I am 33 years old and I have four kids currently under the age of 8. My husband and I were both college educated and career driven in our twenties, so arguably, we started our family much earlier than planned.
Perhaps it is because I was one of the first of my peer group to actually have children that I frequently find myself dispensing unsolicited parenting advice. Or, perhaps it is because despite their personalities, my children are all generally well-behaved in public.
Obviously I’m no expert, but here are a few tips that not only work for me, but work for others. When it comes to raising a family, I simply do not believe in hunkering down and pushing through unpleasant behavioral phases. “This too shall pass,” might be true, but if there’s any way to speed up that process, I’m all for it.
The following is my best baseline parenting advice. Though there isn’t necessarily one magic trick that changes all behavior, it turns out there are a few habits that help more than anything else.
1. Clean up Your Crap
I’ve always been disorganized. It works for me. I mean, maybe others can’t find anything in my house, but I know where everything is.
Yes, okay, maybe this has been working for you. But walk into the classroom of any seasoned elementary school teacher, and what do you see? Toys, papers, crayons, and math manipulatives gathered into random piles and stuffed in corners? Cluttered countertops and drawers that won’t close? No. Anyone who has ever hoped to have any kind of success with kids and behavior on any sort of regular basis knows that all around basic cleanliness is key.
Kids thrive in order. This is not to say that many cannot adapt to disorder – obviously thousands are forced to do so every day. But the behavior battle is made infinitely easier when mom and dad start with a clean playing ground. This means your house, your kitchen, your kids’ rooms, your car, and maybe even your back yard, need to be tidy. And they need to start tidy every single day. Kids need to see that everything has a place, and at the end of a playing period, or the end of a day, it all goes back to where it came from.
Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. I promise you it matters.
2. Make Bedtime a Priority
I don’t care how old your kids are, if they live at home, you can and should be in control of when they go to bed. Most experts agree that 8pm is a perfectly reasonable bedtime for kids under the age of 12. I would argue that kids under the age of 12 thrive on about ten hours of sleep.
Oh, my son has never been a big sleeper. He simply doesn’t need it.
Does your child have trouble staying focused in school? Does your child argue with you over doing reasonable household chores? Does your child need constant stimulation during his waking hours, or else he becomes bored and irritable? Is your child unable to entertain himself without the television or handheld electronics?
If you answered yes to any of the above, I would submit that your child might not in fact have the ADHD that many people have suggested you look into. In fact, my first suggestion would be to look at your child’s sleep habits. If they are irregular or if he is getting fewer than 10 hours of sleep a night, you might look into solving this issue before dispensing the Ritalin.
I don’t even need to go into the number of sleep studies that have proven how beneficial it is for humans to get a regular amount of sleep and to be on a regular sleep routine. We all know what lack of sleep does to adults, including raising stress, increasing inability to focus, reducing immunity, and highly affecting weight gain. Well, all of these things are true for kids as well. But additionally, kids need sleep to grow. They need sleep for their brains to mature. They need sleep to regenerate muscles, fight sickness, and even sufficiently digest food.
In his book Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child, Marc Weissbluth suggests that an infant’s need for sleep is just as important and just as basic as her need for food and shelter. If your baby is hungry, feed her. If she is cold, make her warm. If she is wet or dirty, change her. And if she is tired, sleep her.
Right now, the number of ADHD diagnoses is off the charts. Fine. Blame the structure of public schools. Blame the pharmaceutical markets for pushing easy and cheap drugs (that seem to work). Blame food allergies and sugar and the hormones in milk and red dye #40. But how many doctors are blaming lack of sleep? How many parents are even considering insufficient sleep as part of the problem?
Again, disregard this advice if your kid goes to bed every night at a reasonable hour, gets an ample amount of sleep, and still has problems focusing in school. But if not, consider bumping back that bedtime, gradually if need be, until he’s falling asleep close to 8 o’clock, and see what happens.
3. Make Family Dinner a Priority
How many nights a week does your family sit down for a meal, at a table, at the same time, without any phones, TVs, or other distractions? According to a 2013 Gallup Poll, fifty-three percent of adults with children younger than 18 say their family eats dinner together, at home, six or seven nights a week. One author suggested this number is actually a positive number. But here’s what I see: only about half of American families are regularly sitting down for dinner together.
