When you interact with someone, he knows you are paying attention to him, because you look at him and respond to him in conversation. When the person walks away, he recognizes that the interaction worked and you both communicated. More than likely, the individual will later attempt the same type of successful interaction with you. It seems reasonable, since you seemed so willing to engage with him before. As we interact with others, we offer them our attention. They interact with us and walk away happy. Your child does the same thing with you. Although he walks away content that you have spoken with him, you are left frustrated that he has yet to clean his room and get dressed for church.
What can you do? You try and try again to communicate with him as you do others, but something seems amiss. Why is it, you wonder, that everybody else responds in an adequate manner? The problem is that your child has learned a multitude of negative ways to get your attention (and, he will use them all, perhaps all in one day) yet, at the same time, never actually respond to your communication with him.
What you may not have realized is that whatever you do and whenever you do it with your child is all he ever wants. Interaction with you by way of talking to him, looking at him, and touching him is like him winning the Super Lotto Jackpot, because the most wonderful, most loving person in the world, his parent, has stopped whatever she is doing to interact with him! More importantly, he will continue to do whatever it takes, as long as the parent is attentive to his behaviors.
Want to do it differently? Then, you must think about what you are going to do with your child before you do it and make one discriminating decision: Do I want to see this behavior in my child again? If you decide that you do not, you must place your attention elsewhere. Any word or look from you will encourage your child to continue with the behavior. Walk away and just wait. Wait for your child to behave in a manner you approve and then smile at him. The smile is a message from you to your child letting him know that when he does that behavior, you will interact with him. It will take time for him to believe that you will no longer be attentive to his negative behavior. Be consistent, and he will eventually get it.
By being attentive to your attention, you can dole out parental smiles, greetings, and pats on the back for all the good behaviors you see or hear about. As your child grows, he will behave better and, consequently, feel better about himself, as his parents continue to gracefully point out his good behaviors. Be patient, this will work. He has already shown you that he is attentive to what you are attentive to: his behavior. Help him learn to choose better behaviors to earn your attention, and then his improved behavior will certainly get your attention as well.
Michael E. Kirk, PhD, a local clinical psychologist, is a father and grandfather. He specializes in working with families, adolescents, and children.