Let Go of Behavior Management; Teach it Instead

January 28, 2013 at 8:11 am (Attachment Parenting, Positive Discipline)


I thought I was being helpful. My child made a mistake, and I thought I was helping by delving into the ramifications behind the mistake. Why it occurred, why it shouldn’t have occurred, what kind of behavior I expect next time. What I didn’t realize was that the undertones of shame (How could you do that?), disappointment (I’m really surprised at this) and threat (Don’t ever do that again) in my speech conveyed far more hurt and far less help than I intended.

I was so caught up in teaching a lesson that I forgot that what I really needed to teach was skills. My kids don’t need a disappointment-laced lecture from me or a consequence that is just unpleasant enough to ensure they’ll never behave that way again. What they do need is someone to help them learn the skills for solving problems and thinking through their decisions. They need a teacher.

The most effective parents don’t manage their child’s behavior, they teach a child how to manage his own behavior.

Managing a someone else’s behavior is exhausting and frustrating because ultimately, you don’t have control. It’s like trying to contain a puddle of water with your hands. You can constantly apply pressure from all sides, but the water is going to behave according to its natural properties. You can constantly work to control a child’s behavior, but ultimately, he can exert his will, initiative, and autonomy at any time.

I was reminded of this–quite pointedly–towards the end of an evening one night.

Me: OK, it’s time to go up and get ready for bed.
JJ: No! You can’t make me!

Maybe you have heard this declaration, too? My six-year-old was right; I couldn’t make him. Although in the moment I thought I could, just to prove how in control I was. I began to think of all the ways in which I could “make” my son get ready for bed…they were all threats and punishments and force. And I realized all I could do was manipulate or coerce him into going upstairs and getting ready for bed. As Marshall Rosenberg, author of Nonviolent Communication, says,

You can’t make your kids do anything. All you can do is make them wish they had. And then, they will make you wish you hadn’t made them wish they had.

Humorous, but true. When we try to make our kids behave, we end up in a cyclical power struggle with them…everyone is trying to prove who is in control. Well, what if we let go of control? What if we let go of the idea that we have to remain in control of our kids to manage their behavior? We realize that ultimately, our children are in control–not of us, but of themselves. Upon accepting this, we are able to take the energy spent on behavior management and focus it instead on teaching self-awareness, self-confidence, and self-control–all skills necessary for managing one’s own behavior. Instead of putting parents and children at odds vying for power, relinquishing control facilitates parenting through connection and acceptance.

This means that our kids’ behavior may not always be appropriate, and we have to be OK with that. We have to see it not as a reflection of ourselves–a shortcoming to be embarrassed or ashamed of, or to regain control over–but simply as an opportunity for connection and guidance. An opportunity to teach our kids how to manage their feelings, actions, and choices.

When the focus of parenting is on acceptance and teaching, the atmosphere in the home is of peace, not power.

If, at times, you find yourself stuck wondering what kind of consequence is best to “teach a lesson,” you’re probably trying to manage too much. The consequence is more likely to be a punishment than a helpful teaching tool. Ask yourself, “Am I just doing what I can to control my child’s behavior? How is this teaching my child to manage his own behavior?” Because the most effective parenting isn’t managing, it’s teaching.

For more examples on this topic see How to Teach Children to Manage Their Own Behavior.



  1. ArlingtonMom said,

    Kelly, love your post but for those of us struggling with these issues, we also need teaching. What did you say and do when your six-year-old said that? How did you help him get to bed, knowing all along that 1-I can’t make him to go bed and 2-if he doesn’t go to bed soon, he will be so wired that he likely won’t sleep for hours, and 3- if he doesn’t get to bed soon, tomorrow will be a nightmare, too. We would probably try choices first but that doesn’t always work with our six year old. So what would you advise?

    • Kelly said,

      That is such a good question…I knew I should have elaborated on that more! Here was my response: First, I went to him and put my arms around him. Then I said, “You had a very fun evening playing our game, didn’t you? It’s hard to stop, and you probably wish you could play all night! I loved it, too. Next, I’m looking forward to our snuggle and reading together in your bed. I’ll meet you up there.” And he headed up.

