You might not think training a 10,000-pound killer whale to jump out of the water and potty-training your toddler have much in common.
Chuck Tompkins, a longtime whale trainer at SeaWorld and father of two, would beg to differ.
Along with Ken Blanchard, Thad Lacinak and Jim Ballard, Tompkins has written a new parenting book, Whale Done Parenting, (Berrett-Koehler Publishing), which applies techniques he used for years with whales to raising well-adjusted and well-behaved kids.
Tips for Parents
1. Set your child up for success
Make sure your child knows what’s expected of him or her. If you’re toting your little ones on a shopping trip, tell them that you expect them to use indoor voices and not reach for things, and that if they behave well, there’s something in it for them. “With something just that simple, you’ve just set your child up to succeed, and they’ve learned that good behavior is rewarded,” Tompkins says.
2. Ignore bad behavior
It’s all about attention, and toddler brains don’t necessarily make the distinction between positive attention and negative attention.
“When behaving badly is the best-or even the only-way kids know how to get a reaction, you’re going to see more of that behavior,” Tompkins says. “We tend to react quickly in those situations, and no learning is going to happen when everyone is emotional.”
3. Reinforce good behavior
Positive reinforcement is important, too. When your kids are behaving well, don’t ignore it. Instead, reward them-probably not with raw fish, like SeaWorld’s killer whales get, but a treat or a simple “Thank you for behaving so well” will do the trick.
“People train kids to have temper tantrums,” says Tompkins, now curator of zoological operations for SeaWorld Parks& Entertainment, SeaWorld’s parent company. “They don’t naturally occur.”
In a desperate attempt to end the screaming and crying, parents are often tempted to give in to a child’s demands-and that’s all it takes, Tompkins says.
“You’ve stopped the behavior in the short term, but you’ve also reinforced it,” he says.”
Tompkins says getting your child through the candy aisle and getting a killer whale to fetch a ball all come down to the same basic idea.
“If you reinforce behaviors, they increase; if you ignore them, they decrease,” Tompkins says.
But remember, that advice goes both ways. So it’s not enough to just ignore your child’s bad behavior; remember to reward good behavior, too.
“A lot of times in our minds, we see things going the way we want and we ignore it,” Tompkins says. “Our kids are being quiet and (we think), ‘Good, that’s the way they’re supposed to be,’ and don’t say anything. Big mistake.”