It’s Not All Mary Poppins


In a previous post, I discussed the widely-held parenting myth that “children behave better for others than for their parents.”

I noted that it was important to distinguish between “stranger” — for whom kids generally will behave better, at least until a certain age — and “others”, anyone else, no matter how familiar. I stated my belief that a child’s better behaviour for a familiar other person is nothing magical or mystical — it has to do with something the parents are/aren’t doing. If the parent and the other person were consistently doing the same thing in the same way, they’d get the same response from the child.

I gave you an example, and asked you to deconstruct it. You did very well! Yes, the issue was that the mother didn’t follow through.

She called the child to her. The child paused. At this point, mom could have gone to get her, but what she actually did — Calling a second time, to see if she’ll come — was reasonable parenting.

The critical point, the crux of the matter, was what mom did when the child SMILED AND TURNED AWAY. No matter how cute and charming the little girl was at that moment (and she WAS, the little devil), that’s deliberate, conscious defiance, people, and needs to be dealt with instantly. At first glance of that smile, mama should have marched over, taken the child’s hand, and explained the situation: “When mama says ‘come over here’, you need to come.”

Clear and effective.

If that happens every single time this direction is issued, the child will be coming, reliably, within a couple of months. (Depends on the child, of course. But by 21 – 30 months, sometimes earlier, you can expect to be heeded with reliable consistency.)

And the problem of running away, which some of you rightly noted might be the child’s response when she sees mama bearing down on her? I say that’s precisely why you need to nail this behaviour now. There is nothing more humiliating than chasing a laughing child when it’s not a game. And talk about undermining your parental authority! Ugh.

There are a couple of ways of dealing with this behaviour, and which you choose will depend on the personality of the child involved. However, not wanting this post to get unduly long, I’ll put them into another post.

Do children automatically behave better for other familiar people than their parents? No. My three (happily secure) children almost always behaved as well for me than for others. Sometimes even better, because my expectations were often higher. My five step-children behaved just as well for their parents as for anyone else they knew. (And even reasonably well for me, the step-mother, though not as well as for their dad. The difference there had to do with how I behaved and certain other political factors that we don’t need to get into here…)

Mamadragon says it well. With toddlers, it’s Tell, Show, Do.

Tell them what you want. “Come here.”
Show them. The mother could have beckoned and pointed to the ground beside her.
Do. See that the requirement happens. Go get the child.

And I would add another “Tell” at the end, when you explain the expectation. “When I say come, you come.”

Do this, and your child will behave as well for you as for anyone else.


August 8, 2008 - Posted by | parenting, power struggle | , , ,


  1. You’re right of course, and I’d just add one thing. Don’t ever let the child get away with disobeying. The number of parents I see telling their child to do something, the child ignores them and, maybe after repeating the instruction several times, even uttering threats – “you come here right now or else we’re going straight home” – they then give in and let the child get away with it. All that teaches is that disobedience works.

    If you’re not going to follow through if necessary, you may as well not issue an instruction in the first place. Total waste of breath, and, as you say only teaches your child that disobedience works. Or, put another way, that obedience is optional, and totally at the discretion of the child.

    Comment by Z | August 8, 2008 | Reply

  2. The funny thing is that this method is exactly what we were taught when we took our puppy to obedience school! The teacher told us to never let our puppy *not* do the command we gave her. If we told her to come and gave her the hand signal and she didn’t come, we had to walk over and get her. Once you allow them to disobey you, they won’t listen to your instructions!

    In the long term, humans are much more complex than puppies. But for simple, short-term, tangible goals? There’s a lot of similarity — and it doesn’t end at toddlerhood!

    Comment by June | August 8, 2008 | Reply

  3. I had the same thought as June. This is exactly like puppy training. The principles are identical.

    Exactly. Which tells you that discipline doesn’t have to be punitive, just firm and consistent: clear boundaries and lots of praise for meeting (or even trying to meet) expectations. Just like puppies. Yup.

    Comment by kim | August 8, 2008 | Reply

  4. and just to extend this beyond puppies…it’s not a bad strategy for managers either!

