The Parents Expert Guide to Nurturing Good Behavior
It's another one of those days. Just when you finally have a brief window to return work emails, pay bills, and then figure out why the dishwasher won't start, your preschooler throws their blocks at your chair and your older kid refuses to do their homework. You adore your children and can't imagine life without them, but couldn't they just go with the flow, at least sometimes? After two exhausting years, every mom and dad probably needs a bit of a reboot. So we asked members of the Parents Board of Advisors—some of the nation's preeminent psychologists and pediatricians—to share their best advice on how parents can feel in control again.
Having been an editor at Parents for more than 25 years, I've seen parenting trends come and go—yet I found so many "aha" moments in these pages. Our experts divulge the professional tricks in their back pockets and also underscore the big picture: Children come into the world fully ready to feel, but not ready to manage those feelings. And what parents often consider misbehavior is usually what experts call a dysregulation of emotions. Kids have a meltdown, shove a classmate, or grab a toy because they're angry but unable to deal with their anger in a more productive way. Knowing this as a parent doesn't mean we simply excuse rudeness, recklessness, and unreasonable demands. "Parenting is teaching, and we need to teach our kids how to conduct themselves in the world," says psychologist Lisa Damour, Ph.D. Being well-behaved isn't about kids ignoring their feelings; it's being able to say, "I'm mad," instead of hitting someone, or say, "I feel left out," rather than being mean. "This is a huge developmental achievement, and it's what socializing children is all about," says Dr. Damour. That's also why it's crucial to talk about emotions in front of our kids.
But the biggest picture to keep in mind is our goal to raise independent, big-hearted adults. "Good behavior" is equated with compliance and subservience, but that's not what you wish for your kids when they're older, says psychologist Becky Kennedy, Ph.D. You hope your 30-year-old won't tell you, "Mom, my boss asked me to do something inappropriate, and I said yes." If you want your kids to be able to say "No" or "This doesn't work for me," that's not an ability people just naturally develop at age 21 or 40, Dr. Kennedy says. "It's massively inconvenient when your kids don't want to do what you want them to do, but pushing back is preparing them to be able to negotiate in relationships."
One way to focus less on good behavior and more on nurturing good people is to praise behavior by linking it to a value, says child and adolescent psychologist Timothy L. Verduin, Ph.D. If you point out, "Sharing with your sister showed a lot of kindness," your kid will be more likely to act that way in the future. Of course, parenting is a marathon, not a sprint, one that takes patience and creativity. Suggests Dr. Kennedy, "Instead of thinking, 'I want my child to behave well,' it's helpful to think, 'I want to work on myself so I can show up as often as possible as the parent I want to be.' "
—Diane Debrovner, Parents Deputy Editor
Help Your Kid Listen and Follow Through
By Timothy L. Verduin, Ph.D.
It's perfectly normal for your kids to ignore you when you say things like, "How was your day?" or "What do you want for dinner?" or "Time to get your homework started." Everyone's attention is so fractured these days, but parents often don't set the stage very well for getting kids to listen. We tend to shout to them across the house or mention things when we're busy or in a rush.
We also expect kids to be ready to listen to us, but timing is everything. If you interrupt your kid when they're in the middle of doing something they enjoy, that will automatically make them less likely to pay attention. You probably wouldn't do that to another adult, and you wouldn't want anyone to do it to you, so try to avoid doing that to your kids.
With a toddler, engage more than one sense.
In order for a young child to listen to you, they need to be able to see you. You've likely heard about the importance of kneeling down to their level; you could also sit next to them and do what they're doing for a few moments before telling them something. Put an arm around them or hold their hand. If you place your child on your lap, you'll immediately get their attention.
Focus on the essential point.
If you catch your 3-year-old eating their brother's Halloween candy while sitting on the light-colored couch, for example, the key message could be, "Mom or Dad has to say it's okay before you take a bite of something like this." If you start talking about the chance of getting the couch dirty, they might think it's fine to take their brother's chocolate if they eat it at the table.
Talk to their stuffed animals.
It seems hokey, but this can get your kid to cooperate with something you're asking them to do. You could say, "Mr. Bear made a mess with the Magna-Tiles, and now he wants to walk away!" Then let your child say, "No, Mr. Bear, you've got to come back and clean that up!" It'll be fun for them to feel like the boss, and they'll realize that if Mr. Bear's got to do it, so do they.
Give kids a heads-up.
For children in preschool through second grade, say, "I'm going to tell you something that I want you to listen to" or "I have one thing that I need to tell you about what's happening tonight that I think you're going to want to listen to." Teachers often give cues like this by turning the lights on and of for doing a rhythmic clap when they need students' attention.
Confirm that they heard you.
Rather than asking, "Are you listening?" use a softer approach that's almost like a game. You might say, "I said something just a second ago, and I wonder if you can tell me what it was." Or check their comprehension in a more indirect way by asking, "Can you tell your sister about where we're going to put the recycling?"
Let older kids decide when they're ready to listen.
Especially if an 8- or 9-year-old is engrossed in an activity, show respect by asking, "Can you tell me a good time for us to talk about spring break?" or "Can you tell me when would be a good time to take out the trash?" Of course, kids can abuse this—they'll say, "I'll do it after dinner," and keep putting it off. But you'll be modeling how they should talk to their peers, siblings, and you. There will certainly be times when you need to ask them to do something right away, but acknowledge that you're interrupting them.
When you want to discuss something important, let them know how you feel. You might say, "I was looking at pictures and realized we don't go hiking together anymore, and that made me kind of sad. So I'd like to talk about how we can get back to something I really miss." This is also helpful if you need to share bad news: "I want to tell you something that's really hard for me to talk about, and I might cry." That gets a kid's attention pretty quickly. You might think you shouldn't get upset in front of your kids, but that just conditions them to be afraid of being sad in front of you.
Be extra clear if your child has a problem paying attention.
I work with kids who have ADHD, and I teach them and their parents techniques that can be effective with any kid. Give direct commands about what you want your child to do: "Please set the table," not "Could you set the table?" When you try to be polite or soft with a child who tends to be resistant to directions, it gives the illusion of choice. Also, be specific, not vague. Instead of "Clean your room," say, "Please put your laundry in the basket."
If your child truly has trouble tuning in, it could be ADHD.
Dr. Verduin says these are the biggest red flags.
- Having an extremely hard time pulling away from an enjoyable activity
- Being unable to carry out multistep instructions
- Not even being able to pay attention to information they're excited about, such as a birthday party
- Not realizing that people are speaking to them when they're immersed in something
- Constantly interrupting and wanting to do something different from what everyone else is doing at school
- Having difficulty finishing fun tasks because they get distracted and leave a trail of unfinished activities behind them
- Having a very negative reaction when they find out they have to go to an event that will take a long time
Timothy L. Verduin, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor of child and adolescent psychiatry and clinical director of the ADHD and Behavior Disorder Service at NYU Grossman School of Medicine.
Help Your Kid Make Peace With Rules
By Becky Kennedy, Ph.D.
When your child resists sticking to the rules or your family's routine—grabbing their iPad even though it's not iPad time or playing baseball in the living room—it's easy to jump to conclusions. You might assume they don't care what you think or don't realize the ball could hit the lamp. I encourage parents to consider the Most Generous Interpretation, or MGI, of why their child is behaving a certain way. That requires looking at a situation from your child's perspective.
"Defiance" is usually the least generous interpretation of your child's behavior. As soon as you label your kid as defiant—for sneaking the iPad out of your bedroom, for example—you'll be in enemy mode. By using your MGI to reframe defiance, you might say to yourself, "My child must really have wanted something, and that strong urge was too tough for them to manage. It's hard to want something and not get it."
Even when you have established rules, you still need to connect with your kid to motivate them. Instead of saying, "If you don't make your bed, you're not getting screen time," you might say, "Hey, I'm noticing your bed's not made. I wonder what got in the way." If your kid says they forgot, you could say, "Let's think about a way that you could remember. Maybe if there was a sign in your room?" If your kid insists making their bed is a waste of time, you might explain, "Look, this is one of those things that's important to do in our family. It's a sign of respecting your things. Here's what I'm hearing, though. Making your bed is annoying. I wonder if there's anything we can think of that would make it a little fun. I know it wouldn't be as fun as playing basketball, but a little fun. Maybe we can think of a silly make-your-bed song." It's amazing how kids will brainstorm with you when you lighten the mood and empathize with them.
Give more choices.
Your child might break rules simply because there are so few chances for them to feel powerful and in control. It's their way of saying, "Hey, I'm a person too!" If you clamp down harder on the rules, it can lead to a negative cycle. So if your 5-year-old has been breaking rules, look for everyday ways to let them make decisions: "I just can't decide if I should wear the red shirt or the blue shirt! Why don't you decide. Red? Thank you! I'm going to wear this shirt all day because of you."
Bend rules in the right way.
Consistency lets your kids know what to expect, but sometimes there are special circumstances. If you normally don't allow snacks before dinner but your child didn't have a good lunch one day, you might decide to let them have a snack. When you tell your child, you can also prepare them to return to the regular rules: "Before we go into the pantry, there are a couple of things I want to say. Today is a day when I think it's okay to have a snack before dinner. It's probably going to be different tomorrow. And when I say no tomorrow, it might feel even worse. So let's just get ready for that." The next day when you say no, you can say, "It's extra hard to hear no today because yesterday I said yes, right?" This sets them up for life: Sometimes you get what you want and sometimes you don't.
However, if you let a rule slide just because you can't deal with your kid having a tantrum, that's a decision made out of fear. Your kid will realize that—and learn that you're scared of their feelings when they have a meltdown. The next time those big emotions come up, your child may feel even worse.
Have a heart-to-heart with a kid who doesn't want to follow any rules.
If they continue to push and push and say things like, "This is a stupid rule," that's often a message about what's going on in your relationship. It's not your fault that your kid is in that place, but it is your responsibility to start the change because you're the adult. The first step is to calmly say, "Look, it seems like anything I ask you to do gets met with a no. You know what that tells me? First of all, it tells me nothing about you. You're not a bad kid. It tells me that things don't feel great between the two of us. And I'm really invested in trying to figure out how to make it better."
Be prepared that your kid might say something like, "I hate you. You make me do so many things I don't want to do. You never listen to what I want. You're always bossing me around." However, instead of being defensive, surprise them by being understanding: "Wow, I believe you. I believe that it feels like I'm always telling you what to do and that must feel awful. I'm really glad you're letting me know." Connecting and validating a child's resistance is often the first step toward meaningful change.
Becky Kennedy, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and host of the podcast Good Inside With Dr. Becky.
Help Your Kid Scale Back on Screen Time
By Wayne Fleisig, Ph.D.
In one of the best ironies of parenting (a close second to the fact that the 8-year-old kid whom you cannot get to take a shower will eventually turn into the teenager who takes two-hour showers exactly when you need to get ready for work), your kid's love of devices is exactly what will help you limit their usage.
Stick to the most simple plan.
Tell your child you understand it's no fun having to stop playing a game to do homework or set the table. So you've decided that a better strategy is to remind them in advance of everything they need to do that day so they can get the tasks all done and out of the way before having screen time. Then they can use devices for a certain amount of time (because too much time isn't good for anyone) and not have to worry about stopping to do those other things. (For some kids, you may need to lock up or disable electronics when they're not supposed to be using them.)
For example, with a younger child, you might say they have to play outside for an hour, clean their room, and do an arts and crafts project before screen time; with an older child, you might replace the arts and crafts with homework, chores, and half an hour of reading. You can decide that they get all the electronics time at once, or you can break it into pieces (a certain amount of time after they have gone out to play and the rest after everything else is done), but it's best to have them finish with all electronics at least an hour before bedtime so it won't interfere with their sleep.
