Virtually all parents are interested in teaching their young children to be well-behaved and enjoyable little people. Many of us have seen children at a grocery store or restaurant who seem to be out of control. They fail to comply with parental behavioral requests and, in general, seem to have mastered the art of the proverbial “little monster.” There is a certain fame associated with the “terrible two’s,” and it would seem that such fame is, in many cases, well deserved. In short, and to be perfectly honest, there are many young children, ages 2-6 or so, who make their parents lives hell.

What’s more, they don’t do much for other folks either. An unruly child can make the folks setting in the next booth or in the pew behind the child wish they had skipped dinner or passed-up church that Sunday. The problem is further compounded when parents need a babysitter. They may soon discover that their child has earned quite a reputation and that obtaining childcare is virtually impossible. In that case, parents are unable to take a much-needed break from little Danny or Lucy, only compounding their sense of frustration. Such children and their behavior eventually begin to impact the relationship between the parents. What’s to be done?

Maybe a good place to start is trying to obtain a “picture” of how young children think. When we can find a window on their cognitive processes, we might be able to tailor our behavioral expectations and discipline methods in ways that match the child’s cognitive processing. Where might we find such a window into children’s thinking processes and catch a glimpse of how they see the world? One place to look is through the lens of the long accepted views of Jean Piaget. What insight might Piaget offer?

In Piaget’s stage theory of cognitive development, he indentifies children from about age 2 to around age 7 as being in the stage of preoperational thought. He further divides this stage into two sub stages, the preconceptual sub stage, which encompasses approximately age 2-4, and the transitional sub stage, covering approximately ages 5-7. Children aren’t just miniature adults or immature thinkers. According to Piaget, they think in qualitatively different ways than adults.

One primary characteristic of preoperational children is that their thinking is basically egocentric. This is an effect of developmental factors and is normal for children of this period. Because of this, such children often appear self-centered, selfish, and rarely seem to consider the world from the perspective of another. It is tempting for parents to moralize with their children, or punish their selfishness. I have heard countless fundamentalist Christian preachers and “psychologists” suggest punishment, often spanking, for selfishness. “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” The problem here is that egocentrism is not a form of willful disobedience. It is a way in which children think. Punishing them is not the answer.

So, how can we get them to be less “me” centered and grow in respect and courtesy towards others? We know that children are imitative in many of their behaviors. There is a phenomenon known as social referencing which may help out here. The concept of social referencing refers to how the socialization of children occurs whenever parents convey messages to their children about what is acceptable. This process takes place through example, through a “look” from the parent, and from complimenting and rewarding appropriate social behavior.

As parents behave and speak to others and the child courteously, and as they show themselves more readily responsive to appropriate behavior by the child, the child will be encouraged to act in more appropriate ways. It has long been noted that the most effective and persistent change in behavior comes though rewarding what is appropriate. It may take some time, and often it may seem like hard work. But the parent who places a child in “time out” until a disagreeable, selfish child acts appropriately and at that point rewards the child with the attention s/he is seeking will have much more impact than a parent using harsh punishments. Remember, since these children tend to be egocentric, one thing a parent does not want to create is a power struggle.

Fortunately, even though these young children are egocentric, they are always becoming more sociocentric in their thinking especially as they move towards the transitional substage of this time of pre-operational thought. This means they are always learning more about the world and how to live socially in it. This demands give and take. Parents need to be careful observers of children and be on the lookout for these “teachable moments” when the child acts in socially appropriate ways and be quick to reward such behavior.

There is something to this idea of being “caught in a good act.” When a child acts in inappropriate ways, the parent needs to be careful to address the behavior as unacceptable, not the child (“Hitting your brother is unkind and hurts him” instead of “You are unkind and mean.”). However, the converse is true of catching a child in a good act. In this case, you want to make sure you praise the child in ways that identify with his or her character (“You shared with Bobby because you are a nice kind girl”).

Children move through childhood at their own pace. We cannot punish children because they are not at the developmental level we might wish them to be. Forcing, or attempting to force, development will only lead to more major problems down the road. However, by watching, encouraging, praising, and using gentle discipline, we will go a long way in raising happy children and contributing to happy parents.

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