Does your child have behavior problems? Your relationship with your child likely needs some attention.
You know the checkout line scenario: 3-year-old child wants this toy, this candy, this something — and she wants it nooooow! The crying starts, escalating into a full-blown tantrum.
In his new book, The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting, Laurence Steinberg, PhD, provides guidelines based on the top social science research — some 75 years of studies. Follow them, and you can avert all sorts of child behavior problems, he says.
After all, what is the goal when you’re dealing with children? To show who’s boss? To instill fear? Or to help the child develop into a decent, self-confident human being?
Good parenting helps foster empathy, honesty, self-reliance, self-control, kindness, cooperation, and cheerfulness, says Steinberg. It also promotes intellectual curiosity, motivation, and desire to achieve. It helps protect children from developing anxiety, depression, eating disorders, anti-social behavior, and alcohol and drug abuse.
“Parenting is one of the most researched areas in the entire field of social science,” says Steinberg, who is a distinguished professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia. The scientific evidence for the principles he outlines “is very, very consistent,” he tells WebMD.
Too many parents base their actions on gut reaction. But some parents have better instincts than others, Steinberg says. Children should never be hit — not even a slap on a toddler’s bottom, he tells WebMD. “If your young child is headed into danger, into traffic, you can grab him and hold him, but you should under no circumstances hit him.”
Ruby Natale PhD, PsyD, professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami Medical School, couldn’t agree more. She offered a few of her own insights. “Many people use the same tactics their own parents used, and a lot of times that meant using really harsh discipline,” she tells WebMD.
A parent’s relationship with his or her child will be reflected in the child’s actions — including child behavior problems, Natale explains. “If you don’t have a good relationship with your child, they’re not going to listen to you. Think how you relate to other adults. If you have a good relationship with them, you tend to trust them more, listen to their opinions, and agree with them. If it’s someone we just don’t like, we will ignore their opinion.”
Steinberg’s 10 principles hold true for anyone who deals with children — coach, teacher, babysitter, he says.
1. What you do matters.
“This is one of the most important principles,” Steinberg tells WebMD. “What you do makes a difference. Your kids are watching you. Don’t just react on the spur of the moment. Ask yourself, ‘What do I want to accomplish, and is this likely to produce that result?’”
2. You cannot be too loving.
“It is simply not possible to spoil a child with love,” he writes. “What we often think of as the product of spoiling a child is never the result of showing a child too much love. It is usually the consequence of giving a child things in place of love — things like leniency, lowered expectations, or material possessions.”
3. Be involved in your child’s life.
“Being an involved parent takes time and is hard work, and it often means rethinking and rearranging your priorities. It frequently means sacrificing what you want to do for what your child needs to do. Be there mentally as well as physically.”
Being involved does not mean doing a child’s homework — or reading it over or correcting it. “Homework is a tool for teachers to know whether the child is learning or not,” Steinberg tells WebMD. “If you do the homework, you’re not letting the teacher know what the child is learning.”
4. Adapt your parenting to fit your child.
Keep pace with your child’s development. Your child is growing up. Consider how age is affecting the child’s behavior.
“The same drive for independence that is making your three-year-old say ‘no’ all the time is what’s motivating him to be toilet trained,” writes Steinberg. “The same intellectual growth spurt that is making your 13-year-old curious and inquisitive in the classroom also is making her argumentative at the dinner table.”
For example: An eighth grader is easily distracted, irritable. His grades in school are suffering. He’s argumentative. Should parents push him more, or should they be understanding so his self-esteem doesn’t suffer?
“With a 13-year-old, the problem could be a number of things,” Steinberg says. “He may be depressed. He could be getting too little sleep. Is he staying up too late? It could be he simply needs some help in structuring time to allow time for studying. He may have a learning problem. Pushing him to do better is not the answer. The problem needs to be diagnosed by a professional.”
5. Establish and set rules.
“If you don’t manage your child’s behavior when he is young, he will have a hard time learning how to manage himself when he is older and you aren’t around. Any time of the day or night, you should always be able to answer these three questions: Where is my child? Who is with my child? What is my child doing? The rules your child has learned from you are going to shape the rules he applies to himself.”
“But you can’t micromanage your child,” Steinberg tells WebMD. “Once they’re in middle school, you need let the child do their own homework, make their own choices, and not intervene.”
6. Foster your child’s independence.
“Setting limits helps your child develop a sense of self-control. Encouraging independence helps her develop a sense of self-direction. To be successful in life, she’s going to need both.”
It is normal for children to push for autonomy, says Steinberg. “Many parents mistakenly equate their child’s independence with rebelliousness or disobedience. Children push for independence because it is part of human nature to want to feel in control rather than to feel controlled by someone else.”
7. Be consistent.
“If your rules vary from day to day in an unpredictable fashion or if you enforce them only intermittently, your child’s misbehavior is your fault, not his. Your most important disciplinary tool is consistency. Identify your non-negotiables. The more your authority is based on wisdom and not on power, the less your child will challenge it.”
Many parents have problems being consistent, Steinberg tells WebMD. “When parents aren’t consistent, children get confused. You have to force yourself to be more consistent.”
8. Avoid harsh discipline.
Parents should never hit a child, under any circumstances. “Children who are spanked, hit, or slapped are more prone to fighting with other children,” he writes. “They are more likely to be bullies and more likely to use aggression to solve disputes with others.”
“There is a lot of evidence that spanking causes aggression in children, which can lead to relationship problems with other kids,” Steinberg tells WebMD. “There are many other ways to discipline a child, including ‘time out,’ which work better and do not involve aggression.”
9. Explain your rules and decisions.
“Good parents have expectations they want their child to live up to,” he writes. “Generally, parents overexplain to young children and underexplain to adolescents. What is obvious to you may not be evident to a 12-year-old. He doesn’t have the priorities, judgment or experience that you have.
“An example: A 6-year-old is very active and very smart — but blurts out answers in class, doesn’t give other kids a chance, and talks too much in class. His teacher needs to address the child behavior problem. He needs to talk to the child about it, says Steinberg. “Parents might want to meet with the teacher and develop a joint strategy. That child needs to learn to give other children a chance to answer questions.”
10. Treat your child with respect.
“The best way to get respectful treatment from your child is to treat him respectfully,” Steinberg writes. “You should give your child the same courtesies you would give to anyone else. Speak to him politely. Respect his opinion. Pay attention when he is speaking to you. Treat him kindly. Try to please him when you can. Children treat others the way their parents treat them. Your relationship with your child is the foundation for her relationships with others.”
For example, if your child is a picky eater: “I personally don’t think parents should make a big deal about eating,” Steinberg tells WebMD. “Children develop food preferences. They often go through them in stages. You don’t want turn mealtimes into unpleasant occasions. Just don’t make the mistake of substituting unhealthy foods. If you don’t keep junk food in the house, they won’t eat it.”
Likewise, the checkout line tantrum can be avoided, says Natale. “Children respond very well to structure. You can’t go shopping without preparing them for it. Tell them, ‘We will be there 45 minutes. Mommy needs to buy this. Show them the list. If you don’t prepare them, they will get bored, tired, upset by the crowds of people.”
“Parents forget to consider the child, to respect the child,” Natale tells WebMD. “You work on your relationships with other adults, your friendships, your marriage,dating. But what about your relationship with your child? If you have a good relationship, and you’re really in tune with your child, that’s what really matters. Then none of this will be an issue.”