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Parenting Traps

Playing tough

How to get your kids to behave: Be more fun.

By Diana Whitney
June 20, 2010

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There’s no clear discipline strategy in our house. My hot temper flares at incessant whining from my 4-year-old, then rages at deliberate toddler destruction. I alternate explaining, pleading, and timeouts.

I try to give my children fair warning: “Mommy’s losing her patience. She doesn’t want to yell, but if there’s no cooperation, she might have no choice.”

But parents always have a choice. With the proper skills (think deep breathing), we can rein in our worst impulses. We can use clever tricks like sticker charts to encourage good behavior. We can hold family meetings and talk about our issues.

Not all experts think this works. John Rosemond, a family psychologist in Gastonia, North Carolina, takes what he calls a “traditional” view of parenting. He’s controversial for not opposing spanking, and he frequently urges parents to “put the proverbial hammer down.”

In Rosemond’s world, if a picky eater doesn’t like the family dinner, that child goes to bed hungry. In my world, Mommy becomes a short-order cook, rushing around to fix a bagel with cream cheese. In Rosemond’s world, if a toddler wakes at night crying, that child is told – lovingly but firmly – that she must remain in her own bed. In my world, said toddler comes to sleep between her parents.

Could I possibly weave this tougher approach into my indulgent, inconsistent parenting style?

I struggle with the practice, especially when my 2-year-old dumps her eggs on the floor. I could try to become the “benevolent dictator” Rosemond wants me to be. Or I could relax and listen to my Uncle Jamie.

Jamie is James Plunkett, a child psychologist in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who advocates “floor time” as the key to discipline. He says he often surprises his clients with this advice: “The single best behavioral strategy for managing your child is to play with her – a lot.”

If a child feels pleasure in her parent’s attention, she’ll be invested in keeping that relationship going. I consider the last time I sat down to play with my 4-year-old. Since her sister arrived, it’s a rare occurrence.

I could claim I’m too busy, or I could start playing. Rather than becoming a dictator, I resolve to play more, yell less. And pray for patience.

Send comments to magazine@globe.com. Do your kids need more discipline, or more play time?

  • June 20, 2010 cover
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