Guiding Children Towards Positive Behaviors

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stop yelling at your children, guiding children towards positive behaviors

When it comes to parenting, I think one of the biggest challenges is the management of behaviors. My husband and I are constantly discussing and reflecting on how to raise our children so that they are obedient, respectful, and make good choices. By continuously discussing what is working and what is not, we can make sure that we are on the same page when it comes to handling misbehaviors.

From my experience and training as a teacher and now as a parent, I have come across some amazing resources that have helped me to shape my management philosophy.

  • Alfie Kohn – As a teacher, I loved his theories of cooperation and curiosity in the classroom and his emphasis on internal motivation rather than external rewards.
  • William Glasser – His choice theory which gives children a sense of power and his five basic needs that he says all children must have met (adapted from Maslow): survival, love/belonging/connection, power/significance/competence, freedom/autonomy, and fun/learning.
  • Love and Logic – The focus here is about being calm and in control, allowing children to make their own choices, and implementing logical consequences in order to guide and teach them.
  • Positive Parenting – We just listened to this amazing webinar and loved Amy McCready’s explanation of how kids need attention and power, how punishment (anything that makes kids feel blame, shame, or pain) leads to lying and revenge, how to implement consequences that are respectful, related, reasonable, revealed in advance, and repeated back, and how not to piggyback on a consequence by blathering on and on about how they made a poor choice.

Our Parenting Philosophy

My husband and I love our children so much, and we simply want what’s best for them both now and in the future. We want them to feel loved and cherished and know that they are the light of our lives, but we don’t want them to walk all over us. We want them to be respectful to us, to themselves, and to others. We want them to be ready to enter the world without us beside them, and to be as amazing to the world as they are to us.

We also believe that children are inherently good, and that the mistakes they make are opportunities for guidance rather than malicious attacks on us personally that we must make them pay for with punishments. This mindset is not always achieved in perfect balance as we are humans who make mistakes, but it is what we strive for.

How to Guide Children Towards Positive Behaviors

The following ten steps are what has worked for our family using the above mentioned resources as a guide with continuous reflection and adaption. I don’t think that there’s one cookie cutter approach to positive parenting. Whatever approach you take has to work with the dynamics within your household. The important thing is to have a plan in place. If you’re always winging it, it forces you to be reactive rather than proactive which can make for a very chaotic household. I highly recommend using this list as a springboard of discussion to then make your own list based on what works for you.

1. Basic Needs Must Be Met

Children (and adults for that matter) first and foremost need to have their basic needs met. Just making sure that this happens will minimize behavior disruptions right off the bat. If our children are exhibiting negative behaviors, the first thing we do is check to see if one of these needs haven’t been met. At the same time, if we find ourselves quick to anger and working with a short fuse, we check to make sure OUR basic needs are being met too.

  1. Survival (Food, water, sleep, comfort, health, stress, etc.)
  2. Love (Lots of cuddles and attention, not being super busy trying to do a thousand things all the time)
  3. Power (Giving them choices and making them feel like they have some control over their lives)
  4. Freedom (Allowing them the autonomy to exert their free will when it’s appropriate)
  5. Play (Making sure that they have plenty of time for imaginative play)
  6. Learning (Providing them with challenging activities and stimulating experiences)

2. Choice Theory Gives Children Power

It can be a little tricky trying to meet a child’s need for power without feeling like your power is being compromised. That’s why we love using choice theory with the little things so that they fill their “power buckets” so to speak. By letting them choose what to wear, where to sit, what game to play, and so on, it makes them feel like their opinions matter and they have a say in what happens. Then, when we need to make choices that aren’t negotiable, like “Time for bed!” it doesn’t feel like we’re the only ones with the power.

When using choice theory, you’re not asking open ended questions like, “What would you like to eat for breakfast today?” You’re picking two options that both work for you like, “Would like waffles or pancakes for breakfast?” In doing so, you’re not compromising what works for you in order to meet their needs. Truth be told, you’re not really giving them as much power as it feels like they’re getting, but that’s the beauty of choice theory!

Choice theory can work really well as a way to get things moving along within the structures of a routine too. Just make sure you always provide two choices that you can live with. If you want your child to put their pajamas on for example, ask them, “Would you like to wear the snowman pajamas or the owl pajamas?” That way, when they choose to wear the snowman pajamas, they are buying into the next step of the bedtime routine in a way that gives them power and choice. We like to use this strategy a lot as a way to distract them from emotional meltdowns as well.

