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Teaching Kids the Best Behavior at Holiday Time

Marnie follows as her young daughter tugs her toward the twinkling lights hung in garlands outside the Secret Santa Shop. “Kids Under 10 Years Old Only!” a glittery sign warns.

“Now remember what I always tell you, Tammy,” Marnie says brightly, looking around to see whether other waiting parents are listening. “You need to be a good girl and listen to everything the shopkeepers say! You better behave, and no acting up! So promise me you’ll be a good girl, okay?”

Tammy looks up at her, then quickly averts her gaze. “Okay,” she mumbles, “I’ll be good.”

“I didn’t hear that! What did you say?”

“I SAID, I’ll be good!” snaps Tammy irritably, grabbing money from her mother’s hand and charging into the shop.

Marnie shrugs, sighing. “Who knows if she listened to a word I said? I guess that’s kids for you,” she thinks ruefully, sitting down to wait with the other parents.

Inside the shop, another girl says to Tammy, “Hey, your mom is really into telling you to be good! What was that all about?”

“I don’t know,” sighs Tammy. “I guess she means, ‘Don’t embarrass me.’ ”

Be Good!

Many of us parents have admonished our children to “Be good!” That’s what our parents told us, so now we say it, too, even though it sounds as silly today as it did when we were young. What does “Behave!” really mean today? Are we hoping our children will be careful? Are we asking them to act responsibly? Or are we warning them that we are watching and ready to swoop down and catch them if they misbehave?

Traditionally, parents simply told children what was “good” or “bad.” Children who obeyed were “good” and those who didn't were “bad.” Nagging, reminders, threats and punishments reinforced the message often. But in the process, as you may remember from your own childhood, the “bad kids” were mostly learning how to avoid getting caught and to lie about it if they did. Meanwhile, the “good kids” were polishing their halos and improving their people-pleasing skills.

Parents today also want to raise well-behaved children, but our ideas about how to do this are less clear. Few of us want to frighten or bargain our children into good behavior. Most parents would rather teach their children to think and behave responsibly on their own. Blind obedience is less useful in a rapidly changing world where people are expected to think for themselves and make good decisions accordingly.

Courtesy and Respect

“Good behavior” in the 21stcentury is less about following the rules and more about adopting a sense of personal responsibility. Children need to learn that appropriate behavior is not just doing as you are told but understanding how courtesy and respect require everyone—young and old—to avoid creating problems and interfering with the needs of others.

It may seem like a tall order to teach children—especially young children, who are naturally so self-centered—to respect others’ needs as equally important as their own. But moving beyond trite and ineffective blanket phrases such as “Be good!” requires taking the next step toward teaching children about respect.

Fortunately, there are many opportunities in daily life to incorporate these lessons. Children begin to learn about respect for others when they experience being treated respectfully by their parents. Marnie, for instance, can respect her daughter's need to know in advance what to expect and her ability to learn by offering her useful tips beforea new experience begins.

Know What to Expect

“Tammy, I know you have never visited a special shop for children before. Would you be interested in hearing some good ideas about how people usually act in this shop?”

Marnie also can respect Tammy’s need for dignity by making sure she trains and corrects her privately, a short distance away, to avoid broadcasting her inexperience or immaturity to others.

“Tammy, let’s stop here and talk for a moment before we go inside. The last time we went shopping together, there were some problems with knocking stuff off the shelves. Maybe you remember how that caused extra work for the store owner, and some of his merchandise got dirty. Do you understand that it is unacceptable to do that again?”

Tammy might feel bold and say, “I know, I know how to behave right. So let me go in right now!” In that case, her mother might reply respectfully, “I’m glad to hear it! Would you be willing to set my mind at ease and tell me everything you know about the right way for kids to act when they are someplace like a Secret Santa store?”

Now, Tammy has to stop and think. What does she know? What does she think about “the right way to act?” As she recalls this information to share with her mother, an interesting process occurs: Tammy thinks for herself about what is appropriate behavior that respects the needs of others.Without reminders, lectures, threats or embarrassment, her mother is effectively encouraging her ability to think and behave responsibly.

Finally, if the need arises, a parent can simply act and remove a child who is creating problems or interfering with the needs of others. Undoubtedly, these situations are tough for parents; leaving the scene with a flailing child who is crying about how mean you are might feel like the low point of your parenting life. However, even these situations are vitally important learning experiences for children and can be handled with at least a modicum of self-respect and respect for your child.

“I’m sorry that you are angry and disappointed, but you blew it this time. You’ll have another chance again later, but right now I am taking you home.”

The meaning of “being good” hasn’t really changed much over time, but our ways of teaching children to “be good” need to change if they are going to work. Today, we are teaching children the important skills of stepping up to accept their own responsibility for good behavior. As children learn how to fit in appropriately and contribute wherever they are—inside a store, with their friends on a camping trip or at a religious service with their family—they will gain a sense of pride and confidence that comes from “I know what to do to be a good person,” rather than “I have to do what I am told so others will tell me that I am good.”

Tips for Helping a Child Learn to Respect the Needs of Others

  1. Children are naturally curious about how other people get along with each other. Whether pausing at a construction site to watch the workers and machinery or following the movements of dancers across the stage, help your child notice how people cooperate with each other to accomplish their tasks and avoid causing problems for each other.
  2. Before taking your child into any new situation, such as a karate class or a new restaurant, stop momentarily outside to observe. Ask your child, “How does it seem people are behaving together in there? Are people walking or running? Do they seem to be using soft voices or loud voices? What do you think is the right way to behave in there?”
  3. Expand your child’s thinking by wondering with her how a situation might look from another’s point of view: “When that man walked up to the door, and the person in front of him was holding it open instead of letting it shut in his face, do you suppose he appreciated that?” Or, “If you had practiced a lot to get ready to play music in a performance, and then people were talking or getting up to walk around, how would you feel about that?”

Emory Luce Baldwin, LCMFT, is a family therapist and certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP). To view PEP's class schedule, visit