Visualize yourself having just received your driver's license. You passed all of the tests and it is now time to drive away from the licensing station on your own. You have waited for this moment for a long time. You pull out onto the street and come to a red light so you stop. Suddenly you hear people behind you honking and calling you names. Then, the light turns green and you pull away. Before you have gone one block you see flashing lights in your mirror and a policeman is motioning for you to pull over.
As you roll down your window he walks up asking to see your license. After examining it he says, "I see you are newly licensed. I'm sorry to have to give you a ticket. Didn't you see that green light back there?"
You reply, "Green light? Of course I saw it."
The policeman says, "Why didn't you stop?"
You reply, "You are not supposed to stop for green lights. You are supposed to stop for red lights."
The policeman says, "Sorry, the rules changed this afternoon, you have to stop for green lights now, please sign here and report to the county court house next Tuesday."
You reply, "That's not fair, no one told me about that."
The policeman hands back your license, walks away saying, "Sorry!"
I realize this sounds a bit crazy. But, the same craziness occurs in an child's life whenever parents are inconsistent in the training of their children. But for a child who understands very little about life, it sometimes seems even more crazy than the above example.
Place yourself into the shoes of a toddler who lives with parents who pay no attention to the methods they use to train their child, or, to the lack of any methodology. Your world would be filled with confusion. Today you CAN do this but tomorrow you CANNOT do it because dad or mom isn't in the mood. Yesterday you were allowed to say those words. Today you had your face slapped. And, as far as you could understand, you hadn't done anything wrong.
Years ago some psychologists discovered some pretty good ways to teach animals (humans included) how to respond in a desired manner. It was based on what they call reinforcement. When the animal would respond in the desired manner it was rewarded. When the animal did not respond properly it was not rewarded. They found that this caused the process of learning to accelerate rapidly. It was a simple concept but it worked then and it still works today.
They also came up with a term called negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is applied when the animal does something which is not acceptable. For humans it would be like a policeman giving out a speeding ticket. Or, like a parent disciplining a child.
These two principles of learning are applied in our everyday lives without us even recognizing that they are taking place. Why do we all seem to enjoy the Christmas season so much? Is it because we love the Christ Child or is it because, since we were small children, good things happened at Christmas?
Why do most people get up each morning and go to work? Is it because they love being away from home, working at the office or factory, or, is it because they actually get paid money for doing so? What if, after working for the next two weeks, your boss told you that they were paying you by giving you a free set of Volkswagen rims, without tires, instead of money. Would you start looking for a new job? Probably.
That's how children feel when they have tried to please parents who don't understand what it means to be consistent. No matter how hard they try, almost every time they put forth effort they either find NO reinforcement, or, they encounter negative reinforcement.
So, what are you to do? Begin to consider, and be alert to your child's actions. If the actions are favorable to what you want from the child, reinforce him or her with words like, "I am so proud of you." Or, "You are acting so grown-up." Be consistent. Say something every time you observe behavior that is pleasing and acceptable.
When you observe behavior that is not acceptable be sure to consistently apply negative reinforcement. Don't think to yourself, "Oh well, I'll let it go this time." By doing so you are actually positively reinforcing the behavior. YOU MUST BE CONSISTENT. By being consistent many good things will happen.
Consistency will give your child security. He or she will know exactly where the boundary lines are drawn. Knowing the boundary lines gives the child the opportunity to, at least, try to stay within their confines. They go through each day with a feeling similar to the person driving for the first time with their new license. They know the rules and as long as they obey the rules they have the freedom to drive that car wherever they please.
Consistency also stimulates learning. Your child will look for ways to obtain positive reinforcement from you. We all enjoy being reinforced for our behavior. Also, we all tend to give up behaviors which are good, but for which we receive no reinforcement. Young children seem so anxious to help mom and dad with little tasks around the home. But, what happens by the time they begin to reach their teen years? That willingness to help seems to have disappeared. Why? In most cases it is simply because there was no reinforcement, or there was actually negative reinforcement.
A three-year-old sees you getting ready to take out the garbage. He asks to help. What do you say? Is it something like, "I can do it without your help, you go play." You have just applied negative verbal reinforcement. Your child has been told that his willingness to help is unwanted. If he continues receiving these kinds of responses throughout his younger years do you suppose you will be able to talk him into taking out the garbage when he is thirteen?
Wouldn't it be much better to say, "OK, why don't you help me carry this bag of garbage out." How difficult does that seem to be? This kind of response from you will kindle a much better spirit within your child and if you continue to apply it as your child grows your relationship can only improve.
Consistency! We expect it in our daily lives. Don't you think it should be available for your children?