3. Tell Me What I Can Do, Not What I Can’t Do

My husband has a wonderful strategy for intervening whenever the kids are fighting over something and he overhears a negative comment like, “Don’t play with my cars!” He steps in and says, “Tell your sister what she CAN do, not what she CAN’T do”. This inevitably leads to the one demanding a change in behavior to really think about what the other child can do instead. Sometimes it’s giving them some other toys to play with and sometimes they establish a way for the other child to participate in their play.

This also works really well as a reminder for us as parents that we shouldn’t be telling children what NOT TO DO so much as we should be showing them what TO DO instead. For example, you’re on a road trip and you hear a loud whiny voice in the backseat, instead of shouting, “Stop making that sound!” you could instead say, “Use your words”. Kids react in the moment based on what they are feeling, and if we want them to behave differently, we have to show them what that looks like.

4. Minimize Behaviors with Distractions

Many behaviors can start to bubble up when kids are tired and hungry and it’s good to have a few tricks up your sleeve for getting through these tricky times.

  1. Positive Encouragement: Instead of saying, “Put your pants on right now!” say, “I wonder if you can put your pants on by yourself now that you’re four years old? You can? Good job! I’m so proud of you! Daddy come in here and see what he did!” Sometimes when we assume a positive outcome, we get a positive outcome.
  2. Redirect: By directing their attention away from the thing that is making them frustrated, you can help children to move more quickly onto the next activity and hopefully avoid any conflict. Let’s say that your son is starting to whine about putting his coat on, don’t spend time trying to convince him that it’s cold outside and he needs his coat, just start putting it on and as you do talk about where you are going and get him excited about it. You might say, “When we go shopping, I’ll let you pick out one treat. What do you think you’ll want, a treat or a toy?” (Did you notice the choice theory in there too?)
  3. Humor: Use a funny voice, make a joke, be super silly, just do whatever it takes to get over the little roadblock.
  4. Game: Sometimes when our children get a little reluctant about heading upstairs to go to bed, I’ll say, “Let’s count how many stairs there are. How many do you think there will be?” Or we’ll say, “Last one up is a rotten egg!” My brother’s girlfriend Mae Belle told us this great trick for getting kids to brush their teeth. Her mom always told her and her siblings that their eyes changed color when they were ready for bed. So of course they wanted to rush right to the bathroom mirror to take a look. Once they were there looking at their pupils growing smaller in the bright lights of the bathroom, it was that much easier to get them to the next step of brushing their teeth. I love this!
  5. Song: Make up a silly song about what you are doing or sing your child’s favorite song to distract them. This works especially well with songs that your child likes to sing along with. (The Eensy Weensy Spider, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, If You’re Happy and You Know It…). I love using this during diaper changing time. I sometimes like to pause before the last word of each line so that my child will fill in the blank.
  6. Listen: Sometimes, children just need to be heard and by listening – really listening to their problem, we can help talk them through it. Sometimes we think we know what the problem is, but we’re totally off the mark. For example, at school the other day, my daughter appeared to be not following directions as my mom popped in to visit her class, but upon further questioning, she learned that she was trying to do the task perfectly (cover all of the black space within a circle with white shreds of paper in order to make a snowman) and when she talked to her about doing her best instead of being perfect, she was as happy as can be!
  7. Timing: My Aunt Sue told me a good one the other day about how she would always time her boys as an incentive to get them to do something like go to the bathroom, get dressed, or do some other kind of chore. They would be so excited to see how many seconds it took them to get it done!

5. Minimize Behaviors by Being Calm

If your child is just starting to misbehave or has a minor transgression, you can escalate things and make them much worse by doing the following.

