Watering what you want to grow



TERRAN DAILY shares more of her professional wisdom as a pediatric occupational therapist on how to encourage and support the best behavior possible from your children.

“Stop whining!” “How many times do I have to tell you not to grab things from your sister?” “Don’t tell me you forgot your school bag again!” “Why can’t you just do your homework without me having to nag you about it?”

Life in most families with children is peppered with a certain amount of scolding, but when scolding becomes the most frequent way of communicating and the child’s behaviors are getting worse rather than better, something needs to change.

Think of family life as a garden for a moment, with children’s various behaviors as plants and the attention you give each behavior as water. What plants do you want to grow? I’m guessing you want behaviors that are harmonious, responsible, respectful and happy to grow, right? So the trick is to shower attention on positive behaviors, helping them to grow, while at the same time paying as little attention as possible to the negative behaviors until they wither and finally die out. It makes sense, right? But is it easy? No, at least not at first.

In last month’s article, we talked about clearly defining behavior goals and ‘watering’ desired behaviors with incentives that we have agreed upon with the children. But there are also a lot of other ways to water positive behavior. Here are a few strategies.


Before we can water any behaviors we want to grow, we have to be clear what they are. And unfortunately, it’s often much easier to know what we don’t want than what we do want.

One way to gain some clarity is to write down your child’s behaviors that most drive you crazy or worry you. Then beside each behavior, write what you would prefer the child to do instead. For example, “Nia grabs playthings from Ana,” becomes “Nia asks Ana for the plaything then waits to see if Ana will give it to her. If Ana will not give it to her, she finds something else to do, or asks an adult to help.”

If the children are old enough, it can be useful and fun to involve them with this activity. Choose one or two of the behaviors on your list, and the children can help problem solve what they can do instead of the problem behavior. Maybe the child can draw a picture of him or herself doing the new behavior. You can hang the picture on the wall and encourage other family members to notice and comment on it to the child. “Oh, I love seeing that picture of you and Ana playing peacefully.”


Next, you can think about what positive values are behind the behaviors you are wishing for your child to develop and write those down too. Using the example of Nia and Ana above, the positive values might be peace, harmony, patience and sharing. Can you think of others? Then look for stories or historical examples that highlight those values, and read or talk about them with your children during the week. Your children and you together could make illustrated posters for each value and post those on the walls along with their pictures. Giving this kind of attention to positive values is a powerful way of watering them. The whole family can get involved.


Now comes your challenge! This is not only about your children changing! You have to retrain yourself to notice your children doing things you’re glad they are doing, even little things. Comment on it. Express your appreciation.

Review your list of behaviors you’d like your children to develop and think about what baby steps they might take in that direction. If you see them doing even a little bit of what you’d like, comment on it. Express your appreciation.

In the example above, while Ana and Nia are playing, maybe Nia says in a somewhat threatening voice, “Ana, give me that toy!” Granted, that’s not exactly what you’d like to see, but at least she is talking to Ana instead of just grabbing. You could go over to them – rather quickly before things can escalate – and say, “Nia, I’m so glad you’re talking to Ana instead of just grabbing the toy. Now, can you think of a really nice way to ask her for the toy?” You have watered Nia’s baby step toward peaceful and respectful behavior and helping her move in the right direction.

Another time, Nia might manage the whole behavior you’d like. She might come to you and say, “Ana won’t share! I asked her but she won’t give me the toy!” She has done exactly what you have asked – come to an adult instead of grabbing, so it’s time to celebrate. “Oh Nia, I’m so happy you came to me instead of grabbing.”


Paying as little attention as possible to the behaviors you don’t want can be just as challenging as noticing the behaviors you do want. If something your child is doing could harm them, another person, or someone’s property, then you must intervene, and that requires paying at least some attention. You can still be neutral though, protecting people and property without becoming angry or scolding. For example, if Nia and Ana begin physically fighting, you will need to find safe places for both of them to calm down so that you can all talk about the situation together.

Often though, problem behavior is just inconvenient or irritating rather than dangerous. An example might be Ana and Nia’s brother Vash, who frequently forgets to bring home his school bag. You’re exasperated, but want to think of an alternative to scolding, since that doesn’t work anyway.

Maybe you can make Vash a star chart to mark the days he does remember his bag, and he can earn a reward when he remembers his bag 10 times. On the days he forgets you can encourage him with, “Oh well, I’m sure you’ll remember tomorrow. Now how can we find out what you need to do for homework tonight?”

Watering what you want takes practice, and when you are tired or frustrated you won’t always succeed. Encourage yourself, just like the children, for taking even baby steps in the right direction. Go easy and find support if you can, from your spouse, other parents, or a professional. Your child’s school or doctor may be able to help. I hope that with some perseverance, you will find your family beginning to grow a fine garden of harmony, responsibility, respect and happiness.

1. How to Use Positive Reinforcement for Children, on the New Kids Center website: http://www.newkidscenter.com/Positive-Reinforcement-for-Children.html
2. Nelson, J. et al, 2007. Positive Discipline A-Z: 1001 Solutions to Everyday Parenting Problems, 3rd Edition, Three Rivers Press, Random House, Inc. USA.
3. Tillman, D. and D. Hsu, 2001. Living Values Activities for Children Ages 3-7, Health Communications, Inc., USA.
4. Miller, J.C., 1998. 10 Minute Life Lessons for Kids: 52 Fun and Simple Games and Activities to Teach Your Child Honesty, Trust, Love, and Other Important Values, HarperCollins, USA.


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  1. Avatar Dr. V. Renuga : July 12, 2017 at 7:24 am

    Wow, what a wonderful story! Not only children will change, we adults can also benefit. Very nice. Very nice writing.

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