On our recent brief trip to Ethiopia I observed some things about children. The children that I personally observed behaved very differently from A in two ways: 1) they were much more obedient and 2) they were much more independent. That may seem like a contradiction, but it's not. When the kids (that I personally observed) were interacting with adults, they did what they were told quickly and without arguing. But most of the time they were not interacting with adults, at which time they did whatever they wanted. So ask Hailu to bring water for the guests to wash their hands and he jumps to it, but then he can go wander around town with no adult interference.
The way most Ethiopian adults that I observed acted toward kids was also different from how most American adults act toward kids in two ways: 1) they gave a lot of positive reinforcement and 2) they gave almost no negative reinforcement. When a kid did what she was told, contributing to the smooth running of the household, she was talked to, lovingly teased, hugged, included. When a toddler was cheerful, he was passed around, played with, praised. When a kid was standing around wailing, he was ignored. When A complained about being tired or bored, he was ignored. Not ignored in a deliberate I'm-going-to-ignore-you-until-you-change-this-behavior kind of way, more like not noticed. Like you might not notice a squirrel scolding you from a tree.
I suspect that my observations about children and adults are connected. Often children who do not receive enough positive attention misbehave in order to receive negative attention, because any attention is better than nothing. This way of interacting with children turns the behavior on its head - behaving to get attention, because it's the only attention they 're going to get.
My observations in Ethiopia made me adjust some of my interactions with my own kids. A and D each have a behavior that had been a challenge for me. For A, it is tattling on D, either by actual tattling or by scolding D while staring directly at me, waiting for a reaction. For D, it is continuous complaining: "I don't want to, it's boring, why do I have to, I don't like it." And I had fallen into a pattern of reacting. For A, addressing the tattling, addressing whatever D did, telling A to look at the person he was talking to. For D, calming, giving reasons, distracting, threatening. Since our trip, I've been working on giving no reaction at all to these behaviors. A stares at me while saying, "D, why did you bump into me?" and I go on preparing dinner as if I haven't heard. D storms off into the other room wailing, "You ALWAYS want to go to the park! I DON'T WANT to go to the park! I DON'T LIKE the park!" (Note: D loves the park) and I continue filling the water bottle and collecting balls and gloves.
Of course I don't ignore them if they have a legitimate complaint. If D actually wrongs or hurts A, which he has done a handful of times, I will address it. If D seems genuinely upset by something, I will snuggle with him and talk about it. I am just referring to the knee-jerk tattling and complaining that doesn't seem to signify anything more than a bad habit.
I think I can say this adjustment is working, even though the boys are continuing their behavior. It's working because it's letting me stay calm and direct my energy toward meeting my boys' more real needs. In other words, their behavior hasn't really changed, but I feel I'm becoming a better parent. Maybe lack of reinforcement will eventually extinguish these habits.
So any thoughts on this parenting strategy? Is there any down side that I'm not seeing?