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Drawing the Line
By Michael J. Weiss, PhD, Sheldon Wagner and Susan Goldberg

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 Drawing the Line

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Drawing the Line
By Michael J. Weiss, PhD, Sheldon Wagner and Susan Goldberg
ISBN: 0446695009
Genre: Inspirational & Self-Help

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Chapter Excerpt from: Drawing the Line , by Michael J. Weiss, PhD, Sheldon Wagner and Susan Goldberg


What Do You Want for Your Kids?

Want your kids to be successful adults? Then teach them the skills of cooperation—today!

Think back, if you can, to the time before your first child arrived, during pregnancy or as you awaited the arrival of your adopted or foster child. Think about all the grand dreams you had for your future offspring. She was going to be president—if not of the country, then of a major corporation. He was going to be a basketball star, a famous artist, a doctor. She’d win the Nobel Peace Prize, be a poet, a parent, a paleontologist—something great.

Now take a look around your toy-strewn living room as you think about a particularly difficult day with said offspring. Maybe you were late getting out the door because little Johnny—the one who was going to be president—refused to get out of bed, get dressed, or eat anything for breakfast but the one cereal you were out of. Maybe you tried to go grocery shopping but had to leave the store because the two-year-old future paleontologist threw a monster tantrum when you wouldn’t let her tear down the pasta display or buy her candy at the checkout line. Maybe the kids battled it out all day long, or the school phoned, or you fought with them over homework or TV or putting away toys, or you couldn’t get anyone to bed on time, or . . .

At times like these, all those long-term goals and grand dreams can be forgotten as parents just struggle to get through the day without losing it. President? a worn-out parent thinks. Who cares about being president? I just want her to eat her bloody peas.

Well, here’s the thing: The two aren’t so far apart.

In other words, getting her to eat her peas today is one fairly crucial step along the road toward becoming president. The social and behavioral skills that kids acquire in childhood—skills such as cooperation, persistence, impulse control, politeness, proper hygiene, self-organization, and more—last a lifetime. Getting your kids to learn to taste different foods, get up on time and get ready for school on their own, clean up their toys, get along with their siblings, be charming in the grocery store, and go to sleep at a decent hour in their own beds will lay the foundation for a happy, healthy, successful adult life. Kids who have these skills are at a distinct advantage over their peers who don’t, and that advantage lasts a lifetime. (Just have a look at the results of the famous “Marshmallow Test”)

As you read ahead, keep in mind the ultimate goal for parents: to raise successful adults. Throughout the rest of this book, we’ll be helping you teach your kids how to behave appropriately, to acquire those crucial social and behavioral skills so necessary to achieve that goal. Yes, it’s true that kids who listen can make parents’ lives easier. But this is about more than making parents’ lives easier. It’s about making kids’ lives better—for the long term.

In this chapter, we’ll explain why teaching children the skills of good behavior is so crucial to their success, not only throughout childhood but into the grown-up years as well. We’ll discuss how parenting styles play a crucial role in helping kids learn these skills. And we’ll take the first steps toward helping you Draw the Line—helping you identify your kids’ target behaviors and their positive alternatives, and deciding what you’d like to tackle first. So read on.

