Dream Parenting: It’s 80% Atmosphere

After being in the parenting education field for over two decades I have come to realize that the most effective parenting strategies are those that focus on the atmosphere in the home and not behavior modification of children. If you want to create the family of your dreams, you have to spend more time on changing the atmosphere in your home. Too many parenting programs focus on manipulating children’s behavior to gain compliance. They strive for a position of leverage of parent over child that often ends up in child over parent. The objective is to make the parent more powerful and the more children submissive. This might work in the short run but after a while the home has a negative atmosphere that suffocates everyone!


A friend of mine sent me a comic strip that said: “Don’t yell at your kids. Lean in and whisper. It is much scarier.” There is some truth to this pictorial pun as so many parents rely on force of will and voice instead of building relationship and attachment. Of course there are times where you will have to stand your ground with a child. You absolutely need to give consequences for inappropriate behavior but you cannot do this without some sort of emotional balance. Over time, the more you order your child around and expect blind obedience or choose to yell louder because obviously he wasn’t listening the first time, will create a climate of hostility and resentment. Is this the type of dream home you were picturing?

Research on attachment and neuroscience validates this need for emotional balance. Children with secure attachment styles are more cooperative, make better morale decisions, perform better in school, and have more empathy toward others, just to name a few positive qualities. Children without healthy attachment styles appear to have little conscience, poor academic performance, and severe behavioral problems. Although these are two parenting extremes, my personal observations are that most parents lean to the lack of emotional warmth and attachment style of parenting. Spending a half hour coloring with a child or watching a cartoon with them once in a while will not make up for hours of yelling and power struggling. 

To achieve this type of dream family, you have to wake up in the morning with a dedicated intentionality to shift the atmosphere in your home. Call this new idea your new parenting mission statement. Call it whatever you want, but you have to make it job number one until you achieve the home life you have dreamt about. You cannot begin the day thinking about how you will “get” someone to do what you want him or her to do today. Although you need to get your child to school on time and you may need to get all the days chores completed, you have to keep the bigger picture in mind that you are going to create a new and better atmosphere along the way. 

In order to change an atmosphere, you have to start working with your child from the inside out. Put your emphasis on their internal motivations and not on behavioral expectations. This will require you to spend some time getting to know your child better. Really, getting to know them. This will cost you time and energy from other tasks like laundry, work or television programs. Yes, television! It will also cost you some preconceived ideas about what it means to be a “good parent” in today’s society (we aren’t going to go into those today however). 

When heated moments come up with your child, and they will, you have to kneel down, look your child in the eye, and whisper words of direction and encouragement. As the comic strip suggested, this may be scary to your child, not because of the evil tone you take in your whisper but because they have never heard you lower your voice and talk in such an intimate manner. This is guaranteed to get their attention!

You also have to start a practice of nurturing your family members “inner gold” to see a substantial return on relational investments. This will require you to focus on the atmosphere of your home more than control strategies or chore charts. Try making a chart of each person’s unique qualities and attributes. I know you may have to think long and hard but anything is worth noting. Once you have a list of them, how can you create an atmosphere to build on those qualities? What encouragement can you give each family member? How do family members talk to one another? What will make your home safe enough for the other family members to put this precious trait or gift out in the open for examine and nurturing? Once you have started this process, most of the battles you have been (unsuccessfully) fighting will no longer necessary. 

Spend 80% of your time developing this atmosphere. The other 20% can be spent on chore charts. Here’s a quick example about how this can benefit mom, dad and the kids:

Johnny is the typical teen. He has a habit of putting his large feet on the coffee table. Mom doesn’t like his size 13 feet on the table and this turns into a huge argument every day. Mom now decides to change the atmosphere or to be more specific, change the living room. Now, there is no coffee table. It holds mom’s quite holiday items in the back room. Mom sits on the couch and asks Johnny about his day. He mumbles in confusion at this new tactic mom is taking. Mom shows empathy for his long day at school and sport practices after school. She offers to make him a snack and sits back down and eats it with him instead of complaining how this snack will ruin dinner. She also hasn’t commented once about how his feet stink after practice. He lets slip that a friend got dumped by his girlfriend. Mom never moralizes or tries to teach a lesson on how to treat a girl. Instead she asks questions to encourage more conversation from Johnny and just says ‘Uh-huh" to the parts of the conversation she has an opinion about. Frequently, mom states: “Tell me more…” about parts of the story to draw about out more conversation and information. After the snack is over, Johnny surprisingly takes his plate to the kitchen without mom “reminding” him to do it. Maybe it is because there was no coffee table to leave it on but mom is just glad to not have the battle with him. Mom gives Johnny a choice to work on homework before or after dinner time instead of telling him to get it done now since he just had a snack. Johnny just walks to his room to start on it, slightly bewildered by what just happened but with a smile on his face.

