I see it all the time. Misbehaving children, parents either embarrassed or unconcerned, onlookers uncomfortably pretending to ignore the spectacle.
Parents don’t seem to know what to do. In a department store, I saw a father gazing at a display of jeans while his daughter, about four or five years old, dangled by his hand, writhing on the filthy floor screaming at the top if her lungs. She wasn’t crying. She was laughing, delighted with the looks she was getting form other customers. Dad was oblivious.
I refuse to be held hostage to these children. When I find myself irritated by screaming misbehaving children in a public place I leave.
Then I call or email the owner or manager of the business and tell them.
Nothing confrontational or even a complaint. Just the facts. “I was in your store a while ago and a kid was squalling so loudly that I got uncomfortable and left.” That’s it. When owners or managers hear that more than once they begin to intervene when kids are out of control in their store.
At the risk of appearing arrogant, I’m going to offer some help to parents of children who misbehave in public.
I want to offer two related interventions that will solve the problem you have with your misbehaving kids. You have probably heard of them, but have never heard them explained correctly.
Time Out and Negative Reinforcement.
Neither involves punishment and both are pleasant experiences that relieve stress and offer an opportunity for learning new behaviors more appropriate than the ones they replace.
First, Negative Reinforcement.
A reinforcement is anything that increases the chances of a particular behavior occurring in the future. Positive reinforcement means giving something that results in a behavior occurring and negative reinforcement means removing something that results in a particular behavior occurring.
For example, I’ve been going to economics sem
inars hosted by Voices on the Economy, (VOTE) for the last couple of years. I’ll spend a Saturday locked in a room with a bunch of other teachers and listen to lectures comparing and contrasting different economic theories on specific issues, like international trade, health care, or taxation.
Admittedly, I’m kind of a nerd and I enjoy these lectures. At least at first. We usually go for two or three hours at a stretch, and by the time a break comes, I’m ready to get up and move. As soon as the door opens, I’m off like a jet. While everyone else socializes and takes advantage of the snacks provided, I’m taking a brisk walk outside.
Where is the negative reinforcement you might ask?
One minute I’m sitting in a crowded room on a hard chair at a table. My butt hurts, the air is stale, people are too close, and I’m a tad claustrophobic. Suddenly the door is opened, I walk away, and I’m relieved of all those discomforts. The fact that those discomforts go away when I leave the room increases the chances that I will leave the room and take a brisk walk the next time I’m getting antsy and a break comes.
Here’s another example.
I’m at a fast food outlet, standing in line waiting to order. Someone comes in with an obnoxious misbehaving child. I wonder how long I can put up with the caterwauling little irritant and decide to make my order to go. The line isn’t moving. The kid is just warming up and now adds shrieking and yodeling to the repertoire.
I walk out the door and…blessed peace!
I’m not stuck immobile in a line! Freedom of movement! Birds are singing! The air smells good!
Again, all those discomforts are suddenly gone, and the chance of repeating my “leaving behavior” in the future increases. That’s negative reinforcement.
On to Time Out.
Actually, the full title is Time Out From Reinforcement. That’s important, because it captures what the intervention is really all about.
I can’t tell you how badly I feel when I hear parents or teachers threaten a kid with time out.
“One more time and I’m putting you in time out!”
It is a threat of pain and coercion. It teaches abuse of power and that adults can have their way with people who are smaller and weaker. Its intention is to intimidate through fear. It produces petty tyrants and adolescent bullies.
The threat of time out means an adult intend to physically drag the kid to the door of a small room, throw the child in, and keep them there as punishment. Just like those child abuse stories of parents throwing kinds into closets or bathrooms and locking the door.
That is not time out.
The legal term is false imprisonment. It is child abuse and it’s illegal.
When I hear those kinds of threats, I take a photo with my cell phone or note identifying details and call the police or child protective services. Really.
Here is how Time Out From Reinforcement really works.
First, you have to understand that Time Out From Reinforcement is a teaching method. Several skills are being taught simultaneously.
The first is agency.
Social psychologists use the word agency to mean that we have free will, can make decisions, and that our behavior results from autonomous decision-making. Self-direction, and independence might be synonyms.
