The basic task of parenting is teaching appropriate behavior. When you approach parenting in this way, you are PROACTIVE, guiding your child in the behavior you want, rather than reacting to whatever behavior he comes up with. It takes time for children to learn and remember appropriate behaviors. I tell myself it takes at least 100 times of telling them, and then I don’t count :). Many misbehaviors can be reframed as teaching opportunities. Certainly in each new situation, but even at each step of the day you can be reminding and teaching what actions and words are expected.
Here’s an example: “When we go to visit our friends we talk kindly and treat them nicely. We share toys and clean up toys when we are done.” You might want to get even more specific: “When we walk in the house and you see your friend, what are you going to say? Maybe you could say, ‘Hi, what do you want to play?’” And continue on explaining each step of the play date.
Let me make it VERY CLEAR, however, that you are not expecting them to do these exact things when the time comes. That is setting you and your child up for failure!! You don’t necessarily think they will say these exact phrases, and you certainly don’t expect that they will share the toys willingly or clean up with complete cooperation. You’re just constantly teaching and talking about what the correct behavior is (see Stop and Redirect for what to do when the behavior isn’t actually what you want it to be). Your constant monologue about what is going to happen and what you would like them to do will eventually sink in! But please don’t lose heart if it doesn’t happen quickly.
If there is a certain problem your child is having, like leaving the play date when it’s over, then you could talk about this more often and clearly communicate your expectations, possibly with role-playing. It’s best to discuss it in a calm moment, when emotions are not high. The conflict moment, when you’re trying to get your child to leave, is not the time for teaching. That is the time for resolving the situation as calmly and quickly as you can. Teach in times of good attitude and positive emotion.
So, if you have a play date scheduled for later that day or the next day you could say, “When I come to pick you up from Johnny’s house I’m going to say, ‘It’s time to go now,’ and you are going to say, ‘Okay, mommy.’” (BTW – ‘Okay, mommy’ is one of my favorite phrases!)
“Let’s practice it now. Pretend I just came to the door and I say, ‘Time to go!’ What do you say?” Let the child answer, hopefully correctly. “Good job! You’ll say that even if you are having a lot of fun playing and really want to stay. It’s important that you leave cooperatively when I say it’s time to go. Then we can come play another time.”
You’re preparing the child to anticipate the fact that they will want to stay, that it will be hard to leave. YOU’RE EMPATHIZING WITH THAT EMOTION, BUT STILL BEING FIRM IN WHAT BEHAVIOR YOU EXPECT. This is key.
This teaching and role playing formula can be applied to any situation you are having trouble with, or just used all the time to teach and practice the behavior you desire.
Again, if you pick the child up the next day and he fights and screams, that’s ok. Just because you taught him doesn’t mean you necessarily expect him to do it the first time. You deal with the kicking and screaming, then later teach and role play the desired behavior again for the next time. It takes a long time for children to learn these behaviors.
You can also teach your child what words to say if they want to stay (see Use Your Words, one of the most important posts!). Like this, “If you want to stay longer you can ask me, you could say, ‘Mom, I’m having a lot of fun playing with my friend. Is there any way I could stay a little longer?’”
You might think this sounds ridiculous – like, a child is never going to say that! But if you model it and teach it to him repeatedly, he really will. Plus, when a child uses words/sentences like this in any conflict situation it DIFFUSES the emotion. This is so important, and such a magic tool – you will be amazed! Even if the answer is no, the child will be way more compliant, way less emotional after using his words, and you respond with an equivalent explanation/sentence (“That is so nice of you to use your words and ask me like that. We have to get home for lunch and your nap, so it is time to go now. But you can play with Johnny another day.”).
You’ll see that I’m suggesting using a lot of words to explain expectations and teach appropriate behavior and speech, but in the high conflict moments or distributing consequences moments, you don’t use many words, as few as possible, in fact. That is not a teaching time.
While we’re on this subject I have to say something else about leaving a play date or restaurant or getting your kids to bed or many other similar situations – the kids know you’re going to talk for a while (or read the paper or do something other than enforce the instructions you just told them). They know they don’t really have to come when you say it’s time to go because you’re going to chit chat. You might want to include this in your preparation explanation – that you will talk to the other mom for a while and then when you say ‘it’s time to go’ it really is time to go. But you have to not say it until you really mean it, or else don’t be angry when they don’t listen! If you really start to pay attention you might find that you often give instructions and then turn and do something else. You don’t really mean it’s time for bed or time to go, it’s just a heads up that some time in the future we will be going. Of course it’s polite to chat for a minute with the other mom, but just don’t say ‘time to go’ until you’re really ready.
Let me say a few more things about teaching what behaviors are expected. One day I had tickets to a play in our town for that evening, for myself and two of my daughters, who were around 6 and 8 at the time. When it was time to get ready, I told them they needed to go put on nice clothes so we could go to the play. They threw a fit! They complained and begged to wear their sweats or jeans, and whined and almost cried. I was so frustrated! Here I am, doing a nice thing and taking them to this fun play, and they can’t even change their clothes! Suddenly I realized that I had not prepared them. I should have been telling them all week about it – what it was going to be like, how people dress up for plays, what day and time we would go, how fun it would be, how long it would be, what it’s about, etc. There were so many things I could have done to prepare them for that moment – gotten them excited about the event and also taught them what behavior would be expected. But I had failed. This is a helpful reframe of their behavior – they are not being bad, they don’t need to be punished or told they are ungrateful. They are just being children. Children need a lot of preparation for any new event.
A similar thing happened when we went to a church event and afterward there was a table of treats. My kids took one treat after another, and I wasn’t really paying attention. Then they were running around the gym, and then I realized they’d had five or more treats (possibly one of the children tattled on the other to share this helpful information). I was really angry (irrationally so, I must admit – doesn’t this happen at almost all church functions?!), but then remembered that I didn’t prepare them. I should have told them at home, or even in the car on the way to the church, what would happen, what I wanted them to do during and after the event, including how many treats they were allowed to have. In this situation, as often is the case, other parents weren’t monitoring their children. “Shelly got to have five treats!” So I needed to also prepare my children for this: “Other kids might have more treats than you’re allowed to have, and other kids might run around/take their shoes and socks off/roam the halls, etc. but in our family we . . . .”
Still to do this day there are times when their bad behavior surprises me, and then I realize that I didn’t fully explain to them what is expected. But I get more frustrated with myself than them, and remind myself to prepare them better next time.
So you need to be consistently thinking about what the next segment of the day is going to include or what events are coming up, and talk about what behavior is expected and what behavior is inappropriate. Talk about it often, be specific, and role play. Kids love to role play – they think it’s so funny to pretend act. This is all done in calm, positive-emotion times, and is not used to demean or punish or point out past bad behavior.
Remember, think of failure to behave well not as a reason to punish, but an opportunity to teach.