The fundamentals: 5 steps to well-behaved children

About the Author - Karen Stephens is director of Illinois State University Child Care Centre and instructor in child development for the ISU Family and Consumer Sciences Department.

Maintaining a positive attitude while guiding children’s behaviour can be a tough job. Keeping key phrases in mind, like, “say what you mean, and mean what you say,” can steer you in the right direction. But spouting positive phrases and putting them into practice are two different issues.   Like most things in life, it’s easier said than done.

Saying what you mean, and meaning what you say is demanding, exhausting work. The physical work of parenting, the cooking, cleaning clothes, keeping a roof over everyone’s head is simple in comparison. Dealing with children’s behaviour is far more draining, especially when emotional turmoil erupts amidst children chronically pushing or outright ignoring limits.

Letting children get by with inappropriate behaviour has devastating results. Children who aren’t taught to obey are a thorn in the side of parents, neighbours, schools, and the workplace for years to come and children are done a lifelong injustice.

One of the best things for children’s self-esteem is to learn they can cooperatively live with others in a congenial, mutually satisfying manner. It builds children’s self-confidence to master constructive, positive social skills. It gives them a sense of being welcomed into a community, a sense of belonging and self-worth, but they can’t acquire that state of wellbeing unless parents have the stamina and fortitude to teach codes of conduct and then expect children to follow them.

When children are allowed to do anything they want, to get what they want, such as throwing a fit or hitting someone, they are learning a profound lesson, and not a constructive one.  Why is it easier to give in than follow through?

We feel pity. As angry as we may feel the moment our children misbehave, we feel just as sorry for them when we realise how remorseful they are. Following through with consequences becomes difficult especially as they plead with us to change our mind.

We feel guilty. No one likes to see their children in tears because of enforcing consequences. We may even assume we’re at fault, that we’ve made them sad and upset.

It’s easier to give in. Disciplining children, showing empathy, explaining their behaviour, all takes time and effort. It is hard to follow through with consequences when giving in seems to stop the crying and whining.

Take a look at five reasons why you should follow through with consequences:

1) Your child will take you seriously - no one wants to leave a family gathering because of a child’s wild antics or cut reading time short when children misbehave. Following through with what you say will get the message across that you mean your word.  Your child will call your bluff if you don’t enforce the rules consistently and regularly. Any “consequence” doled out is an empty threat, just another phrase mum or dad says that won’t bear any action.

2) Following through with consequences reinforces the trust your child places in you. While you may not win short-term favour, in the long run, you’re gaining your child’s trust.  The best way to help children follow social rules is to say what you mean and mean what you say.  This requires acute self-awareness. It demands that we stay in check with our emotions and true goals for children.  It requires us to have a clear picture of what we expect of children. Even harder, we have to be able to communicate that vision clearly and consistently.

3) Your child will learn right from wrong – you are your child’s primary teacher, the person from whom s/he learns right from wrong as well as their values. By following through with consequences, s/he knows which behaviour is acceptable. You are teaching your child the natural and logical consequences of their behaviour. If you don’t enforce consequences, they learn that their behaviour has no limits, falsely assuming the world bends to their whims.

4) Your child learns accountability. When your child receives consequences, they learn to be accountable for their decisions. 

5) Following through shows you care - ironically, setting limits and following through reassures your child that you care. Despite their protests, they want boundaries and someone who cares enough to go through the hassles of enforcing them.  Parents who don’t follow through will raise a child who will feel forgotten. Yes, in the moment, they might feel angry and resentful, but in the bigger picture, they’d rather you have their best interests in mind than simply let them get away with everything.

How to follow through with consequences

Whenever possible, contemplate consequences for behaviour before a problem occurs, which should be reasonable, respectful and, whenever possible, related to the specific misbehaviour. 

Be specific about desired behaviour.  Telling children to “be good” or “be nice” or “we don’t do that” is way too vague.   Children need very concrete and understandable directions. Phrases such as, “you may build in the sand,” or “I expect you to walk inside the shop” immediately focus children’s attention on what to do. When directions are specific, children don’t have to translate vague innuendos.

Explain reasons behind expectations and limits. These should only need to be stated when children are first introduced to an activity such as playing in the sandpit.  Simply let them know what they cannot do and why, such as “others have a right not to have sand thrown at them, if sand gets in their eyes, it hurts.” State the consequences as a matter-of-fact (and follow through just as calmly), without anger or lecturing.

Offer consequences you can follow through on.  Stick to feasible consequences, such as not staying too long at the park because s/he took too long getting ready. You are unlikely to cancel your holiday so don’t say you’re going to. Far fetched consequences may work a few times because your child is shocked at its magnitude, but s/he will soon catch on.  Not only are far fetched consequences lies, they’ll also lead your child to believe you less and less over time.

Use consequences appropriate for your child’s age and stage. Don’t expect them to vacuum the mess they made on the carpet if they don’t know how to or are too small to do so. Stick to consequences that are within their abilities.

Respectfully and consistently enforce consequences with loving, steadfast resolve. When children disregard expectations, walk your talk and do what you said you would do.  Each and every time, do it. Whatever the infraction, whatever the circumstance, follow through on the consequence. It’s better to do something than to ignore defiant behaviour.