Children’s behavior, certainly their “bad” behavior, can drive a parent crazy. Perhaps the most irritating behavior is when children do the opposite of what they have been told. Every parent has said some of the following: “Behave.” “Be good” “Cut it out” “Act your age.” “Straighten up.” Perhaps they remember their parents saying the same thing.
Parents wonder why children don’t do as they say. Don’t they listen? Of course there are many reason why children don’t “behave”. Children’s short term memory isn’t always as good as we would like. When they are tired and irritable they can’t process or modulate their behavior as well. (Of course that goes for parents as well.)
Children are delightful because of their ceaseless curiosity of learning about new things, new interpersonal experiences, and about how things work. This curiosity bounces their attention from one thing to another no matter what has been said before as all these “things” are much more interesting.
If you look at the parental commands above, can you define what behavior is being requested exactly? If a parent says to a three year old or an eight year old “act your age” and they proceed to act like a three year old or eight year old, are they misbehaving or is there too much vagueness in the request. Children often don’t follow these requests because they don’t really know what is expected.
Of course the first rule of good behavior is for the parental partners to be good role models. If a parent does not want their child to curse in public they should not curse at home. Second, children do need verbal guidance but that needs to be done at their age and language ability. The younger the child the more the parent will need to speck with inflection and facial expressions. Their statements need to be shorter and simpler.
Basic tips for communication include focusing on what they can do rather than what they can’t such as “throw the ball outside” or “talk very quietly when we are in church”. It helps to teach about the function of an object such as “chairs are for sitting on; you may not use one to climb”.
Somethings seem so obvious to parents it is hard to remember how to communicate ideas to young child. For instance introducing a newborn sibling to a toddler a parent might say ‘be gentle” but what does that mean exactly? Demonstrating a careful gentle touch or a gentle hug would be helpful. Praising their gentle strokes as soon as they are demonstrated helps to continue this behavior.
Give children reasons for expectations. “I want you to be safe crossing the street. I expect you to hold on to my hand.” Many things seem so obvious for safe and respectful behavior. It is important to clearly communicate parental expectations in an age appropriate manner and set a good example. Sometimes we just have think about what we are saying. Repetition and praise are great teachers.
by Sally Robinson, MD Clinical Professor
Keeping Kids Healthy
Published July 2023