Q. My sons, ages 4 and 8, will do anything their friends tell them to do, even if they know it's wrong. What can I do to help them make wise choices?
A. I believe that the courage to do the right thing comes from character, not personality. In other words, even a child who is a follower by nature can learn to stand up for what's right.
Instill in your boys a solid moral code against which they can weigh their choices. Talk with them about situations that might come up and how God asks his people to respond. Your 8-year-old in particular is at the stage where he's able to think ahead about issues he might face. You can build on this emerging cognitive skill by asking questions like, "Do you think it's okay for Thomas to copy your homework? What would your teacher say if she found out? What can you say if Thomas asks to copy your homework again tomorrow?"
Help him understand the consequences of making a bad choice. Talk with him about a variety of possible solutions so that he has a prepared script to fall back on when he feels pressured by his peers.
Your 4-year-old doesn't yet have the ability to anticipate problems and come up with effective solutions, although he'll benefit from watching his older brother do just that. Your best strategy with a preschooler is to emphasize the rules and the consequences for breaking the rules. Establish clear expectations for his behavior and help him understand why you want him to follow these rules.
With both boys, you need to lay out the consequences and follow through on discipline when they break the rules.
As your sons learn that they are capable of handling these types of situations on their own, their confidence will increase and they will begin to feel more comfortable stepping outside the peer group when necessary.
As parents, we'll never be able to insulate our children completely from outside influences, but we can encourage them to make good choices and model their lives after Christ.
Q. My son is 3 years old and not yet potty-trained. I'm getting pretty frustrated. He will sit there if I give him a treat, but usually he simply says no and refuses to even try. Should I try a new tactic?
A. I'd advise you not to push your son right now. As you've already seen, he's responding to your requests by becoming more assertive and emphatic about his refusal. This is pretty typical behavior for a 3-year-old who feels the growing need to make independent decisions.
When your son is emotionally and physically ready to be potty trained, the actual process will happen very quickly. Our son was also older than 3 years old before he showed any interest whatsoever in using the bathroom; yet, your son and my son are both considered "normal" by child development experts. Successful potty training is determined by each individual child's readiness, not chronological age.
You might want to take a break from potty training for awhile. Instead, focus on fun ways to build you son's level of self-confidence and sense of independence. For example, allow him to choose his clothing each morning, even if the outfit clashes or looks a little silly. At lunch or snacktime, let him choose between two options. When he makes his bed, resist the urge to smooth the covers or straighten the pillows. As your son begins to feel more control in other areas of his life, he'll be more willing to give up control in the area of potty training.
Q. While we were out shopping last week, my son completely disobeyed me. As a punishment, I told him we would cancel his play date later that afternoon. But when we got home from the store, I had a tough time following through because he looked so sad and sorry. I know I should be more consistent, but sometimes the punishments are just as painful for me as they are for him. What can I do to make discipline easier on both of us?
A. Unfortunately, often the only way for a child to learn the difference between right and wrong is through discipline.
The easiest way to teach your child about acceptable behavior is by making sure the rules are very simple. Use the cause-and-effect method when setting rules:
When you put your tricycle in the garage, you can play with the ball.
When you put your clothes in the hamper, I'll read you a book.
When you say "please," you can have a cookie from the cookie jar.
You might also find it easier to discipline your child if you choose a consequence that doesn't punish both of you. For example, taking away a play date deprives you of free time, something every parent craves. Instead, look for consequences that actually mean something to your son. You might want to make a favorite video off-limits for a few days. Or have him sit in his room quietly instead of playing outside with his brothers and sisters.
Remember, however, that punishment only stops misbehavior temporarily. For discipline to truly be effective, it's important to go a step beyond punishment to teach your child the kind of behavior you expect from him. In this situation, you might talk to him about the way he should behave the next time you're at the store?staying close to you, talking softly, controlling his temper, listening to you?and what will happen when he breaks these rules. Then remind him of these things when you go to the store again.
This kind of consistency helps your child know exactly what you expect and gives him the help he needs to act appropriately.
Mary Manz Simon is an author, speaker and practical parenting specialist. "Front Porch Parenting," her daily radio program, airs on almost 200 stations.
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