Sometimes, when your child behaves badly, his future flashes before your eyes. And it's not a pretty sight. If your toddler is terrorizing the kids in his playgroup, is he destined to be the boss who bullies his employees? The rude and obnoxious guy picking fights at the local bar?
"You have to be careful about overinterpreting early- childhood behavior when you don't know whether or not it's normal for that age group," says Marvin Berkowitz, PhD, professor of character education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of Parenting for Good. For instance, pushing and grabbing is actually a part of every toddler's development -- a phase he'll soon outgrow. That said, it's never too soon to start guiding kids in the right direction. Try these strategies to stop bratty behavior on the spot -- and learn how to raise kids who will grow up to make you proud.
Trouble Signs: Be on the lookout for moves that are meant to hurt another child. A 2-year-old who pushes a playmate away from a truck may seem like a bully, but she's just acting her age -- she simply wants that toy, now. A second-grader who does the same thing has very different motives; she probably understands that a toy doesn't belong to her but grabs another kid's stuff because she wants to get her own way.
Fast Fix: Toddlers are just beginning to learn social skills like sharing. Gently encourage a 2-year-old to play nicely, then give her time: She'll probably come around as she gets older. When your 6-year-old acts aggressively toward another child, however, you need to step in right away. She's old enough to know that she's not behaving nicely. Insist that she apologize. Then tell her, "You can't push kids and grab their things." Have her return the toy and help her negotiate a sharing deal. If her bratty behavior doesn't stop, end the playdate.
Lesson for Life: Whenever you reprimand your child, explain clearly why what she did was wrong. Also, point out how her actions have upset her friend. You might say, "You hurt Lily's feelings, and now she's crying." It's also important to applaud your child when she does something kind for someone. Be specific with your praise as well: "It was very nice that you let your cousin wear your dress-up cape. You really made her happy." Research shows that when parents do this, their kids are more thoughtful and have more empathy. And children with those qualities are less likely to bully others. It's also important to help kids learn how to make and keep friends, says Melanie Killen, PhD, professor of human development at the University of Maryland. "Bullies are often kids who are rejected by their peers," she explains. "They haven't figured out how friendships work." If you think your child is having trouble, arrange some playdates and watch what happens. If she frequently gets into arguments, help her practice sharing and negotiating nicely.
Trouble Signs: Poor manners are pretty obvious: Does he interrupt when others are speaking? Does he refuse to say "please" or "thank you?" All little kids are obnoxious at times. Does yours seem worse than the rest of the gang?
Fast Fix: When you catch him doing something rude, speak to him in private about exactly why his behavior -- belching on purpose, snatching the last cupcake, or scorning a gift -- is wrong. "Often, parents simply say, 'That's rude.' To a child, that's too abstract," says Lawrence Cohen, PhD, a psychologist and author of Playful Parenting. You need to explain why it's wrong for him to say "I hate that book" to his grandmother. Explain that saying thank you for a gift -- even if you don't love it -- is important because it makes the person who gave it to you feel good.
Lesson for Life: It's your job to teach him the right way to act in social settings, so be sure to consistently remind your little one to be kind and polite. By 3, a child can grasp the basics of good manners -- sharing, taking turns, not interrupting -- if you've emphasized them at home. But even when kids know how to behave, they tend to forget their manners, so practice, practice, practice. Play up the "please" and "thank you" at home. Whenever possible, remind him ahead of time what's expected. Does he have a friend coming over to play? Talk about the importance of sharing toys. And always be a good role model. If he sees that you always thank him, he'll eventually do the same.
Trouble Signs: Kids of all ages want to give up from time to time when faced with a difficult challenge. But you should worry if your child makes a habit of never completing tasks, has a pattern of wanting to drop out of sports or music lessons, and always gives up when the going gets tough.
Fast Fix: Often, kids are quitters because they're afraid of failing or of being humiliated in front of their friends. One way to ease that tension is to talk to your child about the times you've messed up. Emphasize the importance of being patient and talk about how everyone needs to practice when starting something new.