Having Your Marshmallows and Eating Them, Too What kids’ ability to wait now tells us about their future success. In the 1960s, Stanford University psychologist Dr. Walter Mischel and his colleagues began a now classic series of research studies that have come to be known as the “Marshmallow Tests.”* Researchers gave four-year-old children a choice: “You can have one marshmallow, right now. But if you can wait fifteen minutes while I go run a quick errand, you can have two marshmallows when I come back. It’s up to you.” The methods varied from study to study. Sometimes the treats were left within the kids’ view, sometimes not. Some kids had to wait twenty minutes. Sometimes the researchers used different treats. And in some cases, the children were given strategies for waiting and getting their minds off the candy. Overall, about a third of the kids just couldn’t wait. They took the one marshmallow before the fifteen minutes were up, forfeiting their chance at the larger treat. About two thirds of the kids, on the other hand, were willing to wait, even though it obviously pained many of them. Some used coping strategies to make the wait more bearable, such as singing, telling themselves stories, rocking, looking away, or—in one memorable case—falling asleep until the researcher returned. Years later, Dr. Mischel tracked down the same group of kids as they graduated from high school, and tested them again for a range of personal and social markers of success. In adolescence, the differences between the “grab-the-marshmallow-now” preschoolers and their friends who were able to wait for the double reward were dramatic, and astonishing. The ones who waited had better grades in school and higher SAT scores. They were more socially competent, self-reliant, assertive, confident, and personally effective. They coped better with problems and used reason rather than emotions when stressed or frustrated. They were more likely to embrace challenges, and to plan and pursue their goals instead of giving up when things got tough. They continued to control their impulses and delay gratification in pursuit of larger rewards. And more! On the other hand, as adolescents, the former marshmallow grabbers didn’t do as well as their counterparts who had waited all those years ago. The grabbers shied away from social contacts. They were more stubborn and less decisive, easily upset and put off by frustrations. They were more prone to jealousy, tended to think of themselves as “unworthy” or “bad,” and were more likely to overreact to irritation and lose their temper. And—after all those years—they still weren’t able to delay gratification: They would settle for less in the short run rather than work for much more in the longer term. So what does the Marshmallow Test tell us? It tells us that there’s a crucial relationship between even very young children’s abilities to be patient and wait—to delay gratification—and their success later on in life. Kids who can wait aren’t passive little sheep who are too timid to grab what they want right away. Rather, they get what they want the hard way—they work for it. Their self-control translates into the self-reliance and self-discipline that will serve them well the rest of their lives. On the other hand, children who have a hard time waiting are at risk. They know what they want right now, but they don’t have the designs and persistence to know what they want in the future or how to get it. As Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, writes, “There is no psychological skill more fundamental than resisting impulses. It is the root of emotional self-control.” Think about it: Time and time again, we’re offered the opportunity to take something now or exert a little self-control and get something more for our efforts later. We’d like that extra slice of cake, but we don’t eat it because we know our waistlines will thank us later. Similarly, we’d rather stay on the couch and watch TV, but we go to the gym, because exercise now pays off later when we don’t have to battle heart disease or obesity. We save up money now to buy something bigger—like a bike, or a house—in the future. We manage time by doing our homework or housework now—and playing after—so that we don’t have to catch up to a mountain of work later. And we teach our kids the skills of delayed gratification and resisting their impulses now, while they’re young, because the older they get, the more difficult it becomes for them to learn these skills. Our advice? Teach the kids how to wait and how to work hard for the things they want. They’ll thank you for it later. * Shoda, Y., W. Mischel, and P. K. Peake. “Predicting Adolescent Cognitive and Self Regulatory Competencies from Preschool Delay of Gratification.” Developmental Psychology 26, no. 6 (1990).



The fallout when kids can’t listen: the erosion of self-image and its consequences.

“But I don’t want to crush their spirits!”

That’s what Rick, the father of three fantastic and rambunctious little boys, said when Michael showed up at his house. Rick and his wife, Corinne, found it difficult to go anywhere with the kids. If they weren’t fighting in the car, the boys took off in three different directions the moment they were let loose in public. Rather than go on family outings and deal with Peter, Rhys, and Caleb’s bolting, Rick and Corinne chose to stay home most of the time. They felt like prisoners in their own home. And yet these parents were afraid—if they tried to rein in their high-energy boys, would they “break” the kids’ spirits?

We hear from many parents like Rick and Corinne, parents who are unsure about setting limits or how much—or little—to “discipline” their kids. Today’s parents are torn. They want their kids to behave well, but they fear turning them into complacent little robots. They’ve tried reasoning with their kids—but their kids don’t seem all that reasonable mid-tantrum. They’d like their children to listen to them, but they don’t want to “control” or “manipulate” them. They’re worried that parental expectations for cooperation will squelch kids’ freedom of thought, creativity, and spirit. They’re nervous that they’ll sacrifice their kids’ self-esteem in the name of good behavior.

Well, we’re here to tell you that kids can behave well and have great self-esteem. Kids can be polite and cooperative and still be creative and independent. Kids can learn to listen, to wait, and to control their impulses without becoming complacent little robots. In fact, the kids who have the skills to behave appropriately in any given situation are more likely to be creative, independent, and confident than their counterparts.

The Four Principles of Self-Management

As Michael told Rick: “Show me someone who’s engaged in creative behavior—and that can be anyone from my favorite guitar player, B. B. King, to a kindergartner drawing at a table—and I’ll show you a wellspring of self-control.”

