Moomah the Magazine
Who’s The Boss Of The House?

Who’s The Boss Of The House?

-- Dr. Matthew Goldfine
Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CUCARD)

Is it just me or were we much better behaved when we were kids? When my parents told me do something, I did it immediately and without talking back. Just the idea of disobeying my parents--and suffering the punishment that was to follow--was enough to keep me in line. So why do so many parents struggle with their children not listening? Is there an epidemic among today's children?

The truth is that children today are no different than when we were kids. The difference is our perspective. We now see things through the eyes of a parent. And through those eyes, we see every broken rule, every tantrum and every ignored command, and we ask ourselves: what we can do differently? Consider this question--what makes a good boss in the workplace? Is a punitive, intimidating boss your favorite? Of course not! It's the bosses that motivate us to accomplish great things through rewarding hard work, mutual respect, and pushing us just hard enough to bring out our best. As you will see, being a good "boss" at home shares a good deal of these qualities. I've gathered some of the most effective strategies from my work with countless weary parents who all ask themselves the same question: Who's the boss around here?

1. Your child will never be 100% obedient.

I say this not as an insult, but rather to give you some perspective on appropriate expectations. Just as you wouldn't expect your newborn to sleep through the night his first night home, you shouldn't expect perfect compliance from your son or daughter. Now I'm not saying that you should somehow overlook misbehavior, but realize that there is not something inherently "wrong" with your child--or you as a parent--if he or she occasionally doesn't do exactly what you say. How often is normal? Well, the average young child complies with about 85% of commands. So that leaves 15% of noncompliance that is par for the course. So how can we boost our chances even further that our kids listen? I'm so glad you asked...

2. Stop thinking of how to make your child listen, and instead think how you can make your child want to listen.

As a child psychologist, one of the most common questions I get from moms and dads is how they can be a better disciplinarian. And the subtext in the question is the belief that being a tougher or stricter authority figure somehow equates to a better behaved child. So I am going to let you in on a little secret. This doesn't require any appointments, paperwork, or calls to my office. The first step in effective discipline doesn't have anything to do with discipline at all. It involves strengthening the positive relationship you have with your child. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but let me explain.

When children misbehave, they start having a whole lot of negative interactions. They are being scolded, punished, and yelled at by their parents and teachers. So here we have a child who is already behaving poorly and whose day is filled with negativity. Does that sound like a recipe for turning that behavior around? 

Instead, I am advocating for at least some time during the day, where there can be a warm, positive, one-on-one interaction between you and your child, free of any criticism--especially if your little one is having an awful day. The positive relationship between you and the child is the foundation to which you will add any discipline techniques. Without that strong relationship, those discipline strategies just won't work. And don't we want a warm, loving relationship anyway? 

3. Positive parenting works...

Sensing a theme here? While rules and punishment are both important aspects of being the boss, having positive parenting strategies as your first line of defense before resorting to punishment makes a lot of sense. The more our children are eager to please, the easier our lives will be. If every day is a battle where your child is only behaving out of a fear of punishment, then we haven't done our job as parents. Positive parenting practices focuses on encouraging and praising behavior that we want to see. Essentially, we are catching our children being good, instead of the other way around, and children learn the benefits of behaving well. Listening makes Mommy and Daddy happy, it gets you more of what you want, and it feels good.

This boils down to rewarding your child for listening. No, I don't mean you have to give them a new toy every time they listen. I mean using your praise and attention as the primary reward. Your enthusiastic reaction is an incredibly powerful tool that can be used to encourage your child's compliance. Being more specific ("It makes me so happy when you put your plate in the sink!"), rather than being vague ("Good job!"), adds even more punch behind your positive reinforcement.

But keep in mind that positive parenting practices aren't just about praising your child. It involves giving your child positive attention to encourage good behavior. The other side of the coin involves taking your attention away (ignoring) when your child is misbehaving. In the hierarchy of what appeals to children, positive attention is as the top, negative attention is right behind it, and all the way at the bottom is no attention at all. So when your child is engaging in mild misbehavior, especially if it's geared towards getting attention (think whining or complaining), one of the best ways to deal with it is to ignore. That means no talking to, looking at, or giving any sort of reaction to your child. And here is the important part--the instant that the bad behavior stops, you jump on that moment to praise the opposite of the bad behavior ("Jacob, good job using your big boy voice!")

4. ...but punishment is still important.

I'm guessing most moms and dads jumped to this very section wanting to know how to effectively punish. As I hope I've made clear, punishment is much, much more likely to be effective within the context of a warm, loving relationship and with parents whose first instinct is to praise good behavior instead of scolding bad behavior. There are also some parents who believe that positive parenting techniques are all that you need and can get away with a punishment-free household.

That is not most families.

For most children, it is important to punish serious bad behavior. Praising and ignoring simply aren't enough to fully encourage appropriate behavior. So what are the keys to punishment? Firstly, it is less important what the punishment is and more important that the punishment is consistently applied. What I mean is that many punishments can do the job, just as long as they are salient, short-term, and easily given. Timeouts, privilege removal, extra chores...there are numerous options that all depend on what makes sense for your child. By the way, the same rules that apply to choosing an effective punishment also applies to choosing an effective reward.

Once you have an assortment of possible punishments at your arsenal, it is critical for you and your child to know exactly what behavior will be punished. I encourage all of my families to at the very least punish for noncompliance and hurting others. If there are one or two other behaviors you would like to punish, go for it. Now here is the big key--you have to punish these behaviors every single time they occur. This consistency is what will ultimately make the bad behaviors go away. If your daughter goes to her room every time she hits her brother, then it makes sense that over time, she will hit her brother less often. My last piece of advice is to give some sort of a final warning if your child is on the verge of being punished. After not listening right away, saying something to the extent of, "If you don't put your clothes in the hamper, then you won't have dessert tonight," can be helpful. This way, you are being extra explicit in laying out the choices and consequences for your little one.


I could go on and on about tricks and techniques about being the boss at home. The main message that I want to impart, is that there is more to being an effective disciplinarian (and a good boss) than being loud, tough, and scary. When parents are able to balance a warm, loving attitude with setting consistent limits and the occasional punishment, children tend to be better behaved. So rather than acting like the work boss that you've always hated, focus on how to be more like the boss that nurtured and motivated you the best. Not only is this a far more rewarding experience, but it's probably the best piece of advice in encouraging respectful and compliant behavior from your child.

Posted in: Parenting   

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