You’ve probably said it. You may have lost sleep over it. You’ve read a zillion advice articles and tried all kinds of approaches. You might be at your wit’s end. How do I get my kids to do what I ask them to do, when I ask them to do it, without losing my temper, mind, or sanity?
You are not alone in that thinking and there is no magic bullet or surefire solution. Give yourself a break and stop comparing yourself to neighbors or relatives. Every parent has been in your shoes, but few of us like to admit how inadequate we feel at times.
If you could go back to day one of your child’s life and start all over again you’d probably make different mistakes, but you would still make mistakes. The first step is to reassess your expectations against your child’s age and developmental stage. The problems seem to start between the ages of two and three. At this age children are testing everything. At first, the testing is innocent enough: What happens if I drop my spoon from the high chair? Or open the kitchen cabinet? A parent might not like this stage but we seem to grin and bear it with mild consternation and repeated admonitions.
By two and a half, the testing becomes a bit naughty. The word “no” comes out many times a day. In fact, there was a study from Harvard in 1971 that found mothers (more than fathers) were correcting or redirecting their toddlers every three minutes and the toddlers only listened 60 percent of the time. Another study, in 2009, found conflicts arising every two and a half minutes!
No one wants to be a nag. No parent wants to be “the mean” parent. The stress for the parent, engaged in this constant struggle is enormous. It easily explains why a parent, who only has a few hours a day to spend with their child, gives in, chooses his or her battles, and relaxes the limits just to have some peace and happy time with the child. Sadly though, that just exacerbates the problem. The child learns to “tune out” and comes to believe that everything is negotiable.
When the normal testing of a young child turns to outright disobedience, most parents take a month or two to really notice. At first, you might scold your child, but you can barely hide the smile on your face because whatever he or she just did, while not acceptable, is still just too cute.
Another common error is to think in terms of punishment. Especially at this young age, punishment is meaningless and only builds resentment and more confrontation.
Young children thrive with consistency and routine. You set the tone. There is nothing to negotiate. Life itself provides any number of limits. For example, yes, there is a bedtime. You may not run into the street. You may not walk around the house with a sippy cup (or worse). Coats must be worn in cold weather. Crayons do not belong on the wall. Many parents are amazed that their child behaves better in school than at home but the reason is simply because a tone has been set in school and children accept and modify their behavior accordingly.
Mantras help. If your child hears you say, “food belongs at the table,” every time he or she has a cookie or a meal, your child will internalize that limit and probably comply. Use inanimate objects to set limits. “The clock says it’s time for bed… ” is better than Mommy or Daddy saying it. It’s hard to argue with a clock. After weeks of plotting, pleading, and trying to rationalize the difference between a “big girl” and a “baby,” I got my daughter off the bottle purely by accident. She dropped it, the top flew off and milk spilled across the floor. I lost it momentarily, picked up the bottle, threw it in the garbage can and said, “That’s it. No more bottle.” She never asked for it again! Two and three year olds are NOT rational beings!
This early work at setting reasonable limits, and enforcing them with any gimmick that works, sets the stage for discipline at a later age.
As a society we highly value individualization and independence. Sometimes when our children act out or rebel there is a voice inside our head saying, “I like that streak of independence,” even while another voice is saying, “You can’t let him/her walk all over you.”
A common mistake is the great effort we exert to make our children stand out and “shine.” Children are natural conformists. They don’t want to stick out as different. They want something because another child has it. They play what other children want to play, they dress like other children, they read the same books and watch the same shows as their friends. They want to fit into a social group and be “just like everyone else.” The time for individuality will come later. Fortunately, their desire to conform will work in your favor when it comes to behavior. Children want to conform to easily recognized limits and standards, especially if the consequence is being ostracized from the group. Time out works best if the child’s protests are ignored. The child wants to be reaccepted into the family or play group so he or she will modify behavior.
Finally, understand that your child’s brain is very different from yours. The frontal cortex, which is responsible for inhibiting behavior, making rational decisions, and analyzing circumstances, has not yet developed! It’s not fully functional until almost age 21. That impulsiveness and inability to stop oneself from acting in a certain way is developmentally appropriate because the brain center that controls those tasks isn’t there yet! Trying to rationalize and explain “why” to a four or five year old is about as productive as justifying your decision to the living room wall.
So, in conclusion, let’s return to the idea of reassessing your expectations. Young children have very little impulse control. It’s a biological fact. They live entirely in the present and have no understanding of future consequences or rewards. They don’t understand that “being late for work” is a bad thing. They can’t tell time. They don’t want to be “different.” They just want to be loved and accepted. Of course you love them unconditionally, but letting them learn that their behavior does impact how other children, or adults, think of them is an act of kindness in the long run.