Child Behavior

Child Behavior – Why Children Do the Things They Do

A significant part of being a parent includes responding to the many things our children do. What our children do is called their behaviors, and how we respond to them greatly affects how they behave in the future.

Any behavior that occurs repeatedly is a behavior that pays off. This is true for adults and children. Many adults go to work each day. Every week or two, this behavior pays off with a paycheck. Many days, this behavior pays off with other people (hopefully the boss) expressing appreciation for a job well done. For children, the many behaviors they do also have payoffs. The payoff for watching TV is enjoying the TV program. The payoff for fighting over a toy may be getting the toy, the response of the other child, or the response of an adult. The payoff for helping mom set the table should be a smile and words of appreciation from mom.

When a child does a behavior, they either get something they want, or avoid (or delay) something they do not want. For example, when a child complains that the homework is too hard and the teacher gives too much homework, the parent will often come and sit with the child and talk about how important it is for her to do her homework. So what was the behavior?… complaining. What was the payoff?… Well, there were really two payoffs. First, there was a delay in starting homework. That is avoiding (delaying) something. Second, there was time with the parent. That is getting something that the child wants – attention from the parent. With this type of response to complaining, it is predictable that the complaining about homework will continue night after night.


So, just to be perfectly clear, it is what happens after the behavior that determines whether the behavior will occur again and again. Yes, children have thoughts and feelings, but regardless of what a child is thinking or feeling before, during, or after a behavior, it is the payoff that causes the behavior to occur repeatedly. Now this is really good news for parents, because we do not have to be mind readers to address our kids behavior problems. All we have to do is look at what happens after the behavior and then make changes. This almost always requires making changes to our behavior or how we respond to our children. It is not always easy, but we can control ourself, and then our child will control himself.

The scientific term for what happens before the behavior is the antecedent. Antecedents are great to get behaviors to happen one time. For example, if we know our child usually complains about homework, we can use an antecedent to get him to do homework instead of complaining tonight.

The parent says, “Son, when you get your homework done, and done well, in the next hour, I will play your favorite game with you.” The antecedent is like a job offer. It states what the payoff will be. If the child really wants to play a game with the parent, he will get the homework done (the behavior), and then play the game with the parent (the payoff).

Now when the parent is delivering the payoff promised, (playing the game), that is the perfect time to deliver little social payoffs for doing the homework. The parent can look over the homework and say something positive like, “Very good work.”, touch the child and smile, and say “Let’s play that game!”. When getting out the game, the parent can say, “I’m glad you finished your homework so we can play together. I like playing with you.” (also delivered with smiles and nice touch). In the short term, it takes a specific reward, like playing a game, to get the behavior started. In the long term, it is the social rewards and natural consequences (rewards) that are the biggest payoffs.

I had a parent once, who happened to be an elementary school teacher, who protested saying, “But I want my son (who was 9) to do his homework just because he likes to learn.” I said, “Susan, no one does that.” She quickly and emphatically responded, “I did!” So I asked her, “Susan, when you were a child was there anyone in your life that appreciated a good education?” She quickly responded, “My dad did.” Then, after a short pause she slowly said, “And I would do anything to please my dad.” So the payoff for her doing homework was daddy smiling. Not only did this payoff the behavior, so doing homework happened again and again, but doing homework actually took on the feeling of the payoff. So Susan really did enjoy learning and doing homework. In fact, it felt as good as daddy smiling and giving his words of approval.

Look at how you reward your child’s behaviors. Do you deliver good payoffs? If not, it is time for a change. It will be a change for the better for both you and your child. You will be much happier saying nice things and delivering little rewards, than you are right now nagging, begging, and threatening your child to do what she needs to do. Oh yes, your child will be much happier too, and behave much better.

Let me know how it goes. I would love to hear from you