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.
A ton of parenting advice discuss 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?
Kids will act up and misbehave, no doubt—even we adults do. And we should worry if our kids never tested boundaries.
But what if we focus less on patching up misbehavior and instead focus on preventing them in the first place? What if we focus less on power struggles and more on building strong relationships with our kids?
This doesn’t mean we’ll be permissive. We still need to enforce limits and set boundaries and apply authoritative parenting techniques.
Maybe we can address deeper issues and prevent misbehavior in children to begin with.
How to raise a well behaved child who wants to behave
Let’s focus on preventative measures. This isn’t a “1-2-3 process then you’re done” article. Instead, examine your parenting and how your actions contribute to your kids’ misbehavior. Build a different relationship that encourages them to want to behave in the first place.
1. 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 instead?
You see, when we acknowledge kids 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 children’s good behavior with their 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?'”
2. 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, or we’re having a bad day ourselves, or we’re too tired to meet their demands.
Kids sometimes 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 terrible yet are too young to grasp their emotions, much less know what to do with them. 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 our kids need us the most.
What to do? Before they have a chance to spiral downward, reconnect with your kids. When they wake up in the mornings, hold them in a warm embrace and gather for breakfast. Play a game or read a book before dashing out the house. Not enough time? Wake up 10 minutes earlier and snuggle together in bed.
After school, greet them with a warm smile and a hug. Let your face show that you’ve missed them and are so glad to be in their company once again. Discuss your days.
Giving your kids 100% of your time, even for 10 minutes, can erase their anxiety of having been apart. They’re less likely to misbehave after having their cup filled. And they’re more likely to play without needing your constant attention.
3. Explain how poor behavior affects others
Guilt, however challenging an emotion, is a powerful one that can actually help steer your child to make good decisions.
The next time your 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 your child’s empathy and ability to put herself in others’ shoes, even if that means feeling guilty about her actions. Because it’s exactly this combination—empathy and guilt—that will encourage her to correct her mistakes and avoid them in the future.
4. Set high expectations
In some classrooms, teachers who set low expectations of their students received just that: students who tested poorly and misbehaved. But teachers who set high expectations saw different results. These students performed not just average but exceeded the achievements of more advantaged students.
All because the teacher expected a lot of them.
The same holds true with parents and their children. How do you view your children? Do you pick up after them and let them talk back because you figure that’s just how they are? Or do you expect your children to behave, be self-sufficient, and respect others?
Define your expectations… then enforce them. Your kids have 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 their hard work, and the encouragement to reach higher.
Change your mindset, and you’ll see a difference with how your kids behave.
5. 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 children to consider other options or push limits.
Values, however, encourage kids 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 toward 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 your child 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.
6. Show empathy to your child
I notice a huge change when I restate my son’s emotions from his 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 his feelings erases the divide between you and your child. You’re on the same side. You’re there to help him through his emotions and show you understand what he’s going through, even while you enforce consequences.
And sometimes that’s the trouble with the parent-child relationship. Power battles can get in the way of what can be a loving, respectful relationship. But the more our kids see us as coaches or guides rather than tyrants á la “Kids rule! Adults drool!” the more they’ll want to make us happy.
Download my PDF, The Power of Empathy, and learn how to prevent power struggles and instead better connect with your kids, all by understanding their perspective. Join my newsletter and get it below—at no cost to you:
7. Watch your reaction when kids misbehave
“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!” Our priority should be our kids’ well-being, with 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’s at her worst. She’s less likely to tantrum again, having you nearby to help her regulate emotions.
And when your child 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. It’s easy to point to kids and assume they’re the type to misbehave.
Focus on building a strong, supportive relationship with your kids—one without the power struggles—while still enforcing boundaries. Set high expectations of how they should behave, regardless of their past behavior.
Show empathy so your kids know you’re on their side, and encourage them to do the same. Link good behavior to moral character so they internalize their actions and turn inward to make choices. Emphasize values over rules so they adopt a set of principles to guide their behavior.
And watch your reaction when they misbehave. A positive one assures your kids you love them 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:
- 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?