“Clean this up.”
“Be nice to your sister.”
“I told you to knock it off.”
Do you find yourself giving similar vague instructions to your kids — to little effect? It seems children often seek to do exactly the opposite of what their parents tell them, whether because of distractions or just old-fashioned disobedience. But children misbehave for other reasons, too: Their parents may not have expressed their expectations clearly enough — or they’ve fallen into a pattern of inconsistent enforcement of those expectations.
Children thrive if parents can have clear expectations for behavior and enforce those standards consistently. We asked some friends from the Focus on the Family broadcast for advice on communicating and enforcing expectations with children. Here is their advice:
Establish guiding principles
When I was growing up, my parents developed a set of principles for life in our family, along with the consequences for violating those principles. My dad put it all in writing, framed the document and hung it on the wall as a reminder. I’m sure I didn’t take the family “constitution” as seriously as my father did, but over time I came to appreciate the usefulness of defining a set of clear values for family life. Everyone understood the reasoning behind family rules and decisions, and we kids knew, even without warning from our parents, if we were close to violating a family rule.
As parents, my wife, Erin, and I are probably a bit more laid back than my father was. We certainly don’t have a fancy, framed document hanging on our wall! Still, we’ve tried to stick to the basic plan: Our kids will clearly understand the core principles that govern our everyday decisions. Yes, there will be rules — rules that may be adjusted as our kids mature or as our family circumstances change — but we hope our children will always be able to point to the mission statement that our family seeks to fulfill every day, that foundation upon which our rules, expectations and consequences are built.
Some families may choose to write out and frame a mission statement, but I lean toward a few simple, easily articulated principles that our children can always have at their fingertips. As life in this fallen world transpires, we want them to understand the basic values that shape their interactions with others — how they should resolve differences, how they should speak to one another. And as parents, we find that having our family’s values clearly defined up front makes it easier to enforce rules and stick to consequences.
— Dr. Greg Smalley
Ground expectations in reality
Are we expecting our kids to be . . . well, perfect? If someone were to ask us if we expect perfection, we would defensively respond, “Absolutely not!” But sometimes we’re not fully aware of our own expectations. We claim not to expect perfection, but do we get frustrated every time we have to deal with our kids’ behavior issues?
As parents, I think we need to keep our expectations anchored in reality, to anticipate mistakes and even foresee some misbehavior. It’s too easy to lose perspective of what is normal behavior in each age and stage of development. We often overestimate their ability to have self-control, to stay focused on a task and to handle social situations well. It’s normal for a 2-year-old to get upset if he doesn’t get something he wants; it’s normal for a 3-year-old to lose it if there’s a change in his bedtime routine; it’s normal for a 5-year-old to daydream in the middle of a T-ball game; it’s normal for a 12-year-old to be moody; it’s normal for a teenager to be irresponsible every once in a while.
Yes, there’s a fine line here. We do need to expect responsibility. We do need to expect obedience. We do need to expect social skills after we’ve trained our kids to those standards. But we shouldn’t be surprised when they fail at those things — making mistakes is part of how our kids’ brains develop. Most importantly, these mistakes are launching grounds for further learning. Our responses to their mistakes and poor choices must encourage that natural maturing process.
— Jill Savage
Expectations need training
My husband and I are firm believers in families being a team. No one person should be responsible for every task, chore or project in a home. Every member can pitch in and help run a household to the level of his or her ability. And while we want our children to enjoy their childhood and revel in that carefree state, we also feel that one of the greatest gifts we can instill in them is a strong work ethic. So we give them age-appropriate chores to accomplish each day and encourage them to take initiative in helping beyond their chore list. And as we’ve raised our kids with this expectation, we’re always reminded of a basic parenting principle: If you don’t show your children how to do something, you can’t really expect them to know how to do it.
Of course, the process of teaching children how to do something can take time and effort, and it’s often faster and easier to just straighten their beds or vacuum their room ourselves. But I believe children can truly thrive if we remove the “inability factor.” So before asking them to do a chore on their own, work alongside them a few times showing them specifically how to do it. It takes repetition, gentle correcting and practice before children can succeed. What matters is that they are putting forth effort and trying their best. Encourage whenever you can. Instead of dwelling on areas where a child needs to improve, focus much of your energy on praising those things he or she did well.
In our home, we try to make chore time a fun family event, and we’ve been amazed at how much our children can really help, even at a young age.
— Crystal Paine
Clear and consistent correction
We are sure you didn’t have to teach your 2-year-old to scream, “No!” or “Mine!” Humans have an innate tendency to be selfish — that sin nature comes prepackaged with every child! Our job as parents is to minimize their negative tendencies, to accentuate the positive and help our kids discover and follow God’s plan. Scripture says discipline is the key. If a parent does not discipline, a child is likely to suffer dire consequences (Proverbs 5:23), whereas a disciplined child will bring peace and delight to a family (Proverbs 29:17).
We have to outlast, outthink and outmaneuver our children and their inborn bent to foolishness. We need to discipline them consistently, even when we are tired, when we are preoccupied, when we are frustrated or angry, when we would rather be relaxing. The following principles will help you ensure that your discipline is consistent and fair:
Train first. We should never punish for something a child didn’t know was wrong. To do so would be unjust. In addition, irresponsibility should not be punished unless it is deliberate and defiant. Children are naturally clumsy and immature. A child should never be made to feel guilty for being a child, and yet too often parents use discipline to respond to spilled milk.
The punishment should fit the offense. A small infraction should be met with a small form of correction. A big wrongdoing should be met with more stringent correction. We also recommend that the parent present at the time of the infraction should handle the correction.
Don’t lose control. No punishment should ever be given in anger.
— Bill & Pam Farrel
Holding the line with strong-willed kids
As you begin setting limits and consequences with your child, she will almost certainly test and protest. No one likes it when the party’s over! Stick with your boundaries, be fair but consistent, and empathize with your child’s emotional reactions. She will begin accepting the reality that she isn’t God, that Mom and Dad are bigger than she is, and that unacceptable behavior is costly.
Over time, your child will develop a healthy fear of consequences. A new thought—I need to think about what I am preparing to do. What might it cost me? — replaces the old one — I am free to do what I want when I want.
This anticipatory anxiety is like a little warning light in your child’s head that helps him think through how much he wants to do whatever he is contemplating. This is a blessing to your child. For many parents, this occasion represents the first significant victory in child rearing with boundaries. They have broken into their child’s self-centered system and introduced the reality that all is not well if he isn’t careful. It takes trial and error and lots of effort to find what losses and consequences matter to the child, and it takes lots of stamina to hold the line. One father told me, “If he breaks the rule 10,000 times, you have to stay with it only 10,001 times, and you’ll win.” Many parents can remember the day when they saw a look of doubt and uncertainty pass over their child’s face as he realized that his parents were actually going to win the battle by sticking to their boundaries.
We must stress that this fear of consequences should not be a fear of losing love. Your child needs to know you are constantly connected and emotionally there with her, no matter what the infraction. She should only be concerned about the loss of freedom and the possibility of other consequences. The message is, “I love you, but you have chosen something difficult for yourself.”
— Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend