Usually, when my nine-year-old daughter Charlotte poses this question about her four-year-old brother, my response is, "Don't call your brother annoying." But one rainy day, after spending hours listening to Julian's whining, I asked myself: "Why do kids have to be annoying?"
Nothing drives me crazier than my son's high-pitched complaints, except Charlotte's tendency to pinch or smack her brother. Sometimes I wonder if my stress level is higher because I'm a single mom. Still, the married mothers I know say every child has a behavior that's like fingernails on a chalkboard. But we may be as much to blame as our kids. "If you focus on what a child is doing wrong, he'd naturally resist, which leads to arguments and worse conduct," explains Bernard Percy, a parenting consultant in Los Angeles.
Percy is right: My kids' annoying tendencies bring out the worst in me. "I can't take this for another minute!" I found myself yelling recently. Then I stopped to think. I couldn't expect my kids to change their negative habits instantly.
So I asked experts for their top behavior-modifying tips and agreed to try a different one every day. Here's what I did.
1. Don't react.
My first move was to determine what I've been doing wrong. "The mistake most parents make is responding to the misbehavior, since negative attention is better than none at all," explained Ed Christopherson, a clinical child psychologist at Children's Mercy Hospitals and Clinics in Missouri. But I was afraid of what would happen if I ignored them. Dr. Christopherson suggested I tell the kids about my new policy during a calm moment. "Guys," I announced at breakfast, "from now on, if there's whining or bickering, I'm going to pretend I don't see or hear you. Do you understand?"
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Later, when we were out clothes shopping for Charlotte, Julian kept saying, "I want to go home!" "Mommy! Do you hear me?" Julian screeched louder and louder. It took all my willpower not to respond. But then, suddenly...silence. He had found some key chains that looked like LEGO people and played with them until we were ready to go. Apparently, whining loses its appeal when Mom doesn't acknowledge it.
2. Walk the walk.
Next, I decided to change my own bad behavior. While I don't whine at them, I do tend to nag. Jayne Bellando, Ph.D, a pediatric psychologist at Arkansas Children's Hospital, pointed out that I was modelling the very thing I wanted to curb in my kids.
During morning madness, I said calmly, "Just reminding you that we have to leave in five minutes or you won't make it on time." Julian and Charlotte gathered their things faster than usual.
Gary M. Unruh, author of Unleashing the Power of Parental Love, told me, "Kids usually act out for a reason, that's why you should point out the feelings that caused your child to misbehave, and then give her a fair consequence." This will help her feel accepted and understood, even as she is being disciplined.
When Charlotte hit her brother after he accidentally broke her bracelet, rather than going with my instinct ("It was an accident, and you know better than to hit!"), I said, "You must be really mad at Julian for ruining your bracelet."
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Charlotte's eyes welled up. "He's always messing up my stuff, and you never get mad at him," she said. "I need to correct Julian more," I said. "You have the right to be angry, but I need you to go to your room for a time-out. That's what happens when you hit."
To my surprise, Charlotte went straight to her room. When she came out, there was none of her typical post-punishment sulking.
4. Be consistent.
My ability to handle my kids' outbursts depends on my mood. But there's no such room for variability. "You need to be consistent, make your expectations clear, and avoid your own outbursts," asserted Bertie Bregman,M.D., chief of family medicine service at New York-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.
5. Stay positive.
Expecting kids to be bad is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Robin H-C, a family coach and author of Thinking Your Way to Happy!, told me, "When you label your child, make sure it's positive so he has something to live up to." I tried that when Julian complained that he couldn't find the right blocks to build a house for his action figures. "You're good at making things," I said. "Use something else."
Then, miracle of miracles--Charlotte stepped in. "Come on, Julian. I'll help you," she said.
"Charlotte, thanks for being such a helpful big sister," I said. Half an hour later, the kids came running in with a shoebox they'd turned into a house using tape and scissors.
"That's a great house," I said, "and I'm so proud of you for playing nicely together." The rest of the day was oddly peaceful. Could the solution really be that simple?
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This story appeared in the June 2012 issue of Smart Parenting magazine, and is an excerpt from Parents magazine. Minor edits have been made by Smartparenting.com.ph editors.