Kids don’t gain self-esteem and independence from being allowed to do whatever they want, whenever they want. They get self-esteem over a multistep process that’s all about learning how to negotiate the rules and boundaries:

* First, we teach kids the rules, so that they can learn self-organization: “Where does your stuff go? Where do you sit? How do you ask nicely? Are you allowed to touch that? It’s time for bed.”

* From self-organization, kids learn self-awareness. As they learn the rules, they become aware of their place and power in the world. “Oh, my stuff goes over there. Here’s where I sit for story time. If I want something from Mom, I need to say ‘please.’ I’m not allowed to touch the power drill without Dad. I have to go to sleep now.”

* Out of self-awareness comes self-reliance: “I know where that goes! I know where to sit! I can get what I need in the world! I can make stuff with Daddy! I can sleep in my own bed! I can do it myself!”

* From self-reliance come self-esteem and independence: “I did it! I did a good job! And hey, if I can do that, I bet I can do something harder. Oh, don’t worry, Mom, I know how to do it on my own.”

In the end, children who learn and internalize the rules of self-control ultimately have more freedom and creativity—and more opportunities and skills—than kids who have never heard the word no. By imposing reasonable limits, rules, and structure, parents like Rick and Corinne aren’t squelching their kids’ spirit, creativity, or independence. In fact, they’re fostering it, by showing their kids how to channel that spirit, creativity, and independence into ever more sophisticated skills.

Let’s take a look, for example, at another child: our friend Liam, who’s two and a half years old. Like most kids his age, Liam is into everything—and what he’s especially into is his dad, Larry’s, stereo. Now, Larry is a bit of an audio-equipment junkie who has music playing whenever he’s home. Next to Liam, his stereo is his pride and joy. Even though it’s worth thousands of dollars, he’s not about to put it away for the sake of baby-proofing the house. Instead, he’s taken on the more challenging, but ultimately more rewarding, task of teaching Liam how to behave properly around the stereo.

How does Larry do this? Well, ever since Liam was able to crawl, he’d tend to make a beeline for the sound equipment. And why wouldn’t he? After all, his dad was interested in it and spent a lot of time around it, so it was only natural that Liam should gravitate toward all those neat blinking lights, moving parts, and fun sounds, too. Given the chance, Larry knew, Liam would dismantle the stereo. So every time Liam got within touching distance of the system, Larry picked him up and moved him a few feet out of reach, saying firmly and clearly, “No, Liam, don’t touch.” When Liam didn’t touch the stereo, his dad told him that he was doing a great job.

Liam, persistent kid that he is, kept trying. Dad, however, was a little more persistent. After a few weeks, the whole exercise became a game. Liam would approach the equipment and pretend to touch it, and then look at his dad and laugh. Clearly, he knew and understood that the stereo was off-limits. Yeah, sometimes he did get to it when his dad wasn’t looking, but Larry just kept up the routine.

When Liam got to be a toddler, his parents could often hear him in the living room near the stereo. He’d stand next to it and say, “Nooo . . . don’t touch!” It sounded as though he was mimicking Larry. But in fact, he was inhibiting himself from touching—true self-control.

So what? Well, here’s what. Now that Liam’s older, he delights in the fact that his father does let him touch the stereo. He can turn on the power, open the machine, place the CD inside, hit the PLAY button—and groove to the music with his dad. Liam never mishandles the equipment. In fact, he treats it with reverence and care, imitating his father’s every move. Why does his father let him touch it? Because Liam has learned care and respect for the equipment. Why does Liam delight in participating? Because his father made it clear that he had to earn the right to do something so responsible—and because he gets to spend time with his dad, who can tell him, honestly, that he’s doing a great job. That’s a genuine boost to his self-esteem.

