12/22/2010 09:50 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Dancing Parent: 'Punishing' Your Child? (Part 2)

In continuing our discussion from Part 1, let's take a step back from the five strategies we suggested for parents when their child misbehaves, and do a little reality check,

To be clear, we were not hinting in Part 1 that parents should somehow avoid assigning consequences when their child's behavior calls for parental intervention and guidance. Most children, we have always found, have an innate sense of fairness, so even when they protest, if the consequences are fair, even-handed, predictable and appropriate, they will, soon enough, see them as such -- if only in the privacy of their own thoughts.

In short: parents who retreat from insisting on consequences for their child's misbehavior deprive their kids of essential lessons in limits and boundaries, not only in their relationships with others but also in relation to their own lives and bodies. A child who does not understand that fire [fill in your own risky behavior here] can injure or kill is a danger to himself and others. And considering what children are exposed to today in terms of social and sexual diseases, drinking, drugs and all the rest of it, a healthy sense of limits and boundaries may be the only inner guides that can keep them safe from injuring themselves or others.

Striking the Balance

Try your best to set clear expectations, worthwhile goals, balanced, reliable rules and reasonable limits with your child. Do all this in advance so that everybody, parent and child, are all on the same page as to what counts as acceptable behavior and what does not. Try to always distinguish between their misbehavior of the moment and the long-term character traits you hope to instill in them as human beings. So if your goals are encouraging them to take care of others, be courteous and kind and have human decency, try to keep those goals well in sight, even when little Billy hits his sister. Remember, you can always take a step back from a heated or complicated moment and say, "This is serious. I'm going to think about it." Give yourself a chance to cool down before prescribing consequences.

Then, when quieter moments arrive, revisit your ultimate goals for their lives and character in as many creative ways as you can with your child -- because we all need repetition and reconsideration if we are to truly learn any life lesson.

A Few More Essential Keys:

In an ideal world, providing as much routine and structure as possible in their daily schedules assists them in following your lead. Yet in a world of soccer practices, music lessons and all the rest, eating a quick dinner in the back seat will likely be part of their lives, and yours, too. So communicating as often as possible about what the coming weeks may demand of you as a family can help them to feel that their busy lives nevertheless have a solid "center" -- an axis point you are always orbiting together, even when schedules and family demands change. By contrast, when children feel scattered or unconnected to the changing or chaotic conditions around them, they rebel in ways they themselves don't often understand, making things even more difficult on parents and children alike.

So when they misbehave -- as they most certainly will -- try your best to discover what their true intent might be: is it to test their changing boundaries? Is it to express anger at life's uncertainties? Or could it be to draw your attention back to them, because they feel you have been emotionally absent or otherwise unavailable? Let's face it, to a kid -- and to many adults, as well -- negative attention is far preferable to no attention. So if they feel they can't keep your attention with positive achievements, they will likely try to draw you in by another way...

Which means the best strategy for a parent is to always seek first to understand the reasons for their child's misbehavior, and that means you'll need to ask them questions. So ask, even if their answers are few or evasive. In time, your genuine interest -- not combative or intrusive -- but your authentic desire to understand them will help them to provide you with clues, if not the answer itself.

So listen, listen and listen.

And did we mention to be sure to listen??

As always, we appreciate your comments here, or at our website,, where you can find more useful information on a wide variety of parenting topics, features and useful links, and where you can also sign up for our blogs. Until next time, keep dancing! (This material is copyrighted.)