  1. Getting Angry and Yelling: By letting them get to us, we can get sucked into the situation and respond with anger which leads to frustration and yelling. Your child is already angry and frustrated, so piling your anger onto the situation might feel good (or inevitable) in the moment, but it’s certainly not going to make the situation any better. The last thing you want to do when your child is yelling is to yell, “Stop yelling!!!” 
  2. Using Sarcasm: A child who is crying and throwing a tantrum does not need to hear you mimic them to show them how ridiculous the tantrum sounds. You are the adult and you need to guide them out of this behavior, not by shaming them into a better behavior, but through patience and love and being the change you want to see.
  3. Lecturing: I honestly cannot think of any situation where any lecture in the history of the world has ever worked on any child in any circumstance. Ever. Period. I mean, think about it, you’re angry, upset, emotional, and feeling perhaps a little guilty over your actions. Sure, it’s one thing to hear a simple, “That’s not okay, I do not want to see you _______ again.” But to go on and on and on about how the action was wrong, how it hurt others, how it hurt you, what they should have done instead, how you’re so disappointed, and so on is not an effective method for getting them to change their behavior. The best thing to do is to keep your guidance short. If you really want to talk about it, wait until later, but seriously, keep it short then too. Nobody, and I mean nobody, likes hearing an endless tirade about how wrong they were.

6. Minimize Behaviors Using a Stern Voice

I do not advocate for yelling, ever, but there is a difference between an angry, whiny, sarcastic or loud voice and a stern Mommy or Daddy voice that says, “I mean business”. Save this voice for when you really really need it. This will ensure that it is most effective. We use this voice when our children do something in the moment that is just totally not okay. For example, when they hit someone, when they are about to run into the street, when they throw something spitefully on the floor, or when they say a bad word. Without missing a beat, we say, “_______, that is not okay! It is not okay to hit people!” If the offense warrants, we’ll bring them close to us or we’ll move away from that location and on to something else.

The problem I see parents having with this strategy is that they don’t commit to it. They start off with a kind of soft, mumbled, “Oh no, that’s not okay,” but it’s hard to hear their voice as they trail off. You have to say it with confidence and it has to be loud, not yelling, but loud, and very stern. It has to mean business and be ready to not take any excuses. In the best case scenario, the child is shocked out of their bad behavior, realizes the importance of the rule, and everyone can simply move on. If not, however, or if the child immediately does it again, then consequences must be implemented. I’ll get to that in a minute.

7. The Importance of Routines

There are lots of routines that we go through in a day/week/month, but the two most important times of our days are the morning and bedtime routines. We work hard to work out routines for both of these times that works best for everyone. If we start to encounter any rough patches during these times, we don’t make a big deal about it and just get through it however we can. Then later, we talk with each other about what made things rough and adjust our routine in order to help things run more smoothly the next time. The important thing about these routines is to be as consistent as possible. If you’re in a hurry, don’t skip bedtime stories to try to rush things along. Instead, read shorter stories or only spend ten minutes wrestling instead of twenty.

8. Establish Rules

By establishing rules, children will have clear expectations about what is okay and what is not okay before a misbehavior occurs. When establishing family rules, you don’t want to make a list of every minor transgression that might occur, but rather think of the big ideas that you want to permeate the choices your children make. A big idea like “Be Respectful” encompasses so many other things like using your manners, treating others with kindness, using positive words, and so on and is much better than listing all of those examples individually. It’s also best whenever possible to word rules using a positive voice rather than a negative. Maybe one or two that are really important or have become an issue like, “No throwing things” or “No hitting”, but you don’t want an entire list of “what not to dos”.

Here are our rules. We spent time making this chart together with the kids and talking about it. I drew little pictures of examples for each one. The kids thought they were just hilarious, but it really helped them to understand what they meant. Talk to your spouse about what rules work for you and let the kids add their input too. One thing I LOVE doing with rules is role playing. So for the rule about obeying I’ll say, “Now pretend that Daddy just asked you to go to bed. Show me what would NOT be okay.” They have so much fun shouting NO, stomping away, and saying mean things to Daddy. Then I ask them to act out what a good example would look like and then we talk about the differences.

rules chart

Rules Chart

My husband and I reference the first rule (Obey) most of all. Before we made our rule chart, my husband and I noticed that the biggest problem we were having with our children had to do with listening. We wanted them to obey the first time we asked them to do something without having to cajole and coddle a response or action out of them. We find ourselves saying, “What’s the number one rule?” more often than any other rule. The “Show Respect” rule encompasses lots of things like saying “please” and “thank you” and being kind to each other. Our kids came up with “Share” rule and we like to remind them of that too! The throwing rule was a special one we had to add just for our son who for some reason became obsessed with throwing things in the house.

Rules are different from jobs. Jobs are what each family member contributes to the family unit and when children are clear about their jobs, they are clear about what is expected of them. I also like to talk to them about what our jobs are as parents and they enjoy seeing that even babies have jobs to do!

family jobs chart

Family Jobs Chart

9. Implementing Consequences

When I thought about writing this blog, this is where I thought I would start, but then I realized that there is so much more that goes into behavior management than just dealing with the misbehaviors. By doing everything mentioned above, you will have created an environment that does not encourage misbehaviors. But even still, rest assured that they will occur! We have to expect that they will occur and look for times when we can guide.

That being said, there’s an ebb and flow to implementing consequences. Sometimes you’ll find yourself implementing them a lot as your children push to see where the boundaries are, but they should not be a part of your regular everyday life. If you are constantly experiencing misbehaviors and doling out consequences, you really need to look at the root cause for why this is happening and make adjustments in your routines, time, attention, or whatever else is bothering your children.

  1. Have Clear Expectations: By establishing the rules before a behavior occurs, children will have a good idea of what is expected of them. It’s much easier to behave when there aren’t any surprises about what is allowed and what isn’t.
  2. Misbehavior Occurs: Ask yourself, “Is this a behavior that they KNOW is wrong or is this a gray area?” Let’s say for example that it’s time to go somewhere and you ask your child to put on her shoes and she either ignores you or says “no” when she KNOWS that the number one rule is to obey, then it’s time to move on to step number three. Now let’s say that she comes home after the first day of school and throws her backpack and coat on the floor. You have never talked to her about the expectations for what to do with these items so you might say, “When you come home from school, I expect you to hang up your coat and backpack. Now, tell me, what are you going to do when you get home from school.” You should not implement a consequence for something that they weren’t sure was expected of them. Now, if she comes home from school a few weeks  later and throws her coat and backpack on the floor after doing it correctly for weeks, it’s time to move on to step number 4.
  3. Choose Your Battles: Decide if this is the best time to teach a lesson or not. If their basic needs have not been met, you altered the routine, you were not clear on expectations, or you are feeling particularly angry, these are all good examples of when you might want to let the behavior go and make an example at another more appropriate time.
  4. Give Them a Choice: Whenever a misbehavior occurs, I think it’s important to give children a choice before moving on to a consequence. By giving them a choice, you’re providing them with the power to choose what is right for themselves; you are not making them do it. So for example in the shoe scenario, you could say, “You need to obey me when I tell you what to do. Now, you can either put your shoes on, or I can do it for you.” That is really a very minimal consequence, but for children who are motivated to do everything themselves, it can work really well!
  5. Counting to Three: This is sometimes more effective than giving a choice. You just have to be careful how you use it and how often you use it. Now, I’m not talking about saying, “3, 2, 2 and a half, two and a quarter, two and an eighth, I’m serious, 1…one half, one quarter…0.” I mean, saying, “I’m going to count to three and by the time I get to 0, you’d better be putting your pajamas on or else you’ll have a consequence.” As soon as you start saying “3”, they should be moving. Say the numbers quickly and be ready to follow through immediately. You may have to follow through on this a time or two before it really becomes effective. 
  6. Logical Consequence: Try to implement a consequence that is fitting to the misbehavior. Let’s say that with the shoe scenario you get to the point where you need to implement consequences, an example of an illogical consequence would be to take away her ipad for a week whereas a logical consequence is that she loses the freedom to put on her shoes. Logical consequences should be easy to come up with based on the situation you are in. A logical consequence for them not picking up their toys would be to take the toys away for the rest of the day, a logical consequence for not turning off the ipad when you ask them to is that they lose the privilege of playing it for the rest of the day or the next day, and a logical consequence for hurting someone is hugging them, saying sorry, and making them feel better.
    1. What About Spankings? We grew up getting spanked and turned out just fine (or did we?), but a new meta-analysis of research of 160,000 children over five decades shows that the more children are spanked, the more likely they are to defy their parents and to experience increased aggression, anti-social behavior, mental health problems, and cognitive difficulties. We used to think that a little bit of spanking was okay, but we don’t spank at all anymore, and our children are very well behaved.
    2. What About Time Outs? Time outs are a form of punishment just like spankings, that assumes that the child is intentionally being bad and deserves to be punished for this bad behavior instead of redirected, guided, or instructed on how to get through the difficult situation. Sometimes children choose to walk away from a situation that is frustrating and may even choose to go to their rooms to cool off (as parents, we might choose to do this as well if we feel like our emotions are taking over a situation), but that is different from isolating a child as a punishment for bad behavior.
  7. Follow Through: Now, once you say that you’re going to give a consequence, you have to immediately follow through with it no matter how much they whine or protest. The biggest mistake people make with consequences is that they make a consequence that they really don’t want to follow through with. Let’s say for example that you’ve planned a big outing to the zoo. You’ve got snacks, diapers, toys, friends are meeting you there, and you have the whole day planned out. But then right after you’ve purchased your tickets, your little one starts to throw a tantrum because they wanted the monkey crackers not the hippo crackers and you say, “You need to stop that right now or else we’re going home.” So now if your child doesn’t stop the tantrum you will have to go home, and honestly, that’s more of a punishment to you. So first of all, make sure you are prepared to follow through with the consequence. In fact, when you present it, just expect that you will have to follow through with it. Start mentally preparing for what you will do when you have to implement the consequence so you will be ready to act right away. In tantrum situation, maybe a better solution would be to take your child away from the group to decompress and figure out the motivation for the tantrum. Are they hungry? Tired? Overwhelmed? Sometimes a good cuddle and some reassuring words can work wonders.
  8. Move On: After you have implemented the consequence, you may say one quick little thing like, “I hope that next time ___________ happens, you’ll make better choices.” And that’s it! You do not want to spend a lot of time lecturing them at this point. Just let it go and move on.
  9. Don’t Repeat the Consequence to Elicit a Behavior: Moving on also means that you still need to move on from the behavior, and if you just gave a consequence because little Johnny wouldn’t put his pajamas on, you still need him to put his pajamas on. You really have to use your judgement on this one. He may be obedient enough to just start putting his pajamas on, but if not, just do it for him. The worst thing you can do is to start counting again and implementing consequence after consequence. This will only make the child progressively more hysterical and it will only make you angrier and angrier turning you into a big bully doling out punishments relentlessly. As you’re putting his pajamas on say, “I hope that tomorrow when I ask you to put your pajamas on, you’ll make a better choice and put them on right away.” And then tomorrow, awhile before bedtime, you can ask him, “What are you going to do when I ask you to put your pajamas on tonight?” Guiding children towards positive behaviors takes patience and time. It doesn’t happen immediately or even overnight.
  10. Be Consistent: If one day you’re totally fine with them spending hours on the ipad (maybe because you needed to get a few things done) and then the next day (when you’re all caught up on everything) you suddenly you get angry for them being on it too much, this inconsistency can confuse children. If having them limit their ipad usage is really important to you, then explain that to children beforehand and follow through with the limited use. And if on occasion, you want allow them to spend hours on the ipad, at least explain that this is a special occasion.
  11. Hugs: You might not be able to do this right away if your child is emotional and still coming down from a meltdown. But at some point following the incident, find the time to hug your child and say I love you. You want to let them know that it’s the behavior you were displeased with not them.

