Say What You Mean and Mean What You Say Part 2 – Education/Behavior

by Bob Doman

1education_lgMost child management/behavior problems are credibility problems, a problem with the parent’s and/or the teacher’s credibility. If you don’t say what you mean and mean what you say, your child learns simply not to believe you. “If you do this again, I’m gonna….”

The credibility problem more often than not begins when our children are toddlers because we don’t mean what we say. If we start out “saying what we mean and meaning what we say,” we can gain credibility that last decades.

There are a number of typical issues creating problems from the get-go. The primary problems are:

We use too many words.

We give poor feedback.

We ignore the basics of how we learn.

We are inconsistent.

We are not fair and balanced.

Let’s start with “too many words.” Most of us do not have toddlers with digit spans of 5. Hopefully it’s a 1 or an emerging 2. What does that translate into relative to processing language? Not much; probably a word and perhaps a couplet. But yet, I see parents giving their toddlers lectures. Example: Susie is sitting in a high chair with a plate of food and a cup in front of her. Susie swipes it all off the tray (kind of cool for a child learning cause and effect), mom jumps up and starts cleaning up the mess and starts her lecture: “Susie, you can’t throw your food and your drink off your tray, you’ve made a big mess that mommy has to clean up. You know I love you and work hard to make this food for you and you know you really shouldn’t throw it all on the floor.” Susie probably processed “Susie” and was initially concerned because mom jumped, but she was ultimately rewarded not only by the results of her experiment, but by all the nice attention she got for it. Susie and mom may have been better served if all mom had said was an immediate loud “NO!” said with real intention. That’s cause and effect.

In many scenarios not only do we use far too many words, but also the child is often held and caressed while hearing the sweet words from mom. It doesn’t get much better than that. We call this a reward, not a punishment. We need to provide good feedback, definitive feedback. In the event which I have described, an appropriate response would have been “No,” followed up with an immediate time-out, with no further words being said. And here is the really important part: take Susie back to her highchair and put more food and another drink on her tray, setting her up to do it again. Hopefully she is going to pitch it all again, providing you with the opportunity to reinforce your previous response, “No,” and a time-out. Guess what you do next? You do it all over again and again until Susie gets it.

One of the problems parents have with teaching their children how to be civilized, social creatures who can function within our homes and society is that learning takes place when we understand the basic pieces. We need to understand the child’s processing so that we can “say what we mean” and let them know we “mean what we say” by being smart teachers and consistent teachers. The brain is changed and learning occurs when we provide quality input with sufficient frequency, intensity, and duration.

You can often correct a behavior over a weekend that you could have spent years fighting over.

Why? Many behaviors do not occur with high enough frequency so that even if we are responding appropriately, learning cannot occur. For example, many parents have problems with their children bolting, bolting out the front door, bolting when walking down the sidewalk, or bolting while out shopping. This behavior may seem like it happens all of the time, but “all of the time” might be every few days. How do we change the behavior pattern? We do it by setting the child up to do it again and again when we can focus on it. Next Saturday morning you put bolting Johnny by the front door, which you have left slightly ajar; you leave Johnny with a toy and then wait just out of sight. The second he bolts you run out and grab him and give him the lecture “NO!” and put him in time-out for a couple of minutes. What do you do next? You set him up again. Put him by the door and wait. When he bolts, “NO!” and time-out, then back to the door again. For most children the learning will have occurred within an hour, not years. Set him up later in case Johnny questions your credibility, and if needed, repeat the feedback. Sunday morning you do it again. By the end of the weekend, Johnny should have learned not to bolt out the front door, because he learned that you said what you meant– “NO”– and that you meant what you said by responding consistently.

The foundation of credibility is consistency.

Johnny will still need to learn not to bolt when going for a walk or when out shopping with you, but using the same approach, you will find that things generalize, meaning that with each thing you teach, you have the advantage of all the previous things you have taught; so that although to get him to not bolt out the front door it might have taken ten trips back and forth or more, to stop the bolting when out for a walk, it perhaps took four; and then for not bolting in the store, two times might do. Unfortunately your mistakes generalize as well. If the frequency of the behavior is too low, Johnny may forget from one event to the next. If you say too much so that you are not actually saying what you mean, or if you have been inconsistent, Johnny will have learned that what you say and what you mean is questionable at best; so in the future that will generalize as well. It’s much easier to do it correctly from the beginning. But that doesn’t mean that all is lost if you didn’t.

One final note relative to establishing and maintaining your credibility, you need to be fair and balanced. I encourage parents to try to establish a 4:1 ratio of positive to negative comments. If you have nothing but negative things to say, you lose your credibility and one of your most powerful tools as a parent–your child’s desire to please you. Your child will value and give credibility to your feedback if they hear more positives than negatives; however you really want your positives to be true or, again, you will lose your credibility. You also need to learn when to keep your thoughts to yourself; you don’t need to address every little thing every day. Target specific behavior patterns and be fair and balanced.

Whether dealing with a toddler, a teen, a young adult, or an adult for that matter, the basics are still the basics and adherence to them will lead to good outcomes, just as not adhering to them will probably produce poor outcomes.

Understand how your child processes.

Be specific and don’t use too many words.

Provide quality feedback.

Remember the basics of how we learn–frequency, intensity, duration.

Be consistent.

Be fair and balanced.


Say what you mean.


Mean what you say.

It’s never too late and it never hurts to build processing power.


Reprinted by permission of The NACD Foundation, Volume 28 No. 2, 2015 ©NACD

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