Sometimes desperation is the mother of invention. At least it was for me when I finally figured out how to get my son to stop his terrifying habit of bolting from the safety of my clutches in the parking lot. Our struggles had been epic: I'd reach for his hand, his shoulder -- or even his jacket hood. And he'd wriggle free and run ahead like a fugitive; the chase would end with a semi-hysterical mom (that would be me) half carrying a crying, squirmy boy. Harrowing, to say the least.
Then I had a moment of clarity about how to make hand-holding more agreeable: Channeling The Black Eyed Peas, I'd sing, "I gotta feeling... that today you're gonna hold my hand...," while grabbing his little fingers and swinging them to the beat. Corny even by my low standards, but hey, it worked. Cranking up the silliness factor to avoid a battle of wills is one trick. But with so much advice out there, your toddler could be a tween before you've sorted through it all. There is, however, something of a secret: Although there's no playbook, most experts stand behind these three rock-solid discipline rules.
Guide your child toward better behavior using direct language and an even tone of voice. "Little kids, especially those under 6, are still learning how to listen and interpret the meaning behind your words," says Kathleen Cranley Gallagher, Ph.D., director of the Family and Childcare Program at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. So focus on making your point clearly. "Crouch down to your child's eye level and use short statements," says Dr. Gallagher.
If your toddler has just torn her brand-new The Very Hungry Caterpillar pop-up, say something like: "Gentle hands with books." It's much easier for her to understand what you expect when you tell her what you want her to do -- as opposed to what you don't want ("We never rip pages of books"), explains Dr. Gallagher.
If you're feeling a little too fired up to play the role of Mellow Mom, silently count to ten or take a few deep breaths before diving in. It can also help you chill if you remind yourself that most bad behavior isn't born from disrespect. "Kids are supposed to test boundaries -- that's how they learn," says Parents advisor Jenn Berman, Psy.D., author of SuperBaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Years. There are many reasons why your daughter may have taken all the clothes out of her drawers or that your son decided to use a permanent marker to draw on his younger brother. "Children get lost in the moment of what they're doing; what's motivating them isn't usually a desire to make you angry," says Dr. Berman. "Taking it personally will make it harder for you to be calm."
There's no need to get all fake nice and completely hide your frustration. You'll be delivering a mixed message if there's too much disconnect between your affect and your words. But yelling doesn't work either. An intense tone could scare your kid and prevent her from hearing what you're saying. "When you're screaming, your child has to untangle the emotion from your words, which makes it that much harder for her to absorb what you're trying to say," says Dr. Gallagher. Also, kids (like all of us) become desensitized to yelling; if you're able to keep your angry voice to a minimum, your child will pay attention when you truly need it -- for example, to stop her from running into the street or knocking over a hot drink.
Having a few basic rules and being prepared to follow through with consequences if one is broken is the way to teach your child how to handle the frustration of not always getting what he wants -- as well as teaching him to take responsibility for his actions. "Your kid might not always be happy about a specific edict, but knowing that there are lines that he can't cross will help him feel loved -- and motivated to cooperate," says Dr. Berman.
The key is to be both fair and age-appropriate. "Your first priority should be setting limits that relate to health, safety, and basic respect," says Dr. Gallagher. That means things like always being buckled into the car seat no matter how short the ride and using an inside voice while his baby brother is napping are nonnegotiable. Be choosy about the other "nos." It might be nice to have a 4-year-old who says "excuse me" before he interrupts your conversation, but excessive regulations will make the key ones harder to enforce.
When your child breaks the rules, consequences provide an opportunity for him to learn the right behavior -- and some self-sufficiency along the way. No matter how old your child is, a consequence should be immediate (don't cancel a playdate that's three days into the future), related to the "crime" (if he keeps throwing Legos he can't play with them anymore today), and consistent (every time your kid forgets to wash his hands he has to put down his sandwich and go to the sink -- no matter how hungry he is). Once you've established your zero-tolerance policies, you may need to add other bad, irritating, or rude behavior to your list, but don't do it in the moment. Take 24 hours to think through your commitment to regularly and effectively enforce your limits. The more thought and effort you're willing to expend on a rule, the more likely your child will be to follow it.
Creating an easygoing vibe, where rules don't feel hard for your child to follow, can prevent a lot of bad behavior. "When my kids go wild around bedtime, I'll ask, 'Do you want to act really silly for two minutes or three?' Just recasting a directive as an option creates less resistance," says Wendy Petricoff, a parenting coach in Charlotte, North Carolina.
So create options wherever you can: Will it be the purple skirt or the blue dress for school? An apple versus a banana at snacktime, or when it's time to leave the playground should we skip or hop our way out? Even if offering choices makes the going a little slower, your child will feel like his opinion matters, and it will help smooth the way when you can't give him options. "Young kids are in a constant struggle between being dependent and wanting autonomy,'" says Dr. Berman. "So try to find ways to help your child feel more powerful by allowing her to have some sense of control."
When you do anticipate pushback, go for the laugh -- putting a diaper on your head can go a long way toward getting a defiant toddler to stay still for changing time. And don't forget to reward the good, cooperative, cheerful attitude you've worked so hard to cultivate. Make sure you offer lots of positive attention and hugs when your child remembers to pick up his toys, pats the baby gently, or beats you to the front door when it's time to leave the house. It's all about setting your kid up for success, so everybody wins.
Originally published in the June 2011 issue of Parents magazine.