Support and encourage children’s positive behavior

Dr. Kate Brennan

Rudolf Dreikurs, a noted child specialist, once said a child needs encouragement as a plant needs water.  He believed that the lack of encouragement was considered to be the basic cause of misbehavior.  “A misbehaving child is a discouraged child” he would say. Learning to support and encourage children’s positive behavior is easier than you think.

Remember for a moment what it must be like to be a small child.  From the vantage point of a child, adults appear to be coordinated, efficient and able to make things happen with ease.  A small child’s abilities pale by comparison.  Children respond to numerous situations with a wonderful desire to gain skills and to overcome the deep sense of their own smallness and inadequacy.  They so earnestly want to be a part of the family.  Children possess tremendous amounts of courage as they learn new tasks in spite of being surrounded by people who are big, clever and competent.  How strong would our motivation be if we found ourselves placed among giants to whom nothing appeared impossible? Yet, children persevere despite these tremendous odds.

A child attempts to find his or her place through being useful.  It may be tempting for parents to do everything themselves because it is easier and faster.  However, without even realizing it, we run the risk of discouraging our children when we assume this attitude.  When a 2 yr. old wants to help pour a glass of milk we quickly become filled with apprehension imagining the potential mess.  Often with very young children we feel that when they are older they’ll be able to complete the given task, but for now we will do it for them.  Now is the time to instill faith in them that they can accomplish something no matter how imperfect.  We need to allow them and ourselves the courage to be imperfect.  If milk is spilled, we can acknowledge the spirit of their attempt, wipe up the spilt milk and say “try again – you can do it.” The child had the fortitude to undertake a new challenge, encourage them by showing them your faith that they can achieve their goal.

If a child happily struggles to make a less then perfect bed, resist the temptation to show how much better it can be done no matter how many wrinkles there might be.  Fixing the bed will only ruin the pleasure of accomplishment in the small child and foster a sense of discouragement.  Instead the parents can show reassurance by sharing in their delight to make the bed.  “Look at you, you made your own bed” or “You pulled your covers up all by yourself.”  Point out what’s going well and build on that.  After the child has made his or her bed a few more times alone, a parent can help add more encouragement and further training by placing suggestions.  Children love to learn and will sense your desire to help them by providing support. For example you could say, “What would happen if we pulled here?”Another idea is to have fun with the learning experience by turning it into a game or song.  “Mr. Headboard loves to have the covers pulled way up.  Hello Mr. Headboard.”

Children need room to grow and test their abilities.  As parents, we can direct attention from the perfection of accomplishments to the satisfaction of contributing.  Learning to love a lumpy bed for awhile is well worth it if it means a sense of achievement and belonging to a child.

Parents can also create opportunities for children to learn cooperation and responsibility by setting up tasks that are simple enough to ensure success.  Children need to know they’re important, useful, contributing members of the family.  For example, 2-3 yr. olds can help put groceries away on a lower shelf, fold washcloths and socks, choose their outfit for the day, wipe up their own messes and even place napkins, plates and silverware on the table (perhaps not correctly at first).  Take time for training, let them know your are available if they need help, then step back and don’t jump in unless asked.  Notice the contribution instead of the quality of work done.

It takes a lot of trust on the part of the parent to let the child go ahead with a new experience. When trying a new technique and it works, be glad.  When it doesn’t, be gentle on yourself.  Allowing your child the freedom to experience new endeavors no matter how awkward or simple they may seem is the building block for their self confidence and sense of belonging.  Having faith in your children means having faith that, with your love, support, and the life skills you are teaching, they will grow up to be responsible, caring people.

Kate Brennan is a licensed Marriage, Family and Child Therapist and is founder of Marin Therapy Partners which offers therapy for families including postpartum depression, attachement, sensory motor processing, PTSD, ADD, anxiety and depression. She can be reached at drkatebrennan@gmail.com or at 415/453-1402 To schedule an appointment https://drkatebrennan.clientsecure.me