The #1 Parenting Mistake We All Make (But Don’t Have To!)!

As a parent and a behavioral psychologist, I often find myself applying my training in my daily life. Naturally, though, I also regularly find myself forgetting my training as well in my moment-to-moment interactions with my three children.

Our children are all teenagers now, which presents a stage of parenting unique from when they were younger in many ways. In other ways, though, there are universal parenting strategies that can extend from infancy, into toddlerhood, childhood, and adolescence. I just tend, in the maelstrom of hormonal flux that is my family, to forget these universal truths.

To terribly paraphrase Ms. J. Austen, I can definitely say that it is a truth often universally ignored that “It gets worse before it gets better.”

Parenting 1

This is a very common parenting mistake we all make, often out of concern that our actions are making our child’s behavior worse, when really it is simply a principle of human behavior.  What I’m describing, in technical terms, is an Extinction Burst.

Extinction Bursts by definition are an increase in a previously reinforced behavior after reinforcement of that behavior has ceased (or become extinguished).  What this means in everyday parenting life is that, when you realize that you’ve been mistakenly rewarding inappropriate behavior in your child (e.g., giving more attention to your child after they do poorly on a test or giving your child a sweet treat to calm them out of a tantrum), and you decide to stop providing that reinforcement, your child is going to naturally escalate their inappropriate behavior in the hopes of getting that reward to come back, before eventually decreasing the behavior.

It looks something like this:

Extinction Burst

When you remove the reward of giving your child cookies after a tantrum, your child’s tantrumming behavior is likely to significantly increase in frequency or intensity (or both) because of the past history of being reinforced with cookies for tantrummimg. It’s going to take them a little bit of time to realize that:

Oh, hang on. No matter how big my tantrum is, my parents aren’t going to give me cookies.

And that’s when you start to see the tantrumming behavior decrease substantially.

Often times, though, this burst of inappropriate behavior makes parents (including myself) think that we are doing something wrong–that our attempt to shape our child’s behavior into more appropriate responses is going awry.  And then we do something that only makes things worse.  We go back to giving the same reinforcement we just stopped a few hours or days ago, and this time we give the reward when our child is acting even worse than before!

As a result, not only have we failed to end the inappropriate behavior in our child, we’ve also managed to reward even worse behavior!

But falling prey to extinction bursts need not be our parenting destiny!  We just need to pull ourselves together and, in the face of our child acting worse after we’ve removed that reward, repeat calmly:

It gets worse before it gets better.  It gets worse before it gets better.

So, you’ve noticed that you tend to give your child a lot of attention, through heartfelt discussions about respect and communication that take way too long when he or she offers snarky remarks when requested to do chores (ahem, guilty as charged!), and you’ve decided to ignore the snarky comments (i.e., put them on extinction).  Get ready, then, for even more of an onslaught of eye rolls and dramatic huffing.  Stay your course, dear maternal and paternal leaders.  I promise, in a few days time, they will do their chores without the attitude. And when they do, that’s when you can have heartfelt discussions about how their actions are helping the family significantly!

Or perhaps you’ve realized that, whereas your children earning excellent grades are offered praise and encouragement, your child who refuses to study for Spanish quizzes seems to be eating up a lot of the dinner table conversation with comments the likes of “I’m not going to study for my Spanish test–a C+ is a perfectly good grade” to which you respond with rejoinders about future job opportunities, wasted potential, and appointments to sit down and work together on that academic attitude. Don’t be surprised when you decide extinguish this reward and, after calmly listening to that comment about a C- on that last quiz, your child proceeds to wax poetic about the wasted hours spent in academic training that could be superimposed with MineCraft exploration.  Trust yourself here. Keep it up, breathe deep.  Eventually, you’ll start to hear more about the A- and or B+ on that last quiz, and smiles will be had all around (and you can put that antacid back in the medicine cabinet).

Let it be a mantra for all of us struggling to raise good future citizens of the world:

It gets worse before it gets better.

And if you can hang out and trust yourself while it gets worse, you and your family will absolutely enjoy ‘the better’ together!




Summertime Schooling for the Writer in All of Us

Summer Writing

As a writer and an academic, the summer months present an ideal opportunity to take a break from the classroom and to focus on my craft and ongoing writing projects.  For many other writers, I know the summer months offer a chance to think more deeply about plot, character arcs, and the next story or chapter without the challenges faced during the more taxing seasons of Fall, Winter, and Spring.  Plus the sunshine and warm breezes don’t hurt either!

If you’re looking for a chance to network and extend your writing abilities through educational and workshop environments, summertime is a fantastic season full of options. Below I’ve highlighted a few that offer great training, writer-ly camaraderie, and inviting locales.

  • Skidmore Writers Institute (Saratoga Springs, NY; July 4-July 29). Offers 2-week and 4-week courses for writers of different levels, ranging from intermediate, advance, and master classes.  The faculty they bring in for the workshops is stunning (awards and accolades galore!) and your workshop will meet 3 times a week for 3 hours, with readings and other writing and networking opportunities scattered throughout the remainder of the schedule. You have the option of applying early (by February) for scholarship funding, but applications for enrollment without financial aid are rolling and you can still apply for a potentially open slot in one of the workshops.

Genres: Poetry, Fiction (Novel and Short Story), Non-Fiction

Application Fee: $60

Submission: Online; Brief Letter and 5-20 pages (Students in Fiction or Non-Fiction) or 2-3    Poems (Students in Poetry)

  • Iowa Writer’s Workshop Summer Program (Iowa City, IA; May 16 – June 2 or June 13 – August 4). Offers 4-week and 8-week courses in poetry and fiction.  Workshops meet once a week (8-week) for 2 hours or twice a week (4-week) for 3 hours. The MFA program at Iowa is world-renowned and their summer program, although not taught by their resident faculty, is often taught by graduates of their MFA program. Applications are due March 1.

Genres: Poetry, Fiction (Novel and Short Story)

Application Fee: None

Submission: Mail-In; Cover Sheet and 10-12 poems (Poetry), 2 or 3 Short Stories or Chapters of a Novel (Fiction)

  • Community of Writers at Squaw Valley (Squaw Valley, CA; July 25 – August 1). Offers a 1-week long intensive workshop for Fiction and Narrative Non-Fiction/Memoir. The week is full of daily workshops, afternoon craft talks, and one-on-one meetings with their writing teaching staff. Applications are due April 12.Genres: Fiction and Narrative Non-Fiction/Memoir (they offer a separate workshop for poetry on different dates)Application Fee: $40Submission: Online; Sample of your unpublished work (under 5,000 words)
  • Tin House (Reed College, OR; July 10-17). Offers a 1-week long intensive workshop for Short-Story Fiction, Novel-Writing, Creative Non-Fiction/Memoir, and Poetry. Workshops meet in the mornings for 6 days, and afternoons are filled with craft seminars and career panels. Deadline for scholarship applications is March 23; other applications are accepted on a rolling basis (they typically start to fill up by May).

Genres: Short-Story Fiction, Novel-Writing, Creative Non-Fiction/Memoir, and Poetry

Application Fee: $40

Submission: Online; Sample of your work (varies by genre)

 Looking for something more ongoing  or not limited to the summer? 

  • The Writer’s Center (Bethesda, MD) offers a host of workshops throughout the year, along with author readings and a variety of other events and opportunities for writers of all skill levels.  One of my favorite authors, A.X. Ahmad, regularly teaches the Master Novel course.  Needless to say, they have an impressive roster of faculty!