Here’s another example:

Sally is just 6 years old and very impulsive. She often runs instead of walks, leaves her toys all over the place and rarely finishes a project once started. Trying to get her to eat her dinner without talking or getting up from the table is a constant source of frustration for her parents. Dad decides to try something different and instead of yelling at Sally to pick up her toys or not run through the house, he puts left over toys into a “buy back bin”. When Sally completes her dinner without getting up from the table, he lets her “buy back” her toys to play with. If she doesn’t sit with the family, they stay in the bin over night for safe keeping. Tomorrow is another day and another practice at sitting down during dinner. When Sally runs through the house, dad asks her to do a “redo.” Sally has to go back from where she ran from and “redo” this behavior by walking. This seems to work well for Sally, not just in the area of running, but in many behavioral areas she struggles with. When Sally talks at the dinner table, dad doesn’t remind her for the hundredth time to be quiet and eat her food, he engages her in more conversation. Sally loves this opportunity for attention and finishes her food in record time which has been another source of contention with her parents. She even ate her broccoli which she said tastes like dirt. After dinner, mom and dad turn off the television and wait on doing the dishes till she is asleep. Instead they work on her homework together versus having her sit at the kitchen table alone to do it and then they read a book and get ready for bed. They make getting on her pajamas a race between her and mom to see who can change the quickest. Sally always wins and gets 17 kisses as her prize. They have a set routine ever night now instead of bedtime being somewhere between 8 and 10 pm! Now mom and dad have more time together too. 

* The two examples above utilize Parenting Toolbox tools entitled: Talk Tools, Moving the Furniture, Time Cushions, Choices, Redo’s, Energy Drains, Homework Hassle Helpers, Following the Leader, and Bedtime Routines. You can get them and more by ordering my ebook here!

Take a moment right now to reflect on the current atmosphere in your home. Is it warm and cozy or cold and unbearable? What is one thing you can do differently by changing up the tone, routine or focusing on the inner “gold” of your child? How can you work with your child’s behavior instead of against it? What new tool or tip can you incorporate versus yelling louder? What needs to be physically moved, turned off or reordered to bring a more positive atmosphere in your home?

Share your successes and frustrations by posting a comment on our Facebook page here!

3 Keys to Behavior Chart Success

I used to joke with parents that if they could make a grocery list, they could change a child’s behavior. The idea behind this is that most behavioral change takes parental attention and consistency. The truth is that we are constantly shaping our child’s behaviors every day. And, one might say, they are changing ours too! This is a natural process of interaction. The question is really, what are your shaping? Our you modeling positive habits? Do you reward positive behavior? Shifting our attention away from negative behavior (what you don’t want) and refocusing on positive behaviors (what you do want) can be as easy as making a list or creating a chart.

 Here are 3 keys to successfully changing a child’s behavior with a behavior chart:

1. Have a clear, achievable goal in mind: If you don’t know where you are going, you won’t get there. Don’t confuse the goal by making it too vague or complex. Focus on a specific behavior you WANT to see happen. Don’t write it in the negative. State what you want to see different. Be age appropriate when focusing on change. A 4 year old can’t do what a 14 year old can do.

2. Make it rewarding: The power of a behavior chart is that a child will get a reward for doing what you want. What motivates your child? What can you realistically afford to do? How long will it take to get the reward? Some children need daily, if not hourly rewards. Break a big reward down into smaller rewards if necessary to keep children motivated. The last thing you want is a defiant child who refuses to do a chart because it is too difficult or they feel like they will fail and so they don’t even try. Also, remember the best reward is you! Your smile, hug and words of praise should always be given regardless of any other physical reward.

3. Be open to change: If  the chart is not working, make changes. It is just a parenting tool, not a magical wand. Use the success or lack of it as feedback on how to create the chart. Use family meetings and intimate discussions about what is working for the child. Continue to celebrate any small success or effort. You might find that using a chart changes your parenting time and energy as well. That is good modeling and parenting improvement.

Changing Children’s Behavior: Take Some Measurements!

Does your child have so many problems that you don’t know where to start? Are you so frustrated that you can’t see or think straight? Do you feel helpless about how to make changes in your relationship with your child? Perhaps the first place to start is with a few measurements.

When behaviorists study people’s behavior, they start with a baseline. A baseline is a tool that is used to measure the frequency and duration of someone’s specific behavior. A baseline can be used to measure the frequency and duration of both desirable and undesirable behavior. This dual measurement can tell parents what they want to increase and what they want to decrease, all without a lot of screaming, hair pulling, or medication!

The first step in determining a baseline is to measure a child’s behavior when no intervention or tool is being used with the child. This way parents can get an accurate estimation of the child’s behavior. Baselines will allow a parent to measure the effectiveness of a particular parenting tool they are using. If a parent discovers that a tool is not getting the desirable results (i.e., the misbehavior continues at the same level as before or is much worse), then the parent knows to abandon this approach and try another. Parents then find a different tool to use that gets them better results. Sounds easy, huh! Actually it isn’t. But with a little practice parents can use baselines to objectively and rationally approach a behavior problem and change it.

