If you have been reading this column for a while, you will recognize this ‘Cale Truism’ that I have addressed from many angles:

  • Your superpower as a parent resides in your mastery of how you use your attention. What you repeatedly focus upon with your attention will expand, whether you intend that to be the case. This is the way.

The implications are apparent. We must learn to master when, where, and how often we use our superpower if we want to nurture some behaviors and reduce others. If we want more of some behavior, we keep giving it attention. If we want less, we starve it of attention.

Despite this fundamental principle’s beautiful simplicity and overwhelming importance, we humans search for the more complex. Yet, if we can master this principle first, many of life’s challenges will fade away and disappear. This is particularly true in the area of parenting. (But it’s also true in our individual lives, as we see many adults who do not appreciate the impact of where they put their attention.)

The catch: Annoying, negative behavior quickly hijacks our attention.

While exhausting, it’s easy to keep nagging your kids. It’s easy to correct them over and over. It’s simple to harp on your child to stop it, stop it, and STOP IT again.

The annoying, irritating, disruptive, and perhaps disrespectful behavior is akin to a lightbulb turning on that GRABS our attention. Our brains go, ‘See that problem there. Stop that child!’

And if only that worked. But it doesn’t. And how natural is it to justify these incessant reactions? Because, of course, we have to do something about the problem. But let’s be clear, here is what happens when you engage in those unwanted behaviors.

The Backfire

  • If we have a bashful child, and we keep encouraging them whenever they are shy, they do not seem to grow out of it. Their social awkwardness seems to grow.
  • If you have a whining child, and we keep telling them to stop whining, they just whine more. And this evolves into the ultimate complainer.
  • If the kids like to quarrel and bicker, and all we do is correct, yell, threaten, and punish their quarrels, we see that they bicker more as they age. (And then it turns into very unpleasant over time.)
  • If we have a child who likes to negotiate, and we keep responding to their negotiations, we see they end up negotiating about LITTLE thing.
  • If our son refuses to eat his veggies, and we keep harping on him to eat (when he is not), he becomes a very picky eater.
  • If your daughter sits down to do homework and complains about her stupidity, most of us see this as a problem. Day in and day out, we correct her and try to build her esteem. As time goes by, her esteem dwindles while complaints

Misusing your superpower will wreak havoc in your and your children’s lives. Remember: Keep engaging in what you don’t want and get more of what you don’t want. That’s the rule.

When we are naïve, we don’t realize what is happening. But now you do know! The data here is overwhelming, so don’t misuse your superpower.

“But Dr Cale, I Can’t Ignore That.”

Many parents (and non-parents) believe you can’t ignore unwanted behavior. Most would rather not believe that negative patterns thrive on your attention. And most importantly, these same parents believe negative behavior will worsen if they ignore it. This is the first obstacle to change for many families.

In addition, some of you may notice that giving attention to the problem moment often feels good or at least satisfying in some way. Why? Because you are doing something about the problem. You might also think correcting such negative behavior is essential, or your children will think it is “okay.” You are fulfilling your parental role, and that seems like the right thing to do.

We all come from different homes with different experiences and extracted various strategies and values from that. For some of us, certain behaviors seem to cross a line. When it does, we have extreme difficulty ignoring behavior that ‘crosses that line.’ It might be constant whining. For others, it is talking back and disrespect.

Test It. Don’t Trust This Because You Read It: Test This

In many ways, it is futile to argue against any of those justifications above. I simply ask, how is it working for you? Has the whining disappeared? Disrespect gone? No more complaints? If so, great. Consider me ill-informed.

But if you are experiencing the backfire in your home, start testing a more refined use of your superpower: Be discerning in what you repeatedly give attention to! Start ignoring everything you don’t want, and observe the changes gradually unfold.

It will worsen for a while as your children work hard to pull you back into the patterns that dominate your home. There will be more drama for a while. But this will pass. For some of you, you have engaged in the negative pattern for years, so test this for several weeks. I suspect you will see why we align this strategy with our Neurofeedback training for all families engaged in our practice. To learn more, check us out at CapitalDistrictNeurofeedback.com.