Beyond ABC and 123: The Real Way to Tell if Kids Are Ready to Learn When you ask parents what they think “school readiness” means, many talk about the three R’s—reading, writing, and ’rithmetic. In fact, letters and numbers may not be nearly as important as parents think. The better indicators of a child’s readiness to learn are social and behavioral. In the early 1990s, a group of child development experts that included the well-known pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton identified the seven critical emotional factors necessary for a child to enter the school environment with the tools to prosper:*
* Confidence: A confident child has a sense of control and mastery over his body, his behavior, and the world. He senses that he is more likely than not to succeed at what he undertakes, and that adults will be helpful. * Curiosity: A curious child wants to find out about the world. She thinks that finding out about things is positive, fun, and pleasurable. * Intentionality: A child who acts with intentionality wants to have an impact on the world, and he persists in his desire to have an impact. This relates to his sense of competence and being effective in the world. * Self-control: A child who has self-control can modulate and control her own actions in age-appropriate ways. She has a sense of inner control. * Relatedness: A child who can relate can engage with other people. He feels that he is understood by and can understand others. * Capacity to communicate: A child with a well-developed capacity to communicate wants to and can verbally exchange ideas, feelings, and concepts with others. Her capacity for communication is related to her sense of trust in others and of pleasure in engaging with others, including adults. * Cooperativeness: A cooperative child is able to balance his own needs with the needs of others.
“These characteristics,” writes Brazelton, “equip children with a ‘school literacy’ more basic than knowledge of numbers and letters. It is the knowledge of how to learn.” The skills we admire in adults are the same skills that make children good learners. Learning how to learn begins in babyhood and continues throughout childhood. Parents who can teach their kids the above skills lay the foundation for lifelong success. In other words, get them ready for school, and you get them ready for the rest of their lives. * National Center for Clinical Infant Programs (NCCIP). Heart Start: The Emotional Foundations of School Readiness, Zero to Three Monograph Series (Arlington, VA, 1992)

This is a great example of learning self-control. At first, Larry enforced the rules. But after a while, Liam enforced them. He knew not to touch the stereo, even when no one was around to stop him. He’s in charge of the situation. And the great thing is that his self-control has netted him new skills that translate into new opportunities for growth, creativity, and fun: Larry knows, for example, that he can take Liam out to concerts or into electronics shops without mayhem ensuing. What’s more, Liam also knows how to transfer the skills he learned with Larry: He treats his baby brother with the same care and reverence he gives the stereo equipment.

Parents don’t want little robots who will simply do what they’re told, period. And neither do we. Rather, we want kids to internalize a code of conduct. We want kids to become moral people who can think for themselves, who are sensitive and respectful of others, and who like what they see in the mirror. These kinds of people have a positive sense of “self”—in other words, they have good self-esteem.

So feel confident in modeling and mandating appropriate behavior for your kids! Children who learn and internalize the rules of self-control ultimately have more freedom—and more opportunities and skills—than kids who have never heard the word no.


The four parent types: authoritative, authoritarian, permissive, and uninvolved.

Larry had high expectations for his son. He didn’t want Liam to wreck the stereo, but, more important, he wanted Liam—at two years old—to learn how to inhibit himself from touching something off-limits. In other words, Larry wasn’t prepared to plunk Liam in a playpen to keep him from touching the music equipment. Nor did Larry stick the stereo on a high shelf, out of his son’s reach. He wanted to know that he could trust Liam around the stereo. Larry wanted to make sure that, even without anyone around to enforce them, Liam would eventually stick to the rules.

To achieve his goals, Larry was firm about the boundaries, and enforced them consistently at the outset—until Liam enforced the boundaries himself. Larry spent a lot of time with Liam, teaching him how to handle himself—and the music equipment—appropriately. And Larry was also quick to reward his son for keeping within the boundaries: “Hey, Liam, great job! Thank you for not touching Daddy’s stereo! Thank you for being gentle!”

In other words, Larry showed high degrees of both control and warmth. It’s that combination of these two qualities, in particular, that describes what developmental psychologists call an authoritative parent.

Back in the 1960s, psychologist Dr. Diana Baumrind pioneered current research into parenting styles. Now at the University of California-Berkeley’s Institute of Human Development, Dr. Baumrind observed four different types of behavior that were key to describing a parent’s style: parental control, maturity demands, parent-child communications, and nurturance.

Authoritative parents, Baumrind and others found, showed high degrees of all the above behaviors. For example, Larry showed a high degree of parental control:

* He was willing and able to influence Liam’s behavior around the stereo. He didn’t simply let Liam do whatever he wanted, and he actively taught Liam how to behave.

* Larry also placed high demands on Liam for maturity: He insisted that Liam could and would learn how to handle sophisticated stereo equipment in age-appropriate ways.

