Focus on the Family

Why Kids Misbehave

by Shana Schutte

I'm a product of the 70s, a time when everyone in my third-grade class sat and listened silently while our teacher, Mrs. Sampe, expounded on a concept. When she finished talking, we followed directions. The greatest problems in our classroom were chewing gum and passing notes.

You can imagine my shock when I became an elementary school teacher twenty-five years later. During my first week of teaching, one of my students stood in the middle of my explanation about Vincent Van Gogh, approached me, tugged on my skirt and tattled on his buddy at the back of the room. I couldn't believe I was being interrupted in the middle of a lesson! I later discovered that this behavior — and much worse — was the norm. What happened to good, old-fashioned respect?

In his book Have a New Kid by Friday, Dr. Kevin Leman asks similar questions, but in relation to parenting. "Why is it that these days that so many children tend to diss their parents, to act disrespectfully? Why are so many parents caught in the roles of threatening and cajoling and never getting anywhere? What's going on here?"

Granted, many things have affected kids since Beaver Cleaver and black and white television. Technology has made huge advancements but sends millions of negative messages to kids about authority. Drug use has increased. The family structure has all but fallen apart. However, the real answer to Leman's question (and my teaching problem) is that because kids misbehave because they can and because adults let them.

In his book, Dr. Leman says, "It all comes down to who is really in charge of your family." He points out that many parents are so concerned about being their child's friend — not hurting their child's feelings or making sure that their child is always happy — that they fail to parent well.

Leman's comments lead to several pointed questions: Are you willing to do whatever it takes to take charge of your family? Are you willing to look like the "bad guy" at times in order to parent your children so they will stop rolling over you? Are you ready to be an assertive parent, helping your child become all he can be?

If you're ready to take on what Leman calls "the ankle-biter battalion," read on and learn how to become a super parent!

Here are three ways parents encourage their kids to misbehave.

No parenting game plan

Imagine a football coach having no plan to lead his team to victory. What would it be like if he never put any plays into action? What if he didn't discipline his team or expect them to perform? What if he let them run wild everywhere without direction? No doubt, life with his "team" would be chaotic and exhausting.

Parents lead kids much like a coach leads a football team, and to experience victory, parents need a good parenting game plan. Part of having a plan means defining the attitudes, behaviors and character traits you want your children to possess. When you can define these, you'll be able to begin to develop a plan to become a super parent.

In his book Have a New Kid by Friday, Dr. Leman helps parents put a one-week parenting game plan into action that helps reduce parental frustration, put parents back in the coach's seat and transform their child's attitude, behavior and character.

Not only should you develop an "overall" parenting plan, but it's also important to have a scheduled minute-by-minute plan, especially with your smallest children. As an elementary teacher, I learned that the best defense against bad behavior is having a good lesson plan that would keep their little hands busy. The same applies to parenting. Keep your kids busy with things to learn, with stuff to do and with an agenda, and your parenting job will be much easier with fewer discipline problems.


As an elementary teacher, I learned the hard way that children have brains like elephants — they will latch onto even your the smallest promises (positive or negative) and remember them a day, week, month or year later. Therefore, I learned that consistency was of utmost importance in discipline. If I said I was going to dole out a pink slip and a trip to the school's front office the next time I saw a particular student, I needed to deliver rather than make threats or promises I didn't intend to keep. And if you don't do what you say you will, they won't respect you.

Dr. Leman agrees. He says in Have a New Kid by Friday that a child's misbehavior serves a purpose in his life: it gives him a reason to control you. Sadly, if a parent does not show the child that they are in charge through consistency, a child's contempt for their parent will grow. As Dr. Leman says, ". . . if he [your child] can control you, why respect you?"

Power struggles

Several years ago my grandmother told me that in marriage you have to pick your battles. The same is true in parenting. If you want your home to be peaceful, you need to decide which battles are worth fighting with your kids, and which aren't. This will help stop power struggles that increase bad behavior.

If your child wants to wear a shirt/skirt combo that makes her look like she dressed herself in a dark closet, and she is very strong-willed, you may ask yourself if it's worth fighting her to get her to change her duds. On the other hand, if she wants to spend time with a boy in a dark closet, you might want to make a big deal out of that. The battles that you choose to fight will directly affect your child's level of misbehavior — especially if your child is strong-willed.

Granted, becoming a stellar parent takes energy, but the payoff will be greater than anything you could have imagined as your children grow.