    Comment by kim | August 8, 2008 | Reply

  5. We BEHAVED for Mom. We often watched our friends NOT obey their parents, our mouths hanging open — first at our friends’ defiance, then at the parents’ lack of swift retribution. We learned VERY early on that if Mom said “If you do that again, X will happen when we get home,” that X would happen when we got home. Period.

    I’m sure we had defiant moments. We were ALL headstrong and willful. But Mom must have dealt with it awfully early, because I don’t remember defying her.

    When I became a live-in nanny, I called Mom during my first week, in tears. “How did you make me stay in the little red chair in the corner?” I sobbed, vividly remembering The Red Chair, and unable to make Michael “stay in time out.”

    “It never occured to you to get up,” said Mom. I suddenly flashed back to That Look…the one that said “if you get up, I am going to put you back, and you are not going to like it.”

    I tried it, along with the idea of Tell, Show, Do (and none of that “three warnings” nonsense). It worked, and within a week, that willful 5-year-old was obeying every single time

    Comment by Carolie | August 9, 2008 | Reply

  6. What I find happens differently with other people over with me, with MY children, is the bickering. At home, they argue and harrass each other. No matter how many activities I provide, no matter what I say to encourage speaking politely and sharing and not bothering one another, the bickering/arguing is CONSTANT. Maddingly so. But when they are with other people, there’s the novelty of not being at home, not having MOM around, and the novelty of new toys, or whathaveyou. And apparently they get along fantastically when with other people. Or I have friends and neighbors who lie like crazy because they say my kids get along PERFECTLY for them. But for me, I can’t keep them happy with each other. One on one time, guided group times (me setting up games or storytime for us all), or child playtime (them in the playroom entertaining themselves) all end up in disaster.

    And I’m dying to hear your advice for two year olds who think it’s a game to not come when they are called and who run when you head their way to ENFORCE that they come when they are called. Mine is the youngest of three kids, and the other two have entirely different personalities and were 99% of the time very good listeners for things like that. My “baby” has his own agenda and we’re at our witts end trying to figure out what to do about it! I’ve never seen a more strong-willed, stubborn, fearless, child, who comepletely doesn’t care what punishment you dole out (he’ll be upset for the duration of the time-out or whatever else we’ve tried, but then he heads right back to what he was doing that got him in trouble in the first place). So I’m curious to see if you have any tricks up your sleeve we haven’t tried yet!!!!

    Comment by Leah | August 9, 2008 | Reply

  7. Ours at four is now trying out the willful defiance, knowing full well what is expected. Makes me boil! But I’d rather go after her, firmly take her by the wrist, get down on her level and explain to her why this is NOT FUNNY now than have to continue to deal with not listening when she is older, so yes, the tired-making following through continues… Sigh. At least she only does it in short “testing” phases every now and then, because deep down, she knows what she’s supposed to do and that if I need to issue a threat of consequence for not listening, it WILL happen. I try to remind myself that they will keep testing now and then forever, just to make sure we really mean it, so I can’t just let it slide.

    Comment by kittenpie | August 10, 2008 | Reply

  8. Consistency is key, and I seem to be lacking that lately. But you’re right and the timing of this reminder is perfect. I’m on it, today!

    Comment by mamacita tina | August 10, 2008 | Reply

  9. We do the one, two three things. But we know that’s what works with our child. And we get a lot of questions about his behaviour – people wondering how we raised such a nice kid. The day care workers are amazed that he could be misbehaved (however, he does get a little excited there sometimes). We keep wondering how we got such a great kid. But it’s setting boundaries and sticking to them. Full communication. Not overtalking it and instead dealing with it and going from there. Kids are people too.
    I think I’m too tired to be answering this, but hopefully I made sense!

    Comment by Alison | August 10, 2008 | Reply

  10. I used to hate Thomas the Tank Engine and Lightning McQueen. And now I thank god for them because the threat of TAKING THEM AWAY pretty much trumps all. My girls are rather interesting. One of them follows instructions immediately (well, as soon as she cottons on to what I’m trying to say) and happily changes stride. The other stares at me, stares away, stares at me, keeps very, very still, and hopes I go away so she can get back to whatever she was doing.

    Comment by Kat | August 13, 2008 | Reply

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