At the same time, Larry was high on the warmth scale:

* He communicated reasonably with his son (when his son was being reasonable!). Larry clearly told Liam the reasons for his demands: “The stereo will break if you’re not gentle, and then we can’t hear music.” Larry was consistent and clear in his demands; he didn’t let Liam touch the stereo one day, but not the next. And Larry talked to Liam about Liam’s feelings and desires: “I know you want to play with the stereo—it’s really fun, isn’t it? But we have to be very careful. Let me show you how to open and close the CD player. Gentle, gentle.”

* Larry also nurtured Liam. He made it clear to Liam that he valued spending time with and wanted to play and share his interests with his son. He hugged and kissed Liam lots, got close to him, played with him, and praised him: “You’re doing a great job at being gentle with the stereo! I’m really proud of you, Liam. Thanks!”

Baumrind also identified two other types of parents: the authoritarian parent and the permissive parent. If authoritative parents showed high degrees of both warmth and control, these other two parenting types were at either extreme:

* On the one hand, authoritarian parents show high levels of control, but display low levels of warmth toward their kids—they’re the no-nonsense, “You’ll do what I say, end of discussion” kinds of moms and dads. Yes, these types of parents have high demands for their kids’ behavior and maturity levels, but they tend to rely on the threat of punishment to enforce those demands. “You eat all your peas or you won’t get dessert!” Or, “If you’re not in bed in five minutes, I’m going to get the wooden spoon!”

* On the other hand, permissive parents show high levels of warmth but low levels of control around their kids. We’ve all seen the parent who smiles helplessly and stands by as her child refuses to share or ransacks the neighbor’s living room. She may try to reason with her child—“Honey, wouldn’t you like to share?” or “Come on, sweetheart, you shouldn’t draw on the walls in other people’s houses”—but she doesn’t back up her reasons with action. “Oh well,” she says, “I guess he’ll learn how to share and behave better as he gets older.”

As they relate to levels of warmth and control, the three parenting styles can be summed up by the following chart:

Parenting Styles as a Function of Warmth and Control

  Low Warmth High Warmth
Low Control   Permissive
High Control Authoritarian Authoritative

But there’s a blank space on the above chart. What kind of parent is low on both the warmth and control scales? Developmental psychologists Eleanor Maccoby1 and John Martin developed a portrait of a fourth parenting style: the uninvolved parent.

This parent just doesn’t spare the kids much time or attention. In its extreme form, uninvolved parenting borders on outright neglect. In less extreme forms, uninvolved parents are simply detached. They’ve got other things on their minds. They don’t try to control their kids, and they make few demands for maturity or appropriate behavior. They don’t have many conversations with the kids, nor do they demonstrate much nurturance or warmth. If their children do demand something, the uninvolved parent is often likely to give it to them, just to avoid confrontation. Uninvolved parents often want the kids to “Go off and play on your own, so I can have some peace and quiet.”

Parenting Styles as a Function of Warmth and Control

  Low Warmth High Warmth
Low Control Uninvolved Permissive
High Control Authoritarian Authoritative

If you haven’t figured it out already, we’re big advocates of an authoritative style of parenting—high expectations, high levels of control, and high levels of warmth and communication. As study after study shows, kids who grow up in homes with this parenting style have the best outcomes.

* Children raised by authoritarian parents are able to behave well—if a parent or adult is nearby. The problem, however, is that these kids are quick to abandon their good behavior when they can get away with it. Because they’re used to a heavy-handed parent who constantly disciplines, they’ve never had to learn to discipline themselves. Unlike our friend Liam, they’ve never “internalized” self-control.

* What’s worse, studies show that kids raised by authoritarian parents seem to lack spontaneity, affection, curiosity, and originality.2 If that’s not bad enough, they seem to be more unhappy and withdrawn, and boys in particular are more aggressive than kids raised in other parenting environments.

* Kids from more nurturing permissive families don’t do much better. In fact, they do worse. At least the kids from authoritarian homes can behave when an adult is watching. Kids from permissive families are inclined to misbehave no matter who’s looking. They’ve internalized the rules even less than kids raised by authoritarian parents.

* Studies have shown that kids from permissive families are also less socially responsible than kids from stricter homes. To add insult to injury, these kids are at risk for poorer self-reliance and impulse control. They may be less liked by their peers (because they’re pains in the butt and other kids know it). They’re more likely to whine and argue, and they’re less independent than their peers. And they’re more likely to do poorly in school.

