‘What on earth have Brexit, Trump and children’s behaviour got to do with each other?’ you may be thinking.
In a word, boundaries.
I’m not going to go all political and start talking about the pros and cons of various recent votes. But I do want to think about boundaries, especially in relation to children’s behaviour. It’s not about retreating to one’s national boundaries, or even about building walls between countries. But it is about helping children understand the boundaries of behaviour – what is appropriate and acceptable, and what is unacceptable.
This came to mind recently while queuing to pay in a local grocery shop. I was waiting behind a youngish mum with two children, who looked about 5 and 3. The younger one was whining for some sweets. She kept fetching some from the shelves (don’t you hate it when food shops put the sweets near the till?) and putting them in the shopping basket. The assistant at the till kept removing them. The child fetched another packet, which the assistant removed…and so on. The girl then started kicking the counter, saying ‘sweets, sweets’.
And what was the mum doing all this time? Apart from muttering an occasional ‘no’, she kept talking on her mobile leaving the assistant to manage the situation. At no stage did she talk to the child and explain why she couldn’t have the sweets or why she should stop kicking the counter. Now, I don’t know the full circumstances, obviously, and I don’t know if there were underlying issues, but I do know that this was potentially a missed opportunity to help the little girl learn something about boundaries.
In my work as an educational psychologist, schools and parents often refer children who ‘have behaviour problems’ (their words, not mine). Leaving aside those children for whom regulating their behaviour was problematic because of a recognised difficulty, such as attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), or who had suffered a traumatic early start to life, I’m talking about children whose day to day behaviour was causing concern nonetheless. (By the way, please don’t think I’m saying that ADHD or ASD children or those for whom their home life poses huge difficulties can’t be helped to modify their behaviour – they can, but that’s for another blog post).
On further investigation, you can often find one of four things happening, mainly at home:
- either the child was given no guidelines at all so wasn’t being helped to learn what was acceptable and what was unacceptable behaviour. These were often the children who weren’t told ‘no’, who ‘could get away with blue murder’ and whose behaviour, when expected to conform, like at school, was very challenging simply because they weren’t used to it.
- Or, the child was on the receiving end of inconsistent boundaries: maybe one parent or caregiver said one thing while another key adult in their life set different expectations. Or maybe the adult with whom they spent most of their time said one thing one day and something completely different the next. Maybe sanctions were threatened but never carried out until the child’s ‘bad’ behaviour persisted to the point that the sanctions were applied, like the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’. This doesn’t help children learn that behaviour has consequences.
- Or, the child was receiving little attention at home, even when behaving appropriately and had worked out that by ‘being naughty’ and behaving inappropriately, someone would take notice of them. They were showing ‘attention-seeking behaviours’, setting up a situation where their behaviour would almost demand a response from those around them.
- Or, finally, the boundaries the child was given were so restrictive that it would be almost impossible for the child to stay within them. In cases like these, it felt as if no matter what the child did, they would get into trouble. Given this scenario, the child might as well behave as they wish – on the ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ principle.
I firmly believe that children need boundaries; guidelines that help them learn socially acceptable ways to behave with their family, their friends, at school and in wider society. This learning process starts with very young children and at first, it’s often about keeping them safe: telling a child ‘no’ when they put their hand too near something hot, for example. Add an explanation about WHY something is not allowed or encouraged, and the child starts to make more sense of their world. Obviously, the explanation needs to be age appropriate, using language and rationale that the child will understand.
Children need guidelines – it makes the world more predictable and safer for them. And it helps them understand how far they can push their behaviour before they get into trouble. Alongside this, they need consistency. Parents and teachers should never threaten sanctions that they are not prepared to use – and they should be proportionate to the behaviour. Key family members should also agree between them how certain issues will be handled so that the child doesn’t play one adult off against the other.
At the same time, rewarding positive behaviour is far more powerful than using sanctions with negative behaviour. I don’t mean financial rewards or new toys, but praise, preferably linked to what the child has done rather than general comments: a simple ‘well done’, ‘I like the way you did x’ or ‘thank you for doing y’. Catching children doing something right and commenting on it, giving them conditional praise in other words.
I realise this is an over-simplification of approaches to managing children’s behaviour, but I hope it’s some interesting food for thought.