The next step is to gather a few basic materials: a piece of graph paper, pencil, and daily calendar. Write across the top of the graph paper the behavior you wish to increase or decrease. For example, you might write: “I want to increase the number of times that Tommy takes his bath on time” or “I want to decrease the number of times that Mary hits her little brother.” Picking the behavior may not be as easy at it sounds. You must pick one behavior to focus on and not get confused with other problems at home. Be very specific about what you want to increase or decrease. Don’t write: “I want Tommy to behave.” That is too general and vague. You will never achieve that anyway, so why frustrate you and Tommy. Pick a behavior that is particularly troublesome and/or dangerous to start.

To get a baseline, simply count how many times a day that particular behavior is occurring for one week. Average it on a per day basis by taking your weekly total and divide it by seven (days of the week). That will be your baseline. Let’s say that you want Tommy to take his bath, on time, every day. At this time, Tommy only takes his bath, one time, once per week. One is your baseline. Anything you use to increase this frequency will be considered effective. Anything that does not or reduces it to zero, is not effective.

After you have picked the behavior, use the bottom of the paper to list the days of the week from the calendar (Sunday, Monday… Saturday). Along the left side of the paper you will write a range of numbers, starting from the bottom and going up. The range could be from zero to ten, if the behavior you are targeting is a low frequency problem or zero to hundred, if it is a high frequency problem. I would suggest sticking with a low frequency problem. It will make the process simpler and easier to monitor.

Now comes the fun part: picking the tool. What will you use to increase or decrease your child’s behavior? You could do what you have always done, like Time-Out or Removing Privileges. Or you could read up on a couple of books, ask a wise friend or teacher, or search the Internet, looking for various interventions to try. Regardless of where you go for your tools, choose only one. Use the tool of choice for a period of one week and faithfully measure how many times a day that behavior occurs with the application of the tool. Be sure that all caregivers (moms, dads, relatives, day care staff, etc.) use the same tool or you will not get a good measurement. In fact, if dad is doing one thing and mom another, you could be sabotaging each other’s efforts. Get everyone on the bandwagon and cooperating.

Chart the number of times the behavior occurs (its frequency per day) and the time that it occurred. In order to see if change has occurred, parents must check to see if there is any difference between the baseline number, before any intervention was made, and the number of occurrences after an intervention is made. This final number should come close to your target number. Let’s take another look at Tommy and his bath time. Mom and dad decided to take away Tommy’s television privileges if he did not get in the bath on time each day. They did this by simply stating the consequence ten minutes before bath time to give him time to prepare. If Tommy did not get in the bath on time (they gave him a five minute window of opportunity either way) they stated that there would be no television privileges the next morning and stuck to their decision. After a couple of days, Tommy realized that mom and dad were serious about this bath time business and decided to cooperate. He was able to get in the bath, on time, three times in one week, as a result of mom and dad’s new interventions. This was a definite increase from the baseline and considered successful by everyone.

Don’t worry if the change doesn’t occur immediately. Children test their parents to see if they will be consistent with these new interventions or if parents are going to fall back to old, inconsistent ways of disciplining. One to two weeks may be needed to witness any real results. If the behavior is still not changing after that period of time, find a new tool. It is also important that you be consistent. Inconsistency will reward the behavior in the wrong direction.

What if one parent is willing to cooperate but the other is not? This makes our task harder but not impossible. Simple measure during a time that you are able to control, say, during the daytime when dad is at work. Obviously, you must pick a target behavior that occurs during that time period and find a tool that you can administer alone. Children will adapt to the different parenting styles of their parents, even if they are exact opposites.

Reward all positive, behavioral changes. This will help to maintain the behavior over a long period of time. Don’t resort to bribes, such as sweets, money, or toys. This will backfire on you. Use social praise, like: “Great job” or “I really appreciated how you did that.” This is usually sufficient for children. Any negative behavior should be ignored, as much as possible.

How long should you use the baseline tool? Use the tool for as long as you need. Once you are getting positive results from your new tool, you can go on to targeting a new behavior or put the chart away until it is needed again. Behavior tools, like the baseline, have some limitations. Very smart children see your strategy and try to go around it or do as they are asked, during the specific time it is asked, and then immediately misbehave right after. For example, Tommy may get into the bath on time so that he can watch his favorite television programs, but right after the bath, he may become rude and obnoxious to his little sister. This is a weakness in the tool, not you. Ignore the weakness for now. All you are concerned with is increasing getting into the bath on time. Later you will address, with the baseline tool, the rude behavior.

The value of this parenting tool is in its ability to get a baseline measure of a child’s behavior and to test the validity of the parenting tools your are using. It allows you to cope with feelings of frustration and target behavior objectively and without negative attention to the child. This allows the parent and the child to concentrate on more enjoyable activities together.