As I sat on the sidelines of the volleyball court, I observed a good example of child training. A young mother of three children was playing ball when she saw her eighteen-month-old daughter being steered toward the court by a small child about five years old. They were coming from across the grounds where the children had been playing. The little one was not crying, but all her body language indicated she had been in distress. When she got within hollering range the five-year-old began to explain that the little one had fallen on the ground. When the eighteen-month-old became aware that her mother was now focused on her, she began to cry in earnest. At this point I started taking mental notes. Would the mother train her child to be independent and tough, or would she train her to be a crybaby and a whiner?
As the mother stopped playing and showed some concern, the child increased the volume of her crying. When the mother hollered to her that it was alright, that she should return to her playing, the cry then became desperate and defiant. The demand in the little voice was quite evident. It was not an “I’m hurt and in pain.” It was a “You better pay attention to me, or I’ll make you wish you had.”
Watching this all-too-familiar proceeding, they had my full attention. Would the little girl control her mother? Would guilt move the mother to inappropriate action? The child was no longer hurting. She didn’t need medical attention. She did not cry until she saw her mother looking at her. Her crying increased as a means of enforcing her desire for attention. People were now looking on. How are mothers supposed to act in a situation like this? “What do they expect me to do?” The question a mother should be asking is, “What is best for my child?”
This mother has developed some wisdom from her previous children, so, as she left the court, she pulled a switch from a tree. The little girl, seeing her mother’s response, suddenly diminished her crying. By the time the mother got to the child she had stopped crying altogether. Mother made one token swat at the child and then spoke a word of exhortation, which included, “Stop crying and go back to playing.” The swat hardly made contact and did not invoke further crying. Quite the contrary, the little girl immediately dried it up and turned to play.
Now you may be impressed with this level of control. Many of you would be glad to have as much control as this mother. But I want you to know that this is only half training. While this mother was training her daughter to stop crying, she was also training her to commence crying and wait for a rebuke—only then would she stop crying. If you could end every whining/crying spell with a quick rebuke and a token swat, you would feel successful. But what if you trained her so that when she fell down or when there was a potential for being distraught, the child just got up, dusted herself off, and continued to play? Wouldn’t that be much better?
Remember the rule of child training: Never reward the child’s undesirable behavior and the behavior ceases to be desirable to the child. Children repeat actions that give some measure of reward. The reward need not come every time. One time out of ten is enough for a child to keep trying. That mother is either not consistent, or her responses are not sufficiently negative. The child would stop her demanding wail and her stumbling, pitiful presentation to mother if it were always without reward.
Back to our illustration. When the mother stopped playing and approached the child with kindly rebuke and a token swatting, the child did, in a small measure, get her way. She may have hoped for more, and may occasionally get more, but that little attention is sufficient to keep her whining and keep her returning for the ten seconds of attention.
You may feel sympathy for the child and say, “Well the poor child obviously needs attention; the mother should give it to her.” Yes, children need much attention, but should they be allowed to demand it with a whine or a pretended hurt? If you allow such to be the occasion for affection, you are perverting something wholesome. You are reinforcing negative behavior. Those of us who have been parents for a while and have successfully raised kids are not impressed with children’s self-pity. They will get the attention they need, but not on such warped terms.
How could the mother entirely eliminate this negative behavior? Do not give the child any of what she wants. Tell her to stop crying, “Now!,” and without making sympathetic eye contact, go to her and switch her on the leg (one lick) so that it hurts, and as you turn away, over your shoulder say, “Stop crying and go play.” Don’t give her any of what she wants, and make sure that what you do give her will be unpleasant. When she is convinced that you will no longer reward her demands, she will cease demanding. There is a time to give attention and a time to withhold attention. Give the child attention when you want to reinforce behavior, and withhold attention when the behavior is negative. If you must respond in a corrective manner to negative behavior, make sure that there is no reward in it for either of you. Get tough Mama. Ask, “What is best for my child?” And then ask God to give you the courage to do it.