009 – Chapter 1, Part 5

Ways Children Learn

In reaction to harsh approaches to discipline, some parents in recent decades moved to the other extreme, allowing their children great freedom and expecting little from them. Now there is even professional training on how to treat the “over-indulged child syndrome,” acknowledging concern that a good many children have had too few limits set on their behavior.

Ironically, both the get-tough and over-indulgent approaches fail in what is most basic to effective parenting. Evidence is clear that children do not fare well when they are raised harshly and without consideration of their develop-mental levels and emotional needs. At the same time, it is clear that children who are never taught that their behavior has consequences also do poorly.

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Children are natural mimics who act like their parents despite every effort to teach them good manners.

                                                     ~Author Unknown

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Too often the choice for parents seems to have been reduced to one extreme or the other. Even a great many people who claim that they use research-based approaches manage to align themselves with either end of the spectrum. For instance, schools may say that they use positive reinforcement principles but then rely on published lists of “consequences” consisting of prescribed punishments for various rule infractions.

A brief review of the ways children learn will provide some perspective.

Direct Instruction

Perhaps the most natural and common way to teach children is by directly telling them things, including what to do and how to do it. When your child was an infant, you began naming objects and saying things like “Wave bye-bye to Daddy” while demonstrating. You have continued directly to instruct your child and someday you may even offer instructions on how to raise your grandchildren. (Of course, those of us who successfully use the principles and practices presented here will raise our children to be responsible adults. In turn, they are likely to use a similar approach in their own parenting. Isn’t that a satisfying notion?)

Correcting Errors

Telling children what they have done wrong is a variation on direct instruction that comes very naturally to most of us. However, too much focus on mistakes can be damaging to a child’s growth and development. Frequently being told how wrong we are eventually undermines how well we do all sorts of things. This is true whether we are children often scolded by our parents or adults often criticized by our supervisors.


Adults typically laugh heartily while watching children play grownup, imitating our dress, speech, and actions in keeping with how they see us. Unfortunately, though, we often fail to notice when our children mimic some of our behaviors that we really don’t like. The old admonition to “Do what I say, not what I do!” sounds good but almost always it is trumped by the more powerful reality that “Actions speak louder than words.” As an example, I have had parents in my office complain that their teenager has taken up smoking, only to learn that the parents themselves directly model the behavior by smoking in the house.

In a somewhat different but related manner, parents sometimes encourage behaviors they really don’t like by such actions as dressing their child in a shirt with “Little Devil” or some such across the front. Adults and children laughing at this little joke probably don’t realize that they are directly reinforcing “devilish” behavior in the child who is basking in the glow of the laughter. Imagine how a child reacts to his parent’s wearing a tee-shirt emblazoned with “I’m with Stupid” and an arrow pointing to the other parent. Surely the child will conclude from this that calling people such a name is cute and funny, not wrong – and parents may find respect for the “stupid” parent slipping as well.

The point here is that we parents constantly model behavior for our children, whether or not we notice, and the more we are aware of and choose to model the behaviors that we value, the more our children are likely to behave accordingly. Of course it is also important to assure that what we value is truly appropriate for our children.


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