Get Your Kids to Behave the First Time You Ask

If you're tired of repeating yourself without results, here's advice that actually works.

Misbehaving toddler
Photo: Cheyenne Ellis

How many times do you have to say, beg, or even yell: "Don't put that up your nose!" "Stop bouncing the ball off your brother's head!" "Quit jumping from the chair to the couch!" Thankfully, there are effective ways to communicate so that your child will listen -- and cooperate -- in a flash.

Connect, Then Direct

Sometimes it feels like your kid isn't buying what you're selling, when in reality he simply can't listen to the pitch. "Children don't have great multitasking capabilities," explains Jim Taylor, Ph.D., author of Positive Pushing: How to Raise a Successful and Happy Child. It's almost impossible for anyone, let alone a younger child, to concentrate intensely on getting his train tracks to connect in a perfect oval and also listen to you tell him to wash up for dinner. Instead of competing for his attention, ask your child to stop playing for a minute, and get down to his level so you can look him in the eye. Say his name, make your request, ask if he understands, and get him to repeat it back to you.

Cut to the Chase

Of course you want to explain the great "whys" in life to your kid -- just not when you're trying to get out the door in the morning. So save the elaborations for a time when your child needs more guidance. When you want something to happen, like getting to school before the morning bell rings, be direct and specific, suggests Richard Bromfield, Ph.D., a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and author of How to Unspoil Your Child Fast. Kids need concrete info, so instead of a vague "Get ready for school," which leaves too much room for her to dawdle, give direct instructions: "It's time to put on your coat and your backpack." Getting specific works well in other situations too. Instead of "I want you on your best behavior in the restaurant," you can say, "Please use your indoor voice at the table."

Make It a Challenge

Since kids love to play, turning good behavior into a game makes it more likely they'll follow direction. Have a child who sighs about having to get on his shoes? Try "Bet you can't get your sneakers on in 45 seconds!" Have a reluctant tooth brusher? "I wonder who can brush their teeth longer -- you or me!" If you're at the grocery store, play "I spy" to keep him occupied while you shop, or let him fill a produce bag with apples or choose a vegetable for dinner.

Swap Out Bad Habits

The best way to eliminate an unwanted behavior is to substitute an alternative one in its place, or the "positive opposite" of unwanted behavior, says Alan E. Kazdin, Ph.D., professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University and director of the Yale Parenting Center. Instead of focusing on what you don't want your child to do ("I hate when she talks back!") consider what it is that you do want her to do. ("When it's time to clean up, I want her to simply do it.")

One sure way to lead her to a positive habit is with praise. When she's behaving well, first act sincerely excited ("Wow!"). Next, specify exactly what you're loving ("You were mad, but you used your words instead of hitting"). Finally, add something physical (a hug, a high five). Give your child props even for small successes, like letting a younger sib have a turn with a favorite toy. "Every time you reinforce a partial success, you are moving that much closer to your ultimate goal," says Dr. Kazdin.

Ditch the Drama

Kids have a heck of a lot more stamina than you do. So your child will question, debate, argue, and oppose as long as you let him. (Bedtime battles, anyone?) "Every time you engage in this kind of back-and-forth exchange, you give him the opportunity to get stronger and better at it," says Dr. Bromfield. Instead of giving repeated warnings and reminders, give one ("You have ten more minutes to play, then it's time to go to bed") and ignore any arguments after that. If all else fails, pull out this classic: "Because I'm the mother and I said so."

Show and (Don't) Tell

Sick of saying "Be nice to your brother?" Show it instead. Make a heart out of construction paper, suggests Kirk Martin, a behavioral consultant. Every time your daughter treats her sib badly, hand her the paper heart, then walk away. "No lecture, no yelling, just a visual that will tell the story," says Martin. Another, all-purpose option: a discreet thumbs-up or thumbs-down, or a zip-it motion across your lips.

Explain Cause and Effect

When your child refuses to wear a hat or mittens on a cold and windy day, then complains that he's cold, you can simply point out how those items could have helped (then produce the ones that you secretly stashed in your bag). If he refuses cold-weather protection again, you can gently remind him of what happened last time.

Give a Choice

Kids (not unlike grown-ups) like to feel in control -- so capitalize on this desire. Instead of asking a question like "Can you pick up your toys please?" when in reality there's only one acceptable answer, propose options even if they're not exactly monumental. Give your child a choice, such as "Please pick up two of your toys or that box next to your bed," which defuses the "no" bomb before it has a chance to ignite.

Spin It

When your kid hears you use words like don't and stop, it triggers an almost Pavlonian response so he tunes out, says Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., author of the Positive Discipline series of books. Pose requests in an encouraging tone. Instead of "don't pull the dog's tail," try "pet Molly gently." And when you really need your kid's attention? Whisper. Nothing is more riveting than a secret -- even "time for bed" goes down better in a hushed voice.

Originally published in the September 2015 issue of Parents magazine.

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