Child See, Child Do

300-kidstodoKids’ Corner | By Patrick Biron –

I can’t tell you how many times I have been frustrated by my child behaving better in public than he does at home. Call me crazy, but it always seems children are at their sweetest when at a friend’s house, while they reserve all of their high-octane rebelliousness for our humble abode.

But the truth is that I’m not crazy, and scientists were kind enough to prove my sanity. In a peer reviewed study published in Psychological
, a group of researchers placed toddlers in front of three boxes. The preschooler could put a toy in any box, but if he put it in one particular box, he got a chocolate as a reward. After conditioning the child to always put the toy in the same box, the researchers had that child watch several other children put treats in the other boxes without getting treats. When the first child was then asked to place the toy in a box again while their peers watched, they overwhelmingly chose the box that the other kids chose, knowing they would not get a treat.

Translation? Kids value acceptance and commonality with their peers more than they do the rewards that adults provide. The study went a step further and discovered that the child was more likely to choose a non-reward box if he saw three peers choose it once each rather than if he saw one peer chose it three times. So, the more friends they see do it, the more likely they are to do the behavior. Thus, the environment parents place on their children has more power over their behavior than the threats or rewards that parents may offer. Interesting, huh?

For me, it is important to use this technique with the kids in our programs. When a preschooler is misbehaving, it is tempting to rely on either individual punishment or tangible rewards, but the most effective way to change that child’s behavior is actually to let the child see other kids doing the behavior correctly as much as possible. The best way to do this is turn the behavior into a game with rewards.

For example, we play Magic Trash Treasure. After a game or craft when the floor is a mess, we get the kids to collect as much trash off of the floor as they can and show it to a coach before throwing it away. Whoever picks up the “magic treasure” piece gets to lead the line to the next station. If any child isn’t helping clean up, coaches redirect them not with promises of treats or punishment, but rather by pointing out all the other kids doing the activity, and even having other kids ask the child to join in.

Parents can apply this in countless ways. Whether it is potty training a child, breaking a bad eating habit or encouraging sharing with others, exposing a child to peers who exhibit the desired behavior is an invaluable tool. This doesn’t stop with preschoolers. In fact, peer pressure is one of the most powerful factors in a child’s decision making process all the way up through high school. With that in mind, parents can ensure their child gets off to the best start by partnering with like-minded parents and friends to create an environment of positive peer pressure.