Changing Children’s Behavior: How to Help Them Stop Doing What They Shouldn’t


“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Prov. 22:6.)

These words reflect the hope we all share as parents—to see our children avoid Satan’s snares and keep on the path that leads safely back to God. Of course our primary concern is not just to stop them from doing wrong, but also to help them do right. Indeed, the more successful we are in teaching them how to live properly in the first place, the less we need focus on mistakes and errors.

But in spite of our best efforts and their best intentions, mistakes do happen; learning is often by trial and error. Just as a carefully launched rocket needs frequent steering correction to reach its goal, so do our children. It’s our responsibility as parents to become as skilled as we can in helping them make the many steering corrections needed for a successful life’s journey.

While simple formulas and glossy generalizations often fall short in helping us cope with real situations, there are certain principles that many parents find useful. When four-year-old Kristi paints the living room wall with soft butter, or eight-year-old Andy clobbers one of his school mates, or six-year-old Leif sets fire to the neighbor’s garbage can, or nine-year-old Brett makes little sister cry by calling her a “dumb dodo,” or eleven-year-old Sally skips Sunday School class, consider the following questions before deciding what to do.

Should I Follow My First Impulse?

The answer is often no. Be wary of quick, unthinking responses to troublesome situations. What comes automatically is not always the best response. Remember, situations where we attempt to change our children’s actions are among the most challenging we ever face. Surely they warrant as much careful planning and prayer as we would give to speaking in church or presenting an important report at work. Even a moment’s reflection before acting can sometimes mean the difference between foolishly serving only our own needs or wisely serving the needs of our children.

This doesn’t mean we can’t respond quickly and decisively. In many cases we can anticipate what children might do and can plan appropriate actions in advance. The important thing is that our responses be the products of our best thinking; not just reflexive actions based on habit.

Should I Interfere at All?

So many bothersome things our children do are really not that important. Children almost by definition have many rough edges to them. How often do we meddle and later wish we hadn’t? Sometimes when we simply overlook their mistakes things will work out fine.

A short time ago in our family, Dad decided to spend a week “just tolerating” situations he usually would have stepped into. There were some pleasant surprises. Here’s what happened on two of these occasions:

When two-year-old Mark started slurping spilled ice cream directly off the table, Dad’s usual response would have been, “No, Mark! Do you want to turn into a germ? Yuck!” Instead, he just wrinkled his nose and kept silent. And after a few slurps, Mark went back to eating out of his bowl—no permanent damage done.

And when Steve (four), Julie (six), and Sheri (nine) turned the family room into a tent city by dragging out every blanket in the house and draping them over and between chairs, Dad would have usually said, “Hey, what’s going on here? You can’t turn the whole house into a scene from the Arabian Nights!” Instead he only reminded them to fold up the blankets when they were through. After two more hours of play, the folded blankets were neatly put away—by the children.

Of course, sometimes intervention is necessary—and quickly, too! (For example, one should intervene when the behavior is really objectionable or will result in injury to someone.) But when it isn’t necessary, a hands-off policy seems in order.

Can I Block Rewards for the Misbehavior?

Most of our children’s actions are directed toward some outcome, some “payoff,” whether it be getting attention, showing who is toughest, getting even, or just making someone holler. The more often they get what they want through misbehaving, the more likely they’ll keep doing it. But if we can correctly perceive what the payoff is, and then can block it, the behavior often stops.

For instance, Steven was the wiggliest and noisiest two-year-old we ever took to sacrament meeting. Because of his antics we had to pick him up and head for the foyer about halfway through each service. He was quite happy outside—as long as he could climb over chairs in the Relief Society room, run down the halls, and play in the drinking fountain. We assumed he would grow out of his restlessness like our other children had. But as time went on he became even worse and stayed quiet in meetings for shorter periods of time.

Then we tried something different. Whenever his antics reached an intolerable level one of us would take him out as usual. But instead of letting him play, we would go downstairs, place him on top of a piano for a few minutes, hold him safely, and not utter a word.

He wasn’t talking much at that age, but his expression said unmistakably, “What am I doing up here? This isn’t even as good as sitting it out in church. At least I get my quiet book in there!” His behavior improved steadily from that time on, and so did our enjoyment of sacrament meeting.

One day Sheri “discovered” a bad word that caused quite a stir in our home—especially since the home teachers were there! Somehow the spectacle of a lovely little four-year-old peppering her conversation in very imaginative ways put her right on center stage, and she loved it. It didn’t seem to matter whether people laughed or were shocked, Sheri got her payoff either way: Attention! Recognition!

