How To Get Your Child to "Be Good" (HINT: It’s Not By Just Saying It)

“Be good!” is probably the most common phrase used by parents with young children. It is also my #1 pet peeve.  The close second being the follow up question, “Were you good today?”

Ugh…just typing it makes me annoyed.

The problem with “Be Good!”

I am not an English major, but let’s just look at this from a grammatical perspective first. To use “To be” in this way describes a characteristic of the person.  If someone tells you, “Be good” your response would then be, “I AM” or “I WAS.”  See, how it reflects back to the trait of the person.  Which seems fine enough

EXCEPT

The Opposite of Good Is Bad

Duh…but think about it.  If “I” am not good, then what am I?

BAD.

And to have young children identify themselves as “I am bad”

IS VERY BAD!!!

It is my belief that all children are inherently good.  Negative behaviors are a way to communicate a NEED.  Children are not being bad. They NEED help with a problem. Your job is to help solve the need and when you do that, the behavior goes away.

When Children THINK They Are Bad

See, when children think that they can not “be good” the opposite “I am bad” becomes something that feels very true.  This either causes children to 1) feel terrible about themselves or 2) behave badly more often or BOTH.

Children who know how to “be good” do not get the benefit of real self-esteem because they do not make the connection between their behaviors and their effort.  It’s like a game of duck duck goose in a class room (good, good, good, good, BAD!).

The kids that have generally good behaviors get reinforced in a mediocre way for following directions. And the kids who have bad behaviors become first in line for more bad behaviors. If I can’t “be good”, then I might as well “be” as bad as I want.

“Be Good” Doesn’t Tell You What To Do

The second problem with this phrase is that “be good” doesn’t actually tell you what TO DO.  It’s so generic and vague that kids become frustrated with the teachers negative reports.  Children think, “I was good” but then get a note saying that they didn’t stand still in line or pushed someone on the playground.

From a child’s perspective, 95% of the day was “good” but parents are only getting told about the 5% that was “bad.”  In that way, it also sends a mixed message about how we define success.

This happens frequently when teachers send behavior reports with a smiley face (which is what the child sees) and the a negative comment next to it (which is what the parent focuses on).

How To Actually Get Kids To “Be Good”

  1. Focus on BEHAVIORS.  Specific behaviors are the best.  Things like, “I want you to keep your hands to yourself in the lines today” or “I want you to focus on being quiet in circle time.”  
  2. Change your GRAMMAR.  The slight tweak from “Be good” to “Have a good day” changes the meaning of the sentence. I can have a bad day without being a bad person. What a relief! If you child says, “I was bad today” then repeat this back to them: “Oh, you HAD a bad day. Tell me what made it bad.”  Now, you are reviewing all parts of the day instead of just focusing on the chid’s behavior only.
  3. Praise the EFFORT.  When reviewing your child’s day/behavior, you can focus on the effort. If the child did well, you can say, “you were really focused on keeping your hands to yourself. You worked hard today!” Now, if there was no effort, there is no praise! Instead,
  4. COACH them through the problem. If negative behaviors still occurred, then coach the effort that is required the next day by saying, “It was hard for you to be quiet today. Tomorrow, you will need to work harder.  You can practice by (doing that hold a bubble in your mouth thing they do in day care) in circle time.”
  5. PRACTICE during playtime. It is helpful to practice these skills in a fun and playful way.  Do a puppet show, get some dinosaurs or soldiers out, and role play the skills.  Let your child be the teacher and you can be the student that IS or IS NOT following directions.  The child can prompt you to practice the skill.  Play dumb! Ask the “teacher” to show you and let your child then practice demonstrating the skill with you.  Make it fun. Make it silly.
  6. CONNECT the consequences. Make sure that it is very obvious that this behavior is important to you.  Rather than focusing on the overall “smiley face” or conduct report, get a report on the behavior you are working on.  Then set up a contingency plan, “WHEN you choose to be quiet during circle time at school , THEN you can decide to listen to songs in the car on the way home from school.”  More on the you choose/you decided language here.

Final Thoughts

Never will you make a child behave better by making him feel worse about himself.

Choose your words carefully because they become your child’s inner voice.

Treat your child as if they are already the person that you want them to become.  They will often rise to the challenge!

 

 

 

Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at info@jentaylorplaytherapy.com

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