Parents may be familiar with this scenario: a child behaves well at school and is polite to his teachers, but melts down at home in the afternoon.
Or they say please and thank you at a friend’s house but are rude to their family. They follow the rules if they visit a neighbor, but they have to be constantly reminded not to slam doors or raid the house pantry.
Why is this so? And is there anything you can do about it?
Children learn early that their behavior matters
Even well-behaved children misbehave from time to time.
When young children are tired, such as after a play date or a long day at daycare or school, they may become irritable and disruptive. Children are also naturally curious and may sometimes misbehave just to see what happens.
However, some children seem to behave consistently worse at home than with other people. To understand this phenomenon, it is necessary to understand why children behave the way they do.
From the beginning, a child’s behavior produces results or consequences. For example, babies quickly learn that crying is a very effective way of signaling that they are distressed. Parents quickly learn to change a wet diaper or feed their baby when he cries. A smile often causes an adult to smile back, coo, or cuddle the baby.
Children quickly realize that their behavior can be an effective way of controlling the actions of others.
The reward for bad behavior
Children’s behavior, whether desirable or undesirable, is influenced by the consequences it produces.
Sometimes parents’ or siblings’ reactions can accidentally reward bad behavior, and children learn that undesirable behavior has consequences.
For example, children may learn that when they don’t do what they are told, they receive extra attention from their parents. This attention may consist of reasoning, arguing, arguing, nagging, or repeating instructions over and over again. It may not be considered a “reward” for adults, but children get more attention from mom or dad.
Children can also learn that when they complain about an electronic device, they are more likely to get it.
Unfortunately, in this scenario, the child is rewarded for whining and the parent is rewarded for giving him the iPad because it stops a very irritating noise (at least in the short term). As both child and parent are rewarded, this interaction is likely to recur.
Why are children better at school?
When children are around less familiar people, they do not know how others will react or what behavior will result in a reward. In these circumstances, it is common for unwanted behaviors to be reduced, at least temporarily.
Children may also perform better at school than at home because teachers have very good systems. Children are engaged in a variety of interesting activities, expectations for their behavior are clear, and rewards for desirable behavior are reliable. Teachers know how to recognize and reward desirable behaviors through attention, praise, and sometimes symbolic reward systems.
Children also tend to imitate the behavior of their peers, especially if they see that it produces results, such as attention from the teacher or access to popular activities.
How can parents help their children behave better at home?
The good news is that if children behave well in a given setting, we know they are capable of doing the same at home.
Parents can appreciate their children’s need to relax at home while still expecting them to be polite and follow the rules. By making a few small changes, it is usually possible to see significantly improved behavior.
Here are some practical steps parents can take:
- Establish routines. Have a routine when your child comes home from school or outings. This may include allowing your child to relax, giving them a healthy snack, and then providing them with an interesting activity. Routines make it easier for everyone to transition from one environment to another. It’s even better if the routine includes activities—like coloring or running outside—that calm or burn off energy.
- Establish simple rules at home. Have a few simple rules that clearly communicate to your child how you expect them to behave. For example: “use an inner voice” or “keep toys on the floor.”
- Notice good behavior. Let your child know when he or she has done the right thing. To do this, describe what pleases you (“you share the toy so kindly”). This will make it more likely that the behavior will happen again.
- Spend small periods of time with your child regularly. This is especially important when your child asks you for help or attention. This shows that you are there for them and that they don’t need to get louder or act out to get your attention. Spending small periods of time – as little as a minute or two – often throughout the day is an effective way to strengthen your relationship with your child and prevent problem behaviors.
- Have realistic expectations. Change is easier if you focus on one or two goals at a time. Additionally, when trying to improve your behavior, expect occasional setbacks. No child (or parent) is perfect!
Trevor Mazzucchelli is Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at Curtin University and co-author of Stepping Stones Triple P – Positive Parenting Program. This piece first appeared on The conversation.