Expert Advice on Behavior Challenges

Penelope Leach, PhD, offers her tips on what works -- and what doesn't -- when disciplining your little one.

Better Behavior, p.1

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Q: My 7-year-old is very bright and does pretty well at school. I'm writing a long list of problems but we don't want him to get into trouble. He's really an intelligent boy. He's developed a habit of talking back and talking at inappropriate times, which irritates everybody, including his soccer instructor. We've also noticed that whenever we're present, at his soccer class, for example, he's constantly looking at us (as if waiting for our approval), rather than paying attention. He doesn't listen or pay attention to anybody and a lot of times does the opposite of what he's told. We've tried to be firm but he seems to be provoking us to shout at him. We would appreciate your advice.

Penelope Leach: Seven (or sometimes six or eight) is an important watershed in children's development. It's the age/stage when they become more aware of people outside of themselves and of the community outside of their family. Seven-year-olds are interested in adults, their behavior, their values, whether they practice what they preach, and so forth. So they ask a lot of questions, maybe call you on contradictions between what you say and what you do, even argue with a soccer coach or dare to set him straight! It can all seem like he's being fresh or giving you attitude. Your son probably doesn't mean it that way, though. He wants to know, wants to understand, wants things to measure up to his new interest in right and wrong, just and unjust. But he's young enough that he finds it really hard to keep quiet or let things go just because that would be the acceptable way to behave.

If your boy is looking to you for approval, you've got a good relationship with him. I think it'll help if you acknowledge to him that he's not just a little boy any more who should just do as any adult tells him, but a person who needs to learn about ideas and values and adult behavior. Get into interesting discussions with him at appropriate times (about the soccer coach, your family rules, whatever issues come up), and at the same time make it clear that part of becoming more grown up is learning when to keep quiet.

He may also be feeling somewhat split between school and school adults and home and his parents. At his age, he might prefer to be with one or the other. If you offered to drop him off at soccer class and pick him up, or arrange for him to ride home with a friend, would he welcome it?

Seven's a great age. Don't miss out on a minute of this growing bundle of intelligence and social sensitivity!

Better Behavior, p.2

Q: What's your advice for toddlers who tell tall tales? I have a real rabble-rouser who thinks just because I don't see things happen she can recreate events. I know she's lying, but true enough, I also wasn't there. What should I do to let her know that I see through her tales and that she should be honest with me?

Penelope Leach: A lot of toddlers confuse reality and fantasy, and what they wish had happened with what really did. (It might have been the dog that made that puddle. She wishes it had been and says that it was.) After all, they happily accept stories about the Easter bunny while keeping a quite un-magic rabbit of their own; they see no conflict between the two. If you're going to read your child stories and help him to enjoy the mythology of childhood in his culture, such as Santa Claus, it's unreasonable to jump on him for lying when he comes home with an elaborate story of his own. Of course, he didn't really meet a space lady. He probably doesn't even think he did. But just as it's sad if older children force a 4-year-old to pick holes in the fantasy of Santa Claus ("We haven't even got a chimney, silly"), it's a pity if his own fantasies are beyond the pale. Enjoy the story. Being "not true" doesn't make it a lie in any moral sense.

Small children live in a world that's difficult for them to manage and in which they often stand accused of doing damage of one kind or another. Denying wrongdoing is therefore their most usual kind of lie and the kind that most often gets them into trouble. Your child breaks his sister's doll by mistake. Faced with it, he denies the whole incident. You're probably angrier with him for the lie than you are about the breakage. If you feel strongly that your child should own up when he has done something wrong, make it easy: "This doll is broken. I wonder what happened?" is much more likely to enable him to say, "I broke it, I'm sorry" than if you say, "You've broken this doll, haven't you, you naughty, careless boy." However, if your child does admit to something of his own accord or because you force it out of him, make sure you don't overwhelm him with anger and punishments. You can't have it both ways. If you want him to tell you when he has done something wrong, you can't also yell at him. If you yell this time, he would be foolish to tell you next time, wouldn't he?

Parents sometimes worry because their preschool-age children seem to have no regard for the truth. They may overhear them mentioning Mommy's new dress when she hasn't got one, or announcing that they were sick last night when they weren't, or just telling a friend that they're going out for lunch when they aren't. There are lots of reasons for casually inaccurate talk and an important one is that the child hears it from adults. Adults tell endless untruths out of tact, kindness, a desire to avoid hurting other people's feelings, or to save their own time. Children hear them. Your child hears you agreeing with Mrs. Smith that the weather is much too hot when you have just told him how much you like the heat, and hears you on the telephone excusing yourself from something because you have invisible visitors. Unless the reasons for these "white" lies are explained to him, he can't be expected to see why he must never exaggerate or falsify when you can.

