Parents today are obsessed with being "perfect," says Jodi Stoner, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and coauthor of Good Manners Are Contagious. "Parents are under so much stress these days, working long hours and spending more time out of the house," she says. "When Mom and Dad are home, they want to spend quality time with the kids, and when they have to take time out to discipline, they feel guilty." And that's a dangerous emotion, says Kevin Leman, Ph.D., a family psychologist and author of Have a New Kid by Friday. "Guilt is the propellant for most of the bad decisions parents make. As a result, today's kids are all about 'me, me, me,' and 'gimme.' They are held accountable less and less and have fewer responsibilities in the family. Fewer children today consider others before themselves because they've never been taught to think that way." No wonder experts agree: Discipline is key.
The Problem: One parent wants to be "the fun one," which leaves the other parent in charge of discipline -- and always feeling like "the bad guy."
Mom and Dad are a team, and it's essential that they're on the same page when it comes to discipline, Dr. Stoner says. "You should not try to discipline in the moment. Punishments and rewards should have a rhyme and reason to them," she says. "Sit down and discuss what values you want to give to your children. How will you teach good manners and proper behavior? What bothers one parent might not bother the other, so you need to come up with some clear rules -- no hitting, no talking back, etc. -- and consequences for breaking them. And both parents need to take responsibility for disciplining the kids."
The Problem: You feel like you're constantly saying no to your child.
"Saying no 100 times a day is part of being a parent," says Tom Phelan, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and author of 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12. "Once you accept that, you won't feel as if you're doing something wrong and guilt won't be a factor." However, you can use other methods of discipline besides the big N-O. For example, if your child asks to watch TV, you can answer with "Sure -- after you've picked up your toys." Here, you're actually saying yes to the request, but with a stipulation.
The Problem: You sometimes start yelling when the kids misbehave, then feel awful about it afterward.
It can be easy to lose your patience with your kids, but once you start screaming and yelling, you're taking the situation to a whole new level and have sent the message you're no longer in control. "It's impossible to discipline effectively when you're angry or stressed out," says Rex Forehand, Ph.D., a child behavior expert and coauthor of Parenting the Strong-Willed Child. Instead, he suggests implementing the four Rs. "You need to Recognize that you've lost patience, and Remove yourself from the situation," Dr. Forehand says. "Once you've cooled down a bit, you can then Review the situation and Respond to it."
The Problem: Your child has tantrums in the supermarket, toy store, etc. -- and nothing you do can make it better.
First, let's make one thing clear: Every parent has had to handle a child's public tantrum. Still, it's tough to remember that when it feels as if all eyes are on you. The worst thing to do is engage a child in the middle of a meltdown. Yelling or attempting to compromise or reason with her will only make the tantrum worse and increase your stress levels. The best way to tackle a tantrum is to ignore it, Dr. Leman says. "When your child is throwing a tantrum, the purpose is to get attention and to exert authority over you. And if throwing tantrums has worked in the past, your child will continue to throw them in the future." Dr. Leman's suggestion is to step over the child, totally ignore the behavior, and move on with whatever else you were doing. Nine times out of 10, your child will get up and follow you. If you're in public, don't be so worried about what other people will think -- this is about nipping this bad behavior in the bud.
The Problem: From putting his coat on before you leave the house and getting into the car seat, to eating his veggies and taking a bath, everything with your child feels like a battle.
"Why" is a child's favorite question. Children of all ages love to use oppositional behavior to test their limits. Parents often make the mistake of trying to reason with their child when she's misbehaving, which usually leads to more arguing. Instead of getting into a debate that will eventually lead to tears (sometimes for both of you), offer her a firm -- and nonnegotiable -- reason for why she needs to do what you're telling her. If she does something that can hurt her or another child, simply say: "We don't do this -- it's dangerous." When she throws her toys: "We don't throw toys. It's time to put them away." If she doesn't want to be strapped into her car seat: "It's the law, so you need to sit in your car seat or we are not going anywhere." "Don't banter back and forth with your child," Dr. Phelan says. "You've made your decision and you're done."
The Problem: You know you shouldn't, but you sometimes let bad behavior slide to avoid a confrontation.
Your little one has decided to empty all of his toy bins onto the living room floor. He usually gets a time-out for this behavior, but it's the end of the day and you're beat. It's okay to let him get away with it just this one time, right? Wrong, Dr. Stoner says. Letting it go sends the message that this behavior is okay, so you have no one to blame but yourself when your child drives you crazy with it later on. "There has to be a consequence every time a child does something he shouldn't. You can't do it sometimes and not others. Initially, it's a lot of work for the parents, but it pays off in the long run."
The Problem: Your child expects a reward every time she behaves.
According to Dr. Leman, there is a big difference between encouragement and praise. For example, you come home one afternoon to find that your daughter has washed the breakfast dishes without being asked. Your response: "You're the best little girl in the whole world! You get $5 for being such a good kid!" That's praise -- and it sets up a pattern of entitlement and expectations that can follow your child throughout her life. Encouragement would be: "That was such a thoughtful thing to do! Thank you!" Part of a parent's job is to make sure each child gives back to the family in some way, Dr. Leman says. "They shouldn't expect a reward for it."
The Problem: You're worried your kids see you as "mean Mommy."
Discipline doesn't have to be a constant drag, Dr. Phelan says. You can enforce rules in a fun way by using some creativity. For example, if your kids have a hard time focusing on homework when they get home from school, make a game out of it. "Set the kitchen timer and tell them the goal is to finish their work before it goes off," Dr. Phelan says. You can do the same when it comes to brushing teeth, getting dressed in the morning, or cleaning bedrooms. Or set up a chart in the kitchen where your kids can check off their assignments and chores when they're done -- kids love to see visual reminders of what they've accomplished!
Originally published in the June 2010 issue of Parents magazine.