The Good Stress of Challenge

Why do kids from authoritarian and permissive families falter? Interestingly, these two parenting styles have something in common: As Stanford University psychologist William Damon points out, both styles shield kids from the good stress of challenge. Authoritarian parents do so by limiting kids’ opportunities for exploration—unlike Larry, they’d simply stick Liam in a playpen or put the stereo system out of reach rather than actually teach him how to use it. Permissive parents, on the other hand, shield kids from stress by not confronting their poor behavior or demanding that they act in increasingly mature, appropriate ways. As a result, Damon notes, these kids “have similar difficulties in developing self-reliance, assertiveness, an autonomous sense of social responsibility, and tolerance for life’s ups and downs.”

* If kids from permissive and authoritarian families can do poorly, then their peers raised by uninvolved parents can do even worse. These children are at greater risk for becoming more demanding or coercive, aggressive toward peers and adults, and less cooperative with adults. Many of these kids have a much harder time with controlling their impulses and delaying gratification: They want what they want, when they want it. And if they don’t get it, look out!

Kids with authoritative parents are the big winners in the parenting style game. Researchers discovered that kids raised with an authoritative style are more independent and more socially responsible. They get along better with their peers and do better in school. They’re generally happier, take more initiative, are more curious about the world, and are more likely to explore new activities. They also showed significantly less impulsiveness (that is, they’re not the kids grabbing that one marshmallow!).

Throughout the rest of this book, we’ll take you through the ten steps of Drawing the Line with your kids and teaching them—like Larry did with Liam—the skills of appropriate behavior. We’ll show you how to help your kids navigate the good stress of challenge. We’ll help you confront even the most stubborn kids and intransigent behavior issues in order to move your kids to a whole new level of maturity. And you’ll do that by using the kinds of techniques that authoritative parents use: You’ll combine high levels of control with high levels of warmth.

In the process, we hope that your entire household will become a happier, less stressed, more peaceful, more fun, more productive place. But that’s only one of our goals. In the long run, our larger goal is to help you raise successful adults. We want you to be the parents of the kids who can wait fifteen minutes for a marshmallow—and, in the process, we know that you’ll be the parents of kids who will grow up to do wonderful things.


Get out a pen and paper, because it’s time to take the first step toward better behavior.

STEP 1: Identify your child’s target behavior(s).

Let’s have a look at a real-life example: four-year-old Aedan, his brother, Dylan, who’s seven, and their parents, Melanie and Dennis. With two kids, two jobs, a dog, and the usual round of daily activities—school, hockey, judo lessons, volunteer work, grocery shopping, getting dinner on the table and the car serviced—life often feels hectic.

“Sometimes the days just go by and it feels like we’re barely getting through,” says Melanie. “I feel like we live in utter chaos, and that the boys’ behavior makes it hard to get anything done.”

When they think about it a bit more, though, Melanie and Dennis can identify exactly what’s going on in their household that makes it hard to get through the day.

First of all, their sons fight a lot. Aedan, in particular, likes to get things going. He’s determined to show his older brother that he can do anything Dylan does—and, as a result, often antagonizes Dylan by getting into his space and his face. With two boys going at it much of the day, it’s hard to get stuff done. Melanie and Dennis are constantly intervening in the boys’ fights, and then they find themselves delayed and late because they’ve lost so much time in their intervention.

Melanie and Dennis, then, have identified their first target behavior: Aedan and Dylan’s fighting.

Because Aedan’s in school only half days, he spends his afternoons with his mom, who works part-time outside the home (and full-time in it!). Often that means that Melanie takes her son with her on errands. And those errands get chaotic because she constantly has to wrangle her four-year-old. In the mall or the grocery store, Aedan bolts, running from one shiny thing to the next. He’ll even bolt in the parking lot, where Melanie fears for his safety. Because she finds it so difficult to keep Aedan nearby, Melanie’s constantly stressed when she’s out with him, and her errands seem to take much longer than they need to.

Melanie and Dennis’s next target behavior for Aedan, then, is his bolting in public.

Finally, both parents are getting frustrated with the level of tension in their household. Much of that tension has to do, they realize, with Aedan’s attitude. While Dylan’s generally an easygoing kid, Aedan’s got a stubborn streak that manifests in defiance. Lately, it’s been difficult to get him to speak politely—to say “please” and “thank you,” and to ask nicely for things rather than demand them in an aggressive tone. His behavior is grating: It gets tiresome to listen to a four-year-old who constantly says “No!” Melanie and Dennis find themselves in a constant battle of wills with their son, and don’t know how to proceed.

