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Getting on his level: a behavior experiment

Getting on his level: a behavior experiment

It happens every day: I ask my three-year-old to get his shoes, and he’s too lost in a world of car-eating dinosaurs to even notice me. I repeat myself louder, from across the room as I’m trying to wrestle a sweatshirt over his little brother’s head so we can rush off to…wherever. I refill their water bottles and am slipping my own shoes on as I realize Little Man is still sprawled out on the family room floor, playing away.

I feel the heat rising in my face…my muscles tense instinctively…and let out an exasperated huff as I wonder to myself (since obviously no one else is paying attention) why he can’t just listen and obey the first time I ask him to do something.

Sound familiar?

I know I’m not the only parent who has ever searched for a way to get my kids to listen to me (and actually obey) more frequently–without mentioning chocolate cake, that is (it’s amazing how fast they leap out of their imaginations at the mention of dessert). For a long time, I’ve used the rocket ship countdown strategy, and it’s effective a lot of the time, but lately I’ve found myself getting more and more frustrated with Little Man, and I didn’t like being the cranky, nagging mom. Surely, there was a better way.

Someone once told me that you can’t change things outside of yourself; so if you don’t like something, your choices are to change your expectations, or to change your own actions.

Following this advice, I decided to do an experiment. I’ve read several times and in several places that if you want to your kids to listen, you need to get down to their eye-level and look them straight in the eyes. It seemed like a logical idea, and it fit my criteria of focusing on something that I could do rather than trying to force change upon my strong-willed child.

As so often seems to be the case, it didn’t turn out the way I expected. It was better…so much better.

Here’s what happened:

I made it a goal to always, or as often as possible, get right down in front of Little Man’s face to talk to him. Not in an angry “You listen to me!” kind of way, but just to be sure I really had his attention. That was it. That was the whole goal.

I started doing it just because I wanted him to listen to instructions, and it has worked. When I remember to do this, he actually responds to my requests most of the time.

But I realized something else changed too…ME. It turns out that it’s hard to yell at a child whose face is six inches away from your own. The proximity helps Little Man to listen, but it also makes me much more aware of my tone of voice (and volume). Even when I’m frustrated, I find that once I’m looking into those chocolate brown eyes, I remember he’s just a little person learning to navigate this big world, and I remember to tread gently.

I also realized that the three seconds it takes me to get over to him and get down on his level gives me just enough time to think through my response, or at least to realize I need to think it through, rather than just react. As I kneel down to face him, I can take a breath, and then address whatever I need to do, whether it be give him instructions or discuss a poor choice he made.

I still get frustrated sometimes, and I don’t always respond as the calm and patient mother I want to be. But, since starting my experiment, I have raised my voice less often, and I feel like I’m connecting with Little Man more as a little person who needs to be taught and who needs to understand, rather than just as an object to bend to my will.

Once again, in trying to solve a problem with my child, I’m learning that it has to start with changing me. I think I’ve heard that somewhere before…something about a mote and a beam. How grateful I am for these little people in my life who constantly challenge me and slowly chip away at my rough edges.

You can learn more about behavior and why kids act the way the do by watching The ABC’s of Behavior: Behavior Theory Basics