How to get kids to behave without really trying

Targeted validation one key to parental success

I was on the phone with a very smart mom. A thinking mom. She, in reference to my kids, said to me: “You want them to date,” thereby giving voice to the great parental fallacy that if we tell our adolescents to do stuff they’ll do it. Parents get into trouble, when we do that, because every time we tell them to do something they don’t do we lose street cred.

But how do you get your kids to do stuff? The answer works for young kids as well as for adolescents. It doesn’t come with a works-every-time-money-back guarantee, because that’s not how life works, and if you expected parenting to go like that, you were horribly misinformed.

But this method usually works pretty well, which tends to be about all we can say for most good things.

It’s not helpful to make our family sound like the army. Do you catch yourself using the following phrases? “Because I told you to.… Because I’m the parent and you’re the kid.… Do this or else.… So Mr. (or Miss) Prince(ss) is too good to wash the dishes?” If yes, it’s time to rethink how to manage your kids’ behaviour, because while the authoritarian approach may produce compliance in the short term, it buys heartbreak down the road, in the form of either willful disobedience or a disempowered kid, and probably broken relationships.

There is a much more powerful tool for managing kids’ behaviour. It both modifies behaviour and builds relationships because it involves catching bees with honey. At camp we call this managing behaviour via targeted validations. Validation is a great behaviour management tool, if you do the following:

Every time you catch your children doing something good, you tell them 1) exactly what they did, 2) what positive characteristic that showed and 3) how you appreciate it.

This sounds like: “Lisa, you cleared the table without being asked. That’s so responsible. Thanks for supporting me.” Lisa thinks: “Wow, Mom thinks I’m responsible. Cool! I’m going to do that again.” Her sibling, listening in, is also having his behaviour managed.

If Mom had said to Lisa, after she cleared the table: “Wow Lisa, you rock,” her sibling would a) be jealous and want to push Lisa off the roof, b) have no idea why Mom strewed Lisa’s path with roses and c) feel resentful that Mom always favours Lisa. Whereas if Mom uses the targeted validation, the overhearing sibling thinks: “Hmm, Mom called her responsible, I want Mom to think I’m responsible too. Maybe I’ll try doing a house chore.”

Let’s say Lisa does her homework without being nagged. Mom says: “Lisa, you did your homework without being told. That’s so mature, I’m proud of you.” Lisa thinks: “Mom thinks I’m mature, I better do more stuff like that.” Her overhearing sibling thinks: “I want Mom to think I’m mature, I’m gonna do my homework too.” As opposed to the untargeted validation, which would produce sibling jealousy and would not manage Lisa’s behaviour either.

You witness your child persisting to accomplish something really hard. Before you read on, imagine the targeted validation you’ll use to get them to do more of that.

I would say: “Lisa, you played that piano piece over and over again until you got it. You showed such perseverance. I’m proud of you.” What do Lisa and sibling think when they hear that?

Let’s try another one: Lisa helps somebody without being asked. What do you say to her? Please don’t read on until after you answer the question. I would say: “Lisa, you helped your little sister tie her shoes without being asked. That’s so generous and I really appreciate your help.” What do Lisa and the overhearing sibling think now?

Like working out, this tool is not an instant parental happy pill, but it produces long-term results. This is how you build better children and teach them required life skills, making them be the best people they can be.

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