
her friend may lead to retaliation or at least a lessened friendship, or that getting a speeding ticket on her record will
mean higher insurance premiums for years to come.
Watch out for feelings of entitlement. Be careful that your children don't take everything for granted - make them work for their allowances & privileges so that they
see that effort leads to results!
they complain that it’s unfair that they have to work more than their friends, call a family meeting to discuss why you're making such a fuss about the
behavior-consequence connection & why living it is so important to your family.
Check your own behavior. It’s really not a good idea to run a
red light or to do one of those “rolling stops” at the stop sign. Even if you don’t get a ticket from a
policeman, your kids may believe that there are 2 sets of rules out there - one for your family & one for the rest of the world.
they're watching how you follow the rules & will most likely behave in a similar manner as they grow.
Don’t assume anything! Presuming that your kids will understand the connection just by attending school or playing with the neighborhood children is risky business. You may get lucky & have a mom
or dad down the street who points out the behavior-consequence connection to your kid, but most will not.
tend to be reticent about disciplining other people’s children. So if you hear that your child acted up at a friend’s
house or misbehaved in school, do something about it yourself. Sure, it may be double jeopardy, but I’d rather have
the idea securely instilled in your kid than take the chance of it not becoming part of her personal value system.