My friend Emily has three amazingly well-behaved children. They put their toys away when she tells them to, go to bed without a fuss, and even settle their own disputes. I actually witnessed her 3-year-old son calmly ask for a truck back from a friend who had yanked it out of his hands.
Emily admits that her children have their moments -- "They are kids, after all!" -- but says that real discipline challenges are few and far between. "What's your secret?" I once asked, hoping she could impart some much-needed wisdom. "Threatening them with punishment? Giving them time-outs? Bribing them with Oreos?" Emily shook her head. "Nothing like that," she told me. "If I've done anything right, it's that I've made it clear from the get-go what I expect from them. Now, all I have to do is shoot them a look, and they know to discipline themselves."
It may sound too good to be true, but experts agree that Emily has the right idea about teaching kids to behave. "When you make your expectations clear from the time your children are toddlers, they internalize those expectations and begin to expect the same thing from themselves," says Sharon K. Hall, PhD, author of Raising Kids in the 21st Century. In other words, since kids are naturally inclined to want to please their parents, they'll try to behave in the way that you've taught them to. In fact, experts say that kids as young as 18 months are empathetic and responsive to their parents' expectations.
Even better news: Teaching self-discipline to a young child isn't as daunting as it sounds. "If you focus on the essentials starting at around age 2, your child will catch on faster, resist less, and ultimately behave better," says Robert Brooks, PhD, coauthor of Raising a Self-Disciplined Child. These four essentials will help you raise a kid who can keep her own behavior in check.