Posted tagged ‘time out’

Five tools to teach your child to behave

January 30, 2013

The Pediatric Insider

© 2013 Roy Benaroch, MD

Young children are naturally petulant, noisy, and self-centered. We’re all born with ourselves in the center of the universe, an impression reinforced by parents who must cater constantly to their young babies. But babies become toddlers, and toddlers become children. Sometime during this transition, parents have to teach their children that they are part of a family. For a family to function and thrive there must be rules and expectations for everyone to follow.

There are no “magic solutions” to every behavior problem, and there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. Different kids and different parents have their own personalities and quirks, and what works well for one family might not work for everyone. However, I think there are still some basic tools that are essential for any family to use. The exact way you use these may depend on your situation, but teaching children to behave is going to include all of these ideas:

  1. Love. Children must feel loved and secure. Without an atmosphere of love and support, parents cannot teach their children anything.
  2. Clarity. Children will only learn rules if they’re applied clearly and consistently.
  3. Modeling. Parents should demonstrate good behavior, and also show kids what to do when their own behavior isn’t perfect.
  4. Rewards. Friendly words and encouragement, along with occasional and unexpected tangible rewards, are the best way to reinforce good behavior.
  5. Punishment. Some parents think discipline is only about punishment. That’s a mistake. Relying on punishments alone will not lead to long-term success. But parents should use effective punishments as one way to discourage bad behavior—along with the other 4 items on this list.

How should parents apply these five principles? There really are endless ways. I’m going to cover all of them in a little more detail, and give you some ideas to get started. Have you found other ways to teach your children? Please share in the comments!


I know you love your children. No one’s doubting how you feel. But love, here, isn’t about what the parents feel inside—it’s about how parents act, most of the time, and how children perceive how their parents feel. To put it bluntly: if your child feels like he’s in the doghouse most of the time, you’re not going to be able to use discipline tools effectively. Too much yelling and criticizing (even if Junior “deserves it”!) undermines progress.

If there’s a lot of negativity flowing around your house—if you’re criticizing and correcting all day long– try this method to get back on track: Magic Time. It works best for preschoolers, and is especially potent and helpful when you bring a new baby sibling home. Bonus: it’s not actually any extra work! It’s just a little extra psychology.

Magic time is a set period of time, usually fifteen minutes, where one parent must focus entirely on the child. It must begin with a special announcement—a parent looks at a clock and says, “Hey! It’s time for magic time!” For the next fifteen minutes, that parent can do nothing but play with the child. Mom or dad should show with body language that they’re really engaged—lean toward the child, and use touch to stay connected. No interruptions of magic time are allowed. After fifteen minutes, magic time has to end. An announcement has to be made with inflection and emotion: “Oooo magic time is over (Say this sadly). That was great! (Happy!) We’ll do it again tomorrow! (Even happier!)” Magic time doesn’t have to be with the same parent nor at the same time every day, but it has to occur every single day without fail. Extra magic time should never be given, even if the child has been extra good; magic time must never be taken away, even if the child has been terrible. Also, don’t give magic time backwards—that is, you’re not allowed to say “We’ve been playing for fifteen minutes. That was your magic time.” It doesn’t count unless magic time is announced at the beginning. Magic time is an expression of love. It’s unconditional, it’s fun, and it happens every day.



Being clear is an essential skill for parents. Your children should know exactly what is expected of them. They should know the rules, and they should know what will happen if rules aren’t followed. They should know that a parent’s word is akin to the word of God: if a parent says it, that’s the way it is. With clarity, your children will learn to listen.

Parents need to “Say what you mean.” Social niceties guide how we talk to each other as parents, and there’s certainly a place for those kind of language conventions when you talk to your kids. But if you want your child to do something, especially when you’re in a phase of trying to teach better listening skills, you’d better be clear the first time. Not “Why don’t you clean your room?” or “How many times do I have to tell you to clean your room”—but a very command: “Go clean your room now.” That isn’t mean. It’s clear.

