How to Get Your Kids to Behave by Looking at the Bigger Picture

Parenting is hard. Disobedient children can be infuriating, and your child won’t always listen to you. It’s easy to forget that children don’t know how to use all the tools in their toolbox yet. It’s up to you to help them learn.

While kids push against boundaries, they actually instinctively crave them. Boundaries enable them to make sense of their complex world. Luckily, you already know a lot about the complex world they live in. That means it’s your job to be a patient guide to growing up.

How do you keep your patience while dealing with unruly children? Be forgiving and consistent. These common arguments have easy solutions when you take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

The Screen Zombie

Situation: Your child has retreated to their Nintendo Switch once again. They seem a little obsessed. You want them to go play outside, read a book, or at least do their homework.

Solution: As an adult, your critical thinking skills are fully developed. You are in charge of helping your child see what is best for them. Children’s brains are sponges. They absorb and take in so much information. It’s important to ensure they take in the right kind.

So much is new to your child so much of the time. The internet opens up even more new things and gives them control over what they learn. Learning is good! However, it is your job to establish age-appropriate boundaries and model healthy behavior.

So set limits on screen time. Without them, too much screen time could lead to social anxiety, eyesight problems, and developmental delays. If your child has been begging for a phone, select a kids phone without social media and internet access. That cuts out a sizable amount of screen temptation right there.

Instead of getting frustrated and demanding different behavior, use positive reinforcement Provide a wide variety of activities that don’t include screens. Set up playdates. Take your child to the park. Talk to them about what they like to do and set up extracurricular activities they can get excited about.

The Great Outfit Debate

Situation: You picked out a color-coordinated shirt and pair of pants, perfect for today’s rainy forecast. However, your child has decided they would rather wear a swimsuit to school.

Solution: You have better common sense than your child. You hopefully have more fashion sense, too. Lean on your common sense in this case. You know a swimsuit isn’t the best outfit for your child — what’s more, the school won’t allow it. So how do you get them to wear something more appropriate?

When you can plan ahead, try picking out tomorrow’s school clothes together. This gives your child some agency in the decision. When your child has a say, they are more likely to get excited about getting dressed. This takes the pressure off of them and you during the morning rush to get out the door.

If you can’t plan ahead, take a deep breath and be patient. Explain that they need to abide by the school dress code and the forecast, but otherwise the decision is theirs. It’s OK if your child’s outfit doesn’t match. Unless it’s against school rules or is weather-inappropriate, who cares what your child wears?

Use positive reinforcement when they make suitable selections. Say something like, “I like that you chose the rain boots instead of the sandals. They look better for splashing in puddles. Do you like to splash in puddles?” Newsflash: Your child does like to splash in puddles.

The Picky Eater

Situation: You made blueberry pancakes for breakfast. Yum! Except your child wanted macaroni and cheese. Not only are they refusing to eat the pancakes, they’re refusing to eat full stop.

Solution: It’s easy to want to laugh at your child and declare that macaroni and cheese isn’t breakfast food. Your instinct tells you to say, “You can eat this or nothing at all!” Take a breath. It’s time to take a step back and remember, it isn’t about you.

If you get hangry as an adult, well, imagine what it’s like for a child whose brain isn’t fully developed. Your objective shouldn’t be to win this argument. Your main goal is to send your child to school with the energy to play and learn.

So take your own emotion out of the situation and provide your child with more options. If there’s leftover mac and cheese in the fridge, by all means, heat it up. If not, you don’t need to become a short-order cook.

Instead, alongside those pancakes offer up an apple sauce pouch, a container of yogurt, and an orange. Will there be leftover food? Yes. But your child will be able to make their own choices, and something is bound to get in their tummy.

The Dirty Dishes

Situation: You asked your child to load the dishwasher after dinner, but they are playing video games. You’re tempted to take their gaming device away. You want to say something like, “Listen, mister, back in my day, we had to do the dishes by hand!” Instead, you need to strategize.

Solution: Most people don’t want to do chores. But learning to do things you don’t like to do is part of growing up. And your job is to help your child grow up. Model the behavior you’d like to see.

Perhaps you do the dishes with your child, assisting them each evening after dinner until it becomes routine. Maybe you break out a chore chart and assign rewards. Rewards don’t have to look like an allowance. They could include extra screen time, a special meal, or going to a movie.

The critical thing with chores is follow-through. If your child only has to do the dishes once in a while, they won’t ever want to do the task. But if post-dinner cleanup is simply expected, there will be less of a battle. Stay consistent.

When your child isn’t obeying you, it’s easy to want to force them to follow instructions now. But you have to think about the bigger picture. When you teach a child, they become more responsible for their own actions. If you want your child to grow into a capable adult, help them develop the tools they need to make their own decisions.

Nate Becker
the authorNate Becker