      My best advice on what to do when there’s a power struggle like that is…

      1. Disengage. Realize that you don’t have to prove anything and that it takes 2 for a power struggle. So when a child responds with “no!”, don’t come back with “yes!”

      2. Empathize. This where you take a moment to get inside the child’s shoes and see where the resistance is coming from. Connect by acknowledging his feelings.

      3. Decide what you will do. Set a limit for yourself and stick to it. I will be waiting for you in the car…I will be available for homework help until 7:00…I’ll pick up my things and then get out a game for us to play; join me when you’re done picking up your stuff…

      • lj said,

        but if he still preferred to carry on playing, over getting ready for your snuggle and story? I constantly focus on the fun/ nice thing we can get onto and it doesn’t work to motivate. Let alone if the thing you’re trying to move onto is something a 6 year old boy doesn’t want to do, what then??

  2. Farra said,

    I love your posts and this is a classic situation in my home. I was hoping for a dialogue with this one. Most times I’m just at a loss of the the best thing to say. I have a very headstrong 5 year old and honestly, it’s a struggle.

    • Kelly said,

      A headstrong five-year-old…ah yes, been there! See the comment above yours for the response I gave to my son that night. I should have added more dialogue with this post! 🙂

  3. The Bonded Mom said,

    What a great article! this totally relates to an issue I am going through with my teenage daughter. And just this morning I told her “I can not make you do this. But you do need to begin disciplining yourself, in order to get yourself on a better schedule.” And your article is such validation in how I approached the problem. I just really loved this article! Glad I found your blog 🙂

  4. Ellen said,

    I knew it wasn’t working … Such a helpful post! Thank you.

  5. motherhoodisnotforsissies said,

    I have a similar piece coming out later this week on how I handle discipline issues. So good so see I am on the right track. Thanks for this great piec – hope you can pop over to my blog and read mine later on this week.

  6. Lisa Barnes said,

    These articles would be more helpful if they actually “taught” us how or what to teach our children instead of just telling us that we should teach them to manage their own behavour. Examples of how to do that would be most helpful. We must learn before we can teach. Thanks.

  7. Constructive Living-I « Life is Mysterious said,

    […] Let Go of Behavior Management; Teach it Instead (parentingfromscratch.wordpress.com) […]

  8. Allison said,

    Hi, I really enjoy your posts and find them very informative. I agree with not shaming or threatening, but can you possibly give some examples of teaching vs management?

  9. Joshua Koepp said,

    Love the Disengage, Empathize, Decide. For me the shift came when I realized that the way to win the power struggle was to take my power out of the struggle.

  10. Sylvia@MaMammalia said,

    I totally agree! Love this!

  11. Genuine Discipline « Motherhood is not for Sissies said,

    […] For another parents insight into the same principle – I encourage you to visit Let Go of Behavior Management; Teach it Instead […]

  12. Julie S said,

    This is great. I have a 3.5 year old and it has definitely been a “power of wills” at times. But then I have to realize why argue with him? Why make it a struggle? I notice the more I try to be in charge the more he pushes back and the harder it is for both of us. Letting go a bit, and letting him be, helps us both.

  13. How to Teach Children to Manage Their Own Behavior « Parenting From Scratch said,

    […] philosophy; can you give some examples of how it works? Last week, I wrote about the concept of teaching kids to manage their own behavior, rather than trying to manage it ourselves. Nice idea, right? Lofty aspirations. But […]

  14. gemmautting said,

    Just stumbled upon your blog through Word Press. How wonderful!
    I feel I have found a kindred spirit. I”m currently working as a Relationship Therapist in Auckland, New Zealand. But your respectful approach mirrors my own. I was initially influenced most by the work of Haim Guinot, and then Marshall Rosenberg, as well as Attachment theorists and on and on. Together these trail blazers have given me wonderful tools for my “parenting” and my “Relationship Therapy” tool kit. I plan to follow your blog. I’d love to invite you to poke about on mine! Warmly, Gemma

  15. Dealing with a child with behavioral issues: Our Journey with the Total Transformation #2 | Jennifer M Eaton said,

    […] Let Go of Behavior Management; Teach it Instead (parentingfromscratch.wordpress.com) […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: