My friend Emily has three amazingly well-behaved children. They put their toys away when she tells them to, go to bed without a fuss, and even settle their own disputes. I actually witnessed her 3-year-old son calmly ask for a truck back from a friend who had yanked it out of his hands.
Emily admits that her children have their moments—"They are kids, after all!"—but says that real discipline challenges are few and far between. "What's your secret?" I once asked, hoping she could impart some much-needed wisdom. "Threatening them with punishment? Giving them time-outs? Bribing them with Oreos?" Emily shook her head. "Nothing like that," she told me. "If I've done anything right, it's that I've made it clear from the get-go what I expect from them. Now, all I have to do is shoot them a look, and they know to discipline themselves."
It may sound too good to be true, but experts agree that Emily has the right idea about teaching kids to behave. "When you make your expectations clear from the time your children are toddlers, they internalize those expectations and begin to expect the same thing from themselves," says Sharon K. Hall, Ph.D., author of Raising Kids in the 21st Century. In other words, since kids are naturally inclined to want to please their parents, they'll try to behave in the way that you've taught them to. In fact, experts say that kids as young as 18 months are empathetic and responsive to their parents' expectations.
Even better news: Teaching self-discipline to a young child isn't as daunting as it sounds. "If you focus on the essentials starting at around age 2, your child will catch on faster, resist less, and ultimately behave better," says Robert Brooks, PhD, coauthor of Raising a Self-Disciplined Child. These four essentials will help you raise a kid who can keep her own behavior in check.
Kids who believe they can do anything they feel like doing, and get whatever they want, tend to be the ones who act out by whining or throwing a tantrum when their demands aren't met. "Children who understand that there are well-defined boundaries learn how to self-regulate and to respect limits," says Hal Runkel, family therapist and author of ScreamFree Parenting.
One of the major reasons children behave badly is because they feel frustrated and powerless. "When you give children the tools they need to figure things out on their own, they will behave better because they'll be better equipped to take care of themselves and won't come screaming to you or act out every time they encounter a challenge," says Dr. Brooks.
No one likes to wait, especially young kids. "Developmentally and neurologically it's difficult because children survive by letting their needs be known immediately," says Michael Osit, Ed.D., author of Generation Text: Raising Well-Adjusted Kids in the Age of Instant Everything. "That's why it's especially important for parents to start teaching patience in the toddler years. You want your kids to develop tolerance for the feeling of impatience, which is often unpleasant, so they won't misbehave or act impulsively when faced with that feeling in the future.
How many times have you had to referee a blowup because your preschooler took a friend's toy or refused to share with her sister? "Children are born believing that the world revolves around them," says Steven E. Curtis, Ph.D., author of Understanding Your Child's Puzzling Behavior. "So the sooner you help them understand that everybody has feelings and emotions, the less likely they'll be to behave in ways that annoy or hurt other people."
Finally, a word of caution: You aren't going to be able to teach your children to discipline themselves overnight. No doubt there will be times when they misbehave, no matter how hard you've tried to prevent it. "They are kids, after all," as my friend Emily said. But if you continue to focus on these messages, sooner or later the lessons will sink in. As they do, your well-behaved child will need less and less intervention from you.