No parent is perfect, of course. Making mistakes is part of being a mom or a dad. In fact, some of our most interesting (and funniest) experiences as parents come from the times when we mess up. The key is to learn enough from each one that we go on to make new and improved mistakes instead of the same old ones.
All of this raises the question of how we can change our parenting behavior when the things we do aren't working. Here's a look at some of the most common bad habits that many of us fall back on when trying to get our kids to behave and effective ways to break those patterns.
Why it doesn't work: Let's face it—we've all been so tired, frustrated, or just plain worn down that we've uttered such fateful words as "If you'll stop whining, I'll give you some ice cream" or "Pick up those toys now, and I'll let you watch an extra video." In the short term, a bribe usually solves the problem, but it also creates a bigger one.
That's because your child will quickly figure out that if she keeps whining (or dallying or otherwise misbehaving), you'll probably pay her off to stop. This is a level of intelligence and social sophistication we want our children to have—but we don't want them to think they can use it against us!
Parents who bribe give their little ones a tremendous amount of power. It allows a child to control many situations by misbehaving or threatening to do so. And she will quickly up the ante, insisting on more frequent or larger bribes, while you find yourself becoming increasingly angry with her—and with yourself for getting into this cycle.
To break the habit: There are times when using gifts or treats is an effective way to shape a child's behavior, such as when you give a reward for a job well done—and not until the job's been completed. But when you offer a child in the throes of bad behavior a present or special privilege as an inducement to stop, that's bribery. And a bribe is something you use from a position of weakness.
If your bribing is out of control, you'll have to stop it cold turkey. (Trying to taper off slowly will only inspire your child to become even more demanding.) Begin by explaining to your child that you'll no longer offer bribes. You can expect to be tested on this, so be sure to stick to your guns.
Instead of giving her extra attention when she acts up (which is what a bribe does), ignore her unless she's doing something dangerous. If she whines, for instance, you might simply say, "I don't want to listen to you when you're whining. If you want me to pay attention, you'll have to use your big-girl voice." This approach puts you back in control; your child no longer has the power to manipulate you.
As important as ignoring her misbehavior is to compliment her when she behaves well. In the beginning, you may have to be blatant about it ("I love it when you speak to me so politely." "You did a great job of putting away your toys. I'm so proud of you!"). This will encourage her to more willingly do what you ask in anticipation of praise or a big hug.
Why it doesn't work: A certain amount of criticism is very helpful for kids—especially if it's balanced with praise for good behavior. Unfortunately, some parents take criticism beyond the point where it's useful. The intentions are excellent, but the results are counterproductive. Instead of learning from us, our children stop listening or may even appear to act against our advice out of spite.
I remember helping a friend coach a Little League team. One of the players' parents stood on the sidelines and offered what she thought were helpful comments to her son: "Keep your eye on the ball!" "Throw harder!"
As a result, her son's performance got worse. He became anxious and kept looking at his mother for her approval. He stopped having fun. When she finally stopped goading him, he relaxed and started playing well.
To break the habit: Begin by looking at the ratio of negative to positive comments you make to your child each day. Ideally, you should say more positive things. If most of what you say is negative, and if you find yourself echoing the same critique over and over, there's a problem.
Think about why you're so concerned about your child's appearance, performance, or behavior. One of the double-edged swords of parenting is the tendency to view our kids as reflections of ourselves. While we enjoy basking in their reflected glory, many of us tend to overreact or become embarrassed when they do something poorly.
It can be hard to keep an emotional distance. One good step is to notice that other kids act up as well. Ask yourself whether you judge your friends who are parents by the mistakes made by their children; you're probably much more forgiving of them than you worry other adults will be of you.
Also ask yourself how you'd respond if someone spoke to you in such a critical manner, then make a pledge to increase the number of positive things you say to your children each day. That by itself will alter the tone of your relationship and make it easier for them to listen to the other things you say.