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The Wonders of Reality Discipline

This clever discipline method is less exhausting and more successful than ranting, raving, blaming, pleading, begging or threatening.

by Shana Schutte

I once read a newspaper headline that made me chuckle: "Red Lipstick Empowers Women." The caption, coupled with a photo of Marilyn Monroe wearing a white flowing dress and painted crimson lips, made me think that perhaps I'd found the answer to the discipline problems with my elementary students. That's been my problem all along I've been wearing champagne pink!

Wouldn't it be wonderful if changing lipstick was all it took to become more effective and empowered in handling discipline problems with children?

While child psychologist Dr. Kevin Leman is an out-of-the-box parenting problem solver who might buy into the lipstick method if it worked, Dr. Leman instead teaches parents about the effective "Reality Discipline." This clever method of getting little "ankle biters" to obey is less exhausting and more successful than ranting, raving, blaming, pleading, begging or threatening.

It's all about responsibility

The first thing to remember about Reality Discipline is that you want your children to learn to think for themselves and learn to become more responsible through guidance and action-oriented techniques. In an article from First Things First, Dr. Leman says, "Action-oriented discipline is based on the reality that there are times when you have to pull the rug out and let the little buzzards tumble. I mean disciplining your children in such a way that he/she accepts responsibility and learns accountability for his actions." Here's an example.

When my brother was in high school, my mother implemented Reality Discipline without realizing it. My little brother, Gannon, could sleep through a tornado (or a hurricane or tsunami) and my mother was tired of waking him up every morning and saying, "You'd better hurry, or you're going to miss the bus." Finally, Mom thought, I'm not waking him up anymore. He can be late. Just as she suspected, Gannon did miss the bus and was forced to walk the mile to school. Much to my mother's delight, he was never late again. She didn't have to beg, plead, give him ultimatums or nag Gannon one more time. Instead, she let reality do the discipline.

A little bit of ice cream can do the trick

One afternoon, I had the privilege of listening to Dr. Leman explain on the radio how reality discipline teaches responsibility. He told an engaging story about a mother whose preschool son was driving her bananas because every day when she stopped to pick him up from preschool, he ran from her on the playground. She felt like a fool for being outrun by a preschooler while teachers and parents looked on. Desperate, she asked Dr. Leman for advice.

Dr. Leman suggested that if her son ran from her next time, she should ask another adult on the playground if they would be kind enough to keep an eye on her son for a few minutes. Then she should drive away, go to the nearest ice cream shop, purchase a cone for herself and drive back to the school to pick up her son. Then, when her little guy got in the car and asked, "Where's my ice cream?" he told the woman she should cheerfully say, "Well you could have had some ice cream, but you ran away; so I had to go get some alone."

One point for mom; zero for Junior. That's Reality Discipline. No ranting. No raving. No warnings. Just cool, collected action with some quick, clever thinking to make your point loud and clear.

Sounds great, right? Here are some basic principles of Reality Discipline to help you get (and keep) the upper hand with your kids.

Don't focus on creating a happy child

In his book Have a New Kid by Friday, Dr. Leman says that the goal of parenting is not to create happy kids; rather, it's to create responsible kids. This means Junior will probably be pretty unhappy that he didn't get an ice cream cone; he may even throw a fit, and rant and rave — but he will become more responsible and respectful. Don't back down, but do stay cool as a cucumber. Remind yourself that it's a battle of the wits and the wills, and you will win.

Understand your child's reality

According to Dr Leman, if you want to use Reality Discipline effectively, you need to know what's important to your child — what really moves him in his reality. Your child may value money, sports, a daily cookie break, staying up late or spending time with friends. Parents who know how to use Reality Discipline make creative connections between bad behavior and discipline through action rather than through warnings, nagging or threats.

For example, suppose you ask your ten-year-old daughter (who loves saving money) to take out the trash. She ignores you, and thirty minutes later the trash is still sitting by the back door. With a little creativity, you decide to implement some Reality Discipline. Instead of reminding your daughter about the trash, you enlist her younger sister to take it out . Then you take some money out of your ten-year-old daughter's allowance and give it to her sister for a job well done. Can you imagine the peace and satisfaction that could come from being such a quick-witted parent?

Note: If you want to use Reality Discipline, you have to listen to your child. Then you'll know what will move him to responsibility. The more you understand what's important to him, the more ammunition you'll have in your arsenal to "train up" your child in the way he should go.

Make sure that Reality Discipline is grounded in love

In Have a New Kid by Friday, Dr. Leman writes, "Show me a mean teacher, and I'll show you a good one." If you find that you are a permissive parent who is afraid of "pulling the rug out from under your child" as Dr. Leman suggests, remember that Reality Discipline is not unkind. Instead, when it's motivated by love to help your child mature into a responsible adult, it's a very good gift.

