Wouldn’t it be great if children behaved because they wanted to? Learn how to raise kids who WANT to behave, even when no one is looking.
We have it backwards sometimes.
Plenty of parenting advice discusses kids’ misbehavior and how to get through their outbursts. We deal with tantrums, follow through with consequences, and pick our battles.
All good stuff. Except, what if we could raise kids who want to behave, even when no one is looking?
Kids will act up and misbehave, no doubt—even we adults do. We’re raising kids, not robots, after all. In fact, we should worry if they never tested boundaries or added to our frustration.
But what if we focus less on patching up misbehavior and instead on preventing them in the first place? What if we could have fewer power struggles and build strong relationships with our kids?
This doesn’t mean we’ll be permissive. We still need to set limits and apply authoritative parenting techniques.
But by applying preventative habits, we can address deeper issues and prevent misbehavior in toddlers and little kids.
How to raise a child who wants to behave
Now, this isn’t a “1-2-3 process” article, nor is it about doling out a reward to trick your child to behave.
Instead, it’s about examining your parenting and how your actions contribute to her misbehavior. Then, you can build a different relationship that encourages her to want to behave in the first place.
Ready? Here are effective ways to do so:
1. Show empathy to your child
Power battles can get in the way of a loving, respectful relationship between parent and child. We only see what we see, but don’t always put ourselves in their shoes.
But what if you acknowledged her feelings first, no matter how difficult her behavior might be? You’ll likely notice a change in her when you restate her emotions from her point of view. “You feel disappointed because you can’t watch your movie right now.” Or “I bet it doesn’t feel good to wait for dinner.”
A mere acknowledgement of her feelings erases the divide between the two of you. You’re on the same side. You show her that you understand what she’s going through, even while you enforce consequences.
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2. Link good behavior to moral character
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Most of us understand the importance of praising good behavior. We encourage our kids to share, help with chores, treat others kindly—and we make sure they know we appreciate their behavior.
Except what if we’re not supposed to praise their actions, but their character traits instead?
You see, when we acknowledge them for their actions, we focus solely and only on the behavior: “Thank you for helping!” or “Will you help your brother?” Kids then focus more on external cues to their choices, rather than looking within at their own internal moral compass.
Instead, tie your child’s good behavior with her moral character: “Thank you for being a helper!” This little change helps kids internalize their behaviors and turn inward to decide, “What would a helper like me do?”
As Adam Grant writes in his book, The Originals:
“Children are also more ethical when they’re asked to be moral people—they want to earn the identity. If you want a child to share a toy, instead of asking, ‘Will you share?’ ask, ‘Will you be a sharer?'”
3. Give your child your uninterrupted time
Have you noticed that kids act up when we’re not at our best? Either we’ve got a zillion tasks, having a bad day ourselves, or are too tired to meet their demands.
They test their limits because they need our attention.
It’s not so much a direct and conscious act: “I need mom’s attention. Let me spill this milk on the table.”
Instead, they feel a challenging emotion that they’re too young to grasp, much less know what to do with. They’re tired, so they’re not making the best decisions. Nor are their patience and understanding at their best. And it’s during these least convenient and most annoying times that they need us the most.
Before your child has a chance to spiral downward, reconnect with her. When she wakes up in the mornings, hold her in a warm embrace. Have a sit-down breakfast or read a book before dashing out of the house. Wake up 10 minutes earlier and snuggle together in bed.
After school, greet her with a warm smile and a hug. Let your face show that you’ve missed her and are so glad to be in her company once again. Talk about your days.
Giving her 100% of your time, even for 10 minutes, can erase her anxiety of having been apart. The best part? For the rest of the day, she’s less likely to misbehave and more likely to play without needing your constant attention.
4. Explain how poor behavior affects others
Guilt, however challenging an emotion, is a powerful one that can actually steer kids to make good decisions.
The next time your young child misbehaves, don’t just correct her actions, but acknowledge how she affected others. You might say, “Your brother is crying because he feels hurt that you took his toy away.”
You’re developing her empathy and ability to put herself in others’ shoes, even if that means feeling guilty about her actions. The combination of empathy and guilt encourages her to correct her mistakes and use self-control to avoid them in the future.
5. Set high expectations
In one study, teachers were told that certain students, based on a “new test,” were more likely to succeed. However, those kids were chosen at random and there was nothing at all to distinguish them from the others.
Two years later, the study found that those kids did perform better, even though they were chosen at random at first. How? The teachers’ expectations affected the way they taught those children, gearing them up to succeed.
The same holds true with parents and our kids. How do you view your child? Do you pick up after her and let her talk back because you figure that’s just how she is? Or do you expect her to behave, be self-sufficient, and respect others?
Define your expectations—then enforce them. She has the potential to meet them. Kids who misbehave do so because they’ve heard the message that that’s all they’re capable of.
Erase that mindset and establish new and higher expectations. One that demands respect, kindness, and love. One that will warrant praise for all her hard work, and the encouragement to reach higher.
Change your mindset, and you’ll see a difference with how she behaves.
6. Emphasize values over rules
We all know a “goody two shoes,” the child who will follow rules to a T, all in the name of good behavior.
Except kids who prioritize rules aren’t able to rely on their own good conscience—they would rather follow rules than do the right thing. After all, rules are “fixed” and don’t allow them to consider other options or push limits.
Values, however, encourage them to internalize principles and think for themselves. They don’t need to read through a list of rules to know the right thing to do. They turn inward and allow their values to guide their decisions.
So, don’t focus so much on rules. In fact, try to use the word less at home and instead talk about the values and principles your family abides by. Rather than having 50 rules to follow, highlight a handful values that can guide your child’s decisions.
And describe why certain principles are important to your family. If she isn’t cleaning up toys, don’t focus so much on the rule about cleaning up after play time. Instead talk about the importance of taking care of toys and clearing the floor so others don’t trip and get hurt.
7. Watch your reaction when your child misbehaves
“Are you okay?”
That should be the first reaction when you see your child get hurt, even if she misbehaved in doing so. Not: “See? That’s why I said not to jump off the couch!” The priority should be her well-being, with positive discipline and teachable moments coming second.
Stay calm as well, especially during a meltdown. She needs to know you won’t go away, even when she feels negative feelings. She’s less likely to tantrum again, having you nearby to help her regulate and label her emotions.
And when she tells you something she did wrong, thank her for telling you. She shouldn’t feel so scared of your reaction or of potential consequences. You don’t want her to keep things to herself than to admit them. Let her know she’ll always have your support no matter what.
Kids can behave, regardless of temperament.
Focus on building a supportive relationship with your child while still enforcing boundaries. Set high expectations of how she should behave, regardless of her past behavior.
Show empathy so she knows you’re on her side, and encourage her to do the same. Link good behavior to moral character so she internalizes her actions and turns inward to make choices. Emphasize values over rules so she adopts a set of principles to guide her behavior.
And watch your reaction when she misbehaves. A firm yet compassionate response assures her that you love her no matter what.
We need to focus on the beginning, long before our kids have even misbehaved. After all, it’s harder to correct poor actions than it is to raise kids who want to behave in the first place.
Get more parenting tips:
- Model the Behavior You Want to See in Your Child
- What to Do when Your Kids Refuse to Do Chores
- On Accepting Your Children for Who They Are
- 3 Lessons Every Mom Raising Boys Needs to Teach
- Are You Balancing Your Children’s Needs Fairly?
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