Work on not repeating yourself—in other words, “Mean what you say.” When you tell your child, clearly, to do something (or to stop doing something), say it once, and make it happen. Repeating and threatening only dilutes your message and gets your child used to not listening to you the first time.

Parents are the models

Kids learn far more from watching and imitating than from listening to lectures. Parents need to model both good behavior and bad behavior (and its consequences). For example, family meals are a great time to model table manners, and also the skills of social conversation (regular family meals also help prevent obesity, truancy, and teenage drug use. Really.)

Parents aren’t always perfect. When you do lose your cool or make a mistake, that’s a learning time for your kids. Everyone gets angry sometimes. What you want your children to learn isn’t “don’t get angry”—it’s what to do when you do get angry. Don’t just talk about that. Model it. Let your kids see that adults do make mistakes. And let them see how you handle that, in a good way that you’d like them to emulate.


Rewards encourage good behavior

By “rewards”, I’m including here the most useful, powerful reward: positive reinforcement. Kids need to hear when they’re being good, and why they’re being good, and specifically what they did to be good. The best rewards are immediate and specific. Rewards also work a little better if they’re unexpected—that means you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) give a reward every single time. If a reward is already expected, it’s less powerful.

One great method to help parents practice good postive reinforcement is “The Greenies”, which I’ve covered in more detail here.


Punishments discourage bad behavior

Again, as I’ve said, many parents equate discipline with punishment. They ask me, “How do I discipline my child?” – but the answer they’re expecting is really “How can I punish my child.” If you think discipline equals punishment, you’re not going to effectively teach your children anything. Discipline is one tool among the five I’m presenting, and it doesn’t work unless you’re also using the other four methods.

That being said, punishments are an effective tool when used well, and parents should feel comfortable using punishments when they’re appropriate. Punishment is never useful for babies, and between the first and second birthday should only be used to discourage physical aggression. Too much punishment, too early, will not be helpful. At any age, punishment should never be the main strategy of teaching behavior.

Punishments work best if they’re immediate and consistent. Threatening to punish is not a good idea—it weakens the message, and teaches kids they can get away with things a few times (or maybe more than a few) before anyone takes them seriously. If you do threaten a punishment, you’d better plan on following through and doing it.

One very effective punishment for preschoolers is the “Time Out”, which is removing them from the loving sphere of their parents for a short time. It works very well—if it is done correctly. Learn more about the best way to use Time Out here.


You can do it!

Children aren’t born knowing how and why to behave well. They need to learn this skill, just like they learn to write or ride a bike. Their most important teachers are their parents. Using a combination of these five strategies, consistently, is the best way to teach your children to do the right thing. It can be exhausting, and there are no quick-fixes or ways to skip these tough years. Teaching them these essential life skills, though, is a parent’s most important job.


Adapted from Solving Health and Behavioral Problems from Birth through Preschool

Why why why

September 20, 2009

The Pediatric Insider

© 2009 Roy Benaroch, MD

Christy posted, “I have a 5-year-old daughter who has developed a bad habit of not responding to questions when asked by an adult. For example, ‘Why did you throw your milk cup on the floor?’ At home, she is either sent to time-out or her room. However, this is now occurring in her kindergarten class. It seems to be a power-struggle or step to independence. What suggestions do you have?”

“Why” questions are tough—especially when little kids are asked them right after they’ve done something wrong. In court, she’d have a constitutionally guaranteed right not to self-incriminate, but I doubt many five-year-olds have the wherewithal to come up with “I plead the fifth.” Instead, kids just look at their shoes.

For a child who doesn’t seem to want to answer adult’s questions, it’s important to step back and make the questions easier to answer, so the child can build confidence through success. A good rule that I apply to many areas of parenting: practice what works, and stop practicing what doesn’t work. If “Why” questions are tough, back off and practice easier ones, and work back up to harder ones.

Easier questions start with “What”—“What is your name?” or “What is your brother’s name?” or “What age are you? (Yes, I know, idiomatically the correct question is “How old are you?”, but How questions are harder than What questions, and I’m trying to make a point here.) Little kids also do pretty well with “Where,” unless the rest of the question is “did you put your shoes?”,  which is apparently a brain teaser that no child can answer. “When” gets a little trickier—“When are you supposed to bring in your share? When is the parent-teacher conference?”

