Thursday, December 31, 2009

Five Rules for Good Behavior

So Jay G had some random woman make a stroppy comment about his parenting choices when he was taking care of a tantrumy child (if that wasn't a word, it is now) on a recent public outing with his family.

Firstly, I applaud Jay for not turning around and unleashing his full intellect, wit, and frustrations on said woman, thereby reducing her to tears... Having grown up among the self righteous Massachusetts liberal asses myself (Jay and I grew up about 40 miles apart, but otherwise nearly identical towns), I doubt I would have had the strength not to do so.

That sort of comment, of course, isn't intended to be any kind of genuine advice, or even criticism. It's called "assumption of moral superiority", and it's ALWAYS about the commenters ego, not about your actions.

Also, as far as I'm concerned, Jay was doing exactly the right thing with his child. You do not indulge tantrums. A tantrum is violent attention seeking, and granting that attention simply provokes more tantrums. If a tantrum continues beyond the first reproach, the proper response is to isolate the child from all interaction until they figure out no-one is listening to them.

That's exactly what he was doing.

Which brings me to what I wanted to talk about: How to raise well behaved kids.

It's not particularly complicated, and there is no secret; it just requires iron will, and absolute commitment... and the younger you start, the better off you will be.

We have, and have had since infancy, a zero tolerance policy for bad behavior of any kind. As a consequence, our kids are the most well behaved I've ever seen; and the many readers here who have visited with my family will confirm it for you.

They have literally NEVER, acted up in public (and only rarely in private), since they were old enough to understand the policy (about 2 years old).

The policy is simple, but VERY strict. There are no exceptions to it without special circumstances or reason, ever.

There's five rules for you to follow...
...but really, there's just the one... the rest are just details of how to do it

Here it is:
  1. Under no circumstances, will bad behavior result in you getting what you want. Ever.

    Until they are old enough to develop an independent moral and ethical sense; kids are selfish, greedy, self interested, self centered little sociopaths.

    The development of this moral sense is different for every child of course. For most it starts around 5 years old and is sufficiently developed sometime between ten and thirteen... but only with proper parental reinforcement. Without proper parenting, the moral sense will be week, will develop late, or may not develop at all.

    Until their moral sense is developed (presuming it ever does), you can expect a child to behave just as they are; selfish, greedy, self interested, self centered little sociopaths.

    If a kid thinks good behavior will get them what they want, they will behave well. If they think bad behavior will get them what they want, they will behave badly.

    If bad behavior is EVER tolerated, or worse, rewarded; they will learn that bad behavior can get them what they want, when other behaviors do not. They will then use that against you.

    Therefore, you must NEVER reward, or tolerate, bad behavior.
  2. Actions have consequences. Always.

    So does inaction; because it's just another action (the choice not to do what you were supposed to).

    You cannot get out of the consequences of your actions (or inaction), no matter how sorry you feel, no matter how you argue, no matter what you do.

    If you didn't want to be punished, you shouldn't have done wrong in the first place. It doesn't matter that you fixed it, or made up for it, you still have to take the consequences of what you did.

    We treat our children with respect, tell them why things are how they are, and what they did wrong, why it's wrong, and why they are being punished; but barring exceptional circumstances, we NEVER let them out of the consequences of their actions.

    Of course, we recognize that kids will be kids. Their balloon pops, and they are going to cry. Kids get upset about stuff like that, and that's fine. What's not fine is a tantrum, and trying to force or manipulate your parents into getting you another balloon.
  3. You can't punish someone if they don't know what they're doing is wrong
    "The Law" in families isn't like common law, where "ignorance of the law is no defense".

    Kids need to have clearly defined, consistent, realistic, and logical rules to live by. You need to thoroughly explain those rules, the reasoning behind them, and the punishment for violating them, before you can expect to hold a kid accountable to them.

    Of course, those rules are going to change over time and as circumstances change; and you'll need to talk about that as well. Rules are not "fire and forget".

    And remember where I said "realistic"? Yeah, that's rather important.

    There's a basic principle of leadership that applies here: Never give an order you KNOW cannot, or absolutely will not, be obeyed.

    You have to be realistic about the standards of behavior you can hold your kids to, and you have to teach them what those standards are before you do.

    You can expect a 10 year old to properly behave in a nice restaurant past 8pm. You can't expect that of a six year old. You can expect a six year old to behave in a movie theater, but not a three year old.

    If you set rules your kids can't follow, it's going to screw them up... and not just a little bit, it's going to screw them up bad. They'll end up having serious problems with rules, and authority, and a worldview that sees things as arbitrary and out of their control.

    If you don't communicate those rules effectively, and the reasoning behind them, that is just as bad. No, you don't need to explain the complexities of life to a three year old, but she needs to know "if you touch this, it might break, and it's very expensive" etc...

    You need to set appropriate standards of behavior, both in public and in private; and in general a sense of the appropriate (and the inappropriate).

    Our kids know that we do not tolerate whining, cheating, lying, stealing, hitting (except in self defense, or defense of others), weaseling, nagging, yelling, screaming (except in emergencies, or while playing outside), tantrums, fits, attention seeking, acting out, interrupting people who are speaking unless it's important, creating a public disturbance, manipulation, blackmail, soliciting bribes or any other sort of dishonest, dishonorable, or inappropriate behavior; under any circumstances, for any reason.

    On the other hand, they also know that they can have as much healthy attention they want, whenever they want it, just by asking, or for that matter just coming up for a hug; whether in public or in private. They also know they can always ask questions or try to make an explanation for their behavior, so long as it's not a manipulation, or in an attempt to evade punishment or break the rules by doing so.

    You need to make sure your kids can fit the rules and standards into their world view, so they can make good decisions using their own logic and moral sense, rather than just by rote memorization of your arbitrary rules.

    The flip side of that of course, is that they can't get out of being punished by saying "you didn't tell me that was against the rules", if what they did was clearly wrong, by all the logic, morals, and ethics you have taught them so far.

    Remember, the goal here is not to create obedient children necessarily (though that can be a helpful and useful thing), but to create healthy, independent, well adjusted, and well behaved children.
  4. When it comes to"crime and punishment" we treat our children like convicts in a prison.

    This is that zero tolerance policy I was talking about.

    No matter what it is, even if you earn it or deserve it, or it's yours and you aren't getting it, or it's yours and someone else took it away from you when they weren't supposed to etc... if you whine, cry, scream, or otherwise behave badly inappropriately, either at home or in public; you don't get it.


    Not just after you end your tantrum, whatever it is you were throwing the tantrum over, you will NEVER, ever, get whatever it is that you wanted.

    In fact, if your behavior was bad enough, you will literally never be allowed to have that thing, or do that thing etc... (whatever it was that you wanted) again; even if it's years later, and you have been well behaved... Unless you can argue your case to us and we officially rescind your punishment.

    For example, our daughters are NEVER allowed to have stickers, or paints (even washables), in our house ever again, even under supervision; because of an incident with a book of stickers, a wooden coffee table, some paints, and our living room.

    We MAY decide to relent when they hit their teen years. Maybe.

    We try to be fair, but we don't try to make punishments infinitely proportional. In fact, we don't try to be proportional at all.

    Proportionality, just results in kids testing to see how much they can get away with, for how little downside.

    Punishment is total.

    You misbehave, it doesn't matter to what degree (beyond the trivial anyway); you don't get what you wanted, plus you get a punishment on top of that, end of story.

    Of course, as I said above, your children need to learn what is appropriate behavior and what isn't. You can't just punish them arbitrarily if they didn't know any better. That hurts and confuses them, and actually undermines everything else you try to do, because they won't understand that punishments are part of the consequences for improper actions.

    Just as in the adult world, the rule of law should prevail (most of the time).

    Your first offense or first warning, I temporarily take something away from you. Do it again, or after I warned you not to, and I take it away permanently. First warning, you go to your room for a few minutes, second and it's the rest of the day with no dinner. If I explicitly tell you not to do something, or that a particular behavior is not allowed (or not allowed at a specific time, or place, or situation) and you do it anyway, full punishment.

    That said, we do try to be fair, and not to dole out punishments that are TOO severe; and we try to make sure that our punishments are consequential and punitive, not vengeful.

    By that I mean that a punishment should be a directly relatable consequence to an action; plus an additional negative incentive on top (the actual "punishment" bit) to reinforce proper behavior, and ensure that the downside to an inappropriate action is never outweighed by the upside.

    It is ABSOLUTELY critical however that punishment should never be emotional vengeance, or motivated out of anger, or hurt, or fear, or frustration. That hurts you, and it hurts your kids.

    Sometimes, when your kids do something that scares the hell out of you... runs out into the street, or sticks their hand into the fire or something... The first response is to lash out emotionally, and punish them harshly and severely... and you can't do that. Oh, they DEFINITELY need to be punished severely, but you can't do it out of the emotion. You need to calm down, and be logical, and deliberative, and explain to your child how wrong what they did was, and why, and THEN give them their severe punishment.

    And you MUST, always, sit with your kids and talk to them about consequences and punishments. They need to understand what they are doing is wrong, why, and what the consequences are; and that its not just you arbitrarily setting conditions on a whim.

    If you do this, then they'll develop a finely tuned sense of right and wrong all on their own; and you won't need to explicitly tell them for every possible situation or behavior what brings punishment and what doesn't. They'll learn what's right and what's wrong, and they'll know better... and they won't be able to get out of punishment by saying they didn't.

    If you don't do this, your kids sense of right and wrong WILL be screwed up. God knows, you don't want them to develop their moral sense from their teachers, or their cultural influences... or just as a way to avoid punishment.

    Also, like convicts, I allow them to argue their case, ONCE. Maybe I was wrong, or being too harsh; or maybe there were mitigating circumstances I didn't know about.

    In fact, whether they want to argue the case or not, for anything nontrivial; I insist on an explanation of their behavior. If they refuse, they are punished more severely.

    If they tell me the truth, and express genuine remorse, I MAY lighten the punishment (or in fact not include any real punitive element at all). If they lie, or their argument isn't any good, or instead of remorse it's clear they are just trying to get out of punishment; their punishment is made worse, for lying to me, and trying to weasel out of it.

    And when I say "lighten", I mean lighten, not eliminate. There are ALWAYS consequences to actions.

    We may go so far as to reduce the actual "punishment" portion to nothing, but we don't ever let them get out of consequences entirely; and we always talk about why they are being punished, why their punishment is what it is etc...

    Also, we are ALWAYS, consistent. Consistency is aboslutely critical to forming a kids world view, and moral and ethical sense. They have to understand that there are rules, and if you follow them one set of outcomes will happen, and if you don't another set will happen, and why.

    That doesn't mean the same offense always gets the same punishment; in fact if you repeat the same bad behavior, you are punished more severely the next time. But the same degree of offense always gets the same degree of punishment (unless we think they're testing limits again, in which case they get SEVERE punishment, and we tell them why).

    For consistency, we always increase the severity of punishments the same way (remember, total, not proportional); and set punishments that are appropriately severe to each child, for each offense.

    Note, that doesn't mean that they necessarily get the same punishment; they just get the same DEGREE of punishment. After all, what is a severe punishment to one kid (say, sending them to their room) might be a minor inconvenience to another (who prefers to read alone anyway).

    And it is VERY important, that you reinforce that what they did was WRONG, and that doing the wrong thing is shameful. If the infraction was private, then their shame should be private; but if their behavior was in public, then it is important not only that they experience shame, but that they do so publicly.

    Kids shouldn't be ashamed of their bodies, or their speech, or being in public, or any other thing that is just part of being a person. They SHOULD be ashamed of bad behavior. They should be afraid of being shamed. They should be afraid of being humiliated for bad behavior in public.

    Never underestimate the power, and the importance, of shame, and of public humiliation; especially once a childs moral sense has developed. Moral wrongs, and bad behavior, should ALWAYS be strongly associated with shame; and if public, with humiliation.

    That doesn't mean YOU should publicly shame or humiliate your child further however. They should feel shameful and humiliated all by themselves, because they should know what they did is wrong and shameful. If you pile on top of that by publicly shaming and humiliating them further, you are being emotionally vengeful; and that hurts both you, and them.
    An aside: Shame is important. Shame is healthy. Shame is what keeps people behaving properly, even when their morals and ethics are weak, or are overwhelmed by their desires.

