Katherine Reynolds Lewis spent five years researching why many kids today are unruly, willful, disruptive, frustrated, and reactive. The answers are in her new book The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever—And What to Do About It (PublicAffairs). We asked Katherine what families do to reinforce this bad behavior—and what they should do instead.
Q. In your book, you say that kids’ behavior is worse than ever, and that traditional techniques to change bad behavior aren’t working. What’s going on with kids today—and why aren’t time-outs and sticker charts effective?
A. It’s hard to know if these techniques ever worked. But it’s clear to me from my research that they don’t work now with children growing up today [unlike baby boomers and their offspring, who as children generally did as they were told and behaved as expected]. The problem with past disciplinary methods [from spanking on up to sticker charts] is they impose external control, as opposed to helping a child develop a sense of self-control and self-discipline. I never want to tell parents to stop a method they feel is working. But if, say, your sticker-chart system suddenly stops working, it may be because your child hasn’t developed self-control yet. Be alert to that. In some instances, time-outs are likely to provoke power struggles and revenge behavior—but time-outs can also be helpful. In a peaceful moment you can ask your child, “What helps you when you feel out of control?” Then a time-out is not a punishment; it’s a calming strategy.
Q. You also write that traditional methods of discipline actually move families further from good behavior. What’s the real goal and why are traditional measures to achieve it counterproductive?
A. Ultimately, our goal is to raise self-disciplined children. Anything we do that helps kids understand that actions have consequences is valuable. When we solve their problems for them, or let them off the hook when they misbehave, kids don’t learn those lessons. Instead, they spend their energy thinking about how to get around our rules.
Q. Then what does work? In your book you talk about the apprenticeship model of parenting. What is it—and why is this parenting style more effective at drawing out good behavior in kids?
A. The apprenticeship model of parenting is a technique that encourages parents to connect with their kids, communicate their expectations clearly, and then trust their children’s ability to uphold their part of the agreement and to regulate their behavior. Any agreement has to include the children’s input and needs as well as the parents’.
Q. So how should parents go about putting the apprenticeship model into action—and what else can they do to encourage good behavior in kids and make the connection more effective?
A. The number one most powerful thing parents can do to stop kids’ bad behavior is to connect with them. The challenge is: If we tell kids that they are doing something wrong when they are acting out, we’re missing out on connecting with them just when they need us the most. We can use our physical presence in a powerful, calming way. That can help in a heated moment. But it’s also critical to build that connection at other times, through shared activities such as meals, game times, and even household chores and projects.
The second piece is communication. Here again, we need to remember: Our goal should be to build skills. When a child is having a meltdown, of course we want him to be quiet. But even better is if we can start helping him recognize the emotions he’s experiencing, and learn to manage them. Often, that communication needs to happen after a meltdown or problem. Then, once the child is calm, brainstorm how to respond in the future. You could say, “Sometimes when I’m frustrated, like you were earlier, I like to listen to my favorite song or take a short walk. What helps you feel better when you’re frustrated?”
Capability is the payoff. Capability building is the prize that we parents get for all the work connecting and communicating. When kids feel capable—when they have a sense of their own competence and purpose—they’re less prone to acting out. It’s so helpful to notice when your children make that incremental progress—for example, when they calm down from a meltdown after 10 minutes when previously it was an hour, or when they remember their binder as you drive away from school instead of after dinner. We can be their memory keepers, helping them mark their progress and notice how they’re growing and becoming more capable. It’s encouraging for them and for us.
Chores, or household jobs are a big piece of this. When kids do them, they build that “I can do this” feeling. They see themselves as someone who makes a real contribution to the family. And underlying this is the confidence to know that they can manage their emotions as well as they can manage a spatula or a sponge.
Q. What can parents do when they feel they’ve made a mistake (yelled at a child, or failed to enforce a family agreement)?
A. There’s a lot of advice out there to be calm and respond with love in every moment. But we’re human! So it’s an opportunity to apologize to our kids and set our own intentions to behave differently the next time: You could say, “I’m sorry I yelled. I should have gone for a walk around the block or taken 10 minutes to cool down.”
Q. You write: “Parenting in this way means consciously breaking with the norms in the culture around us.” What do you mean by that?
A. My experience has been, and my research has validated this, that our society expects parents to always be in control of kids. If kids do something wrong, it’s the parents’ fault. So there’s an impulse to micromanage, to direct, to punish kids rather than letting them learn from the consequences of their actions. When kids test boundaries and take risks, there is an unspoken or explicit pressure to intervene. There are so many situations like this: Forgetting their school lunch, not wearing clothes that match, talking out of turn—all those things our kids do that other people judge. Kids are figuring themselves out. We need to give ourselves a pass to not worry about what other parents think. Know you’re doing what’s right for your child and your family.
Catherine Holecko is a parenting writer and mother of two school-aged children.
Michael was seven years old and headed to class in second grade. Here’s what he was wearing: pointy black cowboy boots, a brown leather aviator jacket, and faded blue jeans, each knee with a rip of his own making.
He had also put on black sunglasses and a black-and-white bandanna, wrapped expertly, by his own hand, around his brow. And to top it all off, dangling from his right ear, left over from a Halloween costume, was a gold-plated, clip-on hoop earring.
