When you’re a parent of young children, you have a golden opportunity to create habits and expectations that will survive the long haul. Want well-behaved children? Head ‘em off at the pass before they become rascals. Yes, I’m the mother who recently wrote about the 5 worst mistakes I made as a parent, but I did a few things right, too.
- You’re the boss, they’re the applesauce. Yes, I really did say that to my children: “I’m the boss, you’re the applesauce.” It softens the reality that what you say goes, and it sometimes brings on the giggles, which are more desirable than scowls. This is one tip, but it has a few components.
- Don’t let your child tell you “No.” Why? “I’m the parent, you’re the child, and you don’t get to tell me ‘No.’ That’s just the way it is.” My friend Julie, a second-grade teacher, gave me the tip that instead of saying “No” to your child, say “You may not” or “May not,” which keeps “no” from being an everyday word around your house. And it sounds positive and happy. A payoff of not letting your child tell you “no”: When my three sons were in middle school, another mother said her son kept “talking back” to her and she wanted to know what I did when mine talked back to me. “I don’t know. They don’t talk back to me.” I trace that back to not letting them tell me “no” when they were young. And a child who says “no” to their parent may graduate to other phrases, such as “You’re stupid.”
- Explain the family dynamic to your child. Sounds complicated, but all it means is telling them that your job is to keep them healthy and safe and to teach them, and their job is to obey you. (Of course you love them and they love you, but that’s different than it being a job.) Why do they have to do what you say? “I know a lot. I have experience.” (Confession: I used to tell my kids I knew everything, and they did believe it for a while.) And the simple answer “Because I’m the boss and you’re the applesauce” works here, too.
- Don’t engage in negotiations with your child or try to reason with them to convince them that they must do what you say. I shake my head when I see parents squatting down to a three year-old’s level and trying to engage in a logical conversation about the situation at hand to convince the child that they should do what the parent said. Young children don’t understand all of your logic. Proof? “Why is the grass green?” Because we water it. “Why do we water it?” Because grass needs water to live. “Why does grass need water to live?” Resist the temptation to conclude that your child is endlessly brilliant and curious. Consider that your child simply may not get it That’s why a simple “Because I said so. I’m the boss, you’re the applesauce” and a smile are sufficient for the first few years.
- Don’t chase your child. You’ve seen parents chasing their young children in public—at the park, in the grocery store, in parking lots, etc. This is a safety issue as much as it is a behavioral one. Teach them to “Stop. Turn around. Come back.” I taught my children these commands first in our house and then reinforced them on the sidewalk in front of our house (on a quiet street) when they were out riding big wheels and tricycles or playing with friends. It’s helpful everywhere you go, especially because those little suckers are faster than you think. And as another friend, Julia, pointed out, when you chase your young children, many times they think it is a game and they will keep running so they can win.
- When you give an answer, stick to it. Children thrive on stability and feel safe when they have boundaries, so being consistent in every way is important. However, children still test boundaries, and you can be driven crazy by a child who asks the same question over and over and over and over, hoping to get the answer they want. When parents give in, they’re doing it because they’ll do anything for peace, but resist giving in and save yourself future anguish. Drill into your child’s head that once you give an answer, it’s not going to change. And, duh, one way to do this is to say, “My answer doesn’t change.” After you’ve said that to your child enough times, you can turn it around on them: “Does my answer change?” Aha! When they answer “No,” you’ve earned a parenting gold star—and that peace you crave.
- Reserve some special toys for times when you need your children to be quiet. When my children were young, telephones were attached to walls, and I could go only as far as my cord would let me. Because of that and because I was occupied, they’d misbehave. (I got a longer phone cord—25 feet.) I wondered if, given the unlimited mobility of cell phones, children still did that today. Then I saw this YouTube video of the dad on a conference call in his home office, invaded by his two sweet young children who turned into rapscallions. He said he usually locks the door—which is the obvious preventive because their mother was there to look after them. But you can’t always lock your children out of the room! So when you need quiet children, such as in a waiting room, when you have company, or when you’re trying to file your taxes online, break out the special toys. This tip comes from a wise mother of five girls, and I wish I’d known it when my children were young. I still would have bought the 25-foot phone cord, though.
- When your children are willing but not able to help around the house, let them, so that when they are able they will be willing. Kids who do chores are proven to be more successful adults, but good luck getting them to start in the 7th grade like the mother who wanted her son to suddenly stop sassing her. Let them do what they can—or what they can’t—when they’re young. I gave my two year-old daughter the job of wiping the coffee table with a wet cloth even though it didn’t need it because she wanted to clean something, and a dry cloth didn’t seem legit to her. When I was painting the dining room, my sons wanted to help. I liked my carpet the way it was, so I let them paint the wooden fence in the back yard. But I’m not stupid. I let them paint it with buckets of water. They used real paint brushes and rollers. That was “practice,” as we called it. The fence dried back to its normal color, but it was still fun for them. What if you give your child a real job and they don’t do it very well? Keep letting them do it, and give them positive reinforcement. “You did a great job sweeping the kitchen. Those Cheerios in the corner were very tricky, hiding from you. Now they’re trapped! You can go get them!” Make it fun, moms and dads. You know how. What’s not fun is sweeping all the Cheerios, then Doritos, then who knows what else, all by yourself until your children go off to college. Remember that children who perform chores are more successful, so by having them do chores, you’ve made your children more likely to go off to college, giving you the time, space, and freedom you have earned.
If you screw up with some of this, don’t sweat it. Join the club.