In the great negotiation we call parenting, my husband and I take turns putting our son to bed. His nights mimic a Norman Rockwell painting — milk, books and silence. My nights are something out of a Wes Craven film — screaming, crying and toy hurling.
But here’s the kicker: His dad isn’t the only one for whom my son raises a halo — it’s everyone. His grandparents. His day care provider. The deli guy at the supermarket.
To be fair, he does reserve his biggest hugs for me. Between the screams are loving moments he won’t share with anyone else. Which got me wondering: Why is he so well-behaved with everyone but me?
As it turns out, I’m not alone. “It is extremely common for kids to behave better with some people than others,” says Dr. Corrie Clay, a pediatrician affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital. “And the parent who takes the brunt of the bad behavior is usually the parent who does the most caregiving.”
It seems backward, right? You shower your child with love, and your reward is a public tantrum. But according to Dr. Clay, inconsistent parenting is almost always the culprit. Kids learn fast what they can get away with. If one parent is more lenient than the other, the stricter parent tends to get the better behavior. And leniency comes quickly to the parent who’s more worn down.
This carries over to day care and teachers, too. School environments tend to be more structured, with more consequences for bad behavior. Kids learn through their own experiences — and through the experiences of those around them — that success hinges on following the rules.
Tackling the problem takes patience, and because bad behavior typically starts during the toddler years, addressing it early can keep it from persisting throughout childhood. Dr. Clay suggests the following six tips:
Stick with the program. If rules change every day, your child will show a natural curiosity to learn new consequences.
Parents need to team up to send a consistent message. If one parent bends and the other stands strong, your child will be more likely to act out.
Enforce a timeout of one minute for every year of your child’s age. Timeouts give children time to think about what they did — and give parents a chance to reset and stand strong.
Tell your child what he or she is doing right, instead of always disciplining. Rewarding good behavior gives kids the attention they crave, in a positive way.
5. Reaching out
If the problem persists, check in with your child’s pediatrician. Acting out can be a sign of many different things. A doctor can help identify the problem.
6. Additional resources
Organizations like First 5 San Diego guide parents through the first few years, and can help connect you to classes and other parents.
“When parents are dealing with bad behavior in children, it is important to remember that this is essentially normal,” says Dr. Clay. “In order for children to figure out what the rules are, they need to break them.”