When your toddler is running off, biting, kicking, screaming, hitting, pushing, grabbing, or generally being defiant, you want them to change that behavior (that’s an understatement!). They will naturally begin to outgrow these behaviors as they gain more self-regulation.
In the meantime, we have to help them get there as well and guide them towards optimal social behavior. Kids who master social skills are set up for success in many areas, including academic achievement.
When we discipline our children we want to empower them to change their behavior.
Growth mindset and empowerment
Children live in the here and now and young children, in particular, think in a “fixed” mindset meaning that they don’t naturally assume things can or will change. We have to teach them that they can change their behavior, that they can grow.
For example, when children realize they have done something wrong they feel failure, and to them, it feels permanent. So our job as parents is to suggest other ways to handle situations and give them tools to handle their emotions as well as empower them to change their behavior. But how do we get from a feeling of failure to a feeling of empowerment?
How to empower children to change behavior
When your child does something like grabs a toy from another child you can:
—Correct the behavior (say no and stop the grabbing)
—Identify the problem (you would like a turn with that toy but Sarah is playing with it now)
—Engage them in perspective taking (how would you feel if someone grabbed a toy from you?)
—Offer an alternative (can you ask Sarah if you can have a turn after she’s done with the toy and then you’ll give it back to her?)
Then it is the time to empower them to change and diffuse their negative feelings.
Before you let them go on to the next thing, you simply say:
“You’ll remember next time.”
That one simple phrase communicates so much to children. It tells them that their failure today isn’t a permanent failure that they can change and it gives them something positive to focus on, “You’ll remember next time to use your words.” It also helps them resolve their current feelings (I feel bad now, but next time I can do better) and gives them a sense of relief and a desire to try next time.
If they do remember next time they might even point it out to you “I remembered Mama! I used my words!” with their eyes shining with pride. And you’ll respond with a “Yes, you did remember! You used your words!” just as excited as they are.
When they do that you know it happened — they were empowered to change their behavior from within. That pride is a reflection of the empowerment. And it wasn’t about you controlling their behavior, but about them learning a better way and internalizing it—they changed from within.
This phase really works, but it isn’t magic. The problem is, little kids don’t remember easily. Changing toddler behavior takes practice and opportunity and if you empower them along the way they will internalize those behaviors.
I’ve found this works best at ages 2 and 3, depending on the child’s maturity. My son is 4 and uses the phrase on his own now—“next time I’ll remember.” But I have to reinforce that, especially if it’s something he really already knows. Yes, at 4, kids can still have impulse control problems, but usually he already knows better and he just didn’t choose, or didn’t have the regulation to choose, a better strategy.
So I’ll say “Yes you will remember because you already know that. What can you do instead?” and we will discuss alternatives. Adding in natural consequences to behavior can bring home the need to change the behavior, but even with older children you want them to know they can change and how they can approach the situation differently next time.
“I know you’re upset now, but next time you’ll remember.”
A version of this article was originally published on Nurture and Thrive.