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How 'Good' Parenting Makes Bad Behavior Worse

Motherhood is a learn-on-the-job kind of enterprise, and I find myself learning something new about my child (and myself) almost every day. One of the biggest subjects every parent will broach is dealing with bad behavior.

If your mind immediately starts thinking up punishments when your kid acts out, stop! It turns out, punishments don't actually serve the goal of fostering good behavior.

Which is not to say the behavior should be allowed to continue, unaddressed, just hear me out. Instead, we need to ask ourselves if we have been inadvertently micromanaging our kids during their good or neutral behavior.

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Yep, behavior problems can best be approached from this unexpected place, says Dr. David Rettew in a recent Psychology Today article. Before you start imposing time-outs, consider how you interact with your kids.

Rettew argues for the importance of providing ample time where your kids can call the shots. He says parents need to be able to interact with kids, "Without questions, subtle steering maneuvers, or distractions" from parents. Parents still matter though (I mean, of course!). Rettew thinks we should be engaged and enthusiastic, but let our kids take the lead while we follow.

Sound easy? I tried it and here's how it went:

I'd already planned to take my daughter to the local park. We walk to the playground, hand in hand, and this morning we're the only ones there. The first thing I say to my 3-year-old is, "Do you want to go turn the wheel?"

Ding. Right away, I'm telling her how to play.

I tried to do better, saying things like, "Wow you came down that slide so fast!" Save for a redirection that couldn't be avoided ("Don't kick sand on that boy"), I let my daughter lead. I found myself having to stop myself from making suggestions. I wanted to say, "Oh, come ride this wooden turtle!" or "Come play with this alphabet wall." Both would have been unnecessary redirections.

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The experience showed me you can be micromanaging your kids without even knowing it.

Solo play has been lauded by many as a key to independence in children. Micromanaging interrupts a child's imagination and, let's face it, our kids are simply better at being imaginative. I admit this is a tough area for me as a mom to an only child. My kid doesn't have a sibling, so I end up being her playmate much of the time. I might say, "Let's pretend this balloon is a soccer ball" and, even if my kid were into it, she'd be missing out on creating her own scenario. When kids are creative, they form new connections, which only furthers their development.

Thus, there is a behavior lesson to be learned here, and it's all about my behavior.

It seems we can extend the principles of solo play to our interactions with our children, even when they're not playing. Getting dressed is an example at which I tend to be better about letting her call the shots. In the morning, I'll offer a few choices and let my daughter decide what she's going to wear. I don't have to correct bad behavior (e.g. a struggle to get dressed) if the struggle never happens.

I don't think this means parents can't ever make suggestions. Those can serve as opportunities to teach our kids something new, which is another facet of a parent's work. But that shouldn't come at the expense of our kids having ample time when they're leading the way—in and outside of play. This might be a key to ongoing good or at least neutral behavior. Dr. Rettew thinks this approach results in fewer standoffs and suspended privileges. That itself makes it worth trying.

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