Building Self-Esteem in Your Kids

This clever discipline method is less exhausting and more successful than ranting, raving, blaming, pleading, begging or threatening.

by Shana Schutte

When kids are small, they learn the ABCs. They're happy to sing them in the bathtub, in the car and while they're eating their Cheerios. But according to Dr. Leman, the ABCs are for parents, too — ABCs that build a healthy self-esteem in your child.

According to Leman, author of Have a New Kid by Friday, a healthy self-esteem is cultivated in children through Acceptance, Belonging and Competence.


Some parents who are turned-off by their child's choice of music or clothes send a message to their kids that not only is their child's behavior unacceptable, but that they are unacceptable. As a result, their child spends hours listening to their iPod, playing computer games or talking on the phone. Why? Because if a child doesn't feel accepted by their parents, they'll look for acceptance from their friends. However, when parents unconditionally accept their kids, they will be much less likely to seek acceptance from a peer group — and they will develop a healthier self-esteem. According to Dr. Leman, "Your unconditional acceptance of your child means everything in her development."

If you want to send a strong message to your child that he is accepted, listen and ask questions to show you care about his interests and concerns. In short, develop a relationship with your kids. Dr. Leman says, "Without a relationship, your rules, your words and your actions mean nothing. The wedge between you and your children will drive them toward Acceptance and Belonging in a group outside your home."


Everyone, whether they are five or fifty, wants to belong. Many people go to great lengths to ensure that they are connected with someone who cares. How can you give your kids a sense of belonging? By creating a community within your family. To accomplish this, Dr. Leman suggests giving your children a vote in decisions, listening to what they say and supporting them in their activities.

In Have a New Kid by Friday, Dr. Leman tells a story about 15-year-old Melissa who was approached and offered a cigarette. Because she had a strong sense of belonging within her family, she didn't need the cigarette and replied, "No thanks. We Crayburns don't smoke."

By creating a healthy self-esteem, a sense of belonging helps your child resist peer pressure and creates a set of expectations for your kids to attain. For Melissa, it was the expectation that her family doesn't smoke.


The third way to build self-esteem in your kids is to give them the gift of competence. Children become competent when they experience life first hand. If you are an overprotective parent, you'll need to fight the urge to do for your kids what they can do for themselves.

In his book, Dr. Leman writes:

"These days, parents are overly concerned with their child's self-esteem. 'I want Johnny to feel good about himself,' a mother says. So what does a mother do? She goes out of her way to clear life's roads for her child, to do things for him that he should be doing for himself.

She thinks she's helping him with his self-esteem, but what she is she really doing? She's sending a negative message: 'I think you're so stupid that you can't do it yourself, so I'll do it for you.'"

The way a mother eagle teaches her eaglets to fly is an excellent example of how guiding (without over-controlling) helps kids mature and develop healthy self-esteem.

When a mother eagle wants her baby to fly, she waits until her eaglet is 80% of his adult size. Then she sets him on the edge of the nest and pushes him off into the wild blue. She watches her baby bird freefall, then swoops down just in time to catch him on her wings. This exercise is repeated over and over until the baby eaglet learns to fly.

By doing this, her baby's confidence (and self-esteem, if eagles had such a thing) grows. Imagine if she was overly protective. Her eaglet would never learn to fly; he'd never mature.

In the same way, kids mature and develop a healthy self-esteem by experiencing life first hand, even if it means that sometimes they make mistakes.

When I was 19, I decided to move to London, England for a semester. My mom must have worried about me, but she never let on. London, with 13 million people, was light years away from my small town in southern Idaho. Even though I know Mom was concerned, she was very supportive. She has said in response to that adventure (and many others that I have embarked on), "You have to raise your kids to be independent. Some people want to keep their kids under their wing. That's not the goal; the goal is to raise responsible adults." And responsible adults are made by giving kids the gift of competence. Dr. Leman would be proud Mom.

Of course, your little person will not be traveling independently overseas anytime soon, but as he exerts his independence, ask yourself if what you want to protect your children from is necessary. If it's not a life or death situation (or harmful), allowing your child to make mistakes will help develop his self-esteem.

There you have it: the ABCs of building self-esteem in your kids. Granted, it may not be as easy as singing the song, but with a little practice, your kids can grow up to become confident and responsible adults.

