The Key to Empowering Kids to Change their Own Behaviors: “Please Make a Different Choice”

I’m back again with more sage advice from Practical Parent Talk’s Kathy Salazar! I’ve already written a couple of other posts from our parent group’s introductory class with Kathy on March 8, 2013. We covered a lot of ground in just one hour, too much for a single post, so this is the third in the series of about five subjects covered that morning.

Today’s Topic: “Please Make a Different Choice”
From Kathy Salazar’s “A Taste of Parent Talk” class with Coastal Cuties on Friday, March 8, 2013

Let’s say you’re sitting down to dinner and Little Johnny (or Jane) is tapping her fork on the dinner plate (again). Ah, yes, something we so do not want as parents to hear night after night as we try to have a peaceful, drama-free meal together as a family (ha!). Well, there’s hope, RMT’ers!

Kathy Salazar of Practical Parent Talk says that when you observe your child in an incorrect behavior, these are the four steps to get you (and them) away from those actions. To illustrate the steps below, I’ll stick with the fork-tapping annoyance.

1. State the Problem. Seems obvious, doesn’t it? But how many of us parents actually DO this? And honestly, what three-year-old actually knows that fork-tapping is anything but music to their ears even if not to others’? So in this instance, we might say something like, “Tapping our fork at mealtime is disruptive.” That’s it. Leave it at this. Then next…

2. “Please Make a Different Choice.” After identifying the problem to the child, state, “Please make a different choice.” This phrase empowers the child to change their behavior to something else.

3.  Notice the Choice without Evaluation or Judgment. OK, so did your child now start tapping their spoon instead? No one said the child would necessarily make a better choice, just that they had the chance to choose something else. Not good, not bad, simply a different choice. As much as this will pain you, say nothing; simply observe closely so you know how to act next.

4. Repeat Steps as Necessary. If the child made an inappropriate choice (such as the spoon), then repeat steps 1 and 2 above until they correct themselves. Once the child corrects their behavior to something more appropriate, then you may acknowledge this with a simple, “Thank you.” Again, this is not about us imposing what is good or bad but allowing the child to recognize for themselves what behavior garners a more positive response and/or consequence than another.

An example of what not to say if your child makes an inappropriate choice against another child.

An example of what not to say if your child makes an inappropriate choice against another child. (Cards from Parent Talk’s Chick Moorman.)

The reasoning as to why it is a bad idea to force our children to apologize. (Cards from Parent Talk's Chick Moorman.)

The reasoning as to why it is a bad idea to force our children to apologize. (Cards from Parent Talk’s Chick Moorman.)

Now hear this: If the child loops through these steps too long – too long being a judgment call based on the child’s age, maturity, history of behavior, you knowing if the child is merely acting up, testing, sassing, etc. – then it’s time to recognize and acknowledge there might be a bigger issue. Consequences come into play here, meaning you can state something like, “If you continue to keep tapping things on your plate during mealtime, then I will take this to mean you are finished eating for the day and your plate will be removed,” or change the focus from the small annoyance to something larger like, “Is there something on your mind you want to talk about? If so please put down the fork so we can hear one another.”

Another way to think of the above approach is to focus more on end-results than the initial problem encountered. When I look at it this way, I’m personally reminded of a favorite quote from another person to whom I look to for big world wisdom, not in parenting but in finances, Dave Ramsey (who admittedly borrowed this from Stephen Covey): “It’s time to begin with the end in mind.” Parenting, like finances, requires pro-active behavior (think planning ahead), not reactive responses ( think putting out fires). Which situation to you sounds more pleasant and successful and way less stressful for everyone involved?

Another short-hand way of asking a child to "please make a different choice." (Cards from Parent Talk's Chick Moorman.)

Another short-hand way of asking a child to “please make a different choice.” (Cards from Parent Talk’s Chick Moorman.)

What "check yourself" really means. (Cards from Parent Talk's Chick Moorman.)

What “check yourself” really means. (Cards from Parent Talk’s Chick Moorman.)

The nugget of wisdom Kathy leaves us with here is that by using the above action loop, we are helping to shift our focus onto choices and consequences rather than right and wrong or good and bad; the goal also is to raise children who will be self-sufficient and responsible adults down the road, too. Ultimately, kids can and will learn for themselves what behaviors earn them positive rewards or negative feedback. Yes, we are here to help guide them along the way as they grow, but there’s so much of this work that these kids can do for themselves, even at the youngest of ages. Let’s give them the chance to make those choices.

RMT’ers, how have you empowered your own kids into making better choices for themselves and improve their own behaviors?