Positive parenting is the hardest (and most important) job there is.
Take a minute to pat yourself on the back. You’re here looking for resources and ideas to help your family, so I know you’re already doing your best.
My work is parent empowerment, not parent blame and shame. However…
When struggling with challenging behaviors, we have to take a hard look at how our own reactions (or lack thereof) are contributing to the situation.
As we’ve discussed in this series of articles, children instinctively try out every behavior option to see what works.
If we cave to temper tantrums just to make them stop, we’ve made tantrums a working strategy. If we waffle about rules and expectations? We might as well forget about them, because our kids surely will. If we raise our intensity or yell back when children yell? Well, we’re teaching them that’s normal.
The scary part is children often continue to use the same behavioral strategies (with minor tweaks and changes) as they grow up.
Have you ever seen a 17-year-old have a temper tantrum? It’s scary. The stakes are way higher than they are with a two year old. They have cars and internet connections. Plus, we’ve lost much of our physical and emotional leverage with them.
It’s never too late to give a child love and balance. But the early childhood years are when the patterns of behavior develop. For better or worse, it’s when parents and primary caregivers lay the foundations for future relationships a child will have.
That’s why my Golden Rule for positive parenting is: Control yourself.
I know it’s not easy, and in some situations it may be damn near impossible. But the only factor we can truly control in regards to our children’s behavior is our own positive behavior. The good news is most of the time that’s all we need to do to encourage appropriate behavior.
With that in mind, I offer seven positive parenting tips to keep in mind when engaged with those little button-pushers.
In addition to being practical, I find these help me bring balance and understanding to my roles as caregiver, disciplinarian, friend, and life-guide, and help me to have happier relationships with children.
1. Find A Happy Place
If you feel certain your kid is dumping out the pieces of every puzzle he owns just to draw you away from cooking dinner, take a deep breath, find a happy place, and keep on cooking.
Don’t take a quick break to go over and chew him out. Don’t think about how long it’s going to take to clean up. Don’t beat yourself up about having all of those too-hard puzzles on his toy shelf to begin with.
Think of your happy place and get all up in it.
Not only are you neutralizing his behavior by ignoring it, you’re also keeping the peace (in your home and between your ears) and letting this kiddo know he’s not running the show.
If you can stay calm, feel free to plan the rockin’ lecture you’re going to dole out later.
Or if you want to be really Zen, plan how you’re going to squeeze in some 1-to-1 connection time before dinner or before bed. Because, like we established in the function of the behavior (FOB) article, the attention-seeking child truly needs you, and he’ll get you one way or another. So make it happen on your terms.
But in the heat of the moment, the boss’s job is to be cool. Stay calm.
Don’t let him know he’s ruffled your feathers, because there’s nothing more thrilling to an attention-seeking kid than knowing he’s pushing your buttons.
2. Be Two Steps Ahead
Let’s stick with this cutie trying to pull you away from dinner prep.
I’m guessing this isn’t the first time he’s scared up some shenanigans like this, right? So let’s get ahead of the situation and think of ways to avoid it. (If you’re interested in the lingo, this is what we call antecedent modification.)
Could you sit down with him for 10 minutes of connection-time before you start cooking? Would that hold him over? Or could you create a high shelf of special, restricted-access activities that would keep him engaged for 30-45 minutes?
Or, as is often the case in my house, this is a limited and precious opportunity for screen time in my daughter’s day.
Here are three other things you can try to help you stay ahead of consistent behavior problems:
- Practice appropriate scenarios with lots of fun role playing
- Use simple, concise directions and gain eye contact before giving them
- Reinforce positive behavior more than correcting screw-ups
It’s another cliché, but it’s to the point: the best defense is a good offense.
3. Say it. Mean it. Do it.
Don’t make empty threats. Ever.
If you can’t follow through on a threat, then don’t make it. It makes a liar out of you and undermines your authority in all situations.
Don’t threaten to leave your kid at the library. Don’t threaten to cancel vacations or a weekend trip to grandma’s, if you know there’s no way you’ll do it. Don’t threaten to donate all the toys left on the floor to Goodwill, unless you mean it. (That actually makes quite an impression, if you can follow through on it.)
