I haven't been to the post office since "the incident." I was that wild-eyed woman with a screaming child, slowly working my way up the line as one customer after another let me go ahead. Turns out my desperate attempts to comfort my kid were the result of a rookie error. The tantrum came from an oversight I made earlier that day: failing to notice the signals (eye-rubbing and crankiness) that he was tired. No wonder he had a meltdown.
I'm hardly alone in missing my child's cues, says Parents advisor Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. According to her, there are patterns to behavior. Kids do the same things when they're tired, hungry, or getting fed up; it's up to adults to take note and adjust accordingly. My son's moodiness should have told me to let him nap, then run errands when he was ready.
Ignoring a kid's signs is one of many discipline mistakes parents make all the time, but fixing them can make a huge difference in the parenting experience. We asked the experts to reveal the most common missteps.
We're too negative.
"Don't hit your sister!" "Stop pulling the dog's tail!" The number of things you tell your toddler or preschooler not to do is endless.
THE FIX Ask for the behavior you want to see. Nobody wants to raise a child who doesn't understand limits, but "parents say 'no' so frequently that kids become deaf to it -- and the word loses its power," Dr. Borba explains. Moreover, "we often tell kids not to do something without letting them know what they should be doing," notes Linda Sonna, Ph.D., author of The Everything Toddler Book. So save the naysaying for truly dangerous situations (think: fork in the electrical socket or your child eating the spider plant), and focus on telling kids how you would like them to behave. For example, instead of, "No standing in the bathtub!" try, "We sit down in the bathtub because it's slippery." Later, when you notice your kid splashing away in a seated position, offer some praise ("I like how you're sitting!") to reinforce her good behavior.
We expect too much from our kids.
You're sitting in church when your toddler shouts. As soon as you shush him, he does it again. Mortifying! Why doesn't he listen?
THE FIX Play teacher. Very young children still haven't developed impulse control or learned the social graces required in public places like stores and restaurants. "Parents assume kids know more than they do," Dr. Sonna says.
When your child breaks a norm, remind yourself that he isn't trying to be a pain -- he just doesn't know how to act in the situation, so snapping isn't effective (or fair). Focus on showing your child how you want him to behave, softly saying things like, "I'm being quiet because I'm in church, but if I need something from Dad I lean in close to whisper." Also point out what others are doing ("Look how Charlie is coloring while he waits for his meal to arrive"). Kids are born mimics, so modeling or drawing attention to something we want them to do goes a long way.
"It takes time and repetition for kids to learn to handle themselves," Dr. Sonna says, which means you should expect to give your kid a lot of reminders -- and remove him when he doesn't get the message. Over time, he'll learn how to act.
We model behavior we don't want to see.
When you drop something, you yell. A man cuts you off and you call him a rude name. But then you get mad if your kid reacts the same way when things don't go her way.
THE FIX Apologize and take a do-over. There's a boomerang effect to behavior: If we yell, our kids probably will too, says Devra Renner, coauthor of Mommy Guilt. Yes, it's hard to be on perfect behavior around the clock, so apologize when you do slip up. "Emotions are powerful and difficult to control, even for grown-ups," Renner notes, but saying "sorry" demonstrates that we're accountable for our actions nonetheless.
It also creates the chance to talk about why you reacted the way you did and offers appropriate ways to respond when you're feeling frustrated. That's what Deena Blumenfeld, of Pittsburgh, did when her son Owen, 5, protested so much about getting dressed that she snapped, "Just shut up and get dressed!" Realizing this was not how she'd want her son to react in a similar situation, she knelt down, apologized, then talked about how important it is to be on time for school. It worked: Owen got ready for school calmly after that.
We intervene when our kids simply annoy us.
You hear your children chasing each other around the house and immediately shout.
THE FIX Ignore selectively. Often, parents feel the need to step in every time kids do something, well, kid-like. But always being the bad guy is exhausting, Dr. Borba notes. Keep in mind that children sometimes do things that are irksome because they're exploring new skills. (So your toddler could be dumping juice into his cereal because he's learning about liquids.) Other times, they're seeking attention. When it comes to reacting, Dr. Borba's rule of thumb is: When safety isn't an issue, try watchful waiting. If your 6-year-old is playing his recorder with his nose, try not to shout. See what happens if you just continue with what you're doing as if nothing is happening. Most likely, if you don't respond, he will eventually stop -- and you'll feel calmer, having avoided a shouting match.
We're all talk and no action.
"Turn off the TV... I'm serious this time... Really!" Your kids continue bad behavior when warnings are vague for the same reason you run yellow lights -- there aren't consequences.
THE FIX Set limits and follow through. Nagging, second chances, and negotiation all convey that cooperation is optional, says Robert MacKenzie, Ph.D., author of Setting Limits With Your Strong-Willed Child. To teach kids to follow rules, make expectations clear, then take action when they're broken. If you want your kid to, say, get off the couch and do homework, start with respectful directives ("Please turn off the TV now and do your work"). If she follows through, thank her. If not, give a consequence: "I'm turning off the TV now. Until your work is finished, your TV privileges are suspended."
We use time-out ineffectively.
When you send your 3-year-old to his room after he hits his brother, he starts banging his head on the floor in rage.
THE FIX Consider a time-in. A time-out is meant to be a chance for a child to calm down, not a punishment. Some kids respond well to the suggestion that they go to a quiet room until they're chill. But others view it as a rejection, and it riles them up. Plus, it doesn't teach kids how you want them to behave. As an alternative, Dr. Sonna suggests taking a "time-in," where you sit quietly with your kid. If he's very upset, hold him to get him settled down, Dr. Sonna adds. Once he's relaxed, calmly explain why the behavior wasn't okay. Too angry to comfort him? Put yourself in time-out; once you've relaxed, discuss what you would like your child to do differently. You might start by saying: "What can you do instead of hitting when Milo grabs your train?"
We assume what works for one kid will work for another.
The best way to deal with your son's whining is to get down at eye level and explain how his actions need to change. But your daughter is more aggressive and refuses to listen.
THE FIX Develop a diverse toolbox. It's easy to blame your kid when a discipline technique fails. But "you may have to go about getting the behavior you want in different ways with each kid," notes Avivia Pflock, coauthor of Mommy Guilt. While one might respond to a verbal reminder about what is acceptable, the other might need a consequence when she acts up -- like having her Wii unplugged. Being firm with one child and touchy-feely with another isn't being inconsistent; it's tuning in to different needs and learning styles, Pflock assures. "The punishment should fit the crime -- and the kid."
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Parents magazine.