Better Behavior, p.3

If your child tells so many stories and adds so much embroidery to his accounts of daily life that you really can't be sure what's true and what's not, it may be time to make it clear to him why truth matters. Don't fall back on it being "naughty" to tell lies. Instead, explain that you can't look after him properly and keep him safe unless you know that when he tells you something (such as "I don't feel well" or "I ate those berries" or "the babysitter left me alone") it's literally, factually true. You could try telling him the story of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." He'll enjoy it and it makes the point very clearly. Come back to me if you don't happen to know the book!

Q: I have a 19-month-old and he's very smart for his age. But he sometimes has a problem ignoring me and misbehaving. When he takes something that he knows he's not supposed to have, he hides it behind his back or he runs away and either puts it in his mouth or throws it at us. I've tried talking nicely, but that just seems to make it worse. Please tell me some tactics to make him listen more. I'm also a first-time mother. I'm learning as I go.

Penelope Leach: You're not the only one who's learning as you go -- your little boy is too, and lessons about "listening" and "not misbehaving" take longer than most!

It's very natural that you're beginning to think about discipline. It's at this stage in toddlers' lives that many parents begin to think and talk that way. But I hope you can think about it in a positive way, as "learning how to behave," rather than in a negative way that says he's behaving badly. At 19 months, your toddler is certainly capable of understanding what "no" means. And since you talk to him a lot and expect him to listen he's probably quite advanced verbally. That means that he can begin to cooperate with adults, even when he doesn't actually want to. But it doesn't mean that he will always want to cooperate or understand how, and it certainly doesn't mean that it's naughty of him when he doesn't listen or doesn't do what you ask.

When he runs into the den even though you call to him to stay in the family room, it may look like defiance, but it's probably just that the actual muscular business of running took up so much of his attention that he didn't listen. If you follow and tell him to come out and he hides behind the couch, it looks "naughty" to you but probably feels like a hiding game to him.

Toddlers learn language at a wide range of ages but even the ones who speak fluently before their second birthdays aren't fully verbal people. Trying to make them listen and to control them with verbal instructions and exhortations often doesn't work very well. Your toddler will be "good" when he happens to feel like doing what you want him to do and doesn't happen to feel like doing anything that's forbidden. So it's just as important now as earlier on to make sure he has a play space where he's safe from your things and they are safe from him. After that, with a little cleverness and forethought you can organize most of his daily life so that you both want the same thing most of the time. If you want him to leave his play and come upstairs to get ready for bed, there's probably nothing you can say to make him enthusiastic about the idea, but plenty you can do. Offer to race him up the stairs, to find him some of your new bubble bath, or to give him a cuddle, and suddenly he's heard what you said, knows what you want, and wants it too.

Better Behavior, p.4

You turned a chore and an order into a game. He didn't come to bed right away "for mommy" or because he's a "good boy." He did it because you made him want to. And that's the best possible way to go.

Your toddler doesn't yet know right from wrong and therefore cannot be "good" or "naughty" in any moral sense. If you lead and guide him into behaving as you want him to behave because nothing has made him want to behave otherwise, you'll not only have less trouble and strife right now, but also a better-behaved, more cooperative child later on.

If you ever wonder whether you're being too gentle and accepting with your toddler, or anyone ever suggests that it's time to toughen up, look ahead. Soon your child will understand right and wrong and become able to choose between them. If he is to choose to behave as he should, it's vital that he reaches preschool age still seeking your approval, feeling cooperative, confident both of loving and being loved. Lose that in too many pointless toddler rows and you'll have lost the basis for easy, effective "discipline" all through childhood. At this in-between toddler stage, a happy child is an easy child. And a child kept easy now will be easy to direct and handle later.

Q: My 2-year-old son has a problem in dealing with his anger. Whenever he gets angry or frustrated with something, he'll come to my husband or me and hit us. We've tried to tell him that this isn't acceptable behavior, but we're at a loss as to what is the best way to handle his outbursts.

Penelope Leach: Hi! I'm afraid dealing with your 2-year-old's anger is your job rather than his and the first tactic is prevention. Toddlers are at a stage of development where they're very open to frustration -- by adults, by other children, by toys they can't manage, and by their own small bodies that won't do as they wish. When frustration reaches a child's personal tolerance-level, he explodes. Some have tantrums, some knock their head on the floor, some hit parents.

None of those behaviors is useful or even acceptable, so the more you can avoid backing your son into corners from which he can only explode in rage, the better. When you have to make him do something he doesn't want to, be as tactful as you can. Of course he must have his coat on if that's what you have said, but maybe he needn't have it zipped. When you can see that struggling to open that box isn't teaching him manual dexterity or persistence but is driving him crazy, offer just enough help that he can succeed. And when he's playing with other kids, don't leave them to manage themselves and each other on their own; make sure there's an adult around to offer quiet support or diversion when it's needed.

When he does explode, though, the fact that he comes to you, even if what he tends to do is hit, is a sign that he wants your help. He wants you to lend him your control until he can take charge of himself again. His behavior has gone beyond the pale and the last thing he needs is pushing further out into Time Out. He needs bringing in again: Time in, held, cuddled and contained.

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