When Evan Harzer, of Nutley, New Jersey, turned 7, his parents noticed a change in his behavior. Not only was he talking back and digging in his heels when they asked him to start his homework or get ready for bed, but he also became much more resistant to their discipline strategies. "When he was younger, we could motivate him with a star chart. He'd get a gold star for good behavior and a black X if he misbehaved," says his mother, Sheila. Now when I say I'm not happy with his behavior, he'll challenge me and argue like a little lawyer."
Seven- and 8-year-olds aren't just growing more independent, they're also fine-tuning their sense of right and wrong -- so they're likely to plead innocent and mount a defense. Parents who've relied on time-outs in the past may be particularly frustrated at this stage. "Time-outs weren't designed to punish kids, but rather to help them regain control of emotions," says Joshua Sparrow, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and coauthor of Discipline: The Brazelton Way. And by 7 or 8, misbehavior is less about out-of-control emotions than it is about your child testing his boundaries. However, just because your kid resists discipline doesn't mean that he's outgrown the need for it. To find methods that will work for your child, check out our expert tips.
Raising your voice shifts the focus from your child's misdeed to your own angry emotions -- and you can still convey the seriousness of a situation without yelling. "Seven- and 8-year-olds can be sensitive to criticism, so it's helpful to use a gentle touch to guide them toward good behavior," says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, Ph.D., a psychologist in Princeton, New Jersey, and coauthor of Smart Parenting for Smart Kids: Nurturing Your Child's True Potential. In fact, kids this age are eager to comprehend their parents -- and the world around them -- which is why they'll be more likely to change their behavior if they understand why you want them to. For instance, tell your child that cutting in line isn't fair to others who have been waiting. Once he gets it, don't repeat the explanation ad infinitum. Tell him that if he misbehaves again, there will be appropriate repercussions.
Kids this age can appreciate the idea of "if... then" ("If I don't take the garbage out on time, then the kitchen will get smelly"), so they're ready for discipline that involves consequences. The idea of fairness is important to them, so keep that in mind when you impose a penalty. "Try to choose something that fits the 'crime' -- so if your child ignores repeated requests to turn down the TV, simply turn it off," advises Thomas Phelan, Ph.D., author of 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12. If she broke her grandmother's figurine and then fibbed about it, have her save up allowance or earn money through extra chores to pay for a new one. Don't be surprised if she tries to negotiate her way out of discipline, though. "Before you deliver a consequence, be clear in your mind whether it's negotiable," says Dr. Sparrow. In some cases, you might even get your child's input. For example, if you want her to make amends for ignoring a promise to spend time with her sister, you could ask if she'd prefer to give up an outing with her friends or have her sister join. But if the misbehavior involves a serious infraction, like hitting or lying, stand your ground with a calm but firm message: "This isn't negotiable."
Real-life lessons can make a lasting impression. When 8-year-old Noa Licha, of Montreal, wasn't finishing her homework before bed, her mom, Sarah, decided that she would complete it the following day rather than staying up, even if that meant it wasn't turned in on time. When Noa's teacher penalized her for late work, the lesson stuck. "Knowing that she'll be accountable has changed things," says her mom. "Now she feels she has to meet deadlines -- and she does." It's tough to stand back and let your child suffer the consequences of a bad decision. However, keep in mind that the discomfort will be temporary, but the benefit may be lifelong.
If you catch your child doing something you've been trying to get him to do, like brushing his teeth without having to nag him or coming to breakfast ready for school, thank him and say you appreciate it, suggests David Sabine, Ph.D., a psychologist who works with families in Wichita, Texas. Your praise will mean a lot and reinforce his positive habits. For chronic bad behavior -- like teasing a sibling -- use a combination of reinforcement and consequences, says Dr. Sabine. Tell your child that if he misbehaves, there will be a penalty, but if he's consistently good -- going a week without taunting his brother, for instance -- you'll reward him with a special outing or extra playtime. Once the good behavior is a habit, skip rewards. But occasional praise is still a great reminder that he's come a long way.
While time-out isn't going to be your main technique, it can still help your child settle down when emotions are running high. "Tell her, 'You're upset -- all we're going to do is help you calm down,'" says Dr. Sparrow. "Then have her go to her room until she's feeling more in control."
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Parents magazine.