THE BLOG

How to Have a Well-Behaved Child, Part 1

06/26/2014 03:12 pm ET | Updated Aug 26, 2014
  • Kenneth Barish, Ph.D. Clinical Associate Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University; author of Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child's Emotions and Solving Family Problems

I believe that children should be well-behaved.

Most parents, of course, want more for their children than just good behavior. We want them to become caring and responsible adults.

Still, more often than not, children who are cooperative and respect adult authority are also happy and confident children. They are able to bounce back from disappointments and frustrations, sustain effort on difficult tasks and get along with their peers. And the parents of well-behaved children are, undoubtedly, happier parents.

By all accounts, modern American children are very poorly behaved. Why is this so? And what can we do about it?

Many parents (and some parent advisors) believe that our children behave badly because we allow them to -- that we are afraid to insist on obedience and respect. Critics of contemporary family life argue that we have turned our homes into "little democracies" in which children "determine their own upbringing" and have the right to argue about everything. As a group, the critics concur: Parents should be less afraid to say "No."

For some families, this is sound advice. In my experience, for most families, it is not. Saying no, although necessary, is a small part of successful discipline.

Every week, parents tell me, "I've taken away all his privileges and things are just getting worse. He's even more rude and disrespectful," or "I tell him 'No' all the time, but he still doesn't listen."

These families are locked in vicious cycles of negative interactions. Then, as these cycles escalate, parents feel increasingly justified in their criticism and disapproval. And kids, for their part, feel increasingly justified in their resentment and defiance.

Of course, we will often have to say no. When we are at our wit's end, we may even have to count to three. (This worked with my kids like a charm: "If you guys do not stop fighting by the time I count to three, you will not be able to watch The Cosby Show tonight.") But it takes more than saying no or counting to three to produce a well-behaved child.

Disciplinarians believe that children will behave well when they know what is expected of them and when they come to understand the consequences of their actions. This idea has obvious, intuitive appeal. Everyday experience and behavioral research teach us, however, that often, this is not true. Angry and discouraged children do not behave well, regardless of the consequences of their behavior.

We now know that frequent references to rules and consequences -- even strict enforcement of rules and consequences -- is simply not the best way to foster good behavior in young children.

There is a Better Way

If we want our children to be well behaved, we should play (and work) with them often, repair moments of anger and criticism, engage them in problem solving and let them know that we are proud of them, especially for the good things they do for others.

Then, we can set limits.

We can let them know when their demands or their behavior, including their language, are "over the line." (The line is clear: We do not allow behavior that is dangerous or hurtful to others.) When necessary, we can institute a simple system of earning rewards and privileges in return for cooperation with basic tasks.

Ultimately, good behavior depends on the development of a moral identity -- a child's inner sense of him or her self as a good and helpful person. (The developmental psychologist Grazyna Kochanska refers to this as "committed" -- in contrast to merely "situational" -- compliance.) Children will behave well when they are able to regulate their emotions, when they come to value empathy and kindness and when they understand that the real reason to cooperate with adults is not "because I said so" but consideration for the needs and feelings of others.

It is always important, in thinking about children, to keep in mind that kids are different and one size does not fit all. Children who are impulsive and strong-willed will require more firmness and more patience, more opportunities to practice self-restraint, more frequent praise for every increment of effort and helpfulness and more moments of repair.

Our goal is to help children develop self-discipline, or discipline in the best sense -- the ability to forgo immediate pleasure and to endure frustration in the service of long-term goals. The word discipline (like the word parent) is a noun before it is a verb.

In my next post, I will discuss these recommendations in greater detail and offer 15 Rules to foster good behavior in children of all ages.