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How to avoid becoming a tyrant when your kids misbehave

Reuters/Darrin Zammit Lupi
No problem.
By Jenny Anderson
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Among the many frustrations of being a parent are the moments when your child’s bad behavior inspires your own rage-induced response. Kids are small, you are big, and evolution has it that you’re the one meant to keep it together.

And yet, facing down a kid who refuses to get dressed for school or throws a temper tantrum when the tv is turned off can be maddening.

Katherine Reynolds Lewis, author of a new parenting book, The Good News About Bad Behavior, has a prescription for this type of misbehavior—which she thinks is reaching a crisis point. The strategy is beautifully simple, but requires some planning.

The trick, she says, is to keep “a consequence from becoming a punishment.” This is a big deal: kids don’t respond that well to being punished (who does?) and anyway, your task as a parent is not to instill fear and exact compliance, but rather, to raise respectful, free-thinking human beings. That means generally avoiding showdowns and engaging in cooperative behavior (i.e., not shouting).

Here’s how Lewis describes what she calls her four R’s, telling NPR that any consequence should be:

  • revealed in advance;
  • respectful;
  • related to the decision the child made;
  • reasonable in scope.

She elaborates:

Generally, by the time they’re six or seven years old, kids know the rules of society and politeness, and we don’t need to give them a lecture in that moment of misbehavior to drill it into their heads. In fact, acting in that moment can sometimes be counterproductive if they are amped up, their amygdala’s activated, they’re in a tantrum or exploited state, and they can’t really learn very well because they can’t access the problem-solving part of their brain, the prefrontal cortex, where they’re really making decisions and thinking rationally. So every misbehavior doesn’t need an immediate consequence.

Lewis’s diagnosis of why our kids are behaving so badly is in line with many others’ today: Kids don’t get enough unstructured play to learn how to solve problems, they have too much access to technology, and they’re hyper-scheduled toward self-improvement (sports; music; Mandarin) with not enough time engaged with being part of a family or community (helping to cook dinner; having a job). She calls it a “crisis of self-regulation” and she means it for all of us, kids, parents, and teachers alike. The four R’s are a small way to start chipping away at the problem.

I will be the first to say this is an extremely tall order in the heat-of-the-meltdown moment. But I can see plain as day why it matters. My kids are older now, and I see the vestiges of my short fuse in their reactions to many things. If only the four R’s had been revealed in advance of my becoming a parent.

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