The Good News About Your Child's Bad Behavior

May 8, 2018 at 11:00 a.m. ET
Image: Getty Images/Design:Ashley Britton/SheKnows

Plenty of parents would scoff at the thought of relinquishing control within their chaotic households. The idea that giving up could achieve familial harmony can feel downright naive. That said, isn't "the goal of parenting," as Katherine Lewis writes in The Good News About Bad Behavior, "to work yourself out of the job of parent — to steadily relinquish responsibility and control to your ever-more-capable children"?

And if your kids are behaving badly (whether that's lying, ignoring you, refusing to help around the house or any number of low-grade daily "misbehaviors") and the only tools you have in your arsenal are yelling, giving time-outs and bribery — well, then something's not working. And the reason these methods don't work is that the problem is not the children’s behavior; it’s how the parents perceive it.

Lewis is the latest journalist to dive into the solutions offered by the apprenticeship model of parenting. This model is all about parents relinquishing control and allowing kids to learn by making mistakes; doing so supposedly creates a more tranquil home in which parents are unstressed and kids feel validated. It's also about taking a new approach to bad behavior — and its silver linings.

So, if your child is one of those misbehaving kids, don't fret. According to Lewis and others who espouse the apprenticeship model of parenting, there is plenty good news about that bad behavior.

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Bad behavior can (& usually does) end

The thing to point out here is that the apprenticeship model of parenting works by redefining what “bad behavior” even means. Many times, these behaviors are just our kids trying to assert their independence against our modern parenting methods, which are often controlling and anxiety-filled practices. We nag our kids, and we yell. Some parents still practice spanking and time-outs. These methods do not work.

The families Lewis writes about have their issues, but they do experiences a decrease in the bad behaviors once the parents relax their control and allow the children to be more independent and — this is most important — make mistakes. After all, mistakes are nature’s way of teaching lessons, and many modern styles of parenting stand directly in the way of that process.

There are some positive lasting effects

When we drop the reins on the obedience model of parenting — which is what Lewis calls the modern approach — it's not that kids will simply stop testing boundaries. But under the apprenticeship model, they learn that their misbehaviors were mistakes. And mistake-making isn't bad at all; in fact, it’s how your children will learn to be and live around other humans.

And lessons like that really do last. They teach your kids to be resilient and self-reliant and to be able to bounce back after disappointment. In her book, Lewis cites several studies and anecdotes that reiterate the same message: Apprentice kids become adults who can “adult” (you know, the verb) successfully.

The work is easy if you let it be easy

The hardest part of changing from the obedience model to the apprenticeship model is all on the parents: It's letting go of control.

Lewis writes about a parenting seminar she attended where the speaker, Vicki Hoefle, told parents to go home and spend a week doing nothing about their kids’ bad behavior. She called it the “do-nothing-say-nothing-week.” The parents in the audience balked. They had questions about what would happen with no boundaries in the home. Wouldn't it be chaos? Hoefle’s response: “We have no idea what will happen because we’ve never given it a chance — to see what happens when we give this all up.” Hoefle explains that every parent who undergoes this exercise will see that they were the ones stressing out the family; and that change of mind can make all the difference.

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It will ease your stress

The yelling, nagging, double- and triple-checking along with the rest of the modern parent’s toolbox for controlling kids is not without costs to the parent’s mental health, Lewis explains. That level of control alone requires obsessive worry about unseen dangers — as well as predicting (or imagining) problems that might arise from every move the child makes. This creates a high-tension lifestyle, and it isn’t fun for anyone. It makes parents tired, cranky, anxious and stressed. By letting go of control, Lewis urges, parents will be lifting a very heavy load off their own shoulders.

It all starts with listening

The most important part of this whole process — and the one that many parents will have problems doing — is listening. Hoefle stresses the importance of listening, and so does Lewis throughout her book. And that means listening to kids to determine the real reason for the behaviors modern parents have deemed “bad," because there is always a reason. Parents should also listen to kids to learn which of their own methods are not working. Whether you're on board with the apprenticeship parenting model or any of the other countless philosophies, listening will be key.

So really, the good news about bad behavior in children is that, provided the kid's parents get out of their way, the kid will likely grow into a self-reliant, independent and happy adult — at least according to Hoefle, Lewis and the apprenticeship model. And the idea is that parents will benefit as well — from the decrease in stress and the increase in engagement with the family.

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As for the behaviors themselves, whether it's not listening, defying rules or balking at the thought of chores, those things weren't going to stop just because you yelled about it. Bad behavior is kids doing what humans do — trying to become independent people, learning by doing and making mistakes.

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