Disagree with your spouse about how to deal when the kids won't behave? Here, four couples with clashing styles learn to work together and get better results.

By Sandra Gordon
October 05, 2005

Put toys away Vs. Throw toys away

Louis and Shaney Goldenberg, with Zachary, three.Discipline Dilemma:

When Zachary doesn't get his way, he typically screams or cries. Shaney's solution is to give him a time-out. "But he just does the same thing ten minutes later," Louis says. Then again, Louis's tactic of ignoring Zachary while he's misbehaving hasn't reduced the outbursts either.

Misbehavior Makeover:Punishing a small child for bad behavior doesn't teach him the proper way to act, says Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., author of Positive Discipline. In fact, it usually backfires, making a child feel rebellious -- or, worse, inadequate. Instead of giving time-outs or withholding attention, the Goldenbergs should try a hug. "Kids can't talk things out when they're upset," Dr. Nelsen says. "A hug isn't rewarding misbehavior -- it helps the child reach a better state of mind. Once you're both calm, you can help him figure out a better solution."

Three Weeks Later:Zachary threw a fit when his dad wanted to stop for bagels on their way to a bowling alley. Louis was so annoyed that he drove straight home instead. When Shaney heard what had happened, she held Zachary and spoke gently with him about the incident. "Once he settled down, we were able to discuss what had gone wrong and what he could do differently the next time," she says.

Louis was impressed with how Zachary responded to Shaney, and he decided to try the settle-down-first-then-talk-it-out approach too. "Whenever Zachary got overexcited, I'd sit him on my lap, we'd have a chat, and after a while he'd be fine," he says. The real test came a week later, when Louis took Zachary to a Wiffle-ball batting cage and it was closed. Instead of throwing a tantrum, Zachary readily agreed to go home and play outside. "I never realized that taking a moment to calm down and then speaking kindly to my child when he's misbehaving would make such a difference," says Louis.

Daniel and Margarido Wainraich, with Hope, four, and Danielle, six.

Discipline Dilemma:

Danielle and Hope never put their toys away. Consequently, the Wainraichs' house is always a mess. "I'm lenient," says Margarida, who picks up after them. Daniel is less forgiving. If the girls ignore his request to clean up, he bags up their toys and threatens to throw them away. "They're old enough to understand consequences," he says.

Misbehavior Makeover:The girls should learn to pick up after themselves, says Susan Isaacs Kohl, a preschool director in Lafayette, California, and author of The Best Things Parents Do. The Wainraichs can encourage the process by offering an incentive to clean up, such as telling Danielle and Hope they can go to the playground once they're finished. "That's not bribing," Kohl says. Rather, it makes them understand that completing chores makes moving on to other fun activities possible. Eventually, picking up after playing will become a habit.

Kohl's other suggestions: The Wainraichs should set up storage bins so the girls know where each plaything belongs, and they should praise their daughters' progress regularly ("You're really getting good at making a neat pile"). And if the girls don't help out, Margarida and Daniel should calmly explain that they won't be able to play with those toys for the rest of the day.

Three Weeks Later:"The first time I told Danielle she had to clean up, she thought I was joking," Margarida says. "But I kept saying, 'We're all doing this together,' without getting angry. Eventually, she helped, and Hope did too." Then Daniel tried the same tactic. "I kept it positive by focusing on how clean the playroom would look when we were done," he says. "It worked."

One day, when Danielle and Hope wouldn't cooperate, they didn't get to go to the park. They haven't refused to clean up again. "Now they put their things away before we even have to tell them," Margarida says. "It's great to see them so proud of themselves."

To Spank or Not to Spank, that is the question.

Chris and Jennifer McKinley, with twins Ian and Patrick, seven months, and Brenna, two.Discipline Dilemma:

Chris travels for work during the week, which leaves Jennifer, a stay-at-home mom, in charge of discipline. "Even when Chris is home, he doesn't get involved the way I think he should or he'll say, 'Take it easy' if I lose patience with Brenna," Jennifer says. "And when he does take action, I'm judgmental about it. For example, he might try to make Brenna laugh if she's whining. I don't think that's teaching her anything."

Misbehavior Makeover:The McKinleys can get on the same page by following a simple guideline: Whoever speaks first, rules. That is, if Chris steps in first to discipline Brenna, he calls the shots for that occasion, says Karen Deerwester, an early-childhood specialist and owner of Family Time Coaching & Consulting, in Coral Springs, Florida. If Jennifer disagrees with his method, she should talk about it with him after Brenna is asleep. "Each parent's approach helps a child learn different ways of coping," Deerwester says. "It's important to recognize that there's not one right way to handle a situation."

When Chris is home, Jennifer should ask him to take charge of the kids so she can have some time to herself. "It's not realistic to expect anyone to parent 24/7," Deerwester says.

Three Weeks Later:The "who speaks first rule" paid off immediately. "It was so simple, but it worked," Jennifer says. "As a result, I let Chris handle more situations with Brenna." For his part, Chris has been happy to take control more often. "Before, I'd just walk away," he says. "Now I'm dealing with behavioral issues because Jennifer allows me to." Their new discipline approach has made a world of difference, says Jennifer. "Now we can agree to disagree without arguing about it. And Brenna's listening to me more because I'm less stressed."

Janine and Michael Sillat, with Emma, two months, and Ethan, two.

Discipline Dilemma:

Ethan has meltdowns whenever his Sippy cup isn't filled to the very top or he doesn't want to put on his pants. Michael thinks spanking is the next step. "I was brought up with spanking, and it wasn't such a bad thing," he says. "Maybe that would help Ethan listen." Janine is opposed to the idea, but she hasn't been able to derail Ethan's tantrums using a softer approach.

Misbehavior Makeover:First, the Sillats need to understand that this behavior is completely normal at Ethan's age, says Carleton Kendrick, a family therapist in Millis, Massachusetts. Ethan's defiance stems from his growing awareness of the power he wields by saying "No!" or having a fit. Moreover, baby Emma's recent arrival means he's no longer the center of attention -- a big blow for a child this age.

Next, they must accept that spanking is a no-no that won't solve anything. "It merely teaches a child that grown-ups can hurt him," Kendrick says. Instead, to temper Ethan's tantrums, Janine and Michael need to give him lots of extra attention. They can also emphasize the big-boy things he can do -- run, sing, and eat by himself, for example -- that Emma can't. And when they sense that he's approaching a meltdown, the Sillats should distract him. For example, they might set an egg timer and challenge him to see how fast he can get dressed.

Three Weeks Later:Giving Ethan extra affection has had a positive impact. "Before I leave for work, we go through a hugging ritual in which he has me give everyone, including him, a big hug and then a little hug," Michael says. "He gets such a kick out of it." Diversionary tactics have also reduced Ethan's tantrums. "And even when Ethan does act out, knowing that his behavior will ease up as he matures makes it easier to deal with," Janine says.

Copyright © 2005. Reprinted with permission from the March 2005 issue of Parents magazine.

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