Nobody has all the answers when it comes to parenthood. It can be difficult, frustrating and tedious—especially when kids act out—but it can also be joyful and fun, and parents can get better at parenting every day.
One of the most challenging parts of being a parent is raising your children to behave in positive ways. But it’s important—effective discipline allows a child to feel safe and grow up with boundaries that make life easier, says UNC Health pediatrician Edward Pickens, MD.
“Children are happier when they know where the limits are and know there is an expectation for good behavior,” he says.
So how do you set limits and clarify expectations? Dr. Pickens offers seven ways to communicate better and help your children succeed.
1. Slow down and stay flexible.
“You can’t be in a hurry all the time when you have a young child,” Dr. Pickens says. “Things will come up that make it necessary to stop what you are doing and take care of the problem. You may not be able to do things you want to do when your child is acting up.”
For example, he says, if you are at a restaurant and your child is misbehaving, you might have to remove the child from the table or even go home before you’re ready. It helps to adjust your expectations. You can’t do the same things you did before children in exactly the same way, and that’s normal.
2. Learn how to get your child’s attention without physical punishment.
Dr. Pickens discourages spanking or hurting of any kind, even a swat on the bottom. But, he says, a timeout, where a misbehaving child is removed from a desired activity for a bit, is very effective. So is a “time-in,” where the parent sits with the child and discusses the reason they were removed from the party, play date or other activity.
Other techniques can get a child’s attention, too, such as taking away a toy the child is arguing over with another child or sibling. Parents may also rescind a privilege, such as getting to choose what the family has for dinner or getting to go to the pool, as a consequence for negative behavior.
3. Look for positive ways to engage your children.
Children will pay attention when a parent or other adult praises them for good behavior. Most will try to repeat or continue the good behavior, seeking more positive rewards. Try to emphasize rewards that are good for the child—an extra story at bedtime, for example—instead of candy or other food with low nutritional value.
Plan ahead, Dr. Pickens suggests. Have a bag ready to go that is filled with treasures such as books, cards, crayons, paper and nonelectronic toys. Look for ways to engage your child in the environment around them, such as playing “I spy” in the car.
“It’s a lot of work,” he says, “but preparing for the day as a parent involves more than where you’re going to go, but also what you’re going to do.”
4. Use your imagination to help your children use up energy.
Remember that most children have a lot of energy. Let them move their bodies to use up some of that energy. If they are misbehaving, you might be able to correct the behavior by getting them to run around the yard or park. You can make it a game, like having them pretend they are an airplane.
Games can use mental energy, too. You can count trucks or red cars or billboards, or make up phrases with the letters on license plates: FTZ could stand for “find that zebra,” for example. Don’t be afraid to goof around: If you see a cow in a field, moo. If you see a dog, bark.
Being silly with Mom or Dad is great fun for children. The bonus is that it can be fun for parents, too. Family time playing together can create some of a child’s most positive memories.
5. Don’t rely on the “electronic babysitter.”
Sometimes, electronic devices can be a tool when a parent truly needs a break or a child actually needs to be quieted, such as on a long-haul flight full of sleeping passengers. (Even then, of course, children cry, and there’s nothing wrong with that.)
But most of the time, it’s important to find other ways to calm your children, Dr. Pickens says.
“Parents need to resist the temptation to make keeping everyone quiet their primary goal,” he says. “In our world of electronic devices, it is easy to hand a screaming preschooler your phone so they can watch a video or play music to restore happiness. This reinforcement of negative behavior leads to a complete lack of discipline, with minimal expectations for good behavior.”
6. Remember that it’s OK for a child to be bored.
Videos, games and other electronic distractions can cause children to have no tolerance for boredom, Dr. Pickens says.
“Children who need instant gratification turn into adults who need instant gratification in order to maintain basic happiness,” he says. “It leads to adults who have significant disappointment and anger when one would expect to have only minor disappointment, like having to stop at a traffic light.”
While you are at it, try to put away your own devices while your children are young and pay attention to them.
“This is hard for parents, but the payoff is tremendous,” Dr. Pickens says. “Waiting until elementary school to expose children to devices won’t put them at a disadvantage, but it will promote creative thought and play, which is a lifelong skill.”
7. Expect children to contribute to the family.
Even young children can help around the house, by clearing their plates or carrying dirty clothes to the hamper. Older children can clean, care for pets and even prepare simple meals.
“The expectation for contributing to the family—doing chores—has fallen out of favor,” Dr. Pickens says. “But knowing you have to do dishes or clean your room or contribute to the household in some way teaches children responsibility. It doesn’t make the parent an ogre. Discipline is not just about punishment. It’s about setting expectations.”
If you want more ideas for ways that playfulness and creativity can teach your child about positive behavior, check out the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Healthy Children website. If you have concerns about your child’s behavior, talk with your pediatrician or find one near you.