7 Science-Backed Ways to Be a Better, Happier Parent

by ParentCo. December 06, 2016

A child sitting, father holding from back

Earning a degree in psychology with an emphasis on children and young adults hasn’t helped me understand the inner mechanisms of kids nearly as much as working with them for nine and a half years and then becoming a mom.

I acquired a true knowledge for the ways children act and think through teaching and tutoring in Montessori-based learning centers and working with my own young sons. I have taken what I’ve learned in classroom settings and at home, applied it to scientific studies, and developed a few proven skills that can make parenthood run much smoother.

Tweak your use of the word “no”

Research suggests that simply switching “don’t” and “can’t” makes a huge difference when setting boundaries with your children. For example, when your toddler asks for a piece of candy right before dinner, a response like “we don’t eat candy before dinner, it’ll ruin your appetite” works better than a simple “no” or “you can’t have any.” When you adjust the way you say no, your children will intuitively respond better. The “we don’t” response doesn’t single them out and also gives an explanation for the no.

The same goes with a teenager asking to use the car late at night. “You don’t take the car out after 8 p.m. You may use it until 7.” This sets a precedent that they are not allowed to take the car out after a set time, so they won’t be tempted to ask you the same thing the next night, or the next week.

Reward the good, ignore the bad

Positive reinforcement has been studied for more than a century, from Pavlov’s dogs to Skinner’s Box. Praising and rewarding children’s good behaviors reap far better outcomes than punishing negative behaviors.

When I helped potty train several dozen toddlers, the process was far quicker and more pleasant when they were rewarded with stickers for using the toilet. They learned to associate going potty with a positive outcome. The children were excited to earn their reward and would end up going potty much more often than necessary, which led to less accidents and quicker “training.”

The same can be applied to older children with regard to keeping curfews. A teen who arrives home on-time or before curfew and is rewarded with a temporary curfew extension is more likely to adhere to the curfew in the future. Ignoring bad behavior can be a tougher pill to swallow, but is sometimes necessary for positive results.

Children want attention. They will do whatever they can to get it. Teach them negative actions, such as biting, will bring nothing but heaps of attention to the victim, not the biter.

My three-year-old has a bad habit of pinching. When he pinches his little brother, I sweep in and take the 18-month-old away, covering him in kisses, apologizing for his brother’s actions, and giving him lots of hugs and maybe a special treat. My eldest just stands there, mouth agape. Pinching, these days, in our home is at an all-time low.

Allow do-overs

Repetition is a key part of learning. In my home, I always allow my three-year-old a chance to “try that again.” For instance, if he runs down the hallway and knocks a picture down, I simply say, “Let’s try that again.” He gets another chance to come down the hallway a bit slower.

Sometimes these do-overs last a good five minutes when he needs time to figure out exactly what I am wanting him to change. He may say, “Gimmie some milk.” I say, “Try again.” Then he says, “I want some milk,” and I say, “Try again.” When he finally says, “May I have some milk?” I beam at him and say, “Sure, buddy!” It works like a charm, and it doesn’t feel like a punishment.

Through repetition, we are establishing pathways in his little brain for how to communicate respectfully with adults. Teens can benefit from do-overs as well. Try the same thing I do with my son if your older child is disrespectful in their approach to you, and give them as many chances as they need to figure out what you are looking for before you respond or give them what they want. They always want something!

Squash sibling rivalry

If you have multiple children, you know they are often at each other’s throats, and you probably think that it’s annoying, but normal. It doesn’t have to be the norm.

Your children can be each other’s best allies. Their relationships are reflections of how your family relates to one another in general. It’s a fact that sibling rivalry is lower in families where children feel they are treated equally by their parents and where their place in the family is respected and valued.

Make sure your children know they are each special in their own way and that each one has a special place in your home and your heart. From the oldest down to the youngest, give each child responsibilities unique to their age and abilities. For example, the oldest may oversee walking and caring for the family dog, and the youngest may get to oversee setting the table and deciding where everyone will sit at each meal.

Give them choices

While working with toddlers over the years, I was taught to always give the children choices: Would you like milk or water? Do you need to poop or pee? We tried to never ask them close-end questions: Are you thirsty? Do you need to go potty? Because they would more than likely say no.

The reasoning behind this is simple. Some psychologists call it counterwill, the instinctive reaction of a child to resist being controlled. When you give kids choices instead of demands, they feel like they have more control over their situation. The same thing goes with older children, i.e. are you going to bring the car home by 8 p.m. or get a ride from a friend?

Make sure you give them two options you would be okay with either way. If you know your children well and choose your options wisely, you can get them to go your route without demanding it.

Count it down

Have you ever seen a parent pulling their screaming child from the playground or the toy store? Maybe you are more familiar with a meltdown when the TV is turned off?

Many studies indicate the success of using timers for younger children and those with special needs. If you deal with temper tantrums during transitions throughout your day, try a count-down (or warning) of what’s about to happen: “We’re leaving the park in 5 minutes…3 minutes….1 minute… Time to go.” This warning system allows them to say goodbye to friends, go down the slide one last time, etc.

My favorite device at home is the microwave timer. They respect the beep. It lets my kids know when it’s clean up time, how long they have left to play video games, or how long until dinner. Telling a teen, “you have 30 more minutes to goof around on Facebook, Twitter, ___________,” also works better than walking in their room and telling them to cut everything off. Being that kind of parent will get you no “likes.

Your children are ALWAYS watching you

They may not always do what you say, but they are always watching what you do. Telling a toddler not to hit and then spanking them for hitting is redundant. Telling a teen not to drink, but drinking a beer and/or wine every night sends a different message.

Believe it or not, in a recent survey, more than 80 percent of the teens surveyed looked up to their parents and enjoyed being around them. Nobody needs a survey to know how crazy younger children are about their parents. They are watching and admiring you and looking for clues. Act accordingly.

Implement these simple skills into your daily routine and watch yourself become a better happier parent. In return, you’ll soon see that you have much happier, healthier, well adjusted, and cooperative kids!



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