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“When Push Comes to Shove”

Talking to a child can’t change his reactions. Only neural “rewiring” can do that



MY third grader is a very social, fun-loving, determined child. He works hard at whatever he does, which brings him a lot of success in his schoolwork. On the flip side (although I suspect it stems from the same root character trait), in public places and parks, he’ll push his way through to get to where he needs to go. Besides being embarrassing (think, other mothers screaming at us), his behavior leaves me feeling puzzled: At what point is behavior “normal childish behavior,” and at what point does it become inappropriate? Despite my explaining what a real winner is, and what makes someone a loser, “when push comes to shove,” he’s very likely to choose the shove. Winning, being first, and being the best are very, very important to him. How can I teach him to slow down and be considerate of others even when “so much” is at risk?
Small children often use physical aggression to get what they want. Although your son’s transition from “little child” to “big boy” may have suddenly come to your attention, the truth is that his behavior has been becoming less and less acceptable with each passing year. Quite appropriately, you’ve now decided to do something serious about it. You’ve talked to him, explained to him, reasoned with him, and tried to inspire him with essential values, skills, and perspectives. But none of this has translated into actual behavioral change.



I’M not surprised.

You see, talking to a child can’t change his reactions. Only neural “rewiring” can do that. Your son’s brain has a map that generates automatic actions for innumerable behaviors. For instance, when he wants to print his name, a neural circuit fires, quickly running programs for the movements his fingers will have to make to grasp the pencil, hold the paper, and form the letters. With years of practice, the neural networks (“wires”) are able to run faster and faster, creating automatic, fluent, mindless actions.

When we’re trying to change behavior — by replacing one action with another one — automatic programming works against us. The brain wants to do things the old, easy way. That being the case, how would you go about learning a new way to hold your pencil?

You can’t just instruct your brain to make a new neural pattern. Instead, you have to do something. It’s the doing that forms a neural network, because as your brain watches you do something, it starts to create a map for your actions. If you place your fingers in the new position, your brain will watch how you’re doing it and draw the pattern. And if you practice the new way again and again and again, the old automatic how-to-hold-a-pencil wiring will start to weaken. With continued practice, it’s likely to collapse altogether, giving preference at last to the new wiring that has formed from the new action you are taking.

Now that you understand this little bit of neurology, it’s easy to understand why telling your son that he needs to stand in line like everyone else won’t translate into action. Right now, his brain sees a goal: Get to the head of the line. His brain calls on his well-practiced circuit: push and shove your way to it.

To change that circuit, start by renaming it: “To get to the head of the line, join the line at the end and move forward by following the person in front of you until you reach the head of the line.”

Note that this “name” or rule or piece of information does nothing to change the brain’s wiring. To do that, you’ll have to help your son create new neural pathways by doing the desired behavior. You can help him by encouraging and supporting the new behavior. “I know the line is moving slowly, but you’re doing great staying in line and waiting your turn. It’s hard, but you’re doing it!” Every cell in his body will be screaming to run the old program — “Get out of this slow line! Push, shove, move it, come on, let’s go!”

It will be hard for him to override that internal racket, and that’s why your support will be helpful. When he finally gets to the head of the line the slow way, you can add wires to the circuit by giving him a reward (rewarding a circuit adds an influx of wires to it). “That was hard, but you were a real mensch, and I think that deserves a (fill in the blank with one of his favorite privileges or treats). Repeat the practice sessions until the new, more considerate behavior is so firmly wired, it happens spontaneously.


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 822)

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