My mom once told me, “People will talk about your children in one of two ways: ‘Wow, your kids are so well behaved,’ or ‘Wow, please don’t ever bring your kids here again.'” And while no one ever wants to be, we’ve all experienced moments of the latter. As parents, we all mean well and work hard at raising children. So what’s the secret to raising well behaved ones?
People will talk about your children in one of two ways…
We all aim for raising children who are well-behaved. This doesn’t mean children who don’t have any fun or freedom, children who are only seen and never heard. Just the opposite, actually. Children who can be relied upon to listen, take direction and adapt well to the setting and company of their environment have even more freedom, fun and opportunity. So what’s the secret?People will talk about your children in one of two ways... which do you want it to be?Click To Tweet
The Secret to Raising Children Who Are Well Behaved
Let me start off by saying, I am far from the perfect parent. My children give me plenty of gray hair, frequently make me want to trade in my coffee for wine by 9AM, and I definitely raise my voice more often than I should. But whenever we go out, and particularly when we are surrounded by other children their age, I am reminded of just how well behaved they truly are.What's your secret? Your kids are so good!Click To Tweet
At a recent birthday party, a close girlfriend asked me, “What’s your secret? Your girls are always so good.” The more I thought about it, I realized my parenting philosophy boils down to two very basic things: consistency and confidence.
It’s All About Consistency
Consistency is key. Children rise to the occasion when they have clearly defined parameters set for them. You do this by following a consistent daily routine, setting consistent expectations, and responding to their behavior, the good and the missteps, in a consistent way.
Children of all ages thrive under the consistency of routines. From birth, I have implemented a consistent daily rhythm for my children. A regular sleep pattern, including naps and a set bedtime, as well as consistent meal times, provides a basic structure to each day that they have come to rely on.
This doesn’t mean there is no flexibility, or that lunch time is served at precisely noon every day. But having a consistent rhythm in your day provides comfort to young children, particularly when so much of the world around them is new and unknown. Routines are an even greater point of comfort in foreign environments, like when you are traveling, or on special occasions like holidays.
Routines also help insure children are well-rested, well-fed, and eliminates the likelihood of misbehavior simply from basic needs going unmet. The girlfriend above? Her comment came from the fact that my girls were sitting at a table at a birthday party, patiently waiting to eat lunch. It was lunch time – they were hungry!
We go out to eat with all 3 kids regularly… at 5PM. They eat dinner daily between 5 and 6PM, so we know we can take them out anywhere, within the parameters of their regular routine, and they will happily sit and eat. And yes, if you’re birthday party is in the middle of nap time, I am the mom who will leave my children who still nap at home rather than put them, myself and everyone else through the misery of their company during nap time.
Consistency is about more than just the daily routine. It’s also having a small set of expectations, or rules, you regularly enforce, with little deviation. The fewer, the better – the more readily your child will comply, and the easier they are to enforce with consistency. In our house, with a preschooler and a toddler, the key expectations are
- Treat others the way you want to be treated – with kindness, politeness, and respect
- Food is eaten only at the table
- All toys get put away before bedtime
There are a handful of other rules we use for safety (wear helmets when you ride your bike, hold hands in the parking lot), and if you ask Big M (age 4), my rule stickler, she would probably also tell you “We wear jammies twice” to save me from death by laundry, and “TV or iPad – not both!” to save them from sensory overload.
It’s also important to have reasonable, age-appropriate expectations. When we go out to dinner with 3 kids ages 4, 2, and 7 months, we aren’t sitting down to an 8-course tasting menu with wine pairings lasting 2+ hours. But it is totally the norm to go to a family-friendly restaurant, sit down for a screen-free meal, and be in and out within an hour or so.
Consistent Follow Through
This is the toughest aspect of consistency. How do you respond when expectations are not met? What do you do when your child doesn’t want to go to bed at the routine bedtime? Or when your child throws a temper tantrum in the middle of Target? Your response and the consistency with which it is delivered will determine their future behavior. It also is comforting to a child when they know exactly what to expect, even when they are testing the limits of their freedoms.Parenting Rule #1: Don't do anything you aren't willing to do every time Click To Tweet
Is it easier to cave when they whine, and just give them what they want? Buy them the toy just to quiet their screaming? Sure, the first time… but you have then reinforced a negative behavior sure to repeat itself. A good rule of thumb – at any age – don’t do anything you aren’t willing to do continually. If you don’t want to rock or nurse your baby to sleep every night, bribe your child to eat their food with the promise of dessert every meal, or buy them a toy at Target to keep them quiet on every errand run, then don’t encourage it.
Similarly, don’t give empty threats you can’t or don’t intend to follow through on. In our house, met expectations are received with high praise. Positive reinforcement works so much better than any punishment. Poor choices are reprimanded with natural consequences whenever possible, or loss of privileges. As an example, my oldest was pitching a fit en route to dance class. I asked her to calm down and if she didn’t, we would turn around, go home and miss dance class. And we did.
Following through and losing the privilege of her favorite thing – dance class – just that one time has set the firm expectation that leads to the desired behavior – no screaming in the car – for years now. For the daily bedtime routine, the highest loss of privilege possible is losing their bedtime story – they will brush their teeth, take a bath, and put on their pjs without a fight to make sure they get their favorite part of every night!
Parent with Confidence
The second secret: confidence. Let’s be clear here – none of us really know what we are doing. But act like it. This is just one of thousands of parenting articles out there. Without confidence, it’s very hard to determine your own parenting philosophy, let alone deploy it. One day you read something that tells you sleep training will scar your child for life, and the next, you read an article about how consistent sleep insures children have high IQs. So how do you weed through the noise?
None of us really know what we are doing. But act like it. Click To Tweet
Define your own set of parenting expectations – what are the deal breakers for your family? What style of parenting works for you and your kids? What types of reinforcement and privileges do your children best respond to? All of these will evolve as your children grow up and their interests change. But find what works for you, and stick with it. Children respond to consistency, and behaviors won’t change overnight, particularly if you are trying to correct unwanted behaviors.
I remember my Dad used to tell us “This is not a democracy; this is a benevolent dictatorship!” Children need an authoritative figure in their lives. They need you to be their parent, not their best friend. You don’t have to parent like you are a military general leading your troupes into battle, but you also shouldn’t let your household be run by 3 foot tall tyrants. You need to be the adult in the room. Give them choices, but define the options. Let them make mistakes (that aren’t harmful to their physical well-being) and they will learn from them. And above all, lead by example. Little people have big eyes.
Want to be the mom whose kids actually sit in restaurants and eat? Or the one who runs through Target without their kid begging for every toy in sight? All it takes is consistency and confidence. I promise. If you enjoyed this post, be sure to check out The Parent Commandment and my Sleep Series for more practical parenting tips. You can find them all, and our favorites from around the web, on my Practical Parenting board on Pinterest.