The mecca of moms. The destiny of dads. The hope that all parents cling to even as their children decapitate dolls and commit ant murder with magnifying glasses. Who is this elusive creature? The well-behaved child.
Raising a well-behaved child who listens, respects, and maintains good manners isn’t child’s play, but it’s not rocket science, either. In fact, there are several things you can do to improve the odds of your child becoming class president rather than a permanent fixture in the principal’s office.
So, start by:
1. Making your expectations crystal clear:
A child who learns, early on, that they can get their way by resisting, yelling, screaming, and throwing a tantrum will continue to resist, yell, scream, and throw tantrums. If climbing to the top of the jungle gym and refusing to leave gets them an extra hour of playground time, they’ll repeat that behavior until you draw a line. Setting a boundary beforehand helps sidestep their outburst. In other words, children who know there are limits quickly learn to respect those limits.
So, how do you draw this line in the proverbial sandbox? Start by telling them why. You don’t need to go overboard with the details – “If you go outside without shoes on, you could get frostbite on your feet. Then they’ll have to amputate your pinky toes.” But providing some simple reasons helps your child realize that you’re not just making up rules for the heck of it.
Another way to set a boundary is to praise your child when they meet your expectations (and when they go above and beyond the call of kid duty). If they take out the trash, feed the dog, or remember to put their shoes away, commend them. Believe it or not, your kid really does want to please you (at least until the teen years).
When your child fails to follow the rules, take it as an opportunity to develop their conscience. You don’t need to lay the guilt on thick, but let it simmer for a little while. Minimizing a child’s discomfort too quickly might result in them not learning their lesson.
But, beware, all the above only works if you follow the rules yourself. Kids learn by watching adults – if they see you eat dessert before finishing your dinner, they’ll follow in your rebellious footsteps.
2. Raise a problem-solver:
While some kids misbehave because they want to, most misbehave for other reasons. A kid who feels frustrated or as though they’re powerless might act out in desperation. If they know how to solve problems, on the flip side, they feel in control. And they gain control of themselves in the process.
To make sure you raise a problem-solver (instead of a problem child), let your kids make decisions. Give them choices between little things, like whether to have a turkey or bologna sandwich for lunch. Then gradually graduate to bigger decisions.
Fostering a resilient outlook (the old, “try-try-again”) by encouraging your child to gain independence is also helpful. This can be a challenge for parents, especially when they’re in a rush and it’s so much quicker to zip up your child’s jacket instead of waiting for them to do it (for instance). But giving them space to fix problems shows them they can.
You may also want to focus on your child’s critical thinking skills. When they ask you a question, counter with one of your own. Or when they ask you “why” – which the average child asks 96,000 times a day – present the question back to them: “Why do you think the sky is blue?”
3. Perpetuate Patience:
Children are tiny narcissists, focused on their needs only. That’s why they make these needs known the instant they arise. But teaching your kid patience helps create a well-behaved being.
To do this, make them wait when they want something. If you’re in the middle of cooking dinner, don’t drop everything to fix your child’s hair. Instead, tell them you’ll help once you’re done with what you’re already doing.
You can also teach patience by encouraging kids to express their emotions and offering praise when they demonstrate patience. Young kids don’t know how to label their frustrations, but you can do the labeling for them! Verbalize by saying, “Waiting is no fun” or “It’s great that you’re being so patient when sitting here is so boring.” You may also try engaging in activities that require patience, like building Legos or solving puzzles. High-tech gadgets that offer instant press-of-a-button results will only reinforce to your child that they need everything right away.
4. Emphasize Empathy:
Everyone, even adults, could use a little more empathy. The emotionally intelligent skill that allows us to put ourselves in another’s shoes is something that should be taught early and often. For kids, it’s particularly vital since they innately believe that it’s them – and not the sun – that the world revolves around.
The ways to help emphasize empathy include lauding your child’s acts of kindness. Even if this act of kindness is directed towards an inanimate object (like a stuffed animal), acknowledge it. You should also refrain from lecturing your child, especially if they’re young (as they won’t understand it). Instead, ask your child questions that help them consider the feelings of others, such as, “How do you think your brother feels when you hit him with your Cabbage Patch doll?” Pointing out the body language of others works as well. If someone is sad, showing your child that they’re not smiling helps them get the feel for nonverbal communication (which is most of communication).
You’re not going to raise a well-behaved child in a day – they’re your “Rome,” something that takes time and care to build. But keeping with the above recommendations increases the odds that your child will grow up to be someone any mother or father would love to brag about.