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Ignore Your Children and Everyone Wins

They "forget" to empty the dishwasher. They put their wet bathing suit on the couch. They treat the backseat of your car as a garbage bin. They whistle. They whine. They nudge and fight for no reason. All of these annoying behaviors tend to provoke parents.
01/06/2015 02:55pm ET | Updated March 8, 2015
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Here's the best parenting advice you'll ever receive: Ignore your kids.

That's right -- turn the other way and ignore them completely. Wanna know why? Because kids are annoying. They are loud. They make weird noises. Repeatedly. They can't sit still for a 10-minute dinner. They tap their pencils and bite their nails. They don't put their clothes in the hamper or change the toilet paper roll even if you ask nicely. They use their new shirts as napkins and don't put the toilet seat down.

That's not all. They "forget" to empty the dishwasher. They put their wet bathing suit on the couch. They treat the backseat of your car as a garbage bin. They talk like babies for effect. They whistle. They whine. They nudge and fight for no reason. They... they...

OK. You get the point.

All of these annoying behaviors tend to provoke parents. And when parents get provoked, they turn toward discipline. First, they ask nicely for their kids to stop. Then they say it more loudly. Then they get mad and punish. Sometimes parents lose it and yell and scream. Sometimes they do time-outs.

However, no matter what the approach, there is a fundamental problem. It doesn't work to prevent the behavior from happening again. In fact, most efforts only act as reinforcement for children to do it again.

Here's an example: While waiting with you at the supermarket checkout line, your child begins to whine for a pack of gum. Mooooommmmmmm! You say, "No, not today," which is countered by a "Pleaaase, Mommy." Again, you say, "Not today," (but with more force). Seeing that you are distracted and getting frustrated your child -- crafty as eve r-- kicks it into high gear with an extra-annoying, blood-curdling, screechy whine. Finally, at wit's end, you either:

a. Buy the gum just to get Junior to keep quiet.

b. Stop what you are doing to devote three minutes of time to lecture and admonish your child -- then immediately feel deflated and angry.

What's the child thinking throughout the drama? Easy: Sweet! I just got under my parent's skin. That was simple. I'll try that again next time I want something.

Kids are not out to get us (although it really may feel that way sometimes). They are kids. The nature of their job is to explore, learn and develop. The nature of the parenting job is to teach, guide, love and nurture. But what if the most effective way to do all of that is to completely ignore your child? A reasonable person might ask, "How can one teach good behavior and show all the love by doing nothing?"

It may sound counterintuitive, but sometimes ignoring your child is the perfect response. Any reaction to these annoying behaviors will merely serve as a negative reward, which actually encourages the behavior to continue. I am not suggesting to continually ignore your child. However, selective ignoring can be the most effective way to curb behavior.

Parenting can frazzle the nerves and exhaust even the strongest person. Ignoring some minor infractions saves ones strength to manage the bigger issues. Furthermore, if your child is testing you or pushing your buttons (which they like to do), ignoring them will show that in order to get your attention, your child must try a more appropriate behavior.

The best reason to ignore your child is because it will let them know that you accept him/her just the way he/she is. Some children are just more fidgety. Some are messier eaters. Some talk loudly even when they think they are whispering. This stuff can grate on parents. But if the child really can't stop the behavior, disciplining is highly ineffective and draining. Sadly, the message that these children hear is not that you don't like the behavior, but that you don't like them. That hurts.

So, how do you ignore a child? You literally turn you back. Busy yourself with another task. Avert your eyes. Go to your mental happy place. As soon as your child stops trying to get your attention using inappropriate behavior, reengage. Ignoring doesn't condone the behavior. It just tells your child that you will not engage with him/her when he is being hurtful or inappropriate.

Over the course of the coming days, try to ignore all annoying behavior. Believe me, this is not as easy as it sounds. Don't worry if the behavior gets worse at first. That's normal. The child wonders why the usual tricks aren't getting any reaction, so they ramp it up a bit. But if you stay the course soon after the behavior gets worse, it just goes away. For the behavior that doesn't completely go away, ignoring it will just make you feel better. Soon enough you might not even notice it.

In my work as a family coach, I often preach selective ignoring -- usually met with the same initial reaction from parents: There's no way this will work. Then they try it and the magic moves in. They report a decrease in annoying behavior, higher overall parenting satisfaction and improved parent-child relationships.

With outcomes like that, isn't ignoring worth a try?