One of my fondest memories happened after I was asked to speak to my church congregation shortly after returning from a mission. The invitation came 10 minutes before the meeting was to start. My habit is to say yes when asked to do things. After extemporizing a 15-minute speech, I was able to sit back and enjoy the remainder of the service. When the service was over, my father came up to me and said, “That was a fantastic speech, probably the most spiritual part of the meeting.” I floated through the rest of the week from that praise. My father used one of the best parenting techniques I’ve ever run across “catch them being good.”
To “catch them being good” means to be involved in the moment and compliment children right as they do things that are good, obedient, kind, or whatever positive behavior the parents want to reinforce or help the child continue to doing. This simple parenting technique can be very helpful if both steps are done sincerely. However, if the compliment is given in a sarcastic or haphazard way, or if the parents aren’t paying actual attention to what the children are doing – then this technique won’t work.
So, let’s discuss the two main components of “Catch them being good”.
First, the goal of this technique is to be aware of what your child is doing. This means paying attention to when they are behaving properly as well as misbehaving. This sounds deceptively simple. Noticing good behavior takes purposeful attention. Normally, when children are behaving properly, parents feel “free” to do other things, taking their attention completely off their children. It’s fine to go and do other things, but that second part “taking attention completely off the children” is the problem. It is possible to be doing other things, but parents need to still occasionally be listening or checking on the children. When I go to check on them, I’m specifically looking for something to compliment them on.
Other times during the day, I try to make sure I find behaviors I can complement my children on, so that I’m reinforcing their positive behaviors.
Examples of times when I’m specifically looking at my children’s good behavior:
Chore time – I’m looking for children who are working hard, or being diligent in their efforts.
Homework – I’m looking for children who are trying their best to complete their assignments.
Playtime – I’m looking for children who are playing well with the other children – and specific behaviors that they are using to do so.
Honestly, though, any time is a good time to look for and give attention to the positive behaviors your children are doing. This is so important for several reasons. It will remind you how great your children really are. They really do their best to behave; but it’s easy to forget all the good they do and focus on just their poor choices.
Where we place our focus is what we will see. If we only give attention to our children when they are bad, then we will think that they are always bad. If we take time to notice the good as well, then it will balance out our perspective we have of our children’s behavior. Additionally, attention from parents reinforces the behavior that got the attention. So, if attention is given only when behavior is bad, then only the bad behavior is reinforced. Children and parents begin to label the children as “bad” – leading the children to “live up” to the label and behave poorly.
So, after making sure to take time and notice the good behavior that the children are exhibiting, it’s time for the second part of this parenting technique – the compliment.
It’s very important that the compliment given isn’t a cookie cutter compliment. A cookie cutter compliment is something that can be said in any situation, such as: “You’re such a great kid.” This compliment is so general that the child can honestly wonder if it is an actual compliment.
A better way to reinforce the positive behavior is to offer a sincere and specific compliment. For example, if a child has worked very diligently on cleaning a room, then a sincere compliment would be: “Alex, I can see that you have worked really hard in cleaning your room. Look at all the toys you’ve put away so nicely and neatly. Thank you for being so careful as you cleaned today.”
Sincere and specific compliments are even more powerful if given to the child at the same eye level of the child, and with a light touch on the shoulder. These two non-verbal behaviors are very forceful at showing the person the compliment is sincere. Going down to eye-level takes away the assumption of power over the child that parents have mostly because they are taller than their children. Touching the shoulder, gently, powerfully connects the speaker and the listener and also captures the attention of the listener.
The technique of catching them being good is an amazingly powerful way to reinforce the positive behavior parents want children to develop. It is also much more effective at changing negative behaviors, because the child receives so much more positive attention for the positive behaviors than negative attention for negative behaviors.