Reward for Misbehavior?

Q: I have appreciated your recent columns on the topic of self- esteem. But while what you write sounds good in theory, it doesn’t seem to work with our nine-year-old daughter. I can compliment her over and over again, but soon afterwards she’ll misbehave. It’s almost as if she wants to prove me wrong!

What’s most annoying is that once we have rewarded her for her good behavior, she’ll turn around five minutes later and hit her younger brother! It’s not just misbehaving that happens; she can actually be cruel! There are times that I have taken away a reward that I’ve already given her because I don’t want her brother to think that his sister is getting rewarded for hitting him.

When she behaves this way I do get very angry at her, and have made some comments that are quite critical. I don’t know what else to do, but I feel our present responses aren’t helping her change.

We’re getting the feeling that it’s only a matter of time until she’ll return to certain negative behaviors, so why bother complimenting her at all?

A: How should a parent respond when a child misbehaves after being complimented? Does the misbehavior cancel out the compliment, or the reward received? Would we ourselves like to lose a bonus that we received at work for excellence because we happened to come to work late for two days in a row afterwards?

We can understand being docked from work because we are late, but losing the bonus that we acquired for hard work seems to be a very unfair consequence. Thus, as parents, we have to refrain from saying things such as, “I thought you were a good boy. I guess that I was wrong.” A compliment received for good behavior is well deserved; it shouldn’t be taken away. A negative action doesn’t cancel out a positive one.

A better response to such a situation would be: “I know that you’re good — you’re trying to fool me.” Or, “You think I’m so silly that I believe that this is really who you are!” A parent can also say: “A ‘Schwartz’ (the child’s family name) doesn’t behave this way. I’m really confused.”

Clearly this is not the only possible response to a child’s misbehavior. Yet the initial “belief in the child” is necessary to make the turn-around in behavior that much easier. “If I am actually a ‘good’ child, then what indeed is going on here?” thinks the child. The transformation is that of someone coming back to who they really are.

After this initial verbal “reframing” of the negative situation, a parent does need to give a consequence because the child needs to see that there are consequences to negative behavior. But consequences of action are just that — they are not insults said in anger. The type of consequence needed depends on the actual misbehavior involved. The best thing for a parent to do is discuss the topic before the actual behavior occurs. “If this behavior occurs, this will need to happen.” Thus, the consequence is expected and less power struggle ensues.

No matter how disappointed a parent may feel, a child should not sense the parent’s exasperation or hear comments such as, “It’s okay. I know that you’ll do it 10 times again.” Children pick up on their parents’ true feelings and then do not believe in their own ability to change. A parent has to truly believe in his child’s ability to mend his ways. We need to believe in the special abilities of every Jewish neshamah, which is an actual part of Hashem (even our children)!

As in all cases, if negative behavior patterns amongst siblings continually occur, professional help should be sought (preferably family therapy) to help re-focus the interpersonal relationships.