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How to Get Your Kids to Behave

Surprise. You might first have to change your own behavior.
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Called "loving regulation," "turning conflict into cooperation," and "positive discipline," these gentle techniques are not easy, but experts say the benefits are enormous: self-disciplined parents breed self-disciplined children. "This is about learning to change your own behavior, and your children's behavior, so that you can embrace and resolve conflict, and enjoy life," says Becky Bailey, Ph.D., author of Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline.

But how? The first step, says Bailey, is for parents to look at themselves: Are they assertive or passive? Do they flee from conflict or step in to problem-solve? Parents can't teach skills they don't have, she says. Prepared with the right tools, parents needn't shrink from an angry child, these experts say. Just as adults respond better when they feel supported, instead of criticized, so do children, says Heineman Pieper, "You can be in charge of your child without ever making them feel disapproved of, or punished."

"I don't believe in punishment at all," says Nelsen. "Sometimes parents get fooled because it works, but the long-range results are rebellion, revenge, and retreat."

The root of gentle discipline, Bailey says, is to verbalize the loving thoughts that lurk behind fear-based statements. Instead of yelling, "Get over here or you'll get lost!" Bailey suggests saying, "Stay close to me in the store so I can keep you safe. If something happened to you, I would be sad. I love having you with me."

Another principle is for parents to tell their child what to do, instead of what not to do. A toddler who is told, "Don't touch the stereo!" will likely reach out and touch the stereo, says Bailey. A better statement might be, "You see the stereo. Now let's look at this truck!"

Most of all, don't forget you are dealing with joyous, curious toddlers. "It can be a lot easier," says Heineman Pieper, "if you don't feel your 2-year-old needs to act like a 22-year-old."

At my house, these new techniques have been working. At breakfast lately, there has been no toast flinging and no climbing on the table. We've made a trade: I've given up the idea that they'll sit quietly in their high chairs, and in response to my new, relaxed attitude, they seem to have softened their rebellion. Reasonably, lovingly, I place them at the table, seated in the grown-up chairs. When my daughter lifts her arm for a toast-toss, I take the toast away and give her a tennis ball to throw. For the moment, anyway, they're happy, I'm happy. We'll see what happens next.

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