I was rushing to get dinner ready one night when I heard my son playing basketball in the living room. From the kitchen, I yelled, "You know the rules -- the basketball is an outdoor toy!"
"But, Mom, it's snowing!"
"I said stop it! You might break a window."
"I'll be careful!" he insisted.
You know what I did? Nothing. I just didn't have the energy for a fight, so I ignored the thump-thumping of the ball, focused on getting food on the table, and prayed that my son wouldn't smash anything.
Bad tactic. By wimping out, I may have avoided a conflict in the short run, but I was only setting myself up for others. "If you're continually a pushover, there's no incentive for your children to comply," says Diane Ehrensaft, Ph.D., author of Spoiling Childhood (Guilford Publications, 1999). "As a result, your children listen to you less and less, and their misconduct gets worse and worse."
Fortunately, experts say it's not too late for "soft" parents like me to start being firmer. Once you make the change, you'll not only have fewer battles with your kids, but you'll also have more opportunities to truly enjoy being with them. Here are seven signs that you're a discipline delinquent -- and strategies to help you start laying down the law.
You make empty threats
Why it's wimpy: "If you warn your child that you're going to discipline him but then don't follow through, you'll have no credibility," says Rex Forehand, Ph.D., director of the Institute for Behavioral Research at the University of Georgia, in Athens, and coauthor of Parenting the Strong-Willed Child (Contemporary Books, 1996). You might as well wear a big sign that reads, "Don't listen to anything I say!" "When you impose consequences, you make it clear to your child what's acceptable and who's in charge," Dr. Forehand says. "It also teaches your child about responsibility, because he knows he must be accountable for his behavior."
What to do: Select several rules that you feel strongly about and will be comfortable enforcing, such as brushing teeth after breakfast or not eating in front of the TV. "Tell your children what the rules are, why they're important, and what the consequences will be if they do or don't comply," Dr. Forehand says. "Then be sure to follow through each and every time."
In the first couple of weeks, your kids will probably test you frequently or lay a guilt trip on you by saying, "I hate you!" or "You're mean!" Stand your ground -- this is the only way for them to know that you've changed your ways. Once they've accepted the rules, they'll be more likely to listen to you and take your words seriously, Dr. Forehand says.
You can't stand to see your child cry
Why it's wimpy: You know that you shouldn't cave in to tantrums, but you hate seeing your child upset, especially in public. So when your child starts screaming at the mall because she wants ice cream, you make excuses to yourself ("She's tired after a long day") and give her the cone. As a result, you send this message: "If you throw a fit, you can have your way."
What to do: Concentrate on staying calm. Don't worry about what other people are thinking, and say as little as possible to your child. "She's too agitated to learn any lessons right now, so talking about the situation won't help," explains William L. Coleman, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill. Simply state, "I said no, and now it's time to leave." Pick your child up or lead her from the scene as quickly as possible. Don't placate, don't punish, don't reward -- just let the tantrum run its course. When it's all over, give your child a hug and praise her for calming down.
Of course, it also helps to avoid situations that are likely to trigger tantrums in the first place. Children are more likely to have meltdowns when they're stressed. So if your 3-year-old missed her nap and it's getting late, don't try to squeeze in two more errands before going home.
You ignore misbehavior
Why it's wimpy: Overlooking infractions of rules that you've specifically established -- the way I did with my son's ballplaying -- simply encourages your child to view you as all talk and no action. Let's say you're getting ready in the morning and you hear your 6-year-old clanging his Harry Potter magic wand on the spindles of the staircase. You've asked him several times not to do that -- but you're running late and figure, Maybe if I ignore it, he'll get bored and stop.
You're kidding yourself: He's not misbehaving to annoy you, he's doing it because he enjoys it, says Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D., author of "I Never Get Anything!": How to Keep Your Kids From Running Your Life (Child Management, 2001). There's no reason why he'd stop just because you're not paying attention. By choosing to let this one slide, you're also teaching him that it's okay to break the rules as long as he doesn't get caught.
What to do: For parents who cringe at the thought of being heavy-handed, Dr. Phelan recommends the 1-2-3 method, a version of "three strikes and you're out." Start by stating your request ("Please stop banging your wand"). If your child doesn't comply, hold up one finger and say, "That's one." If he protests, say, "That's two." (If he cooperates, be sure to thank him.) If you make it to three, he gets an automatic time-out or whatever other consequence you've decided on. "You're giving your child all the information he needs to cooperate, so you don't need to worry that you're being unfair," Dr. Phelan says.
You have an "ask, don't tell" policy
Why it's wimpy: When you ask your child to cooperate ("Would you please stop playing and put your shoes on? We have to go, okay?"), you let her know that she's in control -- not you, says Susan G. O'Leary, Ph.D., a professor of clinical psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. You're essentially telling her, "It would be really nice if you listened, but I don't expect you to unless I can convince you to agree with me."
What to do: You don't need to bark commands like a drill sergeant to get what you want from your child. Speak in a normal tone of voice, and state your expectations directly and specifically. For example, you might tell your 4-year-old, "We're leaving in five minutes." Five minutes later, say, "It's time to get your coat on now because we're going." If she refuses, calmly tell your child what the consequence will be if she doesn't stop playing.
You reward your child inappropriately
Why it's wimpy: If you offer your child a lollipop every time he agrees to sit in his car seat, he'll learn that the reason to buckle up is to get a treat. Using the car seat will also seem like a choice or a game -- not a safety requirement. When your child is older, he may be lax about wearing a seat belt or a bicycle helmet simply because the importance of these precautions hasn't been impressed upon him. He may tell himself, Hey, nobody's offering me anything, so why bother?
What to do: Don't reward any behavior that should be nonnegotiable, whether it has to do with safety or simply putting clothes in the hamper. When your child sees that you won't waver, he'll realize how crucial the rule is and start complying out of habit.
You let your child interrupt you
Why it's wimpy: When you allow your child to break into adult conversations without saying, "Excuse me," you're teaching her that she is the center of universe and doesn't need to consider the needs or feelings of others. "As a result, your child may come to expect immediate recognition and attention from everyone," Dr. Ehrensaft says. "This can cause serious problems, especially in school, where children are expected to wait their turn and respect others." Although you may tell yourself that your child isn't capable of waiting patiently, even a 2-year-old can learn to wait a minute for a glass of juice or to have her shoelaces tied.
What to do: If your child interrupts, tell her that you need to finish your conversation but that you'll only be a few minutes. If she continues to badger you, tell her that you're going to take away a privilege, such as going to the playground later that day. Once you've finished talking, praise her for waiting so patiently. "Children become eager to display good manners when they see how much it's appreciated," Dr. Ehrensaft says.
You hate to disappoint your child
Why it's wimpy: Every parent wants her child to be happy, but going to great lengths to avoid disappointing her can lead to discipline pitfalls. For example, you might explain to your 6-year-old that she can have a soft pretzel at the zoo but that you're not buying anything at the gift shop afterward. As you're leaving, she says, "Mom, can't I please have that stuffed giraffe in the window? He's so cute!" Rather than spoil such a lovely afternoon, you decide to let her have it.
You already know that once you make a rule, you should stick to it to maintain your credibility. But there's another reason you shouldn't give in. "Children need to learn that they can cope with life's little disappointments and that just because they want something doesn't mean they can or should have it," Dr. Forehand says.
What to do: Tell yourself that one of your jobs as a parent is to teach your child to accept limits and deal with frustration. (If you're still wavering, imagine that mountain of stuffed animals already in your daughter's room.) "If you keep your response firm and matter-of-fact," Dr. Forehand says, "you'll be pleasantly surprised at how quickly your child forgets about her disappointment and moves on."
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