I wonder about my child when they act silly to get my attention – or follows others who do. I must admit they are so cute and funny when they do some things (which I know are not great to start with) that I laugh and I know that by laughing, I am perpetuating those same behaviors. Iʼve noticed this most at birthday parties where there are lots of adults but, admittedly, most of us are talking to each other rather than watching our children. Some ideas, please, of how to help them to develop better skills.
Some of their antics are just too cute!
Every family has a different behavior bar – aka expectations. When children come together in social situations, their learned sense of justice, internal beliefs, self-esteem and self-regulation are tested. Setting a consistently high behavior bar – and reinforcing the positive behavior that we ALL want to see repeated among all children in the family or classroom – leads to less competition for attention in your busy homes, better relationships between your children as they grow, and more harmonious classrooms in their future.
Teachers notice that parents tend to set the behavior bar quite high for first borns, confirming birth order studies: first borns are more goal-oriented as a result of a high behavior bar, along with a lot of parental interaction and consistency of rules. (Kevin Leman, The Birth Order Book: Why You Are the Way You Are) The bar usually resets itself as the number of children and career involvement goes up while at the same time, the family’s energy level and available adult engagement time goes down. Previous family expectations/rules may become less consistently applied – or go unenforced altogether.
Within a family, this can make a first born child feel confused or angry. They may start to feel bad about what they see as unfair or preferential treatment of siblings and turn to negative behavior and self-talk to get the attention they need. Although we as teachers cannot explain it, we encourage the children to speak with their parents about their feelings.
“Iʼm bad. When I do the same thing as Brother, they tell me to stop.”
“When Sister sticks out her tongue, Dad laughs. When I do he says Iʼm rude.”
Read through the behaviors and motivations below and imagine how your “follower” would be most likely to respond in a social situation such as a birthday party as you mentioned.
|Behavior||Motivation for their Behavior|
|A starts entertaining or begins to cry when things don’t go their way||A is used to being rewarded for being cute or gains control of a situation by reverting to inappropriate behavior that is not development, age, ability, or event appropriate. It works.|
|B immediately joins the behavior||B is like-minded with negative behavior as their main attention getter. It works so they do it.|
|C stands back and looks in hopeless disbelief at the foolishness.||C is a good role model, frustrated by the Lack of adult attention their good choices get them. Perhaps they have a sibling likeA or B in their home.|
|D tries to get the attention of others through positive behavior – which they feel they must report verbally – to get the positive attention they deserve.||D is tired of following the rules and getting no reinforcement. They “report” how they followed the rules in hopes that they will be noticed and be positively rewarded – but may give up.|
|E keeps doing what they are doing, ignoring the incident.||E is behaving in a way that makes sense to them and is secure in knowing that they do not need another’s approval to make good decisions due to their well developed self-esteem.|
Each child described above is wonderful, unique and smart. The difference in the behavior between A and E is most likely the consistency with which each child gets positive attention for desired behaviors and/or natural consequences for behaviors that are not appreciated over time. There is no quick fix. Just as behaviors are learned over time, so must new acceptable behaviors be learned over time to replace them.
Your observation is key about birthday party supervision: whoʼs watching the children? Many children know how to behave appropriately yet in a group situation, without an adult giving them the expected external cues to stop, they are either unwilling or unable to stop themselves. This is known as self-regulation. That is where child E is the clear behavior leader: they have the internal will and ability to control their behavior and make the right choice regardless of who is watching or what anyone else is doing. They choose to do the right thing. There are other children who are opportunists who do know, intellectually, how to behave appropriately yet when they see a moment to choose badly, they do it. This is their response either because they predict that no one will notice (based on past experience) or that there will be positive reward rather than negative consequence for their behavior.
To avoid some of these issues in a household or classroom, each child must follow the same rules and have the same responsibilities at the same age. In a classroom, for example, if we remind one child to put their lunch box away when it is found on the floor, we must remind others who leave theirs on the floor. It would be unfair to clean up after one child and not another. They would notice and wonder, whatʼs wrong with me? or I must be special because they did not make me put mine away like so-and-so.
Sometimes adults forget what their younger ones are capable of doing; they forget that when their first born was 2, they were expected to put on their own shoes, for example, as they do in our Caterpillar room. When the first born child is asked to put the shoes on the 2 year-old second born child, it is frustrating for the older child who knows perfectly well that the 2 year-old can and does put their own shoes on. This also delays the second childʼs progress in developing age/ability appropriate self-care skills and sense of personal responsibility. All children must be encouraged to speak up for themselves, think for themselves, choose for themselves, problem solve for themselves and control their bodies by themselves. Growth in self-reliance bolsters their confidence. As adults, we must tell children daily in both words and actions that we believe in their developing skills, understanding and decision making abilities and give them the chance to show them – no matter how much faster we could do it for them.
One last thought: instead of using the word cute (which is a subjective judgment that others may not share) try to use strong, positive words to support their self esteem, character and forming identity which they can carry with them in the years to come instead. Words such as important, careful, helpful, courageous, thoughtful, kind, smart, caring, insightful, capable, hard working, diligent, cautious, perceptive, honest, and imaginative. They will be the stronger for it.