How did we stop it? First, we explained quietly that the word wasn’t one we should use. And since her payoff came from our adult friends—the children she knew were not so impressed by colorful language—we asked for their help: “Don’t respond at all when she says her word.” With everyone’s patience and cooperation the word soon lost its magic and she quit using it.

How Should He Behave?

When you see your child misbehaving, before reprimanding him ask yourself, “What should he be doing instead, and how can I encourage it?” He can’t very well be doing what he should and what he shouldn’t at the same time.

Are your children fighting? Pull out a puzzle and play with them, at least until things are going smoothly again. Or start a game of tag in the back yard. Or get them busy helping you with the dishes.

Do you have a son whose tidiness can only be described as an ecological disaster? Put him in charge of the family’s daily “ten item pickup” and praise him for his efforts. Or make a game out of collecting left-around items for the family lost and found, which are then “auctioned” to the highest-bidding child for a day’s use.

Whenever we can divert our children from bad behavior to good we accomplish two powerful goals—we enhance our relationship with them, and we teach them how to behave instead of just how not to.

Should a Penalty Be Involved?

Parents generally use two options in meting out penalties. Either they take away some toy or privilege or activity desired by the child, or they cause something unpleasant to happen to the child—a stern look, a “straight talk,” a loud voice, or a spanking.

Penalties can be effective in guiding children, but they must be administered with wisdom, justice, and consistency. Otherwise feelings can be badly bruised, and long-term resentments can be created.

A close and loving relationship is an indispensable key in helping our children grow. The closer we are to them, the more impact our words will have and the more they will want to follow our example. But relationships between parents and children are delicate and may be easily torn. A stinging reprimand upon catching Mark with his tongue in the sugar bowl might work perfectly—if our only concern is to keep the sugar clean. But reprimands can sometimes cause more harm than good. Cross feelings and words can, over time and many occurrences, impel our children to turn to others for their deepest emotional ties. In so doing they are more likely to adopt attitudes and actions leading to painful consequences. So whenever we impose penalties, we try to let the punishment actually enhance our trust and love for each other. This is not always easy.

But we have found a few guidelines that can help.

Whenever possible, let the penalty follow as a natural consequence of the behavior. When Jeff kept leaving his baseball glove out in the yard, the dog decided it was a giant dog biscuit and shredded it. Jeff had to earn the money to replace it.

On “candy bar day” a child pocketed an extra piece of licorice and slipped out of the store. We brought him to face the manager and make restitution.

Be sure your child understands the connection between the misbehavior and the penalty. Penalties that follow soon after the misbehavior are generally most effective. If delay is necessary, it’s wise to counsel with your child until he can tell you accurately just what he did and how it got him into trouble.

Be sure he understands how he should act as well as how he shouldn’t. This points up one of the disadvantages of spankings and the like: They can give a child the notion that he has “paid for his sin” by simply enduring a brief discomfort. Unless careful teaching accompanies the punishment his actions often do not improve.

Whenever possible let the penalty end as soon as his behavior improves. In our home we make frequent use of “go to your room.” For how long?

“Until you can get a hold on yourself and …
not fight at the dinner table,
do your chores without complaining,
keep quiet upstairs while the baby is sleeping,
keep your fingers off the brownies, or
not tease your little sister.”

This approach has several advantages over setting a definite time for them to stay there. First, they can’t come out until they have actually improved, so it’s thorough. Second, they can come out the minute they do improve, so it’s efficient. Third, it encourages them to think about their behavior, not just the passing of time. And fourth, it focuses on the good behavior that’s expected of them, not just what they’ve done wrong.

When they do emerge from their bedroom, we accept this as the signal that all is well and show an “increase of love” to patch up feelings as quickly as we can. Usually saying, “Hey, it’s great to have you back! I miss you when you’re stuck away in there,” is enough to get a grin out of them, and things are back to normal—except that a lesson has been learned a little better.

Our children are basically good people—but to stay on the right path they occasionally need some “steering corrections.” By teaching them which way is right, by making sure they understand punishments, by working to keep love and trust strong between us, and by ignoring minor irritations and correcting only the infractions that really need attention, parents can accomplish their difficult task—most of the time. Yet because every child is unique, no one system will work perfectly for all children. Ask us our guidelines for disciplining children in another couple of years, and we’ll probably have as many new ideas as we have new gray hairs! And the best teachers of how to raise children are the children themselves—if we as parents are sensitive to what they think and feel and want.

[illustration] Illustration by Parry Merkley

Dean Sorensen, assistant dean for instruction, Ricks College, is executive secretary in the Rexburg Idaho East Stake. Sister Sorensen, a homemaker, is stake Laurel adviser. They live in the Rexburg Tenth Ward.