Commit to your decision.
You need to be confident that this is in your child's best interest. Every minute that your child is using electronics is one that they're not reading, getting physical activity, being creative, socializing, and, of course, doing homework, chores, or other things you make them do that may have made you legendary for your meanness and unfairness. Kids need balance in life, but if they're given free rein, many will use devices virtually nonstop.
Set screen-time limits for yourself.
"Do as I say, not as I do" just won't fly in this situation. Explain to your child that you feel it's best for everyone to limit their screen time. Let them know, for example, that you won't use your phone during meals, when you're spending time with others, and at other times for a few hours at a time so that you enjoy life in other ways.
Limits can be more lax on weekends.
As long as you follow the same general approach, you can allow a different amount of screen time on weekends and vacations. You can also give your kids a chance to earn extra weekend electronics time if they spend extra time reading during the week, for example. If you decide to suspend the rules for special situations like road trips, explain what the plan is and when you'll go back to the regular rules. Yes, all of this will be hard. But if you stick with it, the benefits will be worth it.
How to stand your ground.
- "Devices are fun, but they're like cookies: A certain amount of them are okay, but too many aren't good for you. So it's important that we also do other things."
- "Every parent does what they think is best for their child, and this is what we think is best."
- "I'm sorry you feel that way. I love you very much, and I'm doing what I feel is best for you."
Wayne Fleisig, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist at Children's of Alabama.
Help Your Kid Rephrase Their Back Talk
By Lisa Damour, Ph.D.
Every parent might have a somewhat different definition of what they consider to be "back talk." Broadly speaking, it's somewhere between a child trying to stand up for themself (when their parent is not in the mood for that) and a child being deliberately provocative or disrespectful and saying things they know are out of bounds, like "Shut up." No matter how old a kid is, the underlying message is usually, "You're not the boss of me."
Although toddlers constantly bark, "No!" we let them get away with a lot. Preschoolers, however, are always poised for a power struggle ("You can't make me!" "I don't want to!" "You're dumb!") because we have higher expectations for their behavior. When they talk back, they're usually double-checking the boundaries: "Really, we have this new rule that I can't pull the dog's tail? When I was 2, you just scooped me up, but now I'm in trouble? What will happen if I tell you I won't do what you say?" As for school-age kids, they may be tired, impulsive, and less willing to follow one more instruction after their long day at school—leading them to say rude things they often regret right away.
Realize that little kids just want our attention.
When you're absorbed in an email and your kid is being sweet and easygoing, you might ignore them because it lets you get something done. But if they switch gears and start being disruptive, you'll look up from your phone. Now they've gotten your attention, which is exactly what they wanted.
Avoid escalating a situation.
If you ask your child to put their shoes where they belong and they say, "No, you do it!" it's easy to get mad or threaten them. Yelling is often enough to get a young kid to comply, but it doesn't feel good for anybody. Instead, think of yourself as a dispassionate robot who gives instructions about how to get their warm, engaged parent to return: "We don't speak that way. If you're angry, you need to tell me how you're feeling." With an older kid, engage as little as possible. If they say something rude, respond in a neutral tone, "That's rude" or "I'll pretend I didn't hear that," which acknowledges you both know it was a mistake.
Give them a do-over.
With a younger child, you may have to articulate the language you'd rather they use: "You're not allowed to call me a poopyhead. You're allowed to say, 'Daddy, I'm mad we can't go to the zoo after all.' " Let them try again, and then move on. With an older kid, you can say, "Go take some time to yourself, and when you're ready to act with respect, come on back." This is the model of how the world works: When you're pleasant, people want to be with you; when you're unpleasant, they don't.
