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How to Get Your Kids to Behave

Surprise. You might first have to change your own behavior.

Forget About Time-Outs?

While some discipline experts have rejected the idea of time-outs, Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Time-Out, suggests modifying time-outs to make them a comforting experience. Children under 3 years old should not be placed in any kind of time-out, she says, but older children can have what she calls "positive time-outs." This means a child, often accompanied by her parent, goes to a "feel-good" place to calm down before trying to learn from the conflict.

Have the child create the time-out place, stock it with stuffed animals and books, and call it by a name: the quiet-time spot or Hawaii. "Many people object that positive time-out is a reward for misbehavior," says Nelsen. "But a misbehaving child is a discouraged child. The most effective way to deal with misbehavior is to help children feel encouraged so their motive for misbehaving is removed."

She suggests this approach: "Would it help you to go to your feel-good place now? Would you like me to go with you?" If the child says, no, the parent answers, "Fine, I think I'll go myself."

Parents can model the value of a positive time-out, particularly with older children. Nelsen gives this example: Barbara's 9-year-old son had come home late and Barbara had been worried sick. When Rick appeared, she realized anger had the upper hand. She said, "Rick, I'm glad you're okay -- I've been worried. But right now I'm so upset that I need to take time out to calm down before we discuss what has happened."

Gentle Discipline Tips

Three experts -- Becky Bailey, Martha Heineman Pieper, and Jane Nelsen -- who have written extensively on the new, enlightened approach to parenting young children, offer these suggestions for dealing with toddlers.

  • Stop the power struggle by disengaging. Don't jump into the fray with a 2-year-old. Take a deep breath and stay calm.
  • Give toddlers limited choices instead of demands. Ask, "Would you like to pick up the books by yourself or would you like my help?"
  • Get children involved in working with you. Toddlers need power and autonomy. Instead of telling a toddler to stay out of the trash, ask him to help put something in the trash, and then close the lid.
  • Be specific and assertive, not vague and passive. Don't ask, "Why did you take those scissors? Can't you be nice?" Do say, "Give me the scissors. These are too sharp. They could cut you. I will get you a plastic pair."
  • Notice, don't judge. Noticing your children encourages them without classifying them as "good" or "bad." Instead of saying, "You are such a good boy," say "You showed your friend how to butter his bread without tearing it. That was helpful."
  • If your child struggles with a going-to-bed routine, take photographs of him putting on his pajamas, brushing his teeth, reading a book, and so on. Mount the photos on a "bedtime" poster and let the poster be the boss. Ask, "What do we do next in our good night routine?"
  • Take time to enjoy your children. Roll around with them, play with them, laugh with them.
  • Feed yourself positive messages. When faced with a conflict, don't tell yourself you can't handle it. Tell yourself that you will figure out what to do.

Jane Meredith Adams has been a staff writer for The Boston Globe and has written for numerous other publications. She is based in San Francisco.

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