Most parents know that setting boundaries and limits is a necessity, but establishing the rules isn’t typically the hard part. We are savvy enough to have researched age-appropriate consequences and probably even have a solid plan. It’s the following through part where we get into trouble! You know, that small part that comes after all the strategic planning? That small part that is actually the biggest part... the all part!
Before you issue a demand to your little one, ask yourself... are you wiling to see it through? If the answer is no, then keep your mouth zipped and don’t bother uttering a peep. Why? Because not following through can inadvertently teach your child to continue blowing you off. Yes, I said it. Let me say it again so it really sinks in. You can accidentally encourage non-compliance by not following through with even little behaviors.
I know, I've burst your pretty bubble. It’s hard to always do the right thing, especially when the right thing is hard to do. While following through may indeed mean more work for you in the short-term, it’s only a temporary inconvenience. Before long your “littles” will just be in the habit of cooperating.
I get it, there are a dozen reasons why you don’t follow through. In fact, us parents are an expert lot when it comes to defending and justifying our decision to overlook things.
“Well, he did miss his nap.”
“To be fair, she didn’t have a good lunch today.”
“He hasn’t been himself; I think he’s fighting off a bug.”
“Our schedule is out all of whack with the travel we’ve done.”
“The time change has really affected her.”
“She doesn’t do well when she gets overheated.”
“His dad’s out of town and he really misses him.”
I don’t mean to minimize these variables, as they are often culprits in setting the stage for rougher waters, but we want our “littles” listening all the time and growing up to be big people who can get along in life despite what curve ball they’ve been thrown. This makes it even more important for us parents to follow through consistently, and not just on the days where everyone’s napped, eaten, healthy and enjoying a cool breeze.
Parents can help teach their children accountability and responsibility by doing the rather hard business of following through. Before you start sweating, please know that you can be both kind and firm at the same time. Following through doesn’t translate into you turning on the “mean.” Rather, you need to turn on the “I say what I mean and mean what I say.” Start with following through on the simple requests and instructions you’ve issued, to build some momentum and success. This means you need to be careful of what you ask of them. Avoid issuing demands that you aren’t willing to see through. If you don’t have it in you, then just zip it. If there's no way your butt is getting off the couch to follow through, then look away and pretend you never saw a thing.
Following through on all the little things, while tough initially, makes for much more willing “littles” and as I like to say, “the earlier, the easier!” The earlier you nip it, the easier it will be. Big problems require big solutions, while little problems require a little tweaking. Need an example? Here’s how it works...
Imagine you’re at your sister’s house hanging out and you tell your three year old that it’s time to go and then ask him to clean up what he’s taken out to play with. “Okay, it’s time to head home, let’s help cleanup before we go!” Rather than listening, he carries on playing, ignoring your directions.
It may not seem too terribly awful at first glance. After all, he’s only little, I mean how bad could it be to turn a blind eye and let it go? It’s not as if he’s throwing a fit or declaring a firm “No!” He’s simply ignoring you at his aunt’s house and she’s unconditionally both forgiving and loving. Well… turns out allowing him to ignore you is quite impactful, and not in a great way.
Allowing him to ignore you as well as not comply is a one-two punch in the gut of cooperation. It will only increase the likelihood of non-compliance to your requests in the future as well as pretending he didn’t hear a word you said. How so? Well, if you ask your child to do something, and he does not complete the task, yet still has access to the reinforcer (playing)... well my friend, he’s essentially being reinforced for not complying as well as blowing you off. This means he'll put this behavior on repeat, because it worked for him.
This may not have a big impact that day or the next, but if your “little” is only expected to follow through every so often on the days you’ve got enough “oomph” about you to do the hard work, he’ll take those odds and gamble on them more often then you’d like.
Acknowledging you spoke to him should be a must-do, not a may-do!
If you’re “little” is ignoring you, get down to their level and give them corrective feedback before reissuing your instruction. Say something like “Maddox, Mommy was speaking to you!” or “Maddox, I need you to let me know you heard me.” This kind of feedback does two things. One, you’re letting him know that ignoring you is unacceptable and two, you are giving him another opportunity to do the right thing.
If you've reissued your instruction and he still doesn’t move a muscle, then even more reason to follow through. Try, “Looks like you may need Mommy to help you be a good listener.” Or even “Would you like to do it by yourself like a big boy or shall I help you be a good listener?”
Remember though, there are a few things you can do BEFORE you ever issue an instruction that can set him up for success on the 1st go.
What happens in the minute before a behavior occurs is called the antecedent. Antecedents are the preceding factors that influence behavior and outcomes. Learn all about them in The ABC’s of Behavior article under the All Things Behavior tab. Antecedents can set the stage for success, or they can absolutely trigger problematic behavior. It turns out saying things a certain way can really influence things in your favor and promote compliance.
Let’s take a look at just a few antecedent-based strategies that would likely have worked for the scenario described above. Oh yes please!
Choices... and lots of them - this is also known as "shared control"-
You don’t care which toothbrush he uses. You don’t need control that badly. So share it! “It’s time to brush your teeth, would you like to use your Elmo toothbrush or the Paw Patrol?” “Would you like to sit up on the counter or use your step-stool?” “Would you like to sit in this chair or that chair?”
For our example above, you could try “Would you like to leave in two minutes or in five minutes?” “Should Aunt Cici help you clean up or Mommy? You get the idea! After the cleanup you could add, “Now, who should put you in your car seat, Mommy or Daddy?”
