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Understanding attitude

The Star

by Nichole Hacha-Thomas

Thursday, May 12, 2011

You find yourself saying the following to your kids, “Don’t take that attitude with me, young lady,” or “Lose the attitude-now!” What’s a parent to do?

Dennis Bumgarner, a licensed psychotherapist and native of Angola who currently works in Indianapolis, often encounters parents who are frustrated with their children’s attitude. According to him, the more parents focus on attitude, the worse that attitude tends to get. But Bumgarner says parental focus on a child’s attitude is misplaced.

According to Baumgarner, attitudes are a matter of a one’s thoughts, opinions, beliefs, values, or preferences. People are entitled to think, believe, value or prefer whatever they choose. There are few exercises more futile than trying to change the opinion of another, especially a young person. This futility, however, has not prevented parents from trying, despite the exasperation that typically results.

Despite parental objections to the contrary, forgetting about attitude is sensible for many reasons.

  1. Attitudes are invisible. By definition, beliefs, values and thoughts cannot be seen. Most parents disagree with the notion that attitudes are invisible and cite such examples as eye-rolling, heavy sighing, and backtalk to make their point. However, because rolled eyes, sighs, and words are visible and audible, they are behaviors, not attitudes.
  2. Attitudes are sometimes unknowable. There are times when the child’s behavior suggests a particular attitude when in fact his thoughts or emotion might be quite different from the behavioral presentation. Sometimes the child himself may not know what his attitude is. For this reason, Baumgarner says parents are better served by dealing with what is knowable, as opposed to what can only be surmised.
  3. Attitude doesn’t have to change, but behavior might. Children can believe or value what they wish, but they cannot do whatever they choose. Rather than trying futilely to change attitude, Baumgarner suggests it may be more useful to focus on obtaining the behavior the parent expects, not changing the child’s opinion.
  4. What we know about attitude change is that it usually occurs after engaging in a new behavior. Contrary to conventional wisdom, behavior change usually comes before a change in attitude. Attitude change, as desirable as that may be, is not necessary for children’s performance to improve.

The rule is that if you can’t see it or hear it, don’t bother yourself with it. Instead address what is visible, knowable, and important — behavior.

When we examine behavior closely, it becomes apparent that parents aren’t frustrated so much by their children’s attitude as by their behavior. It is the noncompliance, backtalk, and arguments — all behaviors — that are so exasperating. But by focusing on issues of attitude, parents get engaged by the child and diverted into addressing concerns that don’t need to change, while overlooking that which does: the child’s unacceptable behavior.

This shift by parents — from attitude to behavior — greatly simplifies the job of getting the behavior they want from their children. And this can make all the difference — in performance of the child, the frustration level of the adult, and, in, if I may use this word, the attitudes of each.