Further statistics have revealed an immense number of behavioral benefits that seem to be directly connected to regular family dinners. Among kids who regularly (meaning just two or more nights a week) sit down and have dinner as a family without electronic distractions, GPA’s are generally higher, high school graduation rate is higher, college attendance and scholarship money is higher, and kids moving out of parents house at a reasonable age is higher. Subsequently, drug and alcohol abuse, rate of teenage pregnancy, drop-out rates, depression and suicide rates, rates of childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes, and juvenile criminal activity is drastically reduced.
All of this by sitting down for dinner, together, a couple nights a week.
I want to scream, “It’s not that hard, people!” The truth is, I know that it is difficult for those who have never made it a priority. It is a habit change that will most definitely require some work on everyone’s part. But with such staggering statistics supporting such positive behavior patterns in teenagers, to me, it is a no brainer. Oh and by the way, if you start when your kids are little, the behavior results are equally as positive. Your children will develop habits of talking to you, for one thing. They will learn manners. They will learn healthy eating habits. They will generally be more pleasant in the presence of adults. And you, as a parent, will be infinitely more aware of what goes on in their little heads.
4. Teach, Model, and Reinforce Respect
I started using the words “respect” and “disrespect” with all of my children at a very early age. The fact is, these are current and popular buzzwords in the school system anyway, so why not make them buzzwords in the home as well. When it comes to respect in my house, I have the Big Three. Respect yourself, respect others, and respect belongings.
Respect has become the trump card in nearly all behavioral battles. So how do I do this?
For starters, my husband and I make our kids respond to us with “Yes, Mommy,” or “Yes, Daddy.”
This means anytime I give a direction in my house, my kids say Yes, Mommy. When I call for one of them from downstairs to upstairs, they do not respond with “What?!” they respond with “Yes, Mommy?” Even basic yes or no questions like “Do you want a peanut butter sandwich for lunch?” receives a “Yes, Mommy.”
I’m actually going to take a moment here and say that this is not the same thing as “Yes, Sir,” and “Yes, Ma’am,” and, that Yes, Sir and Yes, Ma’am are not as effective.
Here’s why. Yes, Sir and Yes, Ma’am are actually very common manners taught in the South. Almost all of my students used Yes, Ma’am regularly with me in the classroom. Almost all of the kids in my neighborhood respond to their fathers with Yes, Sir. And sure. It sounds very polite. It sounds very respectful. But what I’ve come to realize in the last ten years, is that it communicates respect exactly as often as it does not.
This is to say, it is a habitual response that many kids blurt out robotically, without thought, whether they respect the person they are speaking to or not. Sure, some very nice children use these phrases and sound very respectful when they do. But a lot of not-so-nice children use these phrases with just as much regularity as the nice kids. There’s really no visible difference. To me, sir and ma’am are titles of self-given authority. There is often a relational distance between the person using the word “Ma’am” and the person responding to it.
Teaching my children to say “Yes, Mommy” and “Yes, Daddy” is different, because to them, “Mommy” is my name. I’m not teaching them a response that can be used on everyone. I’m teaching them to acknowledge me personally when they respond to me. I’m teaching them to stop, to think, and to actively listen, then respectfully respond. In the classroom, I did not allow my students to say “Yes, Ma’am.” Instead, I taught them to respond with “Yes, Mrs. Wait.” And my own children respond the same way to other adults, addressing them by name rather than by label.
I call this the “Yes, Mommy,” card and I use it all the time. Yes, Mommy is an immediate argument stopper. “You do not get to ask why, you say yes, Mommy.” I do not engage my children in power-struggles, and I’ve found that quickest way to end them is to play the Yes, Mommy card.
