Good parenting is about putting all the pieces together. Everyday. This is a list of everything I’ve gleaned about how to get the best out of kids. These are things I’ve learned from observing and speaking with educators, reading books, talking with other parents, and of course, parenting my four-year-old, Nora. Whenever a situation presents itself where Nora is acting up, my husband and I can always get the behavior back under control by examining which of these things we have let slide.
Kids are so much more comfortable when they know what’s coming next. With Nora, we notice a spike in undesirable behavior — screaming and loud talking in her case — the first day we have visitors from out of town and the first day we are visiting somewhere else. Once she’s adjusted to the situation, she settles right back to her normal self.
Establish a routine that allows for vigorous activity and downtimes and stick to it whenever possible. If you know the routine will be disrupted, give your child a head’s up about how things will be different (and what will be staying the same) so the change won’t catch him off guard.
2. Healthy Food
Garbage in, garbage out. Fill your kid up with junk food and you get behavior to match. If you’ve fallen into the habit of letting your child eat junk food, pull it back by clearing all unhealthy food out of the house and offering only the healthiest of what she likes to eat. Then add additional healthy foods from there. Also, make sure she stays topped off all day long. Offer small meals every 3 hours or so. Low blood sugar is a nasty business we should all avoid.
Kids need a ridiculous amount of sleep. Think of all the processing of information and growing they have to do. While it may seem counter-intuitive, if your child is having trouble falling asleep at night, s/he may actually need an earlier bedtime. It’s hard to settle down when you’re overtired and your body is dumping adrenaline into your system to keep you going. Calming routines and low light levels at night also help. And for pity sake, no screens in the evening. The human brain mistakes that glow for sunlight, don’t you know.
Listen when your child talks to you. Speak to your child as if someone you want to impress is always listening to you. Don’t yell, don’t hit, don’t belittle. If you do, offer a sincere apology and explain how you will change your behavior next time. This is called modeling and it’s the best tool in your kit.
Sometimes the little details of everyday life make a big difference. For example, Nora is constantly underfoot when I’m trying to get us out the door or get at something. Instead of saying, “Move out of the way,” or even “Move out of the way, please,” I like to say, “Take five steps back for me, please, I’m trying to reach such-and-such.”
You must also insist on respect from your child. Confront disrespectful talk and back-sassing. Tell your child that kind of attitude is not acceptable and validate that you love him but you expect better behavior from him.
5. Wait an Extra Beat
Putting on a coat, scrambling into a carseat, walking down a flight of stairs: little kids just take longer to do things. I’m constantly tempted to urge Nora along during these tasks, but I find if I wait a second or two longer than I’m inclined, she is able to finish the task without my prompting (read: nagging).
6. Minimize Screen Time
I know some of you are going fight me on this but hear me out. Screen time winds kids up like little else — television and video games are non-stop stimulation. I’ve seen parents who use screens to get some relief from a child’s bad behavior, then the bad behavior is exacerbated by the extra screen time, so the parent is even more in need of a break, thus allows even more screen time, and the cycle continues.
And programming for kids often provide models for bad behavior. Most programs that seek to teach offer a 20 minute demonstration of “naughtiness” (being mean to other kids or not doing what they’re told) and two minutes of resolution. What sticks with the kid is the bad behavior, not the moral tacked on at the end.
Try the following: this weekend let your child have a normal amount of screen time for your family (or even a bit extra) and notice your child’s behavior. Then the next weekend try no screen time. Notice any differences in behavior. I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts, your child is better behaved without screens.
7. Not Too Many Toys
Kids get overwhelmed by clutter. Consider getting rid of about half of your child’s current stock of toys and then tucking the remaining half into a “toy library” you can tap when boredom strikes. Keep only the toys that spark imagination and don’t require batteries. You’ll have less picking up to do and your child will have more fun. Really.
8. Have Fun
Don’t always be the heavy. Make everyday activities more fun by injecting some imagination. When Nora was about two and a half, getting her ready to go to daycare was becoming a big challenge. Instead of making it about getting ready to go school, we created a game about fighting fires. I would hear an imaginary phone ring. I would answer it, pretending to be at the Fire Station, then say that Nora and I would get on all of our special fire fighting gear and come put out the fire. Then Nora and I would rush to her bedroom and get her dressed as fast as we could, then hop in our imaginary fire engine and drive to the living room where we’d put out the fire and rescue the people who had called. It worked like a charm.
So that’s the best I’ve got; putting these elements together keeps everybody at my house happy most of the time. And yes, these principles work pretty darn well when applied to other adults or even yourself.
What do you think of the list? What’s easy for you and what’s hard? What did I miss?
My reviews of my favorite books on parenting:
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk