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“You Should Know Better!” (Or Maybe the Parent Should Know Better)

How many times have you heard a parent tell their child, “You know better than that!” or “You should know better!” Maybe you’ve said it yourself. I know I’ve said it a few times. But really, should your child know better? Sure, you may have told them repeatedly in the past or maybe you punished them for a certain behavior. YOU might think they should know better, or maybe you just wish they knew better,  but in reality, maybe they shouldn’t know better at all. 

Maybe you, the parent, are the one who should know better. 

Imagine if you expected the sun to shine every day, and every time there were clouds in the sky, you were extremely disappointed and mad. The sky just wasn’t living up to your expectations. You might spend half of your life mad. Now, apply this same concept to your child’s behavior. When you set reasonable and informed expectations, you don’t get mad or frustrated over things you can’t control. 

Let me set a scene for you: 

It was the last weekend before Christmas, and I was out shopping during the busiest part of the day. Why would I do something like this? Because it was the only time I could go, and Gavin HAD to have a little motorized Thomas the Tank Engine for Christmas. I knew what to expect at the stores, but that still didn’t make it any more unnerving when I had to watch unpleasant child-parent interactions. 

As I got in line, which was about 20 minutes long, I walked up behind a little girl who was Gavin’s age, looking at me with tears in her eyes and her mom grabbing her face and saying, “She is not going to save you.” I just thought, oh crap, get me out of here. I am such a wimp when it comes to Gavin’s tears, and there was obviously nothing I could do for a stranger’s child. But I really needed to check-out and I didn’t have any other options. I had to stand behind them. The woman spoke in harsh, low tones to her daughter, and I just looked around and tried to ignore what was going on. The mom wanted her two-year-old to stand still in the line and look straight ahead. She wasn’t allowed to touch anything. Meanwhile, the mom also stood looking straight ahead and did not speak to her daughter, except, of course, when her daughter misbehaved. 

Each time the girl reached out to touch something, the mom immediately forced her arms down, said something in the girl’s ear, and the girl melted into tears. This scene was repeated about every 30-45 seconds. Obviously, 30-45 seconds was about the maximum the little girl could stand still, which honestly kind of impressed me because I’m pretty sure Gavin could only last about 5 seconds. Maybe 10. 

The girl wasn’t touching anything breakable or even being rough with the objects. She gently touched a slipper with her finger and her mom swiped her arms down. She touched a picture on a large box and her arms were pushed down again. Each reprimand resulted in tears. It was exhausting and frustrating for me to watch. I can’t even imagine how exhausting and frustrating this is for the mom and child. 

Then the dad showed up just as we reached the check-out counters, and the mom grabbed the little girl’s hand and dragged her out the front door. The little girl was running to keep up with her mom’s pace. 

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the mom’s frustration (and honestly, if I were that mom, I would have been doubly frustrated because when the dad did show up, he ignored the child completely, and he also ignored the mom’s obvious frustration. But that’s another story….) I’ve been in this mom’s shoes before, and when I saw the look on her face as she bolted towards the door, I thought to myself, “I know exactly how she feels right now.” I have been so frustrated with Gavin that I’ve yelled or spoke harshly or just dropped everything and picked him up and walked away. 

But, I also know how the little girl feels, and I simply think the mom had unreasonable expectations for such a young child. I am an adult, and I didn’t even stand in the line staring straight ahead. I was reading packages, checking my phone, looking at other products, etc. 

I witnessed another situation recently where a man had his daughter in a store in the museum, which is full of all kinds of fun things for kids. They went around the store and the dad said at least 80 times, “Don’t touch! Keep your hands in your pockets. Don’t touch!” Then I heard him say, “We are just looking. We’re not buying anything today so don’t touch.” 

Okay, parents everywhere, I have news for you: 2-year-olds touch things. They don’t just look. They touch things – EVERYTHING. Any parent who walks into a store and expects their child to just looks deserves to get their hands swatted down or shoved in their pockets.   

And before you tell your child that he or she should simply “know better” – ask yourself if that is true. Should your child really know better? 

Getting Perspective

I read some advice in a magazine recently (sorry, I forget which magazine) where the mom would ask her kid something like, “What are you? Two years old?” And that would snap her back to reality. I like to think of the phrase, “Act your age, not your shoe size” because it makes me laugh when I think that Gavin’s shoe size is actually a bigger number than his age. These phrases are usually used against older kids or adults, but when you say them to your young child, you remember just how young your child is. 

On our book recommendations page, I recommend the book, Baby Steps by Claire B. Kopp. Although most of our books are geared towards attachment parenting principles, I really can’t remember if this one is (I checked it out from a library a while ago). The reason I recommend it is because it gives parents an idea of what they can expect in terms of their child’s cognitive and other types of development. I think this is so important because I believe it is impossible to discipline a child correctly if you have no idea what they are capable of understanding or how they are capable of behaving. (I also like Touchpoints-Birth to Three by T. Berry Brazelton, but there was too much information in there that conflicted with how I feel about certain topics like breastfeeding and some other things. However, if you just read it for the developmental information, it can be a decent book). 

I’ve heard of parents spanking their 9 month-olds or making their toddlers go to bed without eating because their toddler wouldn’t eat their dinner. Sure, these may just be unreasonable people, but maybe they are just uninformed or misinformed. When a parent doesn’t have even a general understanding of their child’s cognitive abilities, it is impossible to apply the correct discipline, which creates a chain of events that leads to further frustrations, misunderstandings, hurt feelings (or bodies, depending on the discipline style), and confusion. 

The Sears Library also has many books that help parents understand their child’s needs and capabilities. The Discipline Book continues to be helpful to me as I try to understand Gavin’s development, motives, and behavior, and how I should appropriately respond. 

Change Your Own Thoughts and Behavior

I can wash the shirt, the hair, the face, and the high chair. Of course I would prefer that my child eat his chili with a fork or spoon, but this method is much easier 🙂

We have a lot of control over our child’s behavior because we have physical control over them. However, we don’t have control over their emotional and cognitive development. For example, Dr. Sears doesn’t recommend starting certain discipline methods like time-outs until your child is 18 months old because children are not developmentally ready (and there are arguments against time-out, but that’s a different topic). You can try something like time-out with your 12 month-old, but what happens when it doesn’t work? The child gets frustrated, the parent gets frustrated, and the relationship between the child and parent becomes strained. I believe discipline is much more effective when the child and parent have a respectful understanding of each other’s wants and needs. 

When discipline and communication between a parent and a child run smoothly, that means you are probably applying age-appropriate expectations on your child. I’m not saying your child will never misbehave. Every child has his or her moments. But what should you do when your find yourself continually frustrated, your child is always frustrated, and your discipline strategies don’t seem to be working? Here are my suggestions: 

1. Spend time around other children who are your child’s age. This will help you understand that your child IS probably acting his or her age. The socialization with other children who are your child’s age is good for parents and children. It will also give you a chance to talk to their parents and hear their frustrations and what they are dealing with. You might even find that your child is a little angel compared to theirs ;). 

2. Ask yourself if you are being reasonable. From the time Gavin was about 8 months old until about 20 months old, he climbed on everything. EVERYTHING. It drove us crazy. However, climbing was what he was supposed to do. He had natural urges to be physical. I couldn’t punish him for acting on his own instincts and natural urges. However, I could lead him to safer places to climb, and I could keep some items off limits. 

3. Educate yourself. I already gave you some book recommendations in this article, and we have more on our recommendations page. There are also a lot of newsletters and websites out there dedicated to helping parents understand their child. Some of my favorites resources are Ask Dr. Sears, Aha Parenting,  and Playful Parenting

4. Try to see the situation from your child’s eyes. You may even have to do this literally. Get down on their level and look at the situation. What do they see and why are they behaving in this way? Get to the root of the issue. 

5. Pick your battles and remember that you have several options when responding to your child. Pants can be washed, floors can be cleaned, and you might even be able to sneak into work a few minutes late. However, broken legs take a long time to heal and animals can bite. I can usually take a deep breath and speak calmly to Gavin if he wipes his dirty hands on my clean pants as I’m running out the door to work, but if he’s doing something dangerous, a more swift or stern approach may be appropriate. 

6. Ask yourself how you would prefer to be disciplined if you were the child. If someone spanked you, shut you out, or yelled at you, would you really want to do what they say? Sure, you might get results from your child, but it is going to be a struggle for both of you. 

7. Assume your child means well. I discussed this in a previous post, but chances are, your child really does want to make you happy. The problem is that sometimes your happiness conflicts with his desires. Keep in mind that your child is NOT out to get you. Your child loves you, and his parents are the two most important people in his world. Why would he want to upset you? He is just too young to understand how to make both of you happy. However, as the adult and the parent, you have the ability to figure this out. 

8. Make a connection with your child. I am much more likely to act positively towards a person if I feel like I am on their team working towards the same goal. If the person is being mean or nasty to me, I perfer to just go my own way. Make a connection and show your child that you are on the same team. You are working toward the same goal. You both just want to be happy. 

The Results

When you set reasonable expectations, both you and your child will live a more peaceful life. No, you won’t always get what you want, and neither will your child. However, reasonable expectations will lead to a better understanding between you and your child. The sun is probably not going to shine every day, and your child will always find a way to misbehave, but setting reasonable expectations will result in more reasonable behavior from both you and your child.

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Published in Discipline Parenting