Solve your child’s behavior problem before it happens

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As most of you know, I teach Parenting with Positive Discipline classes in a live and virtual classroom setting. In almost all cases, parents in my classes are quite focused on what to do “in the moment” of non-compliance, or back-talk, or any other kind of “misbehavior.”

They’re asking questions like these:

  • “What do I do when my child is tantruming on aisle 5 in the supermarket?:
  • “What do I do when my child calls me an idiot?”
  • “What do I do when I’ve asked my child 10 times to pick up their mess and they still don’t do it?”
  • “What do I do when I discover that my child is playing Nintendo Switch under their bed at midnight?”

These are all great questions. Fortunately, Positive Discipline has many wonderful tools and techniques that can work wonders in these tense “misbehavior” moments. A sampling of some of my favorites are described at the end of this article under the heading, “In the Moment: Responsive Parenting.”

But I’ve found that there is way more impact when we focus before the moment, to prevent the “moments” from ever happening.

Before the Moment: Preventive Parenting

I call this kind of focus, “Preventive Parenting” or even “Kaiser Permanente-Style Parenting” because healthcare giant, Kaiser Permanente, knows that they get a much bigger return on investment when they focus on preventive care and keeping people healthy vs. trying to heal people who are already sick.

The same is true in parenting: you get a much bigger bang for your buck by taking time and energy to do the things that reduce the frequency and intensity of those misbehaving moments. Preventive parenting means getting in front of the misbehavior so that it’s less likely to happen in the first place; and when it does happen, the explosions are then more like firecrackers than bombs.

Preventive parenting means getting in front of the misbehavior so that it’s less likely to happen in the first place; and when it does happen, the explosions are then more like firecrackers than bombs.

Stephen Covey refers to this idea as “sharpening the saw” (Habit #7) in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He describes this habit with a story:

Suppose you were to come upon someone in the woods working feverishly to saw down a tree.

“What are you doing?” you ask.

“Can’t you see?” comes the impatient reply. “I’m sawing down this tree.”

“You look exhausted!” you exclaim. “How long have you been at it?”

“Over five hours,” he returns, “and I’m beat! This is hard work.”

“Well, why don’t you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen that saw?” you inquire. “I’m sure it would go a lot faster.”

“I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,” the man says emphatically. “I’m too busy sawing.”

I hear similar stories from parents:

  • “I don’t have time to make a routine chart.”
  • “I don’t have time to label toy bins so they are easier to know where things go.”
  • “I don’t have time to sit down, listen to my child’s perspective, and make agreements about video game use.”
  • “I don’t have time to play with my child.”
  • “I don’t have time to teach my child, over and over again, what he CAN do instead of hitting.”
  • “I don’t have time to take care of myself so that I feel more calm and capable as a parent.”

And yet, while all of these investments do take time, they also sharpen the saw, so that when it comes to getting out the door, cleaning up, arguing about screen time, or enduring a sibling squabble, it all goes more smoothly and quickly.

Of course speed is nice side benefit. But a child who feels unconditionally loved, capable and competent, and has the skills to thrive as an independent adult is the real benefit.

Make no mistake, I struggle mightily to find the time to sharpen my own saw. That’s why for me, I try to focus on just one or two “Preventive Parenting” tools at a time. That’s about all I can handle. For now, I’m focusing on teaching my children how to do their own laundry and creating routines and external reminders to follow through. I’m also focusing on having more fun with my daughters while they are with me. (Since my son left for college last Fall, I’m feeling how quickly this time passes.)

After the Moment: Reflective Parenting

We also underestimate the power of great parenting after the moment, “Reflective Parenting.” Sometimes things just don’t work out the way we’d hoped — we yell, or cave in for example — and we get to reflect on what happened, learn from mistakes, and try a new solution next time.

One of my favorite tools for “Reflective Parenting” is the 3 R’s of Recovery from Mistakes from Positive Discipline. I use this tool often!

  1. Recognize your mistake (Just notice: “Oops — I yelled at my child.”)
  2. Reconcile (Apologize to your child, modeling what it looks and sounds like to take responsibility for your part of the problem: “I’m sorry I yelled at you this morning.”)
  3. Resolve to learn from your mistake. (Take time to reflect on what happened, and what you can do differently next time: “Buddy, can you help me think of things we can do to make our mornings go more smoothly in the future?”)

Find the Positive Discipline tool card on 3 R’s of Recovery here.

What Preventive Parenting tool would make the biggest difference in your life? What saw needs some sharpening? Please leave your comments below in the comment section.

Click here to download a Cheat Sheet of tools you can use before, during, and after the moment.


In the Moment: Responsive Parenting

A sampling of some of my favorite tools you can use in the moment of “misbehavior.”

  • Validate feelings / empathize first – “I can see that you really want that cookie now – it is your favorite kind, chocolate chip – and you can have one after dinner.”
  • Get “Eye to Eye” – Move to where your child is and get at their level before making request or demand.
  • Give limited choices – “You can do your job now or after dinner. What do you pick?”
  • Use Curiosity Questions – “I see two kids and only one cookie. How can we solve this problem?”
  • Give Hugs – Just give them. They help children feel better so they can do better.
  • Distract & redirect (for very young children) – “Oh, the dog doesn’t seem to enjoy having its leg wrapped in toilet paper. Let’s go over here and scoop the food into the bowl.”

Get your Preventive Parenting Cheat Sheet here.

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