There is a point where every child is going to test you, and see if you really mean what you say. This happens with older infants, toddlers, young children – all the way up through the teenage years. How much of an issue this is in your life throughout your years of parenting will depend on how clear and decisive you are in your day to day responses to the way your child behaves. Episodes of testing should only happen rarely, and if it’s happening more often than that, then you haven’t been clear in communicating that you are serious about your expectations to your child.
Lots of parents insist that they have let their child know very clearly what they want, but the truth is, if your words aren’t followed up by action, it won’t mean much. If you say you’re on a diet, and your kids watch you eating chocolate all day long, they know that your words and actions aren’t lined up. Similarly, when parents tell their kids, “No yelling” but then do nothing about it when the children yell, they’ve shown that what they say isn’t meant to be taken seriously.
A child who is testing you is a child who is asking you to clarify what you really mean when you tell him what you want. Every child needs to see that his parent is going to consistently reinforce the standards he has established in the home. It makes a child feel both powerful (in an unhealthy way – which is scary for him) and unsafe to be the one who decides what he can do. He wants you to be in charge – with love and respect for him, of course – but he doesn’t want to be the boss. He knows he is just a kid (this is especially true of older kids who seem to want to be in charge), and it’s a relief for your children that you are acting like the parent. They need to know that they can trust you to respond reliably and predictably.
Here are a few basic guidelines:
- Be clear in letting your kids know what appropriate behavior in your house should look like.
- Be immediate in your response to something that you find inappropriate.
- Be consistent – if you respond the same way every time, you are going to drastically reduce the amount of testing in your home. Don’t constantly doubt the way you do things; your ambiguity will come through loud and clear to your children. Think about what is is that you want, and then follow through.
Are you giving warnings or reminders instead of actively responding to the behavior, hoping that she will do what you say so that you won’t need to deal with it? Sometimes we let things slide, figuring that is isn’t a big enough deal to merit doing anything about it. I see this all the time in public – parents giving their children repeated warnings, and it’s clear to even me, as a casual bystander, that the parent isn’t going to do anything except continue repeating his demand that the child act nicely.
Anecdotally, a few weeks ago, my kids went somewhere with their grandparents, and when my ten year old came back she told me, “There was a little girl there and her mother told her to stop acting up or they would go home, and then little girl did the same thing, and she actually took her home! I couldn’t believe that someone except you actually disciplines their children!” I asked her why that was such a big deal, and she said, “Because I’m used to seeing kids who don’t listen to their parents.” Even young kids on the outside looking in can see clearly the difference between a parent who means what she says and one who doesn’t.
I’ll continue with this more tomorrow – I fell asleep early in the evening for a few hours, so I am up later than usual, but now I need to get to bed!