“Why” questions are the toughest off all, and not in the least because parents so often ask them after a child has done something wrong. “Why did you hit your brother?”, or “Why did you cut your own hair?”—these are as difficult as any Zen Koan when you’re on the spot with the teacher or mom giving you a hairy eyeball.

If you’d like to help your child get better at “Why” questions, answer them often yourself, by using the word “because” a lot. “We need to go to the grocery because were out of food,” or “I got mad because that man ran over my foot with his cart. Then I felt better because I realized it wasn’t his fault.” You can also encourage your child to ask why questions—not the annoying, one-word “Why?”, which is just a time-waster, but a properly phrased “Why” question, like “Mommy, why did you talk to that lady so long?” (“Because,” you could say, “she is my friend and I hadn’t seen her in a while. Thank you for waiting. It’s hard to wait because waiting is boring.”) Be sure to ask your child “Why” questions when it’s not a challenging, tense situation—or better yet, when the answer is easy. “Why are you happy on your birthday?” or “Why should we bring an umbrella?”, or maybe something a touch more difficult, like “Why are your shoes getting too small?”

Another tip for kids who seem shy at “Whys” would be to have her help you put on puppet shows, where the puppets talk through answers with each other. Kids learn a lot through pretend games like these, and don’t seem to find them threatening.

Keep in mind that it’s not just the difficulty of the question, it’s the overall setting that sets the anxiety level. If a child feels threatened or upset, even an easy question might not get an answer. And some children are certainly more outgoing and talkative with adults than others. The more shy kids are going to need more gentle practice, and will have more setbacks.

By the way, if your child does something she knows she shouldn’t do—like throwing her milk cup on the floor—I don’t think it’s wise to waste time asking why. You won’t get a useful answer. A better response would be “Don’t throw your milk on the floor,” followed by taking her hand and making her clean it up. A habitual offense might need a time out before clean-up, but more talking won’t help. Tossing cups on the floor is an attention-getting behavior, and having a one-sided conversation about it afterwards will only encourage more milk to land where it’s not supposed to be.

A runaway two year old

August 26, 2008

Holly asked, “Do you have behavior modification suggestions for children who think it is funny to run away when you call them? My 2-year-old daughter loves to run the opposite direction when I call her. It’s one thing when we are at home, but it’s quite another when we are in a parking lot or other unfamiliar place. Not to mention that she has a twin brother that I may be dealing with as well, so running after her can be difficult. We can do timeouts at home, but those aren’t always possible or practical outside the house. Thanks, we want to take control of this situation before something bad happens.”

The key here is to practice success—get her used to the fact that when you call her, she will come to you. At the time time, stop practicing failure—don’t instigate or encourage a situation where she can run away from you. In time, she’ll be so used to doing this correctly that you’ll no longer have to be strict about these steps. But for now, this is what you should do: (more…)

Aggression in a toddler

May 9, 2008

Bobbie, in the suggestions thread, asked about aggressive behavior in her 18 month old son. He pulls hair at day care (though not at home), kicks when he gets his diaper changed, and hits when he doesn’t get his way.

This is a common question, and (if you don’t mind my plugging my book) is exactly the topic of chapter 25, Frustration, Tantrums, and Aggression in Solving Health and Behavioral Problems from Birth through Preschool. My publisher won’t let me post complete chapters here for copyright reasons, but I’ll be happy to give you a good overview and starting point.


Toddlers who hit

April 5, 2008

On the Suggestions page, KM wrote: “My toddler continues to hit me and kick me when she is frustrated or during diaper changes. I’ve tried ignoring the behavior and redirecting, among other techniques. Any other suggestions to discourage this daily behavior?”

Hitting, biting, kicking, and spitting: these are the “cardinal sins” of a toddler. These sorts of physical attacks should be “nipped in the bud,” using a strong and consistent intervention. (more…)