Note that we are not teaching obedience or compliance. Those things are meaningless without agency. Also, obedience and compliance are fine as long as there is something to comply with or be obedient to. Our fundamental goal is the help the learner learn to act independently in unpredictable situations. That is, to make decisions on the fly and behave in ways that advances their interests, rather than result in social disapproval.
Next, we want to teach coping skills, or behaviors that have to help this particular learner overcome internal stress, like frustration, anger, boredom, or excitability.
Here is an example:
Imagine a third grade classroom. Forty kids, one teacher and one or two aids. It’s time for art, a relatively unstructured time when the students are allowed some independence and self-direction. As you might expect things get a little loud and chaotic.
The teacher notices one special needs child who seems to be on the verge of losing control. His attention darts from one thing to another in the bustle of activity all around him and his movements are getting more and more frenetic and animated.
The teacher says, “Jonny I notice you are on the verge of vibrating,” (a word chosen by the learner describing the frenetic behavior), “why don’t you go in the office and practice your deep breathing?”
That’s it. Time Out From Reinforcement.
In this case, the reinforcement is the chaos and lack of structure in the classroom causing the learner to show behaviors – called “vibrating” by the learner — typically present right before a major outburst. In the case of this child, that means a tantrum, involving throwing, and breaking things.
Before getting to this point, of course, the learner has already mastered deep breathing exercises as a way to calm down, and they have been found to be effective. He has also already gone to the office. Now the idea is to simply practice recognizing a behavioral precursor – the vibrating – and respond to it by engaging in the coping mechanism – removing himself form the classroom chaos and going into the office to calm down with deep breathing.
That’s time out.
What if the child does not go into the time out room and practice his relaxation exercises?
Chances are he will decompensate, have a tantrum, and throw things about. He might end up physically restrained, and will certainly have to clean up the mess he makes. These things will probably have an audience of classmates, adding social disapproval to the mix. There are all sorts of disagreeable outcomes and the parent or teacher did not have to make any of them happen.
They were all the result of the learner’s behavior. Social psychologists call them logical and natural consequences because they are not imposed by the parent or teacher.
Go in the timeout room and relax, and good things happen; act like a chimp in a zoo and bad things happen. Best of all, the learner can blame no one but herself. They are the one in control of their behavior.
How might this work in the real world?
Mom walks into the grocery store with her five your old in hand. Immediately the child begins to cry or scream. Mom might say something like, “We don’t scream in stores, honey,” and goes about her business, avoiding giving undue attention to the child after an inappropriate behavior.
The child notices other people looking at her. She like the attention and feels an odd surge of power. She can get mommy in trouble! She begins to wail.
Mom might say helpfully, “If you don’t want to be here we can go back to the car,” and again goes about her business. No threats, no abuse of power, just making the choices clear and allowing the child to make a decision.
Now the child plops onto the floor, still clutching moms hand and puts out a full volume tune up scream. Now mom says, “We can’t stay here if you are screaming, you are disturbing other people. Let’s go out to the car and calm down.”
Mom abandons her cart in the middle of the aisle, picks the screaming child up, and goes to the car where she helps her child practice appropriate behaviors, then returns to the grocery store with the child for a second try.
That’s Time Out From Reinforcement. No threats, arguing, or punishment. Moreover, no surprises. Both learner and teacher know what happens when inappropriate behaviors are repeated.
I can hear it now. “But I don’t have time for that!”
I disagree. You do have time. When you have a child, you stop living for yourself and start living for your child. Your primary duty is to raise your kid, not go grocery shopping. As long as the child is with you, they are your primary responsibility. Everything else is secondary.
“But I have buy groceries so the rest of the family can eat dinner.”
Make sure you have some good, but uninteresting food on standby. If your kid prevents you from buying dinner warm up the leftovers, or macaroni and cheese, or whatever you have on standby, tell the rest of the family that your child was so unruly that you could not buy dinner. Peer disapproval is a powerful motivator.
Jordan Peterson talks about parental responsibility at length in chapter five of his excellent new book, 12 Rules for Life. You can raise a self-centered little bully who will rule your home when he is 12, or you can raise a decent young
man or woman. Raising decent young people is easy. Raising disrespectful hellions is hard, not because takes no effort, but because of the embarrassment and humiliations your kid puts you through, and the consequences of your own angry or passive-aggressive behaviors you have in private.
This isn’t “tough love” or any other pop psych trending fad. It’s common sense with a little structure thrown in.