Friday, October 10, 2008

Teaching a Four-Year-Old

Published November 2008 in the Greater Phoenix Christian Chronicle

We recently discovered just how far a little bit of child psychology could get us in our parenting. We had started to notice that our four-year-old seemed to be misbehaving more than usual and also failing to good-behave as much as he should. Since our goal for our boys is virtue rather than merely the absence of vice and since we also believe that the best way to displace bad behavior is with good substitutes, the latter deficiency concerned us far more than the former.

After a lengthy discussion, we settled on a plan to correct this: we made a behavioral report card chart for the refrigerator. We listed the ten or so bad things that we would like to see him stop doing and the ten or so good things we keep encouraging him to do. Then we started keeping score. After each day with more positives than negatives, we put a big smiley face and gave him a reward the following day. After seven days of smiley faces in a row, he got an extra special reward.

Here’s what happened. At first it was just monitoring and scoring to get a realistic picture of where he stood, which intrigued him. Then we started reminding him about marks on the chart whenever opportunities arose, which usually made him change behaviors accordingly. But in just the last few days, something extraordinary has happened: he has actually begun initiating the good behaviors himself and reminding us that he’s done something worth a good mark.

See, the one thing we knew for a fact about our oldest is that he really thrives on approval. And where corporal discipline, scolding, and time-outs had failed, a simple bit of organized incentivizing based on our knowledge of his personality has transformed him into a boy who actively tries to find opportunities to do good things.

Literally the flicking of a pen on a piece of paper has had more influence on him than anything else we’ve tried. It’s amazing what a little insight can do for cultivating such essential habits. And though we obviously want him to eventually do the behaviors for their own sake, we also understand that he has to get accustomed to the taste of virtue somehow or other before he will ever start ordering the dish for himself.

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