Kids can discipline themselves. I know it sounds too good to be true but when you make your expectations clear from the time your child is a toddler, they internalize those expectations and begin to expect the same thing themselves. In other words, since kids are naturally inclined to want to please their parents, they will try to behave in a way that you have taught them. Teaching self-discipline to a young child isn’t as daunting as it sounds. If you focus on the essentials starting around age 2 your child will catch on faster, resist less and ultimately behave better.
These four essentials will help you raise a child who can keep their own behavior in check:
- Set firm rules and expect respect: Kids who believe they can do anything they feel like doing and get whatever they want tend to be the ones who act out by whining or throwing a tantrum when their demands are not met. You don’t have to give your children elaborate explanations for why you expect certain behaviors for them. If your child understands that there are simple reasons for your rules, he/she will realize they aren’t arbitrary and will be more likely to comply.
- Build problem solving skills: One of the major reasons children behave badly is because they feel frustrated and powerless. When you give children the tools they need to figure things out on their own they will behave better. They will be better equipped to take care of themselves and won’t come screaming to you or act out every time they encounter a challenge. Give your children the opportunity to make choices as soon as they are old enough to understand. Make them think things out. Stretch your child’s cognitive skills by challenging them to answers for themselves.
- Help kids practice patience: No one likes to wait, especially young kids. Developmentally and neurologically its difficult because children survive by letting their needs be known immediately. That is why it is especially important for parents to start teaching patience in the toddler years. You want your kids to develop tolerance for the feeling of impatience which is often unpleasant so they will not misbehave or act impulsively when faced with that feeling in the future. Don’t always drop everything as soon as your child asks for something. By not giving in immediately you will help your child practice managing patience. Toddlers are not able to practice their frustration at having to wait for things. You can help label their emotions and offer praise when they demonstrate patience.
- Put an emphasis on empathy: How many times have you had to referee a blowup because your child took a friend’s toy or refused to share with a sibling? Children are born believing the world revolves around them. The sooner you help them understand that everyone has feelings and emotions the less likely they will behave in ways that annoy or hurt other people. Celebrate your child’s act of kindness. Praise them any time they show regard for someone else. You can also help you child read body language. Being able to interpret gestures and facial expressions is one of the basic ways we develop empathy. Eventually your child will be clued into others reactions and better able to notice how their own behavior can affect others.
Finally, a word of caution: You are not going to be able to teach your children to discipline themselves overnight. There will be times when they misbehave no matter how hard you tried to prevent it. They are kids, after all! If you continue to focus on the above essentials, sooner or later the lessons will sink in. As they do, your well-behaved child will need less and less intervention from you.