When children are offered choices throughout the day and feel like they have a bit of control, they're less likely to battle you for it at every turn.
"We need to run three errands: the grocery store, the post-office and the gas station." "Which one should we do first?" Again, you don't really mind which one. But if they are involved in the planning, they are a lot less likely to moan about the errands. It's magical!
Give instructions in a way that promotes compliance and cooperation-
Squat down to their level, eye-to-eye, and get their attention before you ever issue an instruction. Then, issue instructions calmly and confidently, like you are just certain they are going to cooperate. Avoid being overly wordy and keep it simple. Say, “I need you to come with me” vs. “Sweetheart, I don’t have time for this, can you just come with me…PLEASE?!” After all, it's a direction you are giving. If it's not really optional, don't word it like it is. Keep it simple and concise. Say it once and wait for your child to comply... expectantly.
Tell your child what to do instead of what not to do. “I need you to make a better choice” instead of “Stop throwing the ball in the house!” One is helpful feedback, the other is just nagging that may promote them ignoring you.
Use countdowns to transitions-
As adults we know what’s happening next, but they don’t. Transitioning away from something fun can be especially hard when you're young. A little warning goes a very long way in preparing them to switch gears.
Let them know when there’s about five minutes left before they need to do something different, and then remind them again of the upcoming transition at the two-minute mark.
“In five minutes we need to leave and head home.”
“Two more minutes and then we’ll say goodbye.”
When it’s go-time, you can even add one last countdown…
“Okay, it’s time to go now, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, we’re all done.”
Make sure the transition happens at the stated time. Say what you mean and then do what you say. Believe it or not, it will only make future transitions smoother. We want them to predict with 100% certainty that you mean business.
Use “First _______, then _______” statements-
The technical term for this is called the Premack Principle, but just remember first/then. If a child wants to perform a given activity, the child will perform a less desirable activity to get at the more desirable activity. In other words, if access to desirables are made contingent on performing a less desirable behavior, then the child is more likely to engage in the less desirable behaviors for you. It's science and it's tried and true. Still confused? How about this?
“First potty, then park.”
“First helmet, then scooter.”
“First we wash hands, then you can have your snack.”
“First work, then paycheck.”
Just wanted to make sure you’re still with me. First the less desirable, then the more desirable.
Once again, make sure that the more desirable thing is truly contingent on following through on the less preferred demand. In other words, keep your word. Consistency is everything. If you are going to let them have their snack regardless of whether they washed their hands or not, then you have earned the zero credibility rating in their eyes. And you can be sure that they will exploit that at every turn.
Use Behavioral Momentum-
With Behavioral Momentum, you build up momentum to what you really want the child to do by tossing out easy demands and instructions first to create a pattern of success. Just make sure you are verbally praising compliance for the easy stuff.
Say things like, “Wow, you are such a good listener” or “You’re so awesome doing what I asked right away!” "Woo hoo, you are so cool!" Then... and only then... you issue you the instruction you were after in the first place.
Using a series of high-probability requests to increase compliance with the hard thing you ask next is an evidence-based strategy and should be in your bag of tricks.
There a lots more proactive strategies that can set your child up for success. Again, read The ABC’s of Behavior for a more exhaustive list of antecedent-based do’s and don'ts.
As important as it is to follow through when they get it wrong, it’s equally important for you to follow through when they get it right! In other words, you better deliver on the reinforcers you’ve promised. If you’ve established a contingency contract (an agreement where the child demonstrates a positive behavior and they earn a positive reward for it) and your child has done their part, you better do yours!
-At the beginning of the year you offered to pay them $100 per “A” they earned on their report card. Pony up!
-You promised a trip to the ice cream shop after his flu shot… cookies and cream or raspberry sorbet?
-When my now 19 year old was successfully potty trained as a toddler, he was still super hesitant to have a BM in the big boy toilet. I made him a deal, “When you poop in the big boy toilet, I’ll take you to SeaWorld.” That was our contingency contract… going to SeaWorld was delivered contingent on him having a BM in the big boy toilet rather than the potty chair. He’d been obsessed with SeaWorld since our last trip and I was certain it was an A+ reinforcer that he’d be willing to jump through hoops for, or in this case poop in the big boy toilet. He did! And guess what? When he did, we packed ourselves up and made the 140-mile trek to see Shamu on the spot. This is a dramatic example, but the point is that because I followed through, he knew he could trust me. He knew that no matter what I said, I'd follow through.
If you make the effort to follow through, holding yourself accountable as well as them, you will raise kiddos who trust you enough to comply on the regular!
It is risky business inventing rules, issuing demands and making agreements without following through. Empty threats and promises means your child won’t take you seriously. Children will decide quickly that it’s a pretty safe bet you won’t follow through again. And unless you’ve been consistent, they’d be right to make that assumption.
Parenting with consistency is a great way to earn children’s trust and promote cooperation. While they need to know who’s boss, they also need to trust that the boss is kind, firm, and says what she means and means what she says. In other words, "I can trust Mommy to do what she says she'll do." Remember, you are in charge, and you can make it rain down fun or you can turn off the water.
Congratulations, you’ve learned all about the importance of consistency and following through! You’re well on your way to filling up your behavioral toolbox with Dynamic Behavior Solutions. Feeling overwhelmed or confused? Reach out, schedule a free-consultation, or book an appointment. Together we will help your child develop some new skills, reshape previously learned ones and decrease the undesirable behavior. Let’s tackle the challenge!
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