    Humiliation is equally important, when our shame is public. There is nothing wrong with being humiliated when you do wrong in public; in fact it is crucial to a civil society. The root of humiliation is humility, "the state of being humble". We should all be humbled both by ourselves and by those around us, when we behave badly in public.
    This is in NO WAY saying that you should deliberately shame or humiliate your kids... that's just wrong, and harmful... But you shouldn't try to eliminate shame or humiliation from their lives either. If you've done your job, they SHOULD be ashamed of themselves when they do wrong, and they should feel humiliated when they do it in front of others. That means they have a proper appreciation for moral consequence.  
    Without shame and humiliation... well, you get the rude, crude, and uncivil public world we have today frankly.

    The psychologists and philosophers who have been saying otherwise for the last hundred or so years have done more to damage our world than anyone else; and I mean that with no hyperbole. They have been, and are continuing to, destroy western civilization.
    Finally, we don't let them "game the system". Any game playing or manipulation, it's automatically the most severe punishment for any given offense, PLUS the most severe punishment for lying and playing games with us.
  5. Bad behavior will not get you attention.

    If a kid is throwing a tantrum, they are either trying to get you to give in on something (and therefore be rewarded for bad behavior), trying to test or punish you, or they are just looking for attention.

    All of these are absolutely unacceptable, and consequences must be set appropriately; but for attention seeking that can be quite difficult, because to an attention seeker even punishment is "rewarding bad behavior"; because they didn't really want whatever it was they were theoretically throwing the fit about, what they really wanted was the attention.

    Of course, as we said above, bad behavior NEVER gets you what you want, under any circumstances.

    So, if what they want is attention, be it positive or negative, they can't be allowed to get any.

    So... That's actually pretty simple to deal with; though it can be the biggest pain, frustration, and irritation we face as parents. Simple isn't easy.

    If you throw a tantrum, or engage in attention seeking behavior; you get isolation, not attention.

    If after first reproach, you continue your behavior, you are immediately isolated from everyone around you.

    You cannot interact with anyone, for any reason except emergencies, or biological needs. You cannot continue the activities you were involved in, or wanted to continue.

    If you are attempting to get out of something you are forced to continue against your will. Even if it is just sitting there and sulking, you don't get out of it; but no one will interact with you . You will sit there in shame and humiliation, and isolation.

    You WILL NOT get what you want. No matter what. We WILL NOT GIVE IN.
I'm going to cheat a bit and put in wht I'd call rule five and a half...

5-1/2. Always say "I Love You", and always acknowledge good

On this one point, I will relent from my strict discipline. I NEVER, EVER, under any circumstances, no matter how bad what they did was; deny my children a hug, or fail to respond to "I love you" with "I love you too".

Whether they say something or not, I will ALWAYS tell them "I love you" before they leave my sight.

Yes, it softens the blow; but children are sometimes frightened by their parents anger or by their punishments; and you should ALWAYS reassure your children that you love them, whenever they ask, even if it seems silly or inappropriate at that moment.

However, it's not going to mean I go easy on you, or let you get out of your punishment; and if you abuse that, I WILL notice; and you WILL be punished worse, for abusing my trust and love.

Also, never take it for granted when your kid does the right thing. I'm not saying be one of those idiots who praise their child for every little thing they do; but when your child makes the right choice, does the right thing, does well... Acknowledge it, and praise them, and let them know you appreciate it. And tell them that you love them.

On the flip side of that, when they make the wrong choice, or do the wrong thing, even if it isn't bad behavior or suitable for punishment, it's just the wrong choice... Tell them... and talk with them about why they made that choice and why it's wrong... And tell them you love them.

I firmly believe that you can never say "I love you" too much, when it is meant sincerely every time (and not just some rote phrase).

It takes just a second, but it means the world.
Like I said above, what it all comes down to, really, is that first rule...

Under no circumstances, will bad behavior get you what you want. Ever.

I am a firm believer in the tremendous motivating power of self interest.

You may think kids are unsophisticated, but if there's one thing they understand, it's self interest. They want what they want, when they want it; and they will generally do their damndest to get it.

If a kid thinks that behaving badly will get for them what they want, then they will behave badly. And if you give in, just once, they will remember, and use that against you again. This is why you must NEVER, EVER, under any circumstances, reward, or even tolerate, bad behavior.

If that means making one kid sit in the bathroom stall for two hours, while the other kid gets to eat dinner and watch the movie, so be it

An aside: It really IS a lot easier with two, because you can play that off against each other. Don't believe anyone who tells you you should never do that, it's just psychotwaddle.

