The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever-And What to Do About It

Lots of people write about education, and parenting books proliferate, but rarely do the twain meet. That’s true despite substantial overlap in both underlying principle (such as the neuroscientific and psychological findings that tell us how kids’ minds work) and practical best practices. In The Good News About Bad Behavior, Katherine Reynolds Lewis offers evidence of a dramatic shift in recent decades in children’s ability to control their behavior—and a road map for what parents and schools ought to do about it.

The Good News

Overscheduling and hovering already “undermine the development of the very traits that children need to become self-disciplined.” (“Anytime you do something for children that they can do for themselves, you’re stealing the opportunity for them to feel more capable,” Reynolds Lewis writes, explaining why adults who want to inspire confidence and competence in kids need to move away from “a focus on academics and testing [that pushes] recess and play out of the school day” and adult-managed extracurricular activities, homework, and play dates—and shift instead toward more unscheduled time with opportunities to play, “experience the consequences of risk,” and “learn to tolerate moderate amounts of stress.”) 

When adults respond to undesirable behavior by “cracking down” or turning to coercive tactics such as time-outs, counting to three, sticker charts, ice cream prizes, and clip charts, they further restrict the autonomy required to produce resilience, which in turn leads to more undesirable behavior. Parents and teachers need to reframe misbehavior, she says, treating it not as willful disobedience that requires squelching, but as “a clue to a puzzle that can only be solved with the child’s engaged cooperation.”

What does that mean in practice? Respond first by connecting with the child, then communicating about the problem, and ultimately helping boost capability “by coaching them on both practical and social and emotional skills.” This three-step process lays the foundation for what Reynolds Lewis dubs the “Apprenticeship Model”: Backing off and giving kids responsibility within a framework of consequences agreed upon by parent and child in advance. Tolerating “a fair amount of chaos and includ[ing] our kids’ input in decisions,” but holding firm boundaries is her basic blueprint for effectively setting limits.

The specifics can get a little overwhelming. Reynolds profiles four alternative discipline frameworks (two targeted at parents and two at schools) that mesh well with the Apprenticeship Model: (1) “Adlerian parenting,” the method she learned through the PEPS parent-education (and support group) organization that focuses on reflective listening (“restating what you believe you heard and asking for confirmation or clarification”), respectful language, and housework, among other things; (2) “Duct Tape Parenting” which counsels parents to resist the impulse to comment on behavior (“The thing that happened is, when my mouth went quiet, their brains flipped on,” the method’s guru apparently said); (3) Ross Greene’s model of collaborative and proactive solutions for schools (“Under his philosophy, you’d no more punish a child for lashing out in class or jumping out of his seat repeatedly than you would if he bombed a spelling test”); and (4) the PAX Good Behavior Game, where a class agrees on a list of desired behaviors and then rewards the small teams that exhibit them with silly physical activities.

Reynolds Lewis expects different bits to resonate with different readers, ultimately leaving each with “a patchwork of strategies,” and to that end offers up even more detailed guidance. She hits the major tenets of the positive parenting movement (e.g., special time, mindfulness, family meetings, “when-then” statements, the strengths-based approach, “say what you see,” using words to name big feelings, and “catch them being good”), but then goes further to address the specifics of “healthy eating, self-care, the morning routine, homework, chores, screen time, sibling fights, and taking responsibility for belongings.” Favorite approaches that I wasn’t familiar with include using the phrase “Would you be willing to,” avoiding emotional manipulation by responding “the way a nonrelative would,” the “mumble and walk away technique,” and realizing that when a child hits someone but claims it was an accident, it might very well have felt like an accident to her, big emotions having high-jacked her brain.

As someone who writes about both parenting and education, I expected to be disappointed by The Good News About Bad Behavior. The topic seemed too ambitious, and I expected a disjointed and/or overly personal account. I was pleasantly surprised: Reynolds Lewis almost pulls it off flawlessly. Throughout the book, she utilizes the neuroscience findings she imparts, smoothly transitioning from engaging story to research and back again at the intervals ideal for sustaining human attention. She also maintains a tone that’s relatable as well as knowledgeable, handing out both mea culpas on her own missteps as a parent and research-backed conclusions like they’re candy and it’s Halloween (e.g., “When I first started relying on consequences instead of punishment, my tone of voice was often blaming and I sometimes rubbed in the lesson”). This, plus her pragmatic approach (e.g., “Certainly, you can’t parent a child without some kind of critical feedback”), defused my knee-jerk defensiveness and allowed me to see myself in descriptions like the following: “Authoritative parents-in-training often resist imposing their will on children until the moment when the whining or the messy house pushes them over the edge. Then they fall back on the authoritarian tones embedded in our collective memories.”

And yet, despite each chapter’s readability, there’s a breakdown in organization (particularly near the end where too many competing conclusions sit stacked). It’s unclear how one can effectively harness the wealth of information presented. In a sense, Reynolds Lewis falls victim to her own success in the comprehensiveness department.

That said, she makes a forceful argument for using the Apprenticeship Model in homes and schools, maintaining “strong adult-child connections, communication that uncovers the underlying causes of misbehavior, and training kids in cognitive, social and emotional, and essential life skills.” That “looks different when parenting a four-year-old as compared to a teenager,” she writes, “but the basic principle remains the same: give kids as much ownership as possible, with support, predictable routines, and agreed-upon consequences.”

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One thought on “The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever-And What to Do About It

  1. Pingback: The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever-And What to Do About It – Gail Cornwall

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