You have to give your kids a chance to make it right. The rules for how they act at home should reflect your expectations for how they'll act elsewhere. The only difference is that at home they get more chances. And once they've made it right, don't hold a grudge. Inherent in all of this is the fact that you have to treat your kids with a great deal of respect. If you want to be able to tell them, "This is not how we speak to each other in this home," you can't speak to them in ways that you wouldn't speak to anyone else.
How to respond to rudeness.
- "We do not speak to you that way, and you will not speak to us that way."
- "I'm going to pretend that I didn't hear that."
- "You have a point, but you can't talk to me that way. Try again."
- "That's rude. I need you to take a little time to yourself. Come on back when you're ready to talk to me in the way we speak to each other in this house."
- "I am sounding patient. I will soon lose patience. The way you're acting, eventually I'm going to feel mad."
- "I'm feeling mad, and if this keeps going on, I'm going to get mad."
- "I will have this conversation, but I won't have it this way."
- "You and I both know that was not okay."
Lisa Damour, Ph.D., is the author of Under Pressure and Untangled, cohost of the podcast Ask Lisa: The Psychology of Parenting, and senior advisor to the Schubert Center for Child Studies at Case Western Reserve University.
Help Your Kid Learn to Control Their Body
By Terri McFadden, M.D.
All young children are curious and busy. They want to explore and run—and that's good, because you want them to expend their energy as long as they're safe. But they're simply not developmentally ready to follow the norms we have for adults, such as completing a meal at the table or not climbing on the furniture. Having said that, discipline is about making disciples. Your job is to teach your child the skills to explore their world fully, but in a manner that allows them to be safe, fit in with their peers, be able to follow the rules, and understand why rules exist.
Offer gentle reminders.
When your child jumps up from the table for the fifth time, take a deep breath and calmly redirect them. You might say, "I know you're interested in the butterfly, but this is family meal time. So we're going to sit and finish our meal, and then we can go look at it." You'll have to explain the rules over and over, and rewards can be a great way to reinforce them: "If we want to watch Cocomelon, we need to sit until the long hand on the clock gets to the six." But take it slow: If your goal is for your child to sit for 30 minutes, start with ten.
Do your best in public.
Try to block out what other people think, and focus on your child. If they're too big for you to pick up, lead them to a place that feels more calm, where you can have a private moment with a physical barrier between your child and whatever set them off. Your soothing tone is more important than what you say. Give them a hug that says, "I love you no matter what."
Create a safe environment.
If your child likes to touch all the beautiful crystal in the house, put it out of reach so that you can set your child up for success. When your child likes to run and is impulsive if you're outside, they'll need to be in a more confined setting with a fence or a gate that separates them from the street. Or go to a big field where they can run around safely.
Be patient if your child is clingy.
They're not trying to be irritating—they may just need to calm themself. Talk to your pediatrician if this happens often. Especially with the pandemic, many kids have some social anxiety or separation anxiety. If it only happens occasionally, your child may be picking up on your stress. That's why it's so important to find even a little time for self-care. I remember a day when my daughter was clinging and screaming in church, and an elder said to me, "They need you the most when they're at their worst!" You may not always get it right, but give yourself credit for doing your best.
How to tell a child to chill.
- "I need you to calm down."
- "I need you to sit in a chair right now. I am worried that you might hurt yourself."
- "If you don't sit right now you could fall over and hurt yourself, and then we'd both feel terrible."
Terri McFadden, M.D., is a professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine and a member of the Executive Committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention.
Help Your Kid Cooperate With Teachers
By Laura S. Olivos, Psy.D.
It's important to acknowledge that kids, teachers, and parents have all suffered during the pandemic, and a lot of us are still in survival mode in some form or another. Kids have had to relearn how to engage in a classroom setting. If you find out that your child is having challenging behavior—not listening to directions, having trouble focusing and completing tasks, getting out of their seat, becoming verbally or physically aggressive, or having frequent meltdowns—it can feel overwhelming.
