Joan E. Grusec Ph.D.

Principles of Effective Parenting

6 Skills to Make Parenting Easier

Keep these things in mind when dealing with a behavior challenge.

Posted Jan 08, 2020

Children misbehave for a number of reasons. They may be upset or distressed, or they may not know what they did was wrong. They may not be motivated, at least at the moment, to be cooperative, or they may want to do something even though they know it is wrong. Parenting can be adjusted accordingly, so that it is an appropriate response to the problem at hand.

There are, however, some general features of successful parenting—core skills—that researchers have shown to hold across the board, regardless of the reason for the child’s undesirable behavior. They are:

1. Clear values and expectations. Children need to know how they are expected to behave, why something is a "good" way to behave, and the consequences of not behaving well. Once they know these things, they should experience consequences for not following the rules. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for negotiation and compromise, but values and consequences should remain clear. Also, reasons should make sense and be defensible. It’s not convincing to say, "You should watch your language or your friends won’t like you." Additionally, be clear about bottom lines that are not negotiable: "Don’t hit people or steal from them." On the other hand, bedtime or how long they can stay at their friend’s house might be more flexible.

2. Reject the act, not the child. There is a big difference between saying, “What you did was bad” and saying, “You’re a bad person." Try “I don’t think that’s the kind of person you really are; let’s talk about why you shouldn’t have done that,” instead of “You have a nasty streak in you that you need to learn to control." It pays to remember that rejection comes not only from words but from the tone of your voice as well as your body language.

3. Share control. Nobody likes to be pushed around. Children who feel forced to obey, for example, can become rebellious (it’s called “reactance”—wanting to do the opposite of what is asked for), anxious, and depressed. To keep this from happening, children need to feel they have at least some control. That doesn’t mean complete control. It means that control is shared where it is reasonable to do so. Consider the child who doesn’t want to eat vegetables. The rule is that vegetables are part of a healthy diet that keeps us well. The choice, however, could come in being allowed to select whether the vegetable is to be spinach,

drawing by Samuel Beatty
Source: drawing by Samuel Beatty

broccoli, or green beans. For other things, such as hitting a sibling or stealing, of course, there isn't wiggle room. Sharing control also means that reasonable negotiation and compromise are possible responses.

Sharing control happens in another extremely important context—communicating with your child. Whether the communication is about some misdeed, the importance of doing well at school, respect for others, or being helpful around the house, it needs to be a discussion, not a lecture. Children need to feel that their views are heard and understood and, in the course of the exchange, can be guided to a more socially acceptable way of viewing things.

drawing by Samuel Beatty
Source: drawing by Samuel Beatty

4. Consider the child’s perspective. Problems occur when we don’t stop to consider the other person’s point of view. In the case of childrearing, knowing what is going on in the child’s head is very useful in being able to deal with a problem. Maybe your child doesn’t realize that what he or she did was rude, or has interpreted another person’s actions in a way that person did not intend. What’s amusing to an older person, for example, may not be to a younger one who has not yet learned the subtleties of sophisticated humor. Perhaps your child had a right to be angry or upset; perhaps your reaction is seen as unjust or unfair (and maybe it is). Pause to consider where a child is coming from. 

5. Self-awareness. Parents need to be careful about their own thoughts and feelings. For example, “I need to figure out the best way to deal with this problem. I can fix it. Just stay calm” can be more helpful than, “This is hopeless. He’s impossibly stubborn, just like this father. I’m no good at this. I’m so angry.”

6. Know your child. Children are very different from each other. They have different temperaments and different experiences that affect how they see the world. They react differently to the same kinds of parenting. One child may be very sensitive to criticism and has to be treated gently. Another may be less reactive, so a parent need not tread so carefully. What’s punishing for some children could be rewarding for others: Being sent to their room takes away from what they want to do (consequence), or being sent to their room allows them to play enjoyably by themselves (reward).