Parenting young children is hard! They will often ignore clear orders not to do something and this can be a source of concern for parents. Parents may worry that their child seems truly disobedient and can feel exasperated by it. They might worry that their child knows that something is ‘wrong’, yet still does it, or that their child will never grow out of such behaviour and they may never get a handle on it. They might worry about such behaviour affecting friendships and their child’s performance at school. But, let’s consider it from a young child’s perspective. The first time they hear them, parental commands not to do something may be quickly forgotten or gently ignored and this is not without good reason. Your child might be busy, in the middle of a game or staring out the car window when your request comes in.
First of all, we need to think about how and when we ask children not to do something. If they are hungry and we ask them not to touch the biscuits on the table before lunch, it can be difficult to expect compliance. If they are bored at the supermarket walking behind the trolley, how can we expect them not to touch things? Try to think in advance about what you want them to do/not to do. When you are communicating this, touch them on the shoulder to gently get their attention first, and make sure that you look them in the eye. Use clear and simple language. Praise them for listening and check that they have understood.
In those first few moments, when your child might be wrestling with compliance, praise them for being so well-behaved; ‘catch’ their patience and spot their good behaviour. Tell them you know it is hard it is to wait when we want something, and tell them how proud you are of them. When praising their behaviour, use your whole face, gestures and tone to convey positivity towards them. Remember that effective parental praise is like the sun shining on that little face; welcome, powerful and incredibly motivating.
When you remove something from a child (such as the ability to play on a digital device before dinner, the iPad in the car, biscuits before tea, etc.), then consider giving them agency in other ways. “You can’t have the iPad until after dinner, but you can (a) read your book, (b) do a puzzle or (c) play with your Lego”. Agency and distraction are great parenting tools!
When it comes to behaviour between siblings or where you are trying to encourage kindness between children, young children can struggle. Frustration can lead children to act out, hurt or hit one another and in turn this can test parental patience. If you are about to go on a playdate, have a good chat about how you expect them to behave and the consequences of poor behaviour. Perhaps courtesy and kindness shown towards others on the playdate might be rewarded by a little treat on the way home in the car?
Be prepared to see the rule and its consequence through. Sometimes we parents can (unwittingly) be rather inconsistent, which can encourage rule-bending or breaking. For example, one parent’s rule might be totally contradicted by another carer. We have all been guilty of asking children not to do something and then turning a blind eye to their disobedience, either because we are in a hurry, busy or just worn out. So whatever rule you decide to apply, make sure that all carers are onboard with it and that you see it through.
No matter the age of your children, always look for flashpoints within family life or triggers for any frustration. You don’t have to be a researcher to quickly work out what the patterns are and how situations can easily escalate. Are there always arguments at teatime when everyone is tired and hungry? Decide as a family to change things, to move out of familiar patterns of conflict and to do better.
When parenting young children, pay great attention to the quality of their sleep, as a lack of sleep can affect children’s daytime behaviour, mood and levels of compliance. In general, be loving, but also authoritative. We know that children raised in an authoritative home are more likely to have more positive outcomes across the board. Cuddles, clear boundaries and consequences are optimal for children, as is a secure, stable and consistent family life.
Finally, remember to enjoy your young children. They are only little for such a short time and one day those struggles you had to get them to eat their vegetables will seem like a distant and very funny memory… promise!