But it's also important to be compassionate with your child and yourself. Children are not their behaviors. You're not a bad parent, and you don't want your child to assume they are inherently bad. Behaviors are just signals of unmet needs or lagging skills that are occurring beneath the surface.
Take a step back.
We often jump in to try to fix a child's behavior without focusing on what might be fueling it. Many things can have an impact, including medical conditions, developmental delays, learning differences, and trauma. For example, if a child has sensory aversions in their environment (bright lights, loud sounds, itchy textures on their skin), they may act out their discomfort through aggression or meltdowns. If a child in day care has a language delay and can't be understood, they can get frustrated and have emotional outbursts.
Show teachers and caregivers you're on the same team.
Be approachable and make it clear you wish to be their ally as you figure out what's causing your child's behavior and the best ways to handle it. Discuss your child's strengths as well as their problems. For example, if your child is artistic, doodling in a coloring book might be a coping skill to incorporate. Talk about specific, realistic goals: Instead of the goal being your child not getting out of their seat, for instance, focus on the replacement behavior: "I can have two brain breaks to get my wiggles out. I can do this by raising my hand to ask the teacher."
Practice skills at home with role-playing.
You take the part of your child, and let them be the teacher. Model for them how to raise their hand, for instance. Then switch roles. Keep it playful, and don't criticize or shame them for not getting it right away.
Consider additional evaluations.
Your child may benefit from psychoeducational or developmental testing. And if their challenges are impairing their daily functioning, seek help from a licensed mental health professional who specializes in children. Your child doesn't need to be in crisis to get help, and it doesn't mean that you've failed as a parent. On the contrary, you are a great parent for recognizing that your child may need help above and beyond what you can offer. It takes a village.
Laura S. Olivos, Psy.D., is a child psychologist at The Olive Tree Center for Child & Family Psychology, in Miami Beach.
Help Your Kid Advocate for Themselves With Respect
By Traci Baxley, Ed.D.
There are situations in our lives when we don't speak up or we avoid sharing how we feel, and then we regret it later. How many times have you said yes when you wanted to say no? What about when that person cut you off on the road, or when someone's comment made you uncomfortable and you didn't know how to respond? Being able to speak up for yourself is a skill that takes practice—the journey of self-advocacy is an ongoing process for adults and kids alike. Although we want to raise children who are compassionate and kind to others, we also want them to advocate for their own best interest.
Create a safe space.
Letting your child explore their opinions and make decisions builds confidence and character. I often hear parents telling their children how to feel: "You're okay, you're not hurt" or "There's no need to cry about that." Instead, ask open-ended questions: "How did that make you feel?" or "What does help look like for you right now?" When children have a safe environment to express their emotions, they begin to trust their inner voice and become more comfortable saying what they need and deserve.
Talk about body language and tough conversations.
Speaking up for yourself often begins before you even say a word. My son's basketball coach tells his players to "play big." He's instructing them to posture themselves in a way that takes up space and to play with conviction. As parents, we can teach our children to "play big" in their lives. When my children express themselves, I ask them to ground their feet into the earth and maintain eye contact. Role-playing situations at home can help your children become more comfortable with making their needs heard.
Think out loud.
Model low-stakes decision making when you're with your kids. For example, if your matcha tea order is wrong, you might say: "I ordered soy milk, and this is almond milk. I could just drink it or go inside and ask the barista to please remake it. Is it worth waiting for a new one? Yes, because I won't enjoy my tea as much." It takes practice to speak up for oneself while recognizing and respecting the rights of others. Finding and modeling that sweet spot is a skill you can impart to yourself and your kids.
How kids can make their needs known.
- "I don't like the way you are talking to me."
- "I won't let you treat me that way."
- "I am choosing to walk away."
- "I feel sad when you …"
- "It makes me angry when …"
Traci Baxley, Ed.D., is an associate professor at Florida Atlantic University School of Education, a parenting coach, and author of Social Justice Parenting.
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's March 2022 issue as "The New Good Behavior and How to Nurture It."