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We all want our children to be well-behaved. We want our child to be the one who is kind, says “please” and “thank you,” does as he is told, and doesn’t get in trouble at school or bother kids at the playground. The problem, as any parent can attest, is that raising a well-behaved child is hard work.
Some of it is temperament — every child is different. Some children are rule-followers, and some of them, well, aren’t. But mostly it’s hard because it is an ongoing, exhausting process that requires that we always keep our eye on the ultimate goal (having a well-behaved child) rather than the short-term goal (such as having the screaming child in front of us stop screaming).
After more than 25 years of being both a pediatrician and a parent, here are four tips I think can make a big difference:
1. Start early. It may be cute when your toddler hits somebody, and they are unlikely to do much harm, but if you wait until preschool or later to be clear that hitting isn’t okay, it’s going to be harder. Your child will be justified in her confusion: if something has been fine up until now, why isn’t it fine anymore? The earlier you teach your child that hitting or biting isn’t okay, and that “no” actually means “no,” the better.
There is a big caveat to this, though: it’s important to understand where your child is developmentally. A toddler doesn’t hit to be mean; she hits out of frustration and anger, or sadness. A 2-year-old doesn’t throw a tantrum to get back at you or ruin your day; he is doing it for the same reasons a toddler hits. So as you start early, the idea is to help your young child understand good and bad ways of expressing those emotions. It’s also important to understand what your child is capable of; there is only so much we can ask of any child at each stage of development. When you go for well-child appointments, talk with your doctor about realistic expectations for behavior at your child’s age.
2. Be consistent. If jumping on the couch is fun, and sometimes Mommy and Daddy say no, but sometimes they let you, of course you are going to at least give it a try. But if you always say no, then your child learns the rules of the house and is less likely to jump on the couch. Once you’ve said no to something, it always needs to be no, which can be thoroughly exhausting — I understand that well. So pick your battles. Every family draws different lines in the sand. Any behavior that hurts someone (including hurting their feelings) or is dangerous should always be a no. And it’s good to teach children that certain settings (like religious services or public transportation, for example) require quieter, less active behavior — and to be respectful of others (being polite and sharing fall in there). But you can decide on the other rules. Maybe jumping on the couch is just fine in your house.
3. Be loving. Catch them being good, too. Be very positive about good behaviors or when they pull it together and stop a bad behavior. When a child behaves well, we tend to take it for granted or are simply relieved, but a child deserves kudos for following the rules, not just punishments when they don’t. It also makes a difference to spend time with your children and show them that you are invested in them. It puts discipline in a context and makes it easier and more worthwhile for children to behave well for you.
4. Set a good example. You can’t expect a child to say “please” and “thank you” if you don’t, or to treat others well if you don’t. Remember that children always pay way more attention to what we do than what we say. Just like Gandhi once said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Be the person you want your child to be.
If you are having a hard time, talk to your doctor. Some children have a tougher time than others, for all sorts of reasons; sometimes parents need help. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it; it makes you a better parent when you do.