Who’s Raising Whom: An Excerpt


By: Dr. Larry F. Waldman

Positive reinforcement

It seems to be a weakness of the human condition that we tend to remain quiet and passive when things are going well, yet become so loud and active when things begin to go badly.

How many times have we heard people complain that their spouses “take them for granted”? All too often psychologists hear clients say that their spouses are so quick to criticize them, yet so slow to give compliments.

 Once when discussing this topic with a couple in my office, the father related this incident:

“We’ve been married eight years (His wife elbowed him in the ribs and corrected him, reminding him that they had just celebrated their ninth anniversary!) and we’ve lived in the same house. Every Monday and Thursday morning for eight – no nine – years I have collected the garbage throughout the house, put it all into the dumpster, and dragged the dumpster out to the street. Every Monday and Thursday evening I lug the dumpster back to the garage – nine years, two days a week, and not a word said.”

The father continued:

“Then last week I had a very important business meeting coming up; all the supervisors from the western region would be there. I had to present a prepared report and proposal which probably meant a promotion if it came off well. I had worked on the paper for several weeks and was quite nervous about it. On the morning of the presentation I got up extra early, wore my best suit, and left for the office ahead of schedule so I would have time to relax before I spoke. Since I was preoccupied I forgot the garbage.

“When I got home that night what do you think was the first thing my wife said to me? Did she ask, ‘How did it go? Was there any talk of a promotion?’ (By now the wife was blushing a deep purple and was squirming in her chair.) No! As soon as I entered the house, she says to me, with disdain, ‘You forgot to take out the garbage this morning.’ Nine years and never a word of thank you, but forget once and suddenly it’s a big deal!!!”

The moral of the story is clear.

The same is common in the work place. For example, why does the manager want to talk to the employees? Think about it. Is it usually because the boss wishes to tell the employee that he has recently done a good piece of work or has been doing a steady job for some time? Or is it because the boss wants to criticize the employee for some mistake or error in judgment?Unfortunately, it usually is the second reason.

Most people do not enjoy working in this type of managerial environment, yet many of these disgruntled employees use the same negative procedures at home in raising their own children.

A similar pattern is also often found in our schools. It is far too frequent that good, responsible, cooperative behaviors go unnoticed while inappropriate behaviors of disruptive students receive the lion’s share of the adult recognition and attention.

A fifth-grade child, for instance, may take a 100-word spelling test and perform well. Does the fact that the child spelled 97 words correctly get acknowledged? Typically not. In bold red letters at the top of the paper is written “3 wrong”!

Too many parents react vigorously to their child’s inappropriate behavior within the home and simply ignore or take for granted their child’s acceptable, appropriate, responsible behaviors displayed on a day-to-day basis. Occasionally a parent – usually the father – will become indignant when I discuss this concept and say, “I expect my kids to behave and they should!” I agree with him and ask, “Why, then, are you here?”

Employees do not produce optimally for a critical manager. Children, similarly, do not behave well for overly critical parents.

The goal of good child management is to have the child gain parental attention by being good rather than by being bad. It would be so simple if we could only say to our child something like this: “Look, Johnny, why don’t you just start behaving well and I’ll start attending to you and we both can be happy – you get your attention and I get good behavior.”

Unfortunately, as discussed previously, it is not quite this easy.

Children do not readily change their behavior because we parents simply ask them to. If children are going to change their behavior, their environment must change.

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