And for crying out loud, don’t punish yourself. If you need to put your kid in front of the TV for 30 minutes in the eventing to get dinner on the table, don’t threaten to take away all TV. Pick something else!
If you feel like your kid doesn’t respect you, you might be in the habit of making empty threats.
Children are hardwired to test boundaries. They can smell weak resolve a mile away. So follow through on the boundaries you set. Every time.
4. Be Consistent
If I could only share one piece of advice, this would be it: Be consistent.
Predictability is one of the greatest gifts we can give children to help them feel safe in the world. They crave the security of boundaries. That’s why they’re constantly testing them.
If we keep the boundaries predictable, behaviors also become predictable and manageable. A consistent and measured response to spitting, kicking or defiance will help such behaviors fade.
Consistent boundaries and expectations enable children to explore their worlds and emotions safely and appropriately. Feeling secure allows them to focus on and learn other things.
But the second they find a crack in the wall, they go right back to testing. It’s like scene in Jurassic Park with the velociraptors: “They were testing the fences for weaknesses systematically…they remember.”
Raptors and kids, like it’s their full-time job. Hold the line, boss. You got this.
5. Be the Behavior
All the clichés are true.
Practice what you preach… Kids are like sponges… We reap what we sow… Little ears always listening…
If we want our kids to use good manners, we have to say “please” and “thank you” also. If we don’t want our kids lying, we need to be careful about the excuses we use to bail out of birthday parties.
Swear words? You get the idea.
Development doesn’t occur in a vacuum. For better or for worse, young kids take social cues from us more than from their peers.
I’m guilty of it myself sometimes, but we can’t expect them to act better than we do. Sadly, “do as I say, not as I do” just doesn’t work.
6. Be a Teacher
This is one of the most important and often overlooked roles we play.
Tom Herner, the president of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, hit the nail on the head when he said: “If a child doesn’t know how to read, we teach. If a child doesn’t know how to swim, we teach. If a child doesn’t know how to multiply, we teach. If a child doesn’t know how to behave, we…teach? punish?”
What do we do?
We can’t assume children know how we want them to behave in restaurants. We have to teach them.
The same goes for waiting patiently in line at the grocery store, hurrying or taking turns. These aren’t natural behaviors even if it seems they should be. They have to be taught. Even more so when your child has a problematic behavior.
We wouldn’t expect a kid to suddenly begin reading fluently on her own, or start adding and subtracting out of the blue. We break those skills down, teach them, practice them, and reward them. Behavior is no different.
Teaching positive behavior is essentially role-playing and rehearsing.
It may feel silly in the beginning, but when your kids learn to regularly play peaceful roles in A Family Dinner Out, you’ll feel like you won an Oscar.
7. Become the Child Whisperer
My favorite positive parenting show is Dog Whisperer. Seriously.
Caesar Milan’s sage advice for parents of naughty pups is just as applicable for parents of any child:
- Use calm and assertive energy
- Know your breed
- Be the pack leader
If the information in this Guide to Child Behavior feels like a lot, you’re right. It is.
If you feel overwhelmed, it’s because you care about doing the best for your family. The good news is that it’s no more overwhelming than feeling out of control, out of ideas, and guilty about nagging and fussing all the time.
Most of the strategies I’ve shared require you to change your approach to your children’s behaviors. Sorry about that.
Change is difficult and this may be a big paradigm shift for you. The idea is to do positive work on the front end to stop regularly difficult situations before they happen.
As they say, it takes more muscles to frown than to smile, and both are contagious. So teach, praise, reinforce, remind, practice and smile.
It sounds like a lot until you consider the alternatives: yell, nag, repeat, repeat, repeat, sigh, cry, argue, pout.
We can do this. Sign up to receive future articles, and I’ll keep explaining and exploring these ideas and strategies until you understand them and use them with ease.
Also, please invite a friend to join us. We’ll build our strength in numbers!
Now, go forth and lead your breed to happiness, boss!