Aedan’s final target behavior, then, is his rudeness and demanding, aggressive tone of voice.

Now it’s your turn. Below, you will find a Drawing the Line worksheet that you’ll use as you identify your own kids’ specific target behaviors. Drill down: What are your issues with your child? Does she refuse to eat at mealtimes? Does he scream and whine instead of using nice words? Does she dawdle all morning, making you late for work and her late for school? Maybe you can’t get either of your kids to bed without the house turning into a war zone. Be specific: “I can’t get out the door on time in the morning” is more useful than “Billy doesn’t listen to me.”

When you’ve figured out what your top issues are with your kid, write them down under the heading Target Behavior. Complete a separate sheet for each of your children, if necessary. Here’s what Aedan’s Drawing the Line worksheet looks like, so far:

STEP 2: Identify positive alternatives.

Identifying problem behaviors is only half the battle. Yes, you want to eliminate those target behaviors, but nature abhors a vacuum. Next, you have to figure out what you want to replace those negative target behaviors. So for every item on your list, write down a positive alternative.

Positive alternatives tend to be fairly obvious. If your child refuses to eat anything but a couple of choice foods at dinner, a positive alternative would be to have her try at least a taste of everything on her plate, without whining. For a kid who screams and whines as a primary mode of communication, the positive alternative would be to use nice words and an “inside voice” to get what he wants. A morning dawdler needs to be able to get up, dress herself, and eat in time for the school bus or car pool. As for bedtime issues, parents would like children to go to bed (and then stay in bed) with a minimum of fuss.

Here’s what Aedan’s parents came up with for positive alternatives to his target behaviors:

“I Want My Kids to Grow Up Like My Cousin Paula”

You want a lot of things for—and from—your kids: for them to go to bed at a reasonable hour without the Third World War breaking out; to be able to cook one meal that everyone eats; to know that your son and daughter can play together for an hour without clobbering each other; to get your stubborn three-year-old out of diapers and using the potty; to be able to take your four-year-old into the grocery store without him pulling everything off the shelves, getting lost, or throwing a tantrum because you won’t buy him the sugar-coated cereal he’s seen on TV; to have a quiet, romantic evening at home with your partner while the kids are asleep; for the living room to stay tidy for five seconds; to have your daughter say, “Okay, Mom,” when you ask her to set the table . . . and so on.


It’s so easy to get so caught up in the slew of all these daily desires that we lose sight of the future. At the same time, we know that all the above short-term headaches and heartaches—today’s “micro” desires—are intimately linked to kids’ long-term, “macro” success. So as you think about all the things you want for and from your kids today, also take some time to take the longer view. What do you want for your children when they’re adults?

Those qualities might include professional success, having good relationships, empathy, consistency, creativity, generosity, good health, confidence, happiness, economic security, thoughtfulness, a strong sense of priorities, innovation, fairness, independence, intelligence and an ability to question, spirituality, leadership . . . the list goes on.

But that list is kind of abstract. It may help, instead, to pick a role model— maybe your grandfather, or your cousin Paula—whom you admire. Make a list, on paper or in your head, of the qualities that person possesses, the qualities you’d like your kids to emulate when they grow up. Why do you like him? What about her lifestyle, accomplishments, or character do you admire? How does he conduct his relationships, his career? Is she smart, creative, happy?

As you go through the day-to-day routines of life with your kids, keep that image of your granddad or cousin Paula in mind. And keep reminding yourself, as you insist on appropriate behavior from your kids, that there’s a reason beyond the immediate for your insistence: You want them to grow up to be a role model to someone else.


STEP 3: Prioritize: Which target behavior do you want to focus on first?

Next, you need to figure out where to begin. You can’t do everything all at once, so which of the target behaviors that you’ve identified in the above steps do you want to work on first?

As you identify your target behaviors and positive alternatives, though, it’s crucial to pick your battles carefully and to start small. You won’t do yourself or your kids any favors by trying to do too much all at once. If you try to change every last thing about your kids, all at once, you’re going to be exhausted and frustrated. And so will they. Worse, they’ll feel picked on, resentful, and ashamed of themselves.

