Approximation of Behavior

Today Maximus sprayed sunscreen all over the dining room floor, the curio cabinet, and probably even got a little on himself. Hubby just sighed and said, ‘Let Daddy help next time, please Max’. Now personally this type of stuff makes me laugh. I can just see his logic- going outside on a hot day, mommy’s already got sunburn, there’s the sunscreen, maybe I’ll put some on. It’s called approximation.

We do this with babies. Babies babble; it’s an approximation of language. Babies scoot, or roll; it’s a step toward walking. It’s a baby step, to be sure, but a step in the right direction nonetheless. We cheer them on, we babble back, we help them stand, and we laugh at their attempts. Somewhere around the end of toddlerhood, we stop encouraging approximation. It makes no sense, since we continue to learn by approximation our entire adult lives. I learned to knit a few years ago and I remember what my first attempts looked like even though I picked it up pretty quickly. I had to watch my friend and try to duplicate what she did. I am sure you can think of something that you learned that way, too. (cooking experiments anyone?)

Back to Max… Maximus was approximating behavior he had seen repeated many times. There’s only one problem; he doesn’t possess the skill to accomplish the behavior effectively. He made a mess. I know what happened when I did those kinds of things as a kid. I was punished. I don’t know why, and I’m not sure whichever parent it was knew why either. The stated reason was, ‘you wasted it’ and ‘you should have known better’. The message that I got from it was, ‘don’t try to do things by yourself’. The problem with that is that my parents never told me when that rule expired, probably because that wasn’t what they thought they were ‘teaching’.

I have a couple of options when Maximus and Minimus make messes. First- I assign Positive Intent. Yes I have to do this consciously, because the first thing that pops into my head is ‘mess!’ and ‘waste!’ and ‘stupid thing to do!’ I have to mute that voice and look at the situation- sometimes that happens while I’m trying to mop up the milk before it runs onto the floor- but I have learned that the first thing I need to do is Shut My Mouth!! Someone once told me you can’t think with your mouth open, and I found they were right. I have been the most hurtful when I opened my mouth before shutting it to think. By now I have a stock answer, ‘Oh, the milk spilled! Let’s clean it up. You can use that towel, and Mommy will help’. Some of you are yelling at the screen- “What?! There has to be a Consequence for that! It was careless! It was…!!!!”

My only answer is, ‘You’ve never spilled anything then?’ Do you smack your own fingers when you spill your coffee? Do you berate yourself for sprinkling garlic powder all over the stove while you’re cooking? (well some of us might…but that’s a topic for extended discussion) I hope you don’t. The natural consequence of making a mess is cleaning it up. So that’s what I teach. Is it a deterrent? Sometimes it’s not, because the mess is small and the spray bottle of cleaner is fun. Then, my responsibility for being the authority comes in, because I don’t want to award mess makers with the use of Mommy’s fun spray bottle! So if I think it’ll be a little too much fun, I use the spray bottle and they can wipe. If the mess is big enough, or it happens often enough and interrupts play enough, it becomes its own deterrent. Not because there needs to be a punishment, but because cleaning up messes all day isn’t very much fun, and there are better things to do. Approximation of carefully handling messy stuff is rewarded by having more time to play.

So how does an adult prevent the same thing from happening next time? You can remember, and you have the language to plan ahead. The next time you’re pouring coffee you’ll think, ‘argh! Last time I spilled it, I’m going to do XYZ this time’ Viola! You avoid spilling the coffee! Yay you!

Do you know how much brain maturity it takes to predict events? It takes TONS. Very simply, it isn’t till after adolescence that the brain can consistently do this. Add to that, you must have experience in a similar situation AND be able to apply it to a new situation- something a baby/toddler/school-age child can only do with limited success. That’s why it’s so important to ask myself (and Max, too- he can articulate quite a bit of his thoughts now) “What was he trying to do?” If we can figure it out, I can help him work through how to avoid the problem the next time. Yes, this takes more work than smacking his fingers to get him to leave the sunscreen alone- not that it’d work anyway. But, instead of punishing, I am teaching! A positive response changes a mess into an opportunity for learning a new skill.

I guess it’s time to help Maximus learn how to apply sunscreen. 😀

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About greenegem

Wielder of the Pen of Deep Wit.
This entry was posted in Figuring it out, Grace-Based Discipline and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Approximation of Behavior

  1. Jenny Bryant says:

    It’s amazing to me how knowledge of child development (of things like approximation, for example) can go SUCH a long way in helping parents understand their children’s behavior. I remember what a light bulb moment it was for me when I realized that a lot of what my oldest son was doing had absolutely *nothing* to do with defiance and everything to do with developmental abilities and immaturity. I was punishing and becoming frustrated when it would have been better for everyone to be patient and to teach him.

  2. Actually, now that I think about it, even Dr. Dobson says not to spank children for childish behavior. The problem is that parents are being encouraged to assign negative intent and are quick to assume defiance.

    • greenegem says:

      Yes. We need to stop assuming that a child ‘should know better’ or that toddlers should be able to ‘know that would happen’. The bottom line is that kids often do NOT know what’s going to happen when they do something. Far more falls under ‘childish mistakes’ that most parents are willing to put up with. That’s why gentle parenting requires such a change in thinking- our expectations in this one area are far too high. Actually I don’t like the term ‘childish’ because it has negative connotations in English- I prefer ‘child-like’. Being developmentally immature is NOT a discipline problem!

  3. Pingback: Approximation of Behavior | Why Not Train A Child?

  4. Zooey says:

    It’s interesting, I always think, to always remember that we were the children once, & we made lots of messes.
    I remember that I dismembered my Betsy Wetsy baby doll, to see how the wetting mechanism worked. It took me, my mother, & my grandmother to reassemble her, and she forever after:-0 peed out the back of her neck….. Having a baby doll who pees out her neck taught me that neither I nor anyone else had any idea how to fix everything, & I had better be careful what I dissected in future.(Logical consequence). If there had been screaming & hitting, I would have most likely learned to hide my mistakes & to lie about what happened. (Not exactly what a child should be taught…..)

    Thank you for an excellent post!!!

    • greenegem says:

      LOL!! That’s a perfect example! I thank God that your mom and grandma were willing to help you attempt to fix your doll! Both my husband and I were shamed for our mistakes and punished. My husband has a hard time admitting that he can even have an effect on anything, let alone that mistakes are a result of his actions. It effected me differently- I do hide some mistakes, but others I just relentlessly try to fix until I have driven myself to exhaustion. It’s good to remember that children of different temperaments react to discipline differently.

      Thanks for a thoughtful (and funny!) response!

      greenegem

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