Lesson for Life: "We want our children to persevere when things get tough, because that's one of the hallmarks of successful people," says Gregory Ramey, PhD, child psychologist at The Children's Medical Center of Dayton, in Ohio. To help your child develop that skill, take a three-part approach: First, before she starts a project or pursuit, make sure she understands that you expect her to finish it. Second, keep your expectations modest. If your 7-year-old begs for guitar lessons, don't sign her up for a year of classes. Start out with just three or four lessons; that way, if she hates the first one, you can encourage her to stick it out for just a few more. Finally, explain up front that it's normal to want to quit when things are hard but that feeling will pass. If kids understand that they'll run into difficult times, they'll be less likely to feel overwhelmed at the first obstacle.
Trouble Signs: While all kids fib occasionally, if your school-age child tells lies on a regular basis -- or cheats, whether at games or in school -- it's cause for concern.
Fast Fix: Preschoolers are too young to understand exactly what a lie is -- their tall tales are a form of imagination. Also, kids this age have a hard time distinguishing between what's real and what they wish were true. For instance, your little one might tell his friends, "I had ice cream for breakfast." If you discover this kind of "lie," don't punish your child. Instead, respond in a playful way that acknowledges the fantasy, such as, "I had spaghetti for breakfast!" Once a child is 6 or 7, he'll begin to understand what it means to lie or cheat. If your 6-year-old is breaking the rules of a game, and you're sure he did it intentionally, take him aside and discuss why it's important to always be fair while playing, says Dr. Ramey. Then talk about consequences: Explain to him that nobody wants to be friends with a cheater.
Lesson for Life: "Parents need to address lying and cheating early on -- starting around school age," says Dr. Ramey. "Honesty is related to trust, which is the basis of all relationships, so it's critical for parents to make a big deal about it and to strictly enforce the rules." One of the best strategies is to "catch" a child doing the right thing and praise the good behavior, rather than waiting to punish the bad. If your child got into trouble at school but fessed up when he got home, say, "I don't like the fact that you hit Sammy, but I'm glad you were honest."
Trouble Signs: Preschoolers still think the world revolves around them. It isn't until around kindergarten that children begin to understand that they can't have and do whatever they want. Before age 4 or 5, it's harder to know whether your kid is actually spoiled or simply going through a typical stage. If your child is school-age and she frequently defies you, talks back, and won't take "no" for an answer, she's spoiled, says Dr. Berkowitz.
Fast Fix: Never respond to whiny demands. "Research shows that the longer you hold out before caving, the more you reinforce the negative behavior," says Dr. Berkowitz. "You've not only given in to what your child wants, but you've also rewarded her persistence -- which means she's more likely to continue the whining and begging in the future." Not exactly what you want. If you think she shouldn't eat another cookie, just say no and tell her she can get a piece of fruit. If she's bored or frustrated and begging for attention, suggest things she can do on her own; maybe she can get out some paper and crayons or sort puzzle pieces by color. Also, don't make unrealistic threats. Are you really going to cancel the whole family's visit to the zoo because she's misbehaving? Probably not. "Parents make this mistake all the time," says Dr. Berkowitz. "And the kid learns that your threats are empty, so why pay attention to them?"
Lesson for Life: One way to discourage kids from being too self-focused and demanding is to foster a sense of responsibility toward others, says Dr. Killen. For preschoolers, the family is their first community. Even young kids understand the importance of doing their part, so start by giving them small chores around the house such as picking up their toys, watering the plants, or placing the napkins on the table for lunch or dinner. "When you finish eating, teach your preschooler to carry her plate to the sink," suggests Dr. Killen. "This conveys: We're all part of the same family and this isn't a restaurant. Kids enjoy helping out -- it builds a sense of pride and autonomy." Later, as your child's sense of community expands to include her school and the neighborhood, you can encourage her to participate in a local park cleanup or a fund-raiser. She can help a neighbor water his plants or take cookies to a friend who's sick. Ultimately, she'll grow up to understand that the world doesn't revolve around her and that she has the power to help turn it into a better place.
Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the September 2007 issue of Parents magazine.