"That Pig Can Fly If He Really Wants To… "

by Lew Mills, PhD, MFT

It's probably common sense that you can't teach pigs to fly by giving them pig-treats every time they jump up. Though it is true that you can inspire a lot of truly amazing behavior simply by rewarding it when it happens, it is also obvious that you can't train a behavior for which the basic ability is not there. Motivational strategies, like rewards and punishments, presume that the pig can fly, if he wants to.

Despite the obvious folly of pig piloting, we make this same mistake with our children. We often misjudge what a child is capable of, and then attempt to train the behavior by fine-tuning our reward strategy. Because children are limited in their ability to redirect us from this mistake, we end up in miserable unproductive battles to make a child "understand the rules."

This is the central message of Ross Greene's book, "The Explosive Child." Though not explicitly limited to the diagnosis of ADHD, he describes children who are easily frustrated and unable to be flexible. Their tantrums and outbursts seem to call for discipline. Yet discipline rarely has any positive impact on the problem.

Like our pedestrian pigs, these children are unable to "learn a lesson" from our punishments. In fact, the cycle of outbursts and punishments tends to increase frustration and lead to more of the behaviors we want to control. Despite the failure of our approach, we persist that we can't just let them "get away with it."

Animal husbandry has figured out that pigs don't fly, and they never will. But there is something about the explosive child that fools us into thinking that tomorrow will be different. Finally they are going to get it.

What's more, we need to believe this, given the performance demands placed on our children. Even ordinary children are expected to perform aerial acrobatics. We cannot concede the battle on controlling explosive behavior. We seem to have no choice.

What makes it so hard to see our error? In the case of our fantastic flying pig, we can see that those hundreds of pounds of pork will need a mighty force to get airborne. But when we look at our child, they look so much like other children, and even like adults, that we cannot fathom that they just might not be able to do what we are asking them. Furthermore, the hallmark of ADHD—inconsistency—means that they often do seem to be able to do the things we are asking.

Furthermore, the very deficit we cannot see is their inability to put their learning into practice. Despite knowing that having a tantrum will lead to amounts of trouble that are sorely not worth it, they are unable to act as if they understand the consequences. We doubt that the child is motivated enough to control themselves, rather than notice that they are unable to achieve what they are already so motivated to do.

So rather than work on helping them implement how to behave the way they and we want them to, we try to highlight the consequences more. Believing that it is a deficit in knowing what to do, we increase the "motivation" for something they cannot do.

What does Ross Greene suggest? Contrary to our intuition, we have to resist trying to further motivate good behavior. Instead we need to give the child tools to behave better. With some behavior, we will not be able to get them to do it now, and we have to let it go. For other behavior, the consequences of non-compliance are so dire that we have to be willing to sustain the tantrum and control the child.

In the middle, are behaviors that may be controllable, if we help the child control themselves. Here we will focus on just a few teachable moments for the child. If the pressure from the huge struggles we knew before has been reduced, we can expect some success with this.

The other lesson we teach is subtler and probably more important in the long run. We teach that we are able to have some compassion. We show that we are willing to take the effort to really understand the child, instead of fighting to have our way. And we show that we ourselves are not so blinded as to be inflexible ourselves. When we stop being pig-headed, we can indeed find the child who is eager to grow.

Creative Commons License This work by Lew Mills is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License