10. What to Do When You Lose Your Cool

To expect that you’re never going to get mad and lose your cool is absurd. Just expect that it’s going to happen from time to time. We are all human and we all make mistakes. As long as yelling and getting angry isn’t your “go to” strategy for dealing with misbehavior, and as long as you realize and acknowledge that you made a mistake, everything will be fine. It’s actually good for kids to see you make mistakes, especially when you can talk to them and say something, “I’m sorry I got mad and yelled at you. I was just getting really frustrated when you wouldn’t listen to me. What I should have said instead is ________. Can you forgive me?” If you do this, you model to them what they should do when they get angry and make a mistake.

In Conclusion

The most important thing to keep in mind throughout this entire process is communication. All of this means nothing if you cannot share your expectations with your spouse and be on the same page. If Daddy tries to implement a consequence, but the kids know that Mommy won’t uphold it, they will learn you to play the two of you against each other. You both have to talk often about what is and isn’t working for your family and be willing to revise your behavior management plan as needed. You also need to clearly communicate with the children what your expectations are of them. They will thrive in an environment where their actions elicit predictable results while you and your spouse can enjoy more peace and harmony in your home.

**Update: I wrote this blog 9 months ago when we were having some behavior management troubles. We weren’t on the same page, there was too much yelling, and our children’s misbehaviors were a problem. After watching McCready’s webinar and discussing and revising the blog numerous times, we finally had a shared vision and a plan. It took months and months of us working together to finally implement this plan successfully, but wow, what a difference! We are not blindsided by misbehaviors anymore and we both deal with them calmly and consistently which has led to a much more peaceful household.