My four-year old loves making herself burp—mouth-gaping, deep-bellied belches that would impress a locker room of teenagers. She smiles after each one, basking in her skill mastery, as she waits for me, her Southern-raised mama, to react with an eye roll, a grimace, or, in moments of sheer exasperation, a shouted “Stop that!”
Dr. Catherine Pearlman, aka the founder of The Family Coach, suggests a different response: Just ignore it. Go to your happy place and pretend nothing is happening. In her new book Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction, Pearlman details the motivation behind bad behavior and provides a six-step process to reign it in.
According to Pearlman, kids are motivated by both positive reinforcement (they get something, such as your attention) and negative reinforcement (something they don’t want—like broccoli—is taken away). Here’s the thing: A negative parental response is still positive reinforcement. So, all that eye rolling, huffing and “Stop it!” shouting is making my preschooler belch more. She wants me to notice her. While I’d rather notice her for putting her dirty clothes in the hamper or picking up her toys, attention—good or bad—is attention. So, she sucks in some air and lets one rip.
My four-year old’s burping is JV-level annoyance. Her seven-year old sister is an Olympian of pushing my buttons: negotiating nonstop, hysterics at the sight of banana/dog/insect, and whining whenever she doesn’t get her way or is assigned the simplest task. After an entire summer of listening to my kids belch and whine like champions, I’m eager to augment my strained parenting skills and try something new.
I figured ignoring them would be easy enough. Not so much.
Keep in mind, deliberate ignoring differs from checking out. When I’m at my patience limit, I’ll slam a princess movie in the Blu-ray player and disappear into my Kindle, emerging to wipe a butt or break up a brawl, but otherwise losing myself in whatever I’m reading so when the movie ends, I’m calmer, more relaxed, and ready to be as patient as I’m able. That’s checking out. No judgment, but it’s not the same a deliberate ignoring.
Deliberate ignoring is active. It’s recognizing which behaviors to ignore, consistently and fully ignoring them (which is much harder than you’d think), and reengaging immediately when the behavior subsides.
According to Pearlman, when bad behavior no longer gets the intended results, the child will stop doing it. Pearlman calls this extinction. It sounds a bit like pest control, which in a way, it is.
Step 1: Observe
The first step is to figure out what behavior pushes your buttons and why. I struggle with parental self-reflection, but I’ve learned that my kids’ worst behavior is often a result of my own impatience or poor planning. This step gives you the opportunity to see patterns in your child’s behavior as well as your reaction. It may even help you find preemptive solutions to prevent bad behavior (i.e. maybe you overschedule your Saturdays and your kid falls apart without a nap).
Step 2: Create a List
Decide which behaviors you intend to deliberately ignore—start with two or three. This step made the whole process feel more manageable. I’m a planner, so I like the idea of anticipating exactly when to use the technique. It also enables parents to record baseline behavior so they can evaluate how well the process is working.
When choosing behaviors, remember not all annoying behavior is intentional or even bad. Both my kids have sensory processing issues and rock to self-soothe. Our developmental pediatrician said to “let ‘em rock” in private, so we do. It’s such a common occurrence in our household that my husband and I don’t even notice it anymore. We ignore the behavior because as annoying as it was initially, it helps the girls regulate their behavior elsewhere. They aren’t doing it to annoy us, and they won’t stop doing it just because we ignore it.
Pearlman insists that any dangerous or dishonest misbehavior or willful disobedience (You know, the screw-you-mom moments when you call your toddler and she looks right at you and runs in the other direction) should never be ignored.
For our kids, I decided to go with the dreaded burping for the four-year old, negotiating for my oldest, and whining for both.
My husband and I differ on our oldest child’s negotiation habit. He sees negotiation as a life skill and welcomes the back-and-forth banter for more screen time or fewer vegetables. I loathe it. I don’t parent like a dictator, but when I give an order (“It’s time to leave”), I don’t want to include a five minute dissertation on my reasoning. I don’t have time for that shit. Get in the car. As the primary caregiver, I’m often parenting alone, which means every moment I’m negotiating with my oldest is a moment my attention is diverted from my youngest, who could wander to the other side of the park or parkour to the top of the kitchen cabinets (as one does). For both their safety and my sanity, my kids need to listen to me.
Step 3: Ignore
This step sounds simple, but it’s not. You must consistently and completely ignore the behavior. Giving in on occasion, something Pearlman calls “intermittent reinforcement”, will undermine the entire process. Kids will just keep at it because sometimes their bad behavior works. In order to completely ignore the behavior, you must appear relaxed and disengaged while your kid does whatever it is you’re trying to curb—every time they do it. You have to pretend to give zero fucks that they’re thrashing on the floor or calling you names. For our family, I foresee two challenges: 1). Our different views on negotiation. 2). My natural reaction to being challenged.
I have one of those faces that shows EVERY thought in my head. Also, as someone who was bullied as a child, it’s taken me a long time to stand up for myself. Pretending not to care while my kids verbally abuse me will be diffiult. Luckily, Pearlman believes ignoring is a parenting skill that can be learned. Here’s hoping I can learn to handle insults as well as I handle catching puke.
Ignore It! goes on to provides detailed scenarios of families using the process as well as helpful charts for observing and monitoring behavior. It even gives helpful tips for what to do in public when the little old lady in aisle three gives you and your whining kid the stink eye (spoiler alert: ignore that too).
Step 4: Listen
Listen for your child to stop whatever behavior you’re intentionally ignoring.
Step 5: Reengage
Reengage with your child in a positive way as though whatever happened never happened. You talk about something pleasant or do something fun like read a book together.
I suck at this. I often struggle to find the joy in parenting and sometimes I miss the opportunity. My kids misbehave, and I’m in such a foul mood afterwards, I disengage. I don’t check out necessarily, but I’m not fun mommy. I don’t lean in as often as I should, and that’s something I must work on as a parent. This step was a combo aha moment and gut-punch to my conscience. My kids are learning how to behave. They will make mistakes (and so will I). I’m working on letting go of the bad moments and moving forward with kindness.
Step 6: Repair
This step isn’t always necessary, but if someone needs to apologize (and that someone may be you) or clean up a tantrum mess, this is the time to do it.
The Ignore It! process sounds doable enough, but then there’s THE EXTINCTION BURST. Pearlman cautions that a behavior may intensify (last longer, happen more often, and/or be more extreme) just before it becomes extinct. It gets worse before it gets better. In other words, I should expect a Hail Mary Burp Fest and a Hail Mary Negotiation Play. It’s important to know this is coming. Otherwise, you might just toss the book in the recycling bin and scream into your pillow after you’ve hit play on Moana.
Pearlman warns that even good behavior, when left unnoticed, can become extinct. The idea is to ignore the behavior you don’t like and encourage the behavior you want. Ignore It! offers an entire sections on encouraging good behavior and providing consequences (beyond ignoring) for misbehavior that warrant their own blog post. Basically, I’m doing time-out all wrong and I can reframe all the fun things we do on the weekends as rewards for good behavior (who knew!)
For now, I’m working on my poker face, so I can ignore the extinction bursts in my future. With any luck, I’ll have a burp-free child before I travel south for Christmas. Otherwise, we’re both in for it.