5. Punish/Reward Attitudes, Not Behaviors
There is a point in every child’s life in which they can and must be treated like puppies. Simple commands like, Come, Sit, Good Boy, and Not a Toy, are perfectly acceptable modes of communication with children under the age of 3. Likewise, a physical redirection or even a swat on the hand or bottom is a very effective mode of enforcing physical boundaries with children under the age of 3. And, please, don’t misread the metaphor. I’m operating under the assumption that I’m not talking here to Michael Vick. And even if you are absolutely anti-spanking, I think if we were all completely honest with ourselves, we’d admit that when it comes to behavior, most humans have far more unconditional love and patience for bad behavior in a puppy than we we do in our own kids. Because when it comes to puppies, it is never personal.
Kids are similar. It often feels personal and is therefore difficult to be direct, simple, and still loving. It is difficult not to lose our ever-loving minds when we feel like we’ve been giving the same direction for three straight weeks.
It is hard to get mad at a puppy. This is what I’m advocating for.
When my children are nearing age 4 that I begin to transition from a focus on their behaviors to a focus on their attitudes.
Before I was a high school classroom teacher, I was a counselor at a behavioral wilderness camp for juvenile delinquent teens. It was there that I first experienced the kind of fear I would one day witness in many of my colleagues in the public school, and later many of my peers who were and are parents of teenagers.
The fear I’m talking about is, at its core, the fear of rebellious teenage behavior. It is a difficult behavior to describe because it manifests itself in so many different ways. Some teens become withdrawn and seem to be apathetic about everything. They aren’t doing anything specifically wrong or disruptive, but they aren’t seeking any achievement or striving to become better at anything.
Other teens become silently hostile, threatening to explode in a fit of rage at the drop of a hat. Teachers and parents sense a threatening air about them and walk on eggshells, hoping the mood will pass. Don’t say anything and no one gets hurt.
And some teens have made a habit of sneaking around and lying about all of the things they are doing and know they shouldn’t be. Parents may not be able to catch their child in the act despite knowing it is going on. These parents drive themselves mad with paranoia and consider locking their children in their rooms until they are 30.
Make no mistake, this kind of behavior is not actually limited to teens. Even my five year old has days where I can’t quite pinpoint a specific behavioral moment to stop and punish, but the entire day and the entire family seems to be controlled by her mood.
This is not okay.
Let me repeat: if your child has control over your behavior, something is wrong.
This is why I begin the habit of punishing and rewarding attitudes as early as four years old. In my house, it is completely common to stop my child in the middle of seemingly nothing and say, “I don’t know what is wrong, but you are communicating anger, hurt, and disrespect with everything you do. You can either talk about what is bothering you, or you can go sit in your room until you are ready to talk, but you will not control the family with your bad mood today.”
There’s that word again, disrespect.
I refuse to let my children assert a power need over the entire family that stems from a feeling of hurt, anger, inequality, or disrespect.
Attacking the attitude, rather than waiting for the attitude to manifest itself in an outward display immediately accomplishes two things. First, it shows the child in question that I am not only in control, but that I’m aware of what is going on despite the lack of immediate or obvious problems. Second (and possibly most important), it communicates to all my other children that I am in control and therefore provides emotional security in the house.
And in case you need to hear this, emotional security for the entire family is imperative to your success as a parent. Emotional security in my classroom was imperative to my success as a teacher, and don’t for one minute think I didn’t call out my students on these attitudes as soon as they popped up.
The beautiful thing is that once the elephant in the room has been identified, it is much easier to deal with him. Feelings are often resolved very quickly, and the entire atmosphere changes from something that was once negatively charged, to something that feels safe and secure again.
Mark my words. 4 year olds absolutely understand the word “attitude” and can be taught what is appropriate. And when things are good, instead of saying “Good job cleaning up all by yourself,” I try to compliment their helpful attitudes. I might say, “I’ve noticed you are doing all of your jobs in the morning quickly and without arguing, but I’ve also noticed throughout the day that you have a very helpful attitude. I love and appreciate your helpful attitude. Thank you for respecting me and Daddy and our rules.”
When it comes to dealing with bad behavior in children, many parents are looking for creative discipline ideas. And though I believe punishment certainly has its place in child-raising, I’ve come to realize the majority of my success comes much more from the pre-emptive strike and setting myself (and my children) up for success. Like I said (over and over), I’m not an expert, but these 5 habits have truly revolutionized my approach to parenting. Please comment below with your thoughts or questions, and feel free to share!