“My kids won’t listen to me!”
As a teacher I’ve seen a lot of different personalities and temperaments over the years. I’ve seen kids who have faced significant life challenges and show incredible resiliency. On the other hand, I have witnessed children burst into tears because they didn’t catch the ball in gym class because they’ve rarely been allowed the opportunity to try and to fail in life.
As parents we’re all doing our best. Oprah always said, “When we know better, we do better.” Over the past decade of working with 20-30 different children for ten months of the year, there are a few tried and true positive discipline strategies that work almost universally:
1. Lead by example:
Your actions are the biggest influence in your child’s life. They are looking to you to see how you interact with the world and respond to life situations. If you tell them to be kind but they see you demeaning the waiter when your order is wrong, they are more likely to follow your example than heed your advice.
2. Frame requests in the positive:
Instead of saying, “Don’t hit!” say, “We use gentle hands” or “Hands are for high fives.” Research states that when we frame our requests in the negative, most kids will only actually hear “hit” and disregard the “don’t.” When we frame requests in the positive we are not only telling them what NOT to do, we are telling them what TO do as an alternative.
3. Follow through:
In the heat of the moment, we’ve all threated consequences we have zero intention of actually following through with. When you start a sentence with, “If you do that one more time…” whatever comes next must be practical, reasonable, and connected to the offense. When we don’t follow through, our children see no reason to stop what they are doing. If our follow through is unreasonable they lose their trust in us. Our response must be proportionate to the situation and act as a firm boundary to encourage positive choices in the future.
4. Get down on their level:
Yelling across the room will rarely generate the result you desire. Kids are often so wrapped up in their activities, they’re often not intentionally ignoring you – they really don’t hear you. If you want their attention, turn off any competing electronics, crouch down, look them in the eye, and make your request.
5. Call off the rescue mission!:
Let natural consequences play out. Not doing their homework has a natural consequence of low grades. Not putting their toys away in time to go to a playdate has a natural consequence of not being able to attend. Constantly bailing your children out of difficult situations creates a false sense that someone will always be there to clean up their mess when they make poor choices. More importantly, it inhibits their ability to cope with bigger life challenges. As parents we never want to see our children suffer, but allowing them to solve their own problems will equip them with the self-confidence necessary to manage difficult situations in the future.
6. Provide choice whenever possible:
When we demand compliance, kids are more likely to rebel. Engaging in a power struggle is rarely effective and often damages your relationship. Instead of demanding they wear the outfit you picked out, give them a choice between two. Instead of demanding they clean up their room this minute, set a reasonable amount of time in which to clean it up.
7. Manage your expectations:
Kids are not little adults. It’s unreasonable to expect that they will never make a mistake or be anything other than the perfect child you had envisioned from their inception. It’s up to you as their parent to recognize that they will mess up, and love them through it anyway.
8. Establish boundaries:
When children don’t know what the rules are, they will continue to push up against the boundaries until you tell them what’s okay and what’s not. They were born to do this. Expect it. Plan for it. Kids feel safe and secure when they know where the line is and exactly what will happen if they cross it.
9. Forgive often:
Kids make unadvisable choices every day. By extending grace and forgiveness you are teaching them empathy. It doesn’t mean there aren’t still consequences. It just means that you’re not going to define them by the mistakes they make. Kids need to know that you’re not going to hold their poor choices over the their heads for the rest of their natural life. Learn to let it go, and let them move forward.
Parenting is about the journey. It’s not a straight road, and you’ll have to take several detours along the way. If we do our job right, our kids will leave this world just a little bit better than they found it.