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5 Secrets Of Super-Happy Parents With Well-Behaved Kids

02/18/2014 05:07 pm ET | Updated Apr 20, 2014
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Parenting from your child's point of view means shifting your orientation, and seeing the world from a new perspective. Instead of understanding your child from a "top-down" adult position, think and look at the world as if you were their age and size. It's something I think about every day as the director of the Barnard Center for Toddler Development at Barnard College, where I have had the pleasure of working with children and their parents for nearly two decades.

Having a toddler-centric view of the world is something I've come to develop over my years as an educator (and as the parent of three boys). But it didn't necessarily come easily -- thinking like a toddler means seeing many things as new, fascinating, or scary; it means having no real sense of time, and an unending curiosity about life. It means not knowing why things happen or what came before. Clearly, the world looks different from this position. But here's what I've discovered ... approaching parenting from your child's point of view is the key to better-behaved kids, happier parents, and a smoother home life. Here are five parenting essentials I've learned by looking at the world from a child's perspective.

1. Stay Close, Even When It's Hard.

Our kids need us to stay close, even when they are pushing us away. They need us to be (or at least act!) steady when they falter. They need us to stay calm, even when they are agitated, upset, or plain difficult to manage. Does this mean giving in all the time? Certainly not. But it does mean learning to accept that our children are good sometimes and bad sometimes. They need to know that we still love them even when they have a hard time or do things we don't like.

2. You're In Charge.

Sometimes parents get confused about this. But even toddlers need limits, and they look to us to be the authority and let them know when to stop. One little girl I worked with, Leila, discovered a towel bar she could reach in the kitchen. She'd reach up high and grasp it, and her mother would tell her gently, "Don't pull on that," It worked at first, but over time Leila would look at her, not let go, and laugh. "Leila, sweetie, you know I have told you that will break and I don't want you to get hurt," her mother explained in a kind, reasonable voice. It became a game, and now Leila was testing her power. "I thought I had to be kind and gentle and supportive all the time," her mother Diane told me. "I don't like to raise my voice. I want her to always count on me."

I have heard this interpretation from other parents. Some are afraid of having their children get upset with them, and they do anything to try to keep it from happening. But children cannot learn to handle being upset if they are not allowed to even get upset. By allowing your child her anger, she will learn (over time) to handle this emotion. Just as important, she will learn that even if she gets upset with mommy and daddy, she will still be taken care of. Setting limits actually builds children's trust.

3. Be Consistent. (Mostly.)

Being consistent doesn't require rigidity. Think of consistency as a framework for your child's day, a frame of, "usually, we do things this way." For example: "I hear the bathwater running, now I take a bath. After bath, I'll get my pajamas on, and then we read a book." Routines are not about rigid rules. I think of them more as little orange flags that guide the child through the day, stopping him from careening off the track.

Kids can -- and should -- be enormously resilient if a routine is broken or altered on occasion. But it takes time to learn this. In fact, each time a routine changes (for example, grandparents visit for the weekend) and you later return to the regular routine, your child is learning to be flexible. This is especially true when you recognize and label the disruption: "This weekend, we didn't eat lunch in the kitchen like we usually do because Grandma and Grandpa were visiting. But now we are back to our same seats at the kitchen table." Just explaining the reason behind the changes helps your child understand the situation better.

4. Be Realistic.

It's easy to lose hold of what is realistic to expect of a child. Think of when you see moments or even days or weeks of progression -- the 2-year-old not asking for his pacifier, the 3-year-old taking the initiative to put on her socks before her shoes just as you were coaching her, or the 4-year-old finally being able to leave the house without protest or delay. But these same kids may not always be up to the same task every day (or may not even be able to do it twice in one day!). Or they may make progress in one area (She's finally potty trained!) while reverting in another (But why is she suddenly whining again?).

It's times like these that you have to remember what is really realistic to expect of a child. Regressions are normal, especially with toddlers. Every time your child takes a step forward toward growing up more (whether that is using a toilet, sleeping in a bed, starting school, or mastering the jungle gym on the playground), they are also reminded of how much they need you. They don't like to feel on their own completely (even if they act as if they do!). That would be too scary. As one 3-year-old, newly in a big bed, requested: "When I grow up, can we get a bigger house and I can live in it with you and my new bed?" Achieving something "big" is both exhilarating (I did it! I have freedom! I am big!) and terrifying. It's normal for a big leap forward to be accompanied by some regression. Just remember what's reasonable to expect from your little one.

5. Your Past Does Not Predict Your Child's Future.

Remember, our children are not exactly like us -- not always in the way they look, and certainly not always personality-wise. Indeed, many parents are confused and frustrated when they find that they are markedly different in temperament and personality from their child. This is especially true when our child has a characteristic or style that we do not understand, are frustrated by, or simply find unappealing.

One mother expressed concern about her 2-and-a-half-year-old's lack of ability to interact with other toddlers. Even my assurance that he was still young did not help allay her worries, so I suggested we watch him together when he was at school. This little boy was standing to the side of the room, watching other children play, looking quite interested in what they were doing, but keeping a distance that felt safe to him. It looked to me like he was observing, taking things in, and thinking about what was going on. But it felt different to his mother: "Do you see how afraid he is? He is scared that no one will like him." I asked her what made her think that. "I know the feeling," she said. "The kids never wanted to play with me." Remember, your child is NOT you. Be aware of your own experiences and expectations. Your past does not have to predict your child's future.

Excerpted from How Toddlers Thrive: What Parents Can Do Today for Children Ages 2-5 to Plant the Seeds of Lifelong Success by Tovah P. Klein, PhD. Copyright 2014 © Tovah P. Klein. Reprinted with Permission of Touchstone, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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