Let’s start with the problem: There are a lot of badly behaved kids out there. I’m not talking about trash-talking toddlers (although, the very notion that your toddler is trash-talking should be reason for concern) or the delinquent teens that egged my garage door on the weekend. I’m talking about kids that are old enough to know better – but don’t.
I am not a disciplinarian by nature or upbringing. And I would never have been able to share these observations before I had kids of my own – or, more accurately, before I could more intimately observe other parents practicing their craft.
I must also say at the outset that I am not an expert, nor am I a better parent than anyone else. I’m an amateur – like most of us are when it comes to parenting. But I know what I like in kids.
I used to think that well-behaved, well-socialized kids were products of a conformist society bent on quashing individuality, creativity and imagination. I still think that conformity to narrow standards is anathema in our diverse, pluralistic society, but now I don’t associate good behaviour and manners with social conformity. I think you can have well-mannered kids that think independently and are tolerant of a plurality of views.
But back to bad behaviour. Most kids that act badly have learned it – from, of all places, their parents. Smart kids push boundaries and limits and learn from the feedback what works and what doesn’t. If mild misbehaviour fails to get the desired result, they escalate. If, as a parent, you permit this behaviour and give in, you are an enabler.
For instance, it’s not pleasant – nor is it “normal” – for a seven year-old kid to have a screaming tantrum when told he or she can’t do something. I mean a screaming, crying, throwing themselves on the floor and refusing to move tantrum. We’ve all seen kids that do this. During the “terrible twos”, they are just testing to see if it works. By seven, they have learned that, in fact, it works quite well.
The solution to this problem is simple and firm discipline. When it starts happening around two years old, practice zero tolerance (or as close to zero as you can muster). For instance, you’re in the grocery store and the kid wants a chocolate bar and you say no. The kid proceeds to throw himself on the floor screaming and crying and convulsing. What do you do?
If you buy the chocolate bar, you are saying in no uncertain terms: If you act this way in the future, I will give you what you want. If, however, you put down your groceries, pick the child up and walk out of the store, you send a different message. You say: Whenever you act this way, you do not get what you want.
But, you might object, that’s hard to do all the time. You may not be able to afford the time to walk away from your shopping. No one said parenting is always going to be easy. And I could argue that the time you save today by giving in to bad behaviour you will pay for down the road – many times over. I would also suggest that this is the same discipline that you need when you are “teaching” your child to sleep. You need to let them cry until they figure out that you are not coming to rescue them and they fall asleep. If you can’t let them cry it out, they don’t learn to sleep on their own which has detrimental impact to both you and the child.
Now, fast forward a few years. The kid is now 5 or 6 or 7 and wants to have a playdate with a friend after school, but you say no. First starts the crying, then the hitting and kicking (because that’s how this behaviour escalates when it goes unchecked). Pretty soon your kid is having a self-induced breakdown and hyper-ventilating. If you think it was hard to walk out of that grocery 3 years ago, try carrying your kicking and screaming six year old to the car and enduring the embarrassment.
What embarrassment, you ask? Some kids just have different temperaments. I agree. But we’re not talking about temperament here. If your child is disappointed, he can express that feeling without having a tantrum. He can plead with you. Or she can try and argue why it’s a good idea. She could even cry in disappointment and sadness – without having a tantrum.
In the end, bad behaviour in kids is a highly preventable problem if you start early and stay consistent. Unfortunately, by the time they are five and entering their tween years, it is much harder to undo these patterns of behaviour – both for parents and kids.
Do yourself – and your kids a favour: be a firm, but loving hard-ass parent when it counts.