mother, daughter, laughing

No strings attached

In his book, A Good Enough Parent, Bruno Bettelheim writes, ‘The experiences I remember most strongest are when I was questioned, I felt very much put on the spot and I resented it’. 

This is true for every child. They do not enjoy being questioned about things they do not have an answer to, or probably do not wish to discuss. Today, I write to you about us, parents, being unintentionally overbearing while engaging with our children.

When you spend time with your child (well-meaning intentions), this is how it usually plays out-

You: What are you building?

Child: I am making a spaceship

You: Wow! Such a cool idea…what is this piece over here? 

Child: It is a launching pad. It is not complete.

You: Okay. I can help you make it. But do you not have any gray colored pieces? Why are you using yellow on the spaceship?

At this moment, your child wonders if he was better off playing by herself. She was involved in ideas about a spaceship and probably weaving stories in her head it before you arrived along with your bag of questions and judgements.

We all wish the best for our children and it is probably why we are always wanting to make the most of the opportunities. But sometimes we must let go of our need to overly engage and just spend time observing and understanding our child. 

In the field of Applied Behaviour Analysis, we refer to this pursuit of an unassertive engagement as Pairing. This is the very first step to gain instructional control- meaning- getting the child to do what you want her to do.*This in no way means to force her or physically make her do things she refuses to comply with.*

I once had an opportunity to engage with a 7 year old boy. For the story’s sake, let’s call him Bob. Bob was sent to me for severe disruptive behavior. He would trash the classroom, kick teachers and even use foul language. I was told his parents were very young and separated. His father was into aggressive, violent video games. Mother, a receptionist at a dental clinic. The boy spent the week with his mother, grandmother and the weekends with his father watching violent video games. His parents were probably too young and busy to understand and provide for his needs. Being destructive and loud, probably garnered the attention he desired from everyone around. This was probably how he got his way since his younger days. Understanding Bob, his history, assessing the function of his behaviour allowed us to pair with him. He needed a person to understand him and not be withdrawn by his destructive behaviour. 

In my initial attempts, I failed to gain his confidence. He did not buy the idea of I wanting to play with him without any ulterior motive. He had his guards high. It took me several attempts to sustain a play session of 5 whole minutes. During one such session, he said, ‘Do you really want to just play with me?’ I was thrilled as that was the first whole sentence he spoke at school. Since then, he didn’t miss a day to play with me. I had no demands, no judgments till he trusted me to not have any other motive except for having a good time. 

We as parents and therapists, play the role of a mediator in learning. As adults, we know a particular activity will help them learn a new skill. Now how do we get them to work on it? Force them? How about we just try to motivate them using their strengths and reinforcements? This may sound utopian but trust me on this, it’s not. A genuine attempt to understand them and gain their trust can go a long way in changing their behavior. There is no shortcut to building rapport with a child. It may take 5 minutes or 5 months but this cannot be overlooked- not for your child, not for any child. You may ask ‘Why do I need to do this with my own child? I spend the whole day with him.’ Building and maintaining that rapport, trust with your child requires continuous and a conscious effort. 

Remember, sustained habits are the ones we develop naturally, with no strings attached. 

Until later. 

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