In parenting, our instincts are not always right. For instance, when a child does something destructive, we may impulsively find ourselves yelling in upset. The behavior comes "naturally" and "instinctively," and yet it can often prove to be counterproductive. In fact, many of the actions we spontaneously take to educate our youngsters often have little or no positive impact. Let's examine four such parenting interventions and see how we can turn them into effective educational strategies.

1. Focusing on What’s Wrong, Instead of on What’s Right

This error comes out of our natural tendency to see what’s wrong far more easily than we see what’s right. If a child is teasing a sibling, his behavior will come to our attention far more easily than if he is sitting and playing nicely with him. The problem with focusing too much on the wrong behavior is that attentionOur instincts are not always right reinforces behavior. Any kind of attention—pleasant or unpleasant—increases the behavior it is attached to. If we look at, touch or talk to the child when he is doing something wrong, chances are very good that he’ll do that same wrong thing again. It doesn’t matter at all that our look may be a stern one, or that our speech may be a reprimand. It doesn’t even matter if we add a negative consequence. As long as we give attention to a specific behavior, we are sure to see more of that behavior. For instance, asking a child to chew with her mouth closed will generally lead to more chewing with her mouth open, because the parent spoke to the child while the child was eating with her mouth open!

Therefore, we need to be careful to give most of our daily attention to neutral (non-problematic) and positive (praiseworthy) behaviors. We should be smiling at, touching and talking to a child when that youngster is doing nothing wrong, and also when he is doing something positive. Although this is challenging to do when the child’s negative behaviors are frequent and intense, it is even more important that we do it at these times. We will soon notice that his behavior is improving! Focusing most of our educational efforts on positive interventions falls in line with the dictum of our sages that “the right hand draws near while the left hand pushes away.” The right hand, symbolizing loving communication, is the stronger hand. The weaker left hand, symbolizing correction and discipline, has its more minor role in childrearing.

2. Failing to Discipline

Ironically, too little discipline can also be a problem. Children don’t necessarily outgrow negative behaviors. In fact, as they engage in such behaviors, they are actually practicing them, building strong neural networks in their little brains. A child who speaks rudely, for example, is building a pathway for rude speech. As he engages in the behavior over time, it becomes more and more natural for him to access that pathway. It isn’t necessary or advisable to tackle every negative behavior that a child is doing in a given day or week. However, you can make a written list of the inappropriate behaviors and address them one by one.

Most inappropriate behaviors can be corrected with PositiveIt isn't necessary to tackle every negative behavior in one day Discipline, an intense form of positive attention to the desired behavior. A Positive Discipline strategy feels good to the child instead of bad. “Discipline” means education, not punishment; there is no need to choose a punishing form of discipline when corrective techniques that feel good will accomplish the job. Moreover, good-feeling discipline focuses attention on the desired behavior rather than on the inappropriate behavior.

For example, let’s say the child is a poor listener. Instead of punishing him for not listening, we want to reinforce his behavior when he does listen. Therefore, the moment we see that he has listened and responded appropriately to an instruction, we can verbally acknowledge his listening, praise it and even reward it. Use a similar approach for most of the inappropriate behavior that occurs, and save the “bad-feeling” discipline for the very rare behaviors that aren’t responding to the more pleasant approach.

3. Using Anger

Parents are only human, so they naturally feel anger at times. However, this is one emotion that our sages particularly caution us to limit. We need to work on ourselves in order to feel less angry, and we need to learn how to refrain from speaking and acting in anger. In parenting, anger can harm the child’s development and the parent-child relationship. For now, let’s just say that anger gives far too much attention to a negative behavior and therefore increases the chances that the behavior will occur again.

When we’re feeling angry, we should not try to educate the child at all. We can wait until we’ve cooledAnger can harm the relationship down and had a chance to think about what we want the child to be doing and the parenting plan we can develop to help him do that. If we’ve already been using positive attention and positive discipline with no improvement, we can certainly use old-fashioned negative consequences. However, these must be put forward without any show of anger.

Fortunately, it is possible to discipline both children and adults without anger. After all, the “right-priced ticket” (like an expensive speeding ticket for adults who drive too fast) can change behavior very effectively. Just as a police officer doesn’t have to yell at you to get you to drive at the right speed, you don’t have to yell at your kids to gain their cooperation. The police officer gives you a ticket—a monetary cost for your behavior. You can give your child a ticket—loss of a privilege, a time-out, a writing assignment or some other annoying consequence—to drive your point home if necessary.

4. Name-Calling

If you use negative labels in parenting, you are just as guilty as your child is of name-calling! The rule in family life is that no negative labels should ever be used. It doesn’t matter if the label is perfectly accurate. Words like “lazy,” “stupid,” “selfish,” “irresponsible,” “careless,” “mean” and “rude” are all forms of name-calling.

Grammar doesn’t matter here. All the following sentences mean exactly the same thing to the child: “You’re being mean.” “What you are doing is mean.” “Don’t be mean.” “That was mean.” Unfortunately, the word “mean” is the only one that the brain will register and remember from each of these sentences. Descriptive labels are quickly “turned to glucose,” so to speak—they are stored as if you said, “You are mean.” This is a result of how the brain processes language, and there is nothing you can do about it, except make an effort to refrain from using unpleasant labels in any sentence. (By the way, the Torah itself avoids negative labels wherever possible, going out of the way to use extra words in order to phrase something in a positive way instead of more briefly describing it with a negative label. This is despite the Torah’s principle of using the fewest words possible to express its teachings.)

Grammar labels don't matter here

Instead of using a negative label, describe the unacceptable behavior, and leave off the insulting adjective. For instance, instead of telling a child that he is irresponsible, you can point out that it is his job to take out the garbage, and the family is depending on him. You can even use the positive label “responsible,” as in, “You need to be responsible. We are counting on you.” Similarly, when a child is being rude to you, just tell him that he needs to be “polite” or “respectful”—and then follow up with your normal interventions to reinforce polite behavior. There is no need to use the word “rude,” which is hurtful, insulting and concept-forming—meaning that the child will now think of himself as a rude person and therefore act that way more often! Labels have real power.

Avoiding these discipline pitfalls can help you guide your child more effectively and joyfully. After all, more positivity and less negativity is as good for you as it is for your child.