My friend Emily has three amazingly well-behaved children. They put their toys away when she tells them to, go to bed without a fuss, and even settle their own disputes. I actually witnessed her 3-year-old son calmly ask for a truck back from a friend who had yanked it out of his hands.
Emily admits that her children have their moments — “They are kids, after all!” — but says that real discipline challenges are few and far between. “What’s your secret?” I once asked, hoping she could impart some much-needed wisdom. “Threatening them with punishment? Giving them time-outs? Bribing them with Oreos?” Emily shook her head. “Nothing like that,” she told me. “If I’ve done anything right, it’s that I’ve made it clear from the get-go what I expect from them. Now, all I have to do is shoot them a look, and they know to discipline themselves.”
It may sound too good to be true, but experts agree that Emily has the right idea about teaching kids to behave. “When you make your expectations clear from the time your children are toddlers, they internalize those expectations and begin to expect the same thing from themselves,” says Sharon K. Hall, PhD, author of Raising Kids in the 21st Century. In other words, since kids are naturally inclined to want to please their parents, they’ll try to behave in the way that you’ve taught them to. In fact, experts say that kids as young as 18 months are empathetic and responsive to their parents’ expectations.
Even better news: Teaching self-discipline to a young child isn’t as daunting as it sounds. “If you focus on the essentials starting at around age 2, your child will catch on faster, resist less, and ultimately behave better,” says Robert Brooks, PhD, coauthor of Raising a Self-Disciplined Child. These four essentials will help you raise a kid who can keep her own behavior in check.
Set Firm Rules — and Expect Respect
Kids who believe they can do anything they feel like doing, and get whatever they want, tend to be the ones who act out by whining or throwing a tantrum when their demands aren’t met. “Children who understand that there are well-defined boundaries learn how to self-regulate and to respect limits,” says Hal Runkel, family therapist and author of ScreamFree Parenting.
Tell them why. You don’t have to give your children elaborate explanations for why you expect certain behaviors from them. But if your child understands that there are simple reasons for your rules, he’ll realize they aren’t arbitrary and will be more likely to comply. Tell him, for example, “You need to go to bed at eight o’clock because your body needs a lot of sleep to stay strong and healthy.” Or “You have to put away your toys so we’ll know where to find them next time you want to play.”
Offer lots of praise. “Whether it’s making the bed, helping set the table, or letting his sister play with his blocks, make sure you reinforce rule-following by celebrating your child’s successes,” says Larry J. Koenig, PhD, author of Smart Discipline. Say, “It’s great that you remembered the rule to make your bed. I’m so proud when you behave like a big boy!” or, “You were so polite to say ‘please’ when you asked me for that crayon. Good job!”
Follow rules yourself. “Hanging your coat in the closet when you get home, putting your dirty dishes in the sink, not screaming when you’re frustrated … doing these things will show children that just as they have rules to follow, so do you,” says Judy Arnall, author of Discipline Without Distress. “When kids see you behaving well, they’ll want to do the same.”
Cultivate a conscience. If a young child feels bad when he hasn’t followed your rule, don’t immediately try to minimize his discomfort. Feeling a bit of guilt is an essential part of learning to determine right from wrong. “Use it as a teaching opportunity,” suggests Dr. Hall. “Say, ‘I know you’re feeling bad. We all make mistakes, but we try to learn how to act next.