No, you shouldn't play favorites, or make comparisons between your kids "Oh he's so much better at that, why aren't you" or that sort of thing; that WILL cause harm, and not do anyone any good. But when it comes to behavior, pointing out that he didn't get the ice cream but his brother did, and it was because of his behavior? Oh yeah, that's not only just fine, it's NECESSARY.

Kids are STRONGLY motivated by self interest, envy, resentment, and a sense of entitlement. If their sibling is getting something and they aren't, they figure out right quick not to do the thing that caused that .
Believe me, if they know that you are serious, and that you won't relent and can't be manipulated out of it, that only happens once.

I am meaner, sneakier, more evil, and FAR more PATIENT than my children are. I can and will wait out my children... and happily laugh at them as they get more and more frustrated. The humiliation is part of the teaching process doncha know.

I bring an ebook reader in the form of my iPhone with me wherever we go. I can wait, and read, and be perfectly fine with it. If I miss a movie, so what. I have a well behaved kid. That's rather a lot more important.

We never reward bad behavior. We never fail to punish it. We never let them out of the consequences of their actions. We always make sure they understand what those consequences are and why. We always follow through.

When the girls refused to clean their room for over a week, we took everything they owned that wasn't cleaned and put away properly, including much of their clothing (except their school clothes) and basically all of their toys; packed them all up into garbage bags, and made the girls go with us while we donated them to goodwill. Then, we didn't replace what was given away. They lived without toys, or their favorite clothes, until such time as we naturally bought replacements.

Again, that only happened once.

A couple years ago, one of the girls opened her big birthday gift early, then tried to put it back and pretend it was unopened.

The goodwill had a good day with all her birthday presents; and it only happened once.

Does all this mean we have meek and repressed children? Not in the slightest. Our kids are headstrong, and curious, and sociable, and a handful both physically and intellectually; and we wouldn't have it any other way.

But they NEVER misbehave in public, and rarely do so in private in more than a trivial way (the biggest issue is STILL, cleaning up their room... and it probably will be until they start dating).

I realize this may be hard for other parents to believe, but it's simply the truth. Our children NEVER misbehave in public. We have daughters who are six and eight years old; and the last time either of them misbehaved in public more than a sniffles worth, was when they were three, and four, respectively.

Sure, they may get a little grumpy, or whiny (what six year old doesn't get a little whiny), but it never gets beyond that... Even when we've really gone beyond what they could be expected to handle, and had them out way past their bed times in restaurants etc... Where they tired and a bit grumpy, and restive? Absolutely, they're six and eight, that's part of life. But they didn't throw fits.

And are they absolutely obedient? Of course not. They're kids.

Good behavior is about making the right decisions, and behaving appropriately; and that's what they do...

Most of the time anyway....

This works, AND it's just the right thing to do, but it isn't perfect, or easy

Ok, this isn't some miracle "cure" for badly behaved children.

Obviously, it's always better if your kids never develop the bad behaviors in the first place. This will turn out best if you start from as young as they understand it (around 2 or so), and keep going through their entire life under your care. The later you start, the harder it's going to be.

If you've believed the bull foisted on most parents for decades, and let your kids run roughshod all over you for years... This will work, but it's going to take a LOOOONG time to modify your kids behavior; and it's going to HURT, both you, and your kids, while you're going through it.

Also, if you EVER relent for even a second, they are going to try and push you off your spot, or wait you out. You have to be absolutely committed.

And believe me, even if you've been rock solid from day one, they are going to test you... that's just part of growing up. They're going to seek out limits and boundaries, and you need to set them appropriately. Then, as they grow, they are going to push and test those boundaries. That's life.

If it gets bad, or if they've already developed the habits of bad behavior, and haven't developed morals or ethics... Well, you're in for trouble (especially if they are teenagers).

They are going to test you, badly. They are going to try to hurt you. They are going to figure out when it's most important for you to do something you want to do, and they are going to throw the worlds biggest fit right at that moment, just to see what you do about it.

...And you have to do it. You have to be consistent and utterly committed. You have to apply the rules, no matter how inconvenient or painful it is for you.

