A recent Slate article “The messy room dilemma: when to ignore behavior, when to change it”  by tackles the important topic of when you should ignore your child’s undesirable behavior and when you should intervene.  The authors use a series of intriguing percentages to suggest that many childhood behaviors will change on their own if you just wait long enough.  Here’s an excerpt:

Many unwanted behaviors, including some that disturb parents, tend to drop out on their own, especially if you don’t overreact to them and reinforce them with a great deal of excited attention. Take thumb sucking, which is quite common up to age 5. At that point it drops off sharply and continues to decline. Unless the dentist tells you that you need to do something about it right now, you can probably let thumb sucking go. The same principle applies for most stuttering. Approximately 5 percent of all children stutter, usually at some point between ages 2 and 5. Parents get understandably nervous when their children stutter, but the vast majority of these children (approximately 80 percent) stop stuttering on their own by age 6. If stuttering persists past that point or lasts for a period extending more than six months, then it’s time to do something about it.

There are a lot more behaviors, running the range from annoying to unacceptable, in this category. Approximately 60 percent of 4- and 5-year-old boys can’t sit still as long as adults want them to, and approximately 50 percent of 4- and 5-year-old boys and girls whine to the extent that their parents consider it a significant problem. Both fidgeting and whining tend to decrease on their own with age, especially if you don’t reinforce these annoying behaviors by showing your child that they’re a surefire way to get your (exasperated) attention. Thirty to 40 percent of 10- and 11-year-old boys and girls lie in a way that their parents identify as a significant problem, but this age seems to be the peak, and the rate of problem lying tends to plummet thereafter and cease to be an issue. By adolescence, more than 50 percent of males and 20 percent to 35 percent of females have engaged in one delinquent behavior—typically theft or vandalism. For most children, it does not turn into a continuing problem.

The logic would seem to be don’t worry about the thumb sucking, the stuttering, the lying and so on. It will probably go away on its own and look there are many statistics to back this up … but this is a total fallacy. Suppose all of the statistics are completely accurate.  It still doesn’t follow that they suggest you should just ignore behavior that you deem to be a problem.

I am guessing that most parents faced with unwanted behaviors like thumb sucking, stuttering, lying, and certainly, theft or vandalism intervene in some way, possibly many parents even “reinforce them with a great deal of excited attention.”  The percentages reflect the impact of this intervention as well — 50% of adolescent boys do something delinquent, their parents justifiably freak out and only a small number do it again.  This decidedly does not argue for doing nothing when you are concerned about your child’s behavior.  We don’t know what fraction of young vandals would become repeat offenders if their parents ignored their behavior.  All we know is that when the typical kid misbehaves and his or her parents react in a typical fashion, the behavior eventually goes away most of the time.  The statistics are mute on whether this is because of, or in spite of, parental intervention.

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