Who's The Boss?

Who's The Boss?

When my daughter doesn’t get her way, she bothers me until she causes a scene. At home I just send her to her room. But when we’re out shopping I usually give in to her, just to quiet her down. How can I get her to behave when we go out?


Kids are really smart.

They can usually sense when they have crossed that invisible line, the one that glows red in the dark in big bright lights that says, WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! YOU HAVE TRULY GONE TOO FAR!!!

Failing that, most kids will push the limit as far as possible, sometimes in order to figure out just where that limit is.  A life without limits, without structure, is scary for a child who needs to know he or she can depend on something that no matter what he or she does, this particular thing will not buckle and can take whatever is dished out.

There is a sense of strength in that. It’s safe.

That having been said, testing behaviors are normal, and a child who has tested and learned that misbehavior is tolerated out of the home will misbehave out of the home. It’s as simple as that.

Your daughter has learned that misbehavior is tolerated when you’re out shopping. The “why” is not important; she knows that she can get anything she wants, pretty much, once you walk out the door of your home.

This can be changed, but it won’t be fun. However, the younger she is, the easier it will be.

The way to change behavior in someone is to remove the “payoff” or motivating factor. So for example, when you go out with your daughter and she says she wants something, and you say no, giving in to her misbehavior teaches her two things:

1. If she pushes hard enough, she can change your behavior and gets what she wants.
2. You are more vulnerable to that pressure outside the house.

To deal with item #2, simply leave her home and explain why. No amount of begging, pleading, promises of good behavior, whining, tantrums, screaming, crying and so forth should change that decision.  After you have done this for two weeks or more, then allow her to come out with you as a trial run.

Dealing with item #2 is really the core of the matter, and the way to deal with it is actually the foundation of your stance in item #2.

The way behavior works, is as follows:

A stimulus sets off a certain undesirable (or desirable) behavior. The behavior persists and is either reinforced, or is not.  If reinforced, either positively or negatively, it continues. If it is not reinforced, it stops.  Sometimes that process takes a while, but it is infallible.

So for example, you take your daughter out shopping with you. She says she wants an ice cream, and that is not on the agenda for today. You tell her “no” and she begins to misbehave.

If you react to the behavior, either by pleading with her to stop, yelling at her or giving in to her, she has no reason to stop the behavior because she has managed to elicit a response with which she can then negotiate or otherwise exert pressure until she gets her ice cream.

However – and here is the difficult part that most parents shy away from – if you do not react, eventually she will stop. Just walk away without responding, and continue doing your shopping.

At this point, there are two schools of thought. One recommends giving a warning and then a “time out” (yes, in public and right on the spot – you can have her sit or stand in one place at least 20 feet away from you).

Another variation on this theme is giving a warning that she will not be able to come next time, and then following up the next time you go out.  This plan is not so good, because there is too long a span between the time of the misbehavior and the consequence. The concept of “cause and effect” is lost.

The other school of thought says to simply walk away and completely avoid responding in any way, the theory being that an unsupported behavior will eventually end because there is no reinforcement to keep it going.

This second method takes a really strong constitution and great resolve on the part of the parent, because kids test. Usually the testing period is at least two weeks long, sometimes three. During that time, the misbehavior will escalate, because your daughter has learned that she gets what she wants if she keeps up the pressure.

Only after she sees that misbehavior does not get her what she wants – and perhaps generates an additional response she does not want, will it end.

It works, but only if you are absolutely persistent and do not buckle to the pressure even once.  If you do, not only have you not accomplished your goal, but you have also reinforced the misbehavior, you have confirmed for your daughter that exerting enough pressure – increasing as necessary – will make you give in.

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