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Is Ignoring Your Kid A Legit Parenting Strategy? An Expert Explains

Catherine Pearlman, Ph.D., LCSW
July 27, 2017
Photo by Lauren Naefe
July 27, 2017

"Can I have a cookie for dessert?" little angel asks.

"No," comes the reply. The family is trying to cut down on sweets in the house.

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"But why?" little angel asks. So this parent explains that the high sugar content is troublesome, plus he had that slice of chocolate cake just a day ago, and besides, there’s a birthday party coming up.

"Yeah," the son says. "But why?"

"I just explained why. We’ve been having too much dessert."

"But why can’t I have something small?" Now little angel is eroding the caregiver's patience. He asked. She answered. This is getting irksome.

"Because I said so!" the parent barks. Those are the four her parents used to say, and she’s shocked to hear them escape her lips.

That’s when it happens. The caregiver's willpower crumbles. Why? Because parenting is exhausting, and she just wants this moment to be over. So she says, "No cookie, but if you want take a small piece of Halloween candy. Just one." Alternatively, the caregiver spends the next 30 minutes cajoling and empathizing and distracting her kid while he has a mammoth tantrum on the kitchen floor.

Ignoring helps reinforce that "making a scene" isn't the right behavior.

Either way, score a huge victory for little angel.

Instead of consistently responding to the child with lots of attention, then giving in, this caregiver should have simply ignored him after explaining why no sweets. And you shouldn’t even feel like a bad parent for doing so. Turns out, ignoring little angel is actually the best parenting move one can make.

When our children misbehave, our inclination is to do something to make the madness stop. We want it to cease because the behavior is annoying and grates on our nerves. We want it to stop because people in line at Target are watching or our parents are criticizing our child-rearing skills. Oftentimes we just want the behavior to stop because it’s our job as parents to teach our kids how to be civil and resilient. And whining, complaining, annoying noises, negotiating, and tantrums all drain the joy from parenting. So, the quicker we can get it all to stop, the better.

The most common methods parents use to improve behavior are lecturing, yelling, punishing, and (sometimes) giving in. If our kids become fresh with us, we get angry and send them to their rooms. When kids complain about having to put toys away, we say we’ll help to get the job done faster. And when kids try to negotiate to eat fewer carrots we decide to compromise because some carrots are better than no carrots, right?

In this case, not really.

Why common parenting methods don't work to stop bad behavior.

You see, the problem with all of the aforementioned responses to inappropriate behavior is that parents are providing children with a consistent reward for their actions. The reward can be more screen time or an extra bedtime story. It can be attention, even if a parent is scolding them. And sometimes kids act up just to get a rise out of parents. These kids aren’t maniacal tyrants. They’ve merely learned exactly how to land a desired outcome.

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[T]he key to stopping unwanted behavior is to understand what kids get out of it.

Kids want our attention. No, scratch that—kids desperately want their parents' attention. They chase it, they crave it, they need it. And, sure, they prefer the attention be delivered with an ice cream cone or a tight hug. But if it has to come via nudging, testing, yelling, pointing, punishing—well, hey, they’ll take it, too. The last thing youngsters want is to turn invisible, to have nobody respond to their outputs and outbursts. Unfortunately, parents are just responding to all the wrong behaviors. They should be saving their attention for all of the positive behaviors they want to see.

B.F. Skinner, the famous psychologist, spent his career studying behavior. He’s the guy who first informed parents it was helpful for young children to have a transitional love object (you know, a blankie or stuffed animal). He also learned from his research that the key to stopping unwanted behavior is to understand what kids get out of it.

Kids do all kinds of frustrating and annoying behaviors for one simple reason—because those behaviors get them something they want (sweets, TV time, attention) or help them avoid something undesirable (chores or eating vegetables). Either way, our responses to these objectionable behaviors are teaching kids that their behavior is a highly effective tool, and they should keep at it. Here’s the bottom line: Kids misbehave because it works. Take away the reward, and there’s no benefit to the behavior.

It's all about the reward system.

So what’s the best way to tackle tantrums and complaining and attention-seeking behavior? Just ignore it. Ignore it all. Your children will learn in a snap that those behaviors are no longer effective. Why would a child throw a massive tantrum for dessert if her actions never produced dessert? And why would a child beg for a later bedtime or nag for a new T-shirt or complain about visiting Grandma and Grandpa if none of those actions had any effect? When parents ignore these behaviors kids improve because there is no benefit to their nagging, begging, and crying.

Ignoring misbehavior allows parents to spend less time correcting, lecturing, and negotiating. Children realize their behavior isn’t working anymore. Behavior improves, parenting is easier, and time with kids is more enjoyable. Everyone wins.

Just to be clear, most annoying and attention-seeking behaviors can be ignored. However, parents should never ignore real pain, hurt feelings, or behavior that will hurt others. And they shouldn’t ignore moody teenagers whose goal is to be left alone. Besides that, ignoring inappropriate behavior is one of the more important parenting tools out there.

Next time your kids try to negotiate their way out of drinking their milk or they throw a fit because they aren’t allowed to watch one more Peppa Pig, consider ignoring it. It might be the best inaction you take all day.

Want more parenting support? Here's the truth about being an older mother, plus a mindful trick to help kids to go bed more easily.

This piece is adapted from Ignore It! by Catherine Pearlman with the permission of TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2017 by Catherine Pearlman. Follow Catherine on Twitter and Facebook.

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Catherine Pearlman, Ph.D., LCSW
Catherine Pearlman, Ph.D., LCSW

Catherine Pearlman, Ph.D., LCSW, is the author of IGNORE IT! How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction. She is also the founder of The Family Coach and an assistant professor of social work at Brandman University.