And they know that, and they'll make sure that it WILL be painful for you. They will do it when you have a big meeting, or for your anniversary dinner, or for that play you've been waiting years to see. Because they KNOW that's when you'll be most likely to give in.

You have to do it anyway. Remember what I said about absolute commitment?

Of course, at that point, disrupting you and punishing you will be their goal, and once again, we NEVER allow bad behavior to be rewarded, or go unpunished; and they must NEVER get what they want.

So if they want to disrupt you, don't let them. Find a babysitter who will follow your rules for the kids (which can be damn hard. Usually it ends up having to be family or close friends); and go do whatever it was they were trying to disrupt.

Don't let their bad behavior be rewarded, even if that reward is attention or disruption. Frustrating them in their desires is INFINITELY more effective than any simple punishment. So long as you can show them they will never win, and you will never give in, then it will turn out right.

This sounds more like punishing the parents sometimes...

Well... Yeah. Or rather yes and no.

If you do it right, your kids wont push you that hard, and make it punishing to you.

But if they do, to be honest, punishing your kids should be harder on you than it is on them; you just need to be tougher than they are.

If it isn't hard on you, either your kids are perfect and never need any kind of discipline, consequences, or punishment enforced on them (never happen in this life); or you're probably not doing it right, and your kids are really the ones in charge, taking advantage of you, and manipulating you to think otherwise...

...Well, either that, or you don't really give a damn about your kids. If that's the case, send them to live with someone who does, or to boarding school or something; just get them away from you, so you don't screw them up any more than they already are.

Harsh? Hell yes. Do I mean every damn word? Hell yes.

Being a parent is hard. It hurts. It's a lot of work. It's a lot of sacrifice.

So what.

That's all part of the job. If you weren't ready for it, you shouldn't have done it in the first place.

If your kids behavior is important to you (and in a greater sense, their morals and their ethics), then it has to be more important to you than whatever else it is that you want to do in your life.


Yes, you may have to sacrifice. Yes, you may have to miss out on things. Yes, you may have to be disappointed and frustrated.

Sorry, that's being a parent...

...but establishing, maintaining, communicating, and enforcing standards of behavior works; and if you haven't let the kids get too bad in the first place, it usually works pretty quickly...

...and as a side benefit, once it's working, your kids will let you get back to those things you want to do.

See, virtue has practical rewards too, not just moral ones.

The hard cases...

So I keep saying "this works"... what about when it doesn't?

Well, even if it doesn't work, it's the right thing to do and you should do it anyway. Your kids might not end up more well behaved, but they'll at least know that their behavior is wrong; and you'll be able to sleep better at night.

It SHOULD work, most of the time... it just gets a LOT harder in some cases.

First thing, if you live in a state where severe discipline is treated like child abuse... Well, that's going to make things hard. And I'm not even talking about spanking; in some states any kind of physical restraint can be considered abuse, including just locking your child in their room.

The fact is, if a kid doesn't have a strong moral compass, and a sense of what is appropriate and what isn't, by the time they are about 12 or 13; you're going to have a very hard time instilling that into them.

The sad fact is, in todays America, if a kid simply decides not to listen to you, or obey you, or respect you, or do the right thing when they're a teenager... there is effectively nothing you can do anymore to stop them, except deny them funding or transportation. The best you can do is not help them destroy themselves.

Again, that doesn't mean you shouldn't try... but if they've been allowed to go this far without discipline, morals, or ethic... expect to fail.

Do it anyway because it's the right thing to do... but expect to fail; and maybe later, when they smarten up, they'll remember the lessons and come around right on their own.

Also, this is going to be VERY hard with "problem children": some kids with some types of learning disabilities, kids who have psychological or psychiatric problems, autistic kids, or children who have been abused or neglected for a long time.

Again, you should do it anyway, just because it's the right thing to do (for that matter I think it's how you should treat adults who behave the same way)... but it's going to be hard, and painful.

It WILL work... it just won't work as well, or as fast, or without MUCH more difficulty, and much more pain.

Also, you might have to modify your approach. Every kid is different, and everyones psychology is different; but you only change the implementation. You can't ever compromise on the principles of it.

Never reward bad behavior. Never allow someone to escape the consequences of their actions. Always be just, and consistent, but not proportional. Always let them know you love them.

The real "secret" to all this though...

Is that it's not just how you should deal with children...