We hear it in almost every family counselling session we do at Three Seas: the parents of today just can’t seem to control their children. Many respond by enacting authoritarian, restrictive measures, or even by spanking their children. The truth is that the reason children are so often out of control is not because they are not punished enough. It is because they are overstimulated, don’t get enough one-on-one time with their parents, and are not taught the skills they need to entertain themselves.
A few simple parenting guidelines can change all of this. Forget about outdated discipline and controlling your child; the real job of parenting is to teach your child to control himself. Here is how to do it.
Don’t Provide Constant Entertainment
A generation or two ago, it was common for parents to check in on their kids every hour or two, but to largely leave them alone. Now, kids are endlessly scheduled, and parents’ lives revolve around their children. This is bad for both. It means mom and dad never get a break, never get to enjoy quality time alone, and see time with their children as a task or chore—not something meaningful and enjoyable. Children whose parents are constantly entertaining them lose independence, creativity, and the ability to entertain themselves; they may also never master the basics of keeping themselves safe and quiet when left unsupervised.
Give children an environment in which they can thrive. Offer lots of art supplies, books, dress-up gear, and toys, but do not over-schedule your child! Do not provide him or her with constant entertainment. Consider even scheduling a family quiet hour, during which everyone entertains themselves. At first, you might have to repeatedly remind your child that it is quite time. Over time, though, your child will begin to master entertaining herself.
Focus on Earning Rewards, Not Punishment
Study after study has demonstrated something that few parents want to acknowledge: punishment simply does not work. Sure, it feels good. Sure, it might get your child to change his or her behavior, but only for a moment. Here’s why: children under the age of four or five have no concept of morality and little empathy, so punishment to them just feels like a parent being randomly mean. Children over the age of five have the ability to reason and negotiate. Punishing them, then, misses an opportunity to talk, teach, and improve their behavior for the future.
If you need to change your child’s behavior, focus on creating rewards instead. Some options include:
- Offering your child money for every chore completed.
- Creating a “sticker chart.” Every time your child does something you ask, he gets a sticker. When the chart is complete, he gets a special reward.
- Asking your child to earn things such as computer time and sweets with coupons she gets for good behavior.
- Not buying your child things, taking him or her on outings, or offering other “bonuses” until your child has earned them.
Control the Environment, Not the Child
Try as you might, you cannot control your child’s thoughts, feelings, or even behavior—particularly when she gets too big to carry. All you can do is create an environment in which your child is likely to succeed. If you know your child throws tantrums when she’s bored, don’t take her on a big outing without some entertainment. If your child responds poorly to change, keep change gradual, rewarding her for reacting calmly so she can steadily learn to do better. Controlling other people is a losing battle, even when those people are your children.
Children Will Do What is Available
We often see parents who are stunned by how much time their children spend in front of the television, or how much junk food they consume. But you are the parent! Parents control their children’s environments, and therefore control what is available. If you do not want your child to eat junk food, the solution is very simple: don’t buy junk food. By only making available activities, toys, and food that are good for your child, you make it easy—and rewarding!–for him to make good choices from the very beginning.
Limit Your Own Screen Time
More and more parents are concerned about the effects of computers, smartphones, and endless television time on their children. And while it is important to prevent your child from spending every waking second of every day on these devices, it might surprise you to learn that it is even more important to control your own behavior.
Children learn by example, so if your child sees endless screen time as a “grown-up” activity, she is infinitely more likely to want to imitate it. Likewise, the research consistently shows that it is parents, not children, who spend the most time on screens. Heartbreaking stories of parents ignoring first steps, bath time, and family meal time put into painful perspective the cost of ignoring your child for a screen. If you’re interacting with your child, your phone does not need to be visible, let alone in your hands.