When I was about 10 years old, my mother handed me a can of comet and told me to clean the bathroom. Well, she never actually told me how to clean, but somehow she thought that I already knew just from watching her do it. So I went in the bathroom and sprinkled comet everywhere and then used my hand to scrub out the sink and rinse as much of the blue off as I could. Needless to say, it wasn’t the most perfect job. Sure it was better, but really clean—no.

So, one time mom walked in as I just scrubbing the porcelain with my hand and realized her mistake–she had forgotten to set up some expectations about how this job was to be done.

To her credit, she didn’t yell at me for doing it wrong, she said, “Oh no wonder!” then proceeded to teach me how to clean a bathroom sink. After that, I always used a wash cloth and the sink looked great!

One way that people tell children to behave the way they want them to behave is by saying “Be nice” and they assume that children know exactly what “be nice” means, but the truth is that some children really don’t understand what that means or why “being nice” at the park is different from “being nice” at school or in church. So when little Joey gets in trouble yet again and then blames someone else yet again, his parents worry that he is willfully being disobedient because after all “He knows better.”

So, how to avoid setting your child up for trouble?

I believe in a two pronged approach. First, is to teach very specifically what your expectations are, then set a reasonable consequence if that expectation is broken. For example, sit down with a piece of paper or use a white board then do a brain storm around the two phrases “Nice” and “Not nice” for a particular place and time, then list phrases that help you child to not just define, but have examples to generalize from.

At the park


Climbing on the play structure
Running in the grass
Swinging with your bottom in the seat
Yelling to your friends
Digging in the sand

Not Nice

Hitting, pushing or kicking others
Twisting in the swing
Not allowing others to pass on the slide
Swearing or name calling
Not coming when you are called by parent
Blindfolding my friend and pushing him down the slide

You get the idea. You can have a lot of fun with this brainstorm as your child will come up with all kinds of funny ideas that you never would have dreamed about. Just write them all down and laugh along. . . . Make sure all the important considerations are there too.

Once you and your child are clear about what the expectations actually are, then help your child to set a clear consequence for when the expectation is broken. In other words, if you child pushes another child on the play structure, then what would the consequence for that be?

Keep these simple, if consequences are too complicated you will forget what they are and end up being inconsistent.

Author's Bio: 

Karen DeBolt, MA is a parent coach and family therapist in Hillsboro, oregon. Karen has a master's degree in counseling psychology and three master teachers--her children. All these ideas have been road tested on her own family so they will work for you too. Sign up for the twice monthly newsletter for more parenting support at http://www.counselingformoms.com and receive my free report: Conquering Bad Behavior Without Stress.