Why it doesn't work: Sometimes yelling can be a good thing. It can get a child's attention when he's in danger, for instance. But a lot of the time, it can be counterproductive. Your child becomes frightened when you raise your voice, and he can't hear your words over the volume. You may feel guilty afterward, especially if your anger was out of proportion to or triggered by something other than his behavior.
When yelling gets out of control, it often shifts the focus from the problem ("Your room is a mess!") to the child ("You're such a slob!"). This only makes matters worse, since she's now being made to feel as if her very worth is under attack, and she may be prompted to respond in kind ("I hate you! You're a terrible mom!").
To break the habit: Start by paying attention to the feelings that induce you to yell. Just as children who lose emotional control will usually follow a predictable pattern of "revving up" before they fall apart, so do adults. It's harder, though, to track your own emotions than your child's.
You're most likely to yell if certain buttons are pushed, so become aware of what your sore points are—whether it's messiness, defiance, or being ignored. You might also find you turn up the volume in situations that have little to do with your child's behavior at that moment. Some parents are testy when they come home from work; others are more likely to blow up when they're hungry or when they're paying bills.
The second step of breaking the yelling habit: Learn to walk away so that you have a chance to calm down. It's like giving yourself a time-out so you can regain control of your emotions and respond to your child in a more constructive way.
Let's say your 4-year-old is picking at his breakfast while you're trying to get everyone out the door for the day. You ask him to hurry; he seems to eat even more slowly. Typically at this point, you'd raise your voice: "Stop picking at your food! Just eat so we can get out of here!" To which he might reply, "I hate breakfast! I hate you!" which just escalates the conflict.
So instead of yelling at him, walk out of the room for a few seconds. Take a few deep breaths. Recognize that while you're acutely aware of the time pressure you're under, your child isn't. That's simply the nature of childhood.
When you walk back into the room, calmly request, "I'd like you to eat more quickly. We have to leave in a few minutes." Keep in mind that ultimately it doesn't matter if he eats five as opposed to seven more spoonfuls of cereal, and that he doesn't have to finish the bowl. When the time is up, simply take away the remaining food and help him put on his shoes.
Why it doesn't work: Although I don't recall what triggered it, I clearly remember how I felt the first time I uttered, "If I've told you once, I've told you a thousand times." The reason I remember it so well is that I'd just given a talk to a group of parents in which I discussed the total uselessness of those words. And there I was, saying them to my own son!
A phrase like that contains its own admission of defeat. If we really have told our children to do something a thousand times—and often it feels that way—what makes us think that the one-thousand-and-first time will make any difference?
Sometimes a child who's nagged will actually leave her muddy shoes outside, feed the goldfish, or remember to brush her teeth before bed. The occasional success makes us want to do it again and again. In other words, we nag because our kids sometimes do listen, even if they complain about it.
Another reason we nag is that we care about our children. Much wheedling has to do with things that are for their, rather than our own, benefit. That's why we bug them to wear their mittens, eat their vegetables, and work on their handwriting.
And many times we just don't know what else to do. Nagging is often reflexive—something we do without even thinking.
To break the habit: We all tend to nag in certain situations or about certain things more than others, so the first key, as with yelling, is to catch the triggers before they have a chance to act on us.
Then figure out alternatives to nagging. In some cases, that might mean making the conscious decision not to worry about certain problems—in other words, choosing your battles. Forgetting to put the cap back on the toothpaste tube probably isn't worth making a fuss over.
It might also mean coming up with creative ways to get your message across. For example, when my son was about 5, we posted a computer-generated picture of a dragon saying the words "Remember to flush!" above the toilet. It was more fun and more effective than nagging.
It's never too late to break a parenting practice that's ineffective or hurtful. And it can be surprisingly easy—often it just takes a small change here or there. But those small changes can make a big—and positive—impact on the relationship you have with your child. So they're well worth the effort.
-->Contributing editor Lawrence Kutner, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist at Harvard University and the author of five books on child development.