How Do You Raise Well-Behaved Children?

“See kids as visitors to a foreign land. They’ve only been on the planet a few years.”

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Answer by Joyce Fetteroll, electrical engineer and unschooling mom:

It depends whether you want a child who acts well-behaved or a child who makes thoughtful choices on how to behave.

The first is relatively easy. When a child misbehaves, choose your favorite form of punishment. Repeat. The downside is the kids may not behave when the parent isn’t around. It also has a high failure rate with strong-willed kids. The greater the parents’ control, the more likely it will result in damaged relationships and rebellion during the teen years.

The second takes more patience, more work, a willingness to accept that it takes longer for some kids to behave well in public, but it works better in the long run while also growing better relationships.

First, assume kids are always doing the best they can. It’s not only usually true, but puts the parent in a better frame of mind to respond.

Second, see kids as visitors to a foreign land. They’ve only been on the planet a few years. There’s so much to know and figure out. If they’re failing, then there’s something they can’t figure out. They need someone’s help to see how things work. Even if it’s been explained several times, there’s something they can’t (yet) get.

Third, see you and your child as a team. If your child fails, your team has failed. Be what your child can’t yet be. Kids need to watch us and see how it’s done. Trust that they do want to be better at this life thing, and they will when they’re able. Daniel Pink does a much more convincing explanation of this than I could.

If the child isn’t doing as well as he needs to, stop the behavior. But then move onto what the child was trying to do.

Your child needs to see how to meet his need in a better way. What need was the child trying to meet? He couldn’t figure out how to make what he knows work to meet his need. He needs your help to see a better way to meet the need. If you focus on correcting the behavior separate from the need, your words will be drowned out by, “Yes, but, what about what I need?” thoughts.

Your child may not be old enough. If you have explained better behavior in the past, then the child may understand but not be old enough to do as you ask. Behavior has a big emotional component. Knowing what to do comes quite a bit before being able to control one’s actions. For kids, emotions often seem like alien creatures that take over their bodies. Be patient. Age takes care of it. If a child has shown he can’t (yet) be quiet in church, then a failure to be quiet in church the next Sunday is the adult’s failure, not the child’s. See it as a conflict between your child’s needs and others’ needs. Your goal isn’t to suppress your child’s needs but to help him meet them in ways that don’t step on others’ toes.

Be your child’s partner. If a child will be in a new situation, give him some tips on what will happen and what’s expected—just as you would a foreign visitor. If, despite your preparation, a child can’t, for example, sit still in a restaurant, then take him out to run around while you wait. Or don’t go to restaurants that require quiet behavior for a while. As kids get older, so does their ability to delay their needs. But when they’re young, that’s expecting too much. Kids will let you know if they’re ready or not.

Don’t compare. Kids develop at different rates. Don’t look longingly at small kids who can sit still. Their parents don’t have special powers. The kids were graced with calm genes. (Though the parents may be taking credit for it! Wish a lively child on them for their second.)

If your child can do better but isn’t, something is in his way. It may be hunger, tiredness, overstimulation, or factors that makes the situation more complicated. Stop the bad behavior. Then look into what’s getting in the child’s way.

Kids behave ever so much better when they have someone helping them meet their needs in ways that are safe and don’t step on others toes. Kids find it easier to take others into consideration when someone takes them and others into consideration.

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