Parenting Perfectionist Kids

Five ways to tame the perfectionism in your child and recover your sanity

by Shana Schutte

Many years ago, I watched Little Shop of Horrors, a humorous musical about a nerdy florist named Seymour who raises a house plant named Audrey that feeds on human blood. When Seymour accidentally pricks his finger, he discovers that Audrey needs blood to survive. What Seymour doesn't know is that the more blood Audrey receives, the larger and more demanding she would become.

As the musical progresses, Audrey grows into a deep-voiced, obnoxious, palm-sized plant which screams, "Feeeeed me!" A few drops of blood from Seymour's fingers couldn't sustain Audrey any longer, so she eats him.

Having a perfectionist child can be a lot like dealing with Audrey. Without realizing it, parents can encourage idealistic tendencies in their children by "feeding" their perfectionism. The result can be a child that grows out of control, and, like Audrey, is very demanding.

Here are five ways to tame the perfectionism in your child and recover your sanity.

Don't feed perfectionism

Perfectionism grows when it's encouraged. If your perfectionist daughter will not eat dinner because it's not arranged the "right" way on her plate, let her know that she'll either eat it as it's served or she won't eat at all. To a permissive parent, this may sound mean. But by not bending to your child's demands, you keep from being controlled by her. And you won't be so wiped out at the end of the day from being pushed around by a perfectionist kid.

If your child throws a temper tantrum because her shoes are the wrong color and don't match her dress, don't feed her perfectionism by cajoling her or reasoning with her. Instead, step over her as she is wailing, and go on with what you were doing. She'll learn that to function in life, she has to bend — a skill that all successful and confident people need.

Recognize a firstborn's tendency to be a perfectionist

Dr. Kevin Leman, author of a number of excellent parenting books including Have a New Kid by Friday, says that firstborn children are often perfectionists because parents tend to treat their firstborns differently from their latter-born children. You may have heard the joke that a mother sterilizes every pacifier for her first born. But by the time the same mother is on child number three, if the pacifier falls into the dirt, mom brushes it off and sticks it back in her child's mouth. Naturally, because parents are more structured with their firstborns, those children generally desire more structure.

In a conversation with MSNBC, Dr. Leman said, ". . . children are like wet cement. It's true that they are much more moldable in the first six or seven years of life. It's one of the few things you'll get psychologists and psychiatrists to agree on. You are not going to change the perfectionistic nature of a driven firstborn. But you know, you might round off the edges."1

The good news is that many CEOs and presidents of companies are firstborns. It's no wonder. If they were in charge at home over younger siblings, it's a no-brainer for them to be in charge at work.

Take a personal inventory

If you are a firstborn, you'll need to do the best you can to "round off your own perfectionistic edges" if you want to help your kids become more flexible. Amy, a firstborn mother of two small children says that she often wondered why her firstborn child was so picky about the smallest things. Then she learned about Dr. Leman's analysis of firstborns and realized that her child was demonstrating what she herself had modeled. Not surprisingly, a perfectionist child and a perfectionist parent will butt heads because when each doesn't have their own agenda met, there will be fireworks.

If you suspect that you struggle with perfectionism, ask yourself if less than perfect is OK in some instances. Is it OK for you not to feel in control if your child doesn't pick up every toy before she goes to bed at night? Is it all right if she misses her back teeth when she is brushing now and then?

When you can embrace your own imperfection, your child will realize that less than perfect is acceptable. This will help her develop into a secure, confident and flexible adult. If you struggle with extreme perfectionism, remember that there are trained counselors who can help you with your challenges.

Use humor

There is nothing like a little humor to lighten a tense moment. When your perfectionist child feels like life is falling apart, a little joking, teasing or acting silly will send a strong message to your kid: Imperfection is not the end of the world.

Granted, it can be a challenge sometimes to find the light side of something that seems like a disaster, but it can be done. Additionally, when you can laugh at your own mistakes, your child will learn to laugh at his, too.

Tell a story from your own experience

In moments when humor is not appropriate, you can tell a hopeful story from your own experience to encourage your son or daughter. When Robert's son Mark was angry at himself because he missed a free throw that caused his team to lose a basketball game, Robert pulled a story from his past out to share with his son. He talked about the time when he missed a touchdown pass in overtime. He was also able to tell Mark that by the next game his team had forgotten what happened, and he did much better.

Story telling about your own experiences can help you bond with you child, but it can also help your son or daughter see that survival is possible after failure.

"Rounding off" the perfectionist edges in your child will help him become more successful and secure in his mistakes.

1"Birth Order and Personality,", accessed November 17, 2008.

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