In an earlier podcast show I asked the question “Does your child really want to piss you off,” and the answer was a resounding yes. And as our children get older the answer is still yes. The only difference is that a three year or four old has better command of the English language than they did at two, and now they will gladly articulate to you where they want you to go and how you should get there. And I’m not talking about them telling you to go on vacation to Hawaii and that you should take an airplane to get there either. Devin and many of his partners in mischief are surprisingly fearless when it comes to challenging authority. I picture a man three feet taller than me and five times my weight and I personally get a little nervous, but not the average three or four year old. Yes, we’re bigger, we’re stronger, and they don’t care.

Most kids will calm down over the next couple of years, but that will not help you right this second. Right now is when they want to challenge you, see how far they can push you before you push back, see how hard they can hit you before you hit back, and see how much they can curse you before you curse back. When they see that you are not fazed any of those things, as Devin has figured out, then they think that they have you under their control. At least until you pull out the famous timeout. An invisible barrier goes up around them and they can’t move from the time out chair, corner, mat, stool, or whatever the tool is that you choose for time out. They don’t know where you conjured this mighty weapon from and are knocked off balance by it. They try to speak in time out and you say no talking, they try to reach for a nearby toy and you say no playing, they try to stand and you tell them no standing. Sometimes you repeat those lines over and over again, but if you are consistent they listen. This will work most times, sometimes it will not, but you have other weapons.

One of the techniques that we are using is rewarding Devin out of the blue for good behavior. If we go to the supermarket and he acts out we don’t try to bribe him in the supermarket with goodies, we either remove him from the supermarket and tell him about why we left and then decide on a punishment, or we let him get over his issues on his own. However if he goes to the supermarket and he behaves, then when we get home we remind him of where we went and ask him to recall events from the trip (for example we’ll say “Devin, where did we just go?” and “Did you get to sit in the cart?”) and then we tell him how great his behavior was at the supermarket and that he deserves to choose a sticker from the treasure chest. He enthusiastically chooses one, we find it later stuck to something in the house and we move on to the next one. On rarified days if he really out did himself with politeness, no tantrums, and listening to directives then we’ll go somewhere special to eat chicken nuggets for lunch or dinner – his absolute favorite. The problem is that he’s starting to make the connection between good behavior and chicken nuggets so sooner or later we’ll have to replace the item or explain to him that he doesn’t need nuggets to behave himself, the same way you would start weaning your child off of praise once they are potty trained. At that point we’ll cross our fingers and hope it worked.

It’s a bad idea to have your child associate goodies and treats with unacceptable behavior. We see it all the time, a stressed parent, usually one of us dads, pleading with a tantruming child to please calm down and saying those dreadful words “If you calm down I’ll buy you an ice cream.” That’s some sad parenting. Don’t go down that road. Instead buy the kid some ice cream when she actually deserves it and be as clear as you can about how she earned it. I recommend that you focus on behaviors that you really want to change. If your child is a hitter and he doesn’t hit you all morning one day, let him know that he didn’t hit you all morning and you are proud of him for controlling his temper. Then let him choose a sticker or something from the treasure chest. The same if your child picked up some bad language from daycare. Let the little reforming potty mouth know that you noticed that he has not cursed today and that he’s awesome for it. Focus on the positive behavior and maybe the negative behavior will become a thing of the past.