15 Rules to Foster Good Behavior in Children

In my last post, I presented general principles of good behavior in young children.  Today, I would like to follow up with specific recommendations – 15 rules that parents can use to help children learn to behave well (most of the time).

1)  Play (and work) with them often. This is the best way to teach children cooperation and self-restraint. The best way to help children learn to cooperate, when there is work that needs to be done, is to work with them.

Every moment of interactive play with an admired adult offers an opportunity for children to learn rules and limits.  In the course of this play (and work), children come to understand that rules are necessary – for safety and for living with others.  To the dismay of many well-intentioned parents, most children do not learn good behavior from repeated talks or lectures.

A generation ago, developmental psychologists Eleanor Maccoby and Mary Parpal instructed parents to play each night with their children in whatever way their child wanted to play.  Just two weeks later, these children more readily cooperated when asked to clean up their toys.

Since then, the importance of interactive play has been repeatedly demonstrated – in clinical interventions for oppositional and defiant children, in preschool and kindergarten educational programs and in neuroscience research.  I will discuss this research in more detail in future posts.

2)  Express enthusiastic interest in your child’s interests, even if these are not the interests you would choose.  Enthusiastic interest in our children’s interests is a first principle of strengthening parent-child relationships – and of fostering cooperative behavior.  At the risk of being somewhat crass, we can think of enthusiastic interest as the deposit that we draw on when it is time to set limits.  Or, as the behavioral psychologist Alan Kazdin points out, the effectiveness of our time-outs depends largely on the quality of our time-ins.

3)  Repair moments of anger and misunderstanding.  When feelings of anger and unfairness linger, children are far more likely to become irritable, uncooperative and disrespectful. We should therefore set aside some time, every day, to repair angry interactions.

4)  Engage them in problem solving.  Most common behavior problems are best solved pro-actively.  Place the problem before your child and ask for her ideas. (For example, “We seem to have a problem every morning, when it’s time to get ready for school.  What do you think we can do about this?”)  Then, together, develop a plan.  When we enlist children in solving problems, we have changed the channel.  Instead of thinking about how they can get what they want, they begin to think, even if just for that moment, about how to solve a problem.

When we are re-acting to our children’s behavior, we will often be reacting badly.

5)  Teach them a language of emotion regulation and emotional intelligence.  Children behave well when they have learned to handle (or, as we now say, “regulate”) the anxieties, frustrations and disappointments of everyday life – when they come to learn that disappointments are disappointments, not catastrophes.  They develop this ability through emotional dialogue.

Acknowledge their disappointments and frustrations.  Talk with them about your own frustrations and disappointments – and how you coped with them.

6)  Teach them to wait.  Pamela Druckerman, in her entertaining account of parenting in contemporary Paris, observed that French parents, from a very early age, do not immediately meet a child’s demands.  Instead, they stress the importance of teaching children to wait.  And, unlike American children, French kids don’t throw food.

7)  Offer encouragement, not criticism.  When you need to criticize, criticize thoughtfully and gently.  Persistent criticism breeds resentment and defiance, which then undermine a child’s initiative and sense of responsibility.

If we are frequently angry and critical, our children will not be well behaved, no matter how much discipline we provide.

8)  When you have to say “No,” say “No” calmlyThen, insist that they speak to you calmly.  (Our mantra should be, “Johnny, when you’re calm, we can talk about this.”)

9)  Begin your sentences with “When…” or  “As soon as…”  Too often, we begin our sentences, “If you don’t….”  This simple change of tone and grammar often makes a dramatic difference in the cooperativeness of young children.

10) Compromise.  Compromise is not giving in.  When we compromise with children, we teach them to compromise – to think about how their needs and the needs of others can be reconciled.  Is there a more important lesson for children to learn, for all their future relationships?

11) Give them responsibilities.  Across cultures, children who are given responsibilities (for example, when they have chores or teach younger children) show more helpfulness and caring behavior toward others.

As a side benefit, they also begin to experience our point of view. They learn, first hand, how annoying it is when you are trying to get things done and someone doesn’t listen.

12) Teach them the importance of other people’s feelings.  Respect for the needs and feelings of others is the foundation of moral behavior.

In a series of important studies, psychologist Ross Thompson and his colleagues found that the mothers of children with strong moral development spoke to their children in an emotion-rich language and made frequent references, not to rules and consequences, but to other peoples’ feelings.

13) Let them know when their behavior is over the line.  Then, take a brief time out.  But it is really a time out, with an opportunity to start over, to try again, to do better the next time.

14) Let them know that you are proud of them.  Especially for the good things they do for others.

15) Take time to listen.  Hear their side of the story.  Tell them what is right about what they are saying or doing before you tell them what they are doing wrong.

When children feel that their concerns and grievances have been listened to and understood, they will make fewer, not more, demands.  And we will have an easier time when it is time to say no.