At the time, this was pretty much his standard outfit. He was four feet tall and weighed 45 pounds. He boarded the yellow bus decked out like a rock star going on a cross-country tour.
All this took some serious preparation behind the scenes. Michael would hang out in front of the bathroom mirror, combing his thick, wavy brown hair to mimic the styles he caught on music videos on TV. He begged us to let him grow his hair longer so he could sport a ponytail.
But the look Michael adopted was going to take him only so far in his still barely adolescent life. So he also mastered a second language: fluent back talk. If I joked with him or somehow said something that upset him, he might tell me to give him a break or take a hike or fly a kite.
He would propose, with a growing frequency that caused me worry, that I either get out of town, get real, get a job or, more simply, get a life. His mouth came to strike me as a prematurely—and precociously—adult instrument, a weapon of mass destruction.
Oh, he was the complete package all right: the funky uniform, the hipper-than-thou attitude, the up-to-the-minute idiom. His purpose was clear. Michael wanted more than anything on the planet to be cool. Too cool for school.
So it went for a spell, maybe a year or two. He would strut through our apartment, lip-synching to M.C. Hammer and fingering an air guitar. He would carry a comb to school to keep up appearances. He would chase girls around the playground, no doubt without yet quite understanding why.
He bopped along with us on family outings too—bandanna, earring, and all—and drew surprised glances and even occasional rubbernecking from passersby. One time we all went out for pizza and the teenagers at the next table in the restaurant were so taken with his look that he was invited over for a cameo appearance.
As it happened, I knew the deal here, understood the impulses that drove our son. At his age, I was short and skinny, with thick black glasses and frizzy hair. I, too, once wanted more than anything to be too cool for school.
So I never said anything to Michael about his getup or his wisecracks, nor saw any reason to. I knew nothing I said to him would make any difference, or even necessarily should. Rather, I chose to do what I really had no choice but to do. Privately, in my heart of hearts, I cheered him on. At least one of us, I figured, should get to be cool.
Bob Brody, a New York City executive, essayist and father of two, is the author of the memoir Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age.
I recently had back-to-back conversations with two distressed mothers. One, the parent of a preschooler, described how a tantrum her four-year-old son had thrown at a public playground had left her feeling helpless and more than a shade embarrassed. The other, the mother of a college graduate, felt wrung out by her 24-year-old daughter’s failure to honor some much-discussed, carefully negotiated responsibilities.
Despite the varied circumstances and the 20-year difference in their children’s ages, both women were left with the same ache: an acute feeling that she had failed as a parent. I have little doubt that had either of these women been a witness to, rather than a participant in, the very same dramas, she would have regarded the under-siege mothers with empathy of the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God variety.
But these incidents involved their children. So, each of these mothers felt that she could have handled the situation better—if only she had maintained a cool head and not let anger or impatience gain the upper hand.
It never goes away, this feeling that we parents must somehow get it right, each time, every time.
Here’s the thing: we don’t.
Here’s the other thing: like our kids, we’re only human.
That may sound obvious, but, in the course of our daily lives, we tend to juxtapose our grown-upness against our children’s immaturity. What reflects back is the enormity of the age, wisdom, and experience divide. Sure, our kids act out. They’re kids. We’re adults. We should know better than to … (pick your brand of self-poison: yell, snap, or turn a cold shoulder; play deaf, use harsh language, or threaten penalties we know we won’t enforce).
I don’t know about you, but I was at my peak as a parenting expert when I was still childless. Back then, I’d watch parents respond to a child’s provocative behavior with hapless attempts to reason or calm, and I’d think: If that were my kid, I wouldn’t put up with that! If that were my infant crying on an airplane, I’d make her stop! If that were my son mouthing off, I’d make him zip his lip! If that were my daughter not doing her chores, I’d show her who makes the rules around here!
Parenting is easy—when you’re not a parent.
For those of us who actually have kids, however, here’s what we learn while our tots are still in Onesies, then keep learning over and over as they progress from soiled diapers to school sports uniforms to seductive sundresses and staid business suits: they may be our kids, but each of them is very much his or her own person.
If you have more than one child, you witness this daily as your kids grow under your roof. While this one craves your praise and approval, that one wants you to stop telling your friends that he got a part in the school play. While this one demands your undivided attention, that one wishes you’d disappear and leave her alone. This one disintegrates into tears because she’s colored outside the lines; that one finds delight in taking crayon to freshly painted wall.
The marvel isn’t only how different they are, but how differently they respond to the same parental cues. The coaxing that works like a charm on your son’s intransigence is inflammatory nagging to your daughter’s ear. The disappointed sigh that halts your toddler’s tantrum is toxic fuel for your tween’s melodrama.
This isn’t science. This is life. Your life—and theirs. It might help to remember that the next time you’re confronted by one of life’s more challenging parenting moments. When given the benefit of distance, by all means reflect, revise, and strategize. But remember, too, that in the heat of your child’s upsetting behavior, you offered the best you could.
In other words, forgive yourself. Chances are, your child already has.
Jill Smolowe is the author of An Empty Lap: One Couple’s Journey to Parenthood and co-editor of A Love Like No Other: Stories from Adoptive Parents