I’ve always had somewhat of a flair for the dramatic. I always drove family members crazy by singing, dancing, and acting my way through life. But when I became a mother, the stresses of life subverted my dramatic tendencies for a while.
Until I discovered a vital piece of information about children; and it gave my parenting a whole new life. It also gave me a new surge of dramatic energy.
What I discovered is this: children love dramatics. It motivates them, excites them, and speaks to them in a visceral way. So when Mommy tells a bedtime story and creates it as a musical production (yes, complete with opera-style singing and somewhat ridiculous dancing), my eight-year-old cackles at the funny parts, my seven-year-old cries during the emotional parts, and my four-year-old watches with his mouth slightly open. Goodbye, stress. Hello, Drama Queen Mom!
I’ve also discovered the power of dramatics as a reinforcer of behaviors. Because children enjoy dramatics so much, any behavior that triggers a dramatic reaction is automatically reinforced. That’s a powerful tool to have a handle on.
In my capacity as a special instructor, I am often called upon to help families of children with challenging behaviors. In that role, I try to show parents how fascinated their children are by dramatics. For example, when Troy climbs on the table, then Mom shrieks and screams and carries on in reaction to his behavior, that drama reinforces the behavior. This is the last thing drama-queen mom wants to accomplish, but without realizing it, she is working against her best interests.
That’s why I encourage parents as much as possible to reserve emotional displays and dramatic reactions to positive behaviors. I know this strategy doesn’t come naturally. As a parent, you tend not to notice or react when a child does the right thing and react emotionally when your child does the wrong thing. That needs to change if you want to change your child’s behavior! Pull out your dramatic flair when your child is listening and cooperating. When he is not, be firm, be consistent, and use consequences if necessary. But don’t be dramatic. Think of drama as a reward you are giving your child.
If you are not a drama-queen mom and you don’t have a natural tendency toward dramatics, you can still use this tool. Here are a few concrete ways to demonstrate reinforcing reactions.
- Exaggerated Facial Expression: An open mouthed, eyebrows raised stance indicates a highly incredulous expression. This shows the child that what s/he has just done is highly out of the ordinary. A good time to do this would be if your child has just done something independently that is unusual for him. Accompany the expression with a reinforcing comment; “You put your shoes on by yourself! I can’t believe it!”
- The Gasp: A gasp is highly dramatic and sure to attract your child’s attention and demonstrate significant emotional impact. A good time to do this would be when your child is doing something exceptionally cooperative. As in, “Gasp! You gave your brother a turn with your brand-new toy. That is so kind of you!”
- Change in Tone of Voice: Changing the tone and pitch of your voice indicates strong emotion and is highly dramatic. Consider using this technique to add more drama-power to your praise.
You don’t have to be a movie star to be a mothering star. Drama is just one more thing to add to your parenting toolbox. Use it to turbo-charge your parenting, and don’t forget to have fun in the process!
By Chaya Glatt