That means you have to prioritize: Decide which behavior(s) you want to tackle first. For some of you, the answer is obvious. Your kids do one or two things that just make you nuts. You may be at the breaking point—“If I have to sit through one more dinner like that/ clean up one more ‘accident’/suffer one more sleepless night/referee one more battle between the kids, I’m going to lose it!”

You might pick the behavior that makes you craziest, the thing that seems easiest to deal with, or the behavior that, if eliminated, would improve your quality of life the most. It’s generally a good idea to focus on harmful or dangerous behavior sooner rather than later. If your child is doing something that could hurt him (like playing with matches, or riding his bike into the street) or someone else (hitting her baby sister), you’ll likely want to focus on that behavior early on.

If you’ve already got a clear idea which problem behaviors you want to target, that’s great. Write them down (under the heading Target Behavior) on the blank worksheet on page 18. If you’re not sure where to start, or aren’t sure what’s most pressing, it may help to ask yourself the following questions.

Which of My Kids’ Behaviors Makes Me Craziest?

If you could magically eliminate just one behavior problem, which would it be? What one behavior—whining, throwing tantrums, fussy eating, refusing to sleep, fighting with siblings, toileting issues—detracts most from your happiness, peace of mind, or quality of life?

What Times of Day Are Most Difficult for My Family?

Break the day down into chunks. If you know that certain times of day are most difficult, try to figure out what’s going on during those times, and see if you can isolate the behaviors that make it difficult.

For example, maybe your morning routine—getting everyone up, dressed, fed, and out the door to school, work, or day care—is a nightmare. Do you find yourself yelling at your kids and/or at your spouse? Are tears (the kids’ or your own) part of the daily routine? Are you constantly late? Do you dread the alarm clock because it means another crazy morning? If so, then maybe you want to Draw the Line around a morning behavior—getting up, getting dressed, tantrums over breakfast, dawdling.

Do some similar sleuthing around midday, after school, dinner, bedtime, and—for those of you with up-all-night kids—the middle of the night.

What Situations Are Most Difficult for My Kids or My Family?

Sometimes problem behaviors surface in particular settings or situations, regardless of the time of day. Maybe your kids are hellions in the car. Maybe you dread going to the grocery store or the hardware store because the kids seem to explode in those settings. Maybe they act up whenever you try to have a phone conversation or chat with a friend over coffee. Or maybe the kids don’t seem to be able to play with peers without picking fights.

If you know that certain situations are a recipe for trouble, you’ve got some clues around places to Draw the Line. You could set up trial runs in the car, at the grocery store, during “experimental” phone conversations or coffee dates with understanding friends—or their kids.

What Behavior Seems Easiest to Solve? Where Could I Most Easily Draw the Line?

We all need to feel successful. If you’re feeling a bit cautious about tackling one of the bigger behaviors, try starting with something small, like getting kids to hang up their coats in the back hall every day. If you can Draw the Line and stick to your guns on something small, your kids will see that you mean business, and you’ll feel like you’ve accomplished something. The high you get from creating even a small change can help you tackle the next problem behavior. And remember, change begets change: Tackling the smaller behaviors now will make it easier to tackle the bigger behaviors later on. As Sheldon says:

With Aedan, Melanie and Dennis realized that the boys’ fighting was the one issue that caused them the most grief. If they could get Aedan and Dylan to play nicely together and no longer had to referee the boys’ constant fights, they felt that the general level of tension and chaos in their household would plummet. Once everyday life was more peaceful, they felt they’d have the head-space to tackle other issues. Melanie and Dennis ranked the boys’ fighting as their top priority for change.

Melanie decided that the next most stressful thing for her was Aedan’s bolting in public. She wanted to enjoy her time with her son and be able to get her errands done with less stress. She ranked this target behavior as her second priority.

Finally, Melanie and Dennis decided that Aedan’s rudeness was their third priority. It was annoying, yes, but it didn’t add as much stress or tension to their lives as the other two target behaviors. Once the fighting and the bolting were in check, they felt they’d have the time and energy to focus more on Aedan’s attitude.

Here’s what Aedan’s worksheet looked like now:


You’ve created a list of target behaviors, positive alternatives. Armed with this information, you can make some pretty educated guesses about how and where you might be able to Draw the Line with your kids. We’ll show you how in the next chapter.

Excerpted from Drawing the Line , by Michael J. Weiss, PhD, Sheldon Wagner and Susan Goldberg . Copyright (c) 2006 by TJB Developmental Media, LLC. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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