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Child Development and Parenting: Infants

Preventing Early Childhood Misbehavior Before it Happens

Angela Oswalt, MSW, Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

An atmosphere of family affection, open communication, and positive parental role modeling is the basic foundation for raising well-disciplined children. The next layer of child discipline involves preventing misbehavior before it happens. Basically, this means that parents need to help children to understand appropriate family rules and what is expected of them and to encourage children's positive behavior and conformity with the rules.

Parents should be sure that young children are equipped with the necessary physical, mental, and emotional tools needed to follow the rules. As parents create house or family rules, they should keep in mind that children will not necessarily be able to understand the rules as adults do because of children's lack of cognitive sophistication (i.e., children do not have the insight and abstract thinking skills of adults and may not understand the reason for or intent behind, or how to follow, rules). Therefore, it is important that adults explain all rules to children in an age-appropriate form and target them towards children's skills and abilities.

For most preschool-aged children, rules need to be simple, short, and concrete. A few examples of house rules appropriate for preschool-aged children are, "Treat other people kindly," "Pick up your toys before bed" and "Brush your teeth before school and before bed". If children cannot understand what is expected of them, or cannot actually accomplish what is expected of them, it will be far harder for them to follow the rules.

Whenever possible, family rules should be phrased as positive statements rather than as a list of prohibited behaviors. For example, instead of saying, "Do not lie" parents can say instead, "Always tell the truth." Furthermore, parents should help children understand the rules by repeatedly explaining them using various different methods of explanation. For instance, creative strategies can be used to show young children what the rule, "Be patient and calm at the grocery store," means. parents can role-play a situation in the family living room, and pretend to be the child. The adult can demonstrate patiently walking in the grocery store, using a calm voice, staying within eyesight, and so on, while explaining to children how they are expected to act at the store. Then, parents can pretend to have a tantrum, kicking and screaming and whining for chocolate in the middle of the living room floor. Preschool-aged children will probably break into a fit of giggles watching Mom do this, but this sort of concrete play-acting can effectively illustrate exactly what behaviors are expected and approved and what are discouraged.

Young children need lots of visual and verbal reminders about rules, as they don't yet have the skill of internalizing expectations mastered. To make the rules clearer for children, it can be useful to illustrate them on a colorful and attention-grabbing poster that is displayed within the house. For children this age who cannot read, parents can create drawings or put photos beside the rules to depict the expectations (pairing photos with a written description of behaviors may also encourage reading skills). Posters of rules should be placed at child-height, and put in places where everyone in the family can easily see them (e.g., on the refrigerator, on bedroom walls, in the playroom).

Children should be rewarded for following house rules and complying with parental expectations. If at all possible, the reward should follow immediately after the good behavior (prompt pairing of a reward with a behavior has an increased likelihood of ensuring that the child will behave similarly in the future). The reward need not be large or even something tangible. A heartfelt smile and a verbal comment noting that the child has behaved well and that the behavior is appreciated should do it. Praise phrases such as, "Good job!" are useful in this regard. Parents should also point out exactly what positive behaviors they appreciate. For example, Mom can say, "Andrea, thanks for picking up your toys before I asked. It was a big help." Parents can always give lots of hugs and kisses in addition to verbal praise. Rewarding children with positive attention for their positive actions lets them know that their behavior is appropriate, noticed, and appreciated and that feels good.

Another way to help young children remember and follow the rules is to create a behavior reinforcement chart, sometimes called a sticker chart. This chart is typically created in the form of a simple grid. Each row of the left side of the grid lists family rules, either in words or pictures. The days of the week are listed at the top of each grid, one to a column. Each day that goes by, children can earn a sticker for each rule they successfully follow, the sticker being placed at the intersection between the appropriate day column and rule row.

Sticker charts are effective for several reasons. First, young children generally find it fun and rewarding to get a colorful sticker. Second, the chart can help encourage children to remember the rules. Finally, a chart can spark some healthy competition between siblings about who can more closely follow the rules and earn the most stickers. Because stickers are accumulated, parents have the opportunity to allow children to trade them in for larger rewards or special privileges; this process teaches about how delayed rewards (like adult salaries) work. These larger rewards or privilege do not have to be expensive, and neither should they repeatedly involve food, dessert, or candy (as this may promote obesity or tooth decay). A simple but meaningful reward for children is most effective, such as allowing them to pick the movie for family movie night or getting to sit in the window seat on the Sunday trip to Grandpa's house.

Between the immediate reinforcement of earning stickers, and the long-term reinforcement of earning privileges, sticker charts go a long way towards helping children to internalize family expectations, and to teach them the positive benefits of following the rules. A sticker chart is not bribery, as the value of the reinforcement isn't large. Provided incentives are more like tokens of gratitude for children cooperatively working with the family. When children know what's expected of them, they will be more likely to behave appropriately.

Parents can help to prevent misbehavior by planning appropriately for difficult situations. For example, waiting in line for a half hour at the post office during the Christmas season can be frustrating for even the most iron-willed adult, let alone a six-year-old. Parents can verbally prepare young children to take on such frustrating tasks by explaining what is expected of them before walking in. Parents should also make sure that young children get their meals on time and have healthful snacks and drinks on hand for between-meal stomach growls and thirstiness. As well, (if possible) potentially difficult and stressful situations should be scheduled when young children are well-rested, rather than directly before or during nap time. Young children who are hungry, thirsty, or especially tired are already cranky and have little tolerance for extra frustrations. Lastly, parents should be realistic in terms of their expectations. Waiting in line for 5 minutes at the post office is reasonable; waiting in a six-hour line at the passport office and expecting perfect behavior is not. In those intense situations, parents should make alternative care arrangements, if that is at all possible.

Parents should also be prepared to head off inappropriate behavior with appropriate activities and toys children can use when forced to attend long adult events where children are expected to sit quietly. For example, parents can keep a special bag filled with a few soft, plush (and therefore noiseless) toys handy for a young child's use during worship time at church or the synagogue. This way, children can occupy themselves without disrupting the larger adult activity.