Playing Defense: 4 Invaluable Parenting Tips for Preventing Bad Behavior

There is a common saying (which I think I just made up right now). How do you prevent your kids from behaving badly?

You don’t have kids!

Okay. I know what you’re thinking: Har har, Peter. But your title is promising me tips to prevent bad behavior, and you just implied you cannot prevent bad behavior. Why must you turn this website into a house of lies?!

Well, dear reader, you can never truly prevent your toddler from misbehaving. He is going to act out, he is going to test boundaries, and he is definitely going to tinkle in places you don’t want him to tinkle. You can, however, do everything in your power to prevent some bad behavior, even if you cannot prevent it entirely.

Before I jump into these life-saving tips, I want to make an important distinction. There are no bad kids. There is only bad behavior. It is frustrating to be a kid, and it's natural to express this frustration. Imagine going to a country you’ve never visited, where they speak a language you do not know. Now, imagine that everyone there is ten times larger than you. That’s what it’s like. You cannot communicate your wishes. You cannot understand others. And you can be picked up and plopped wherever the giants want to plop you. You’d be frustrated, too.

With that said, let’s dive in. Here are the four tried-and-true tips to help you prevent your toddler from misbehaving.

1. Provide Options

Most human beings don’t like being told what to do. Some will even do the opposite, just because. That is the burden of free will.

Toddlers thrive when operating within boundaries and within the familiar.

When you take charge as a parent and force your will upon your little one—and it won’t matter what it is—you will invariably be met with resistance. Seriously. You could say, “Eat this ice cream for breakfast!” and depending on your toddler’s mood, you might get a “No! No! No!” in reply.

If you give options, though, your toddler is given some degree of agency. “It’s time for breakfast. Did you want your green plate or your yellow plate?” Even if the choice is superficial, that’s all people—including toddlers—really want: choice.


  • “It’s time to go upstairs for a bath; do you want me to carry you, or do you want to walk?”
  • “We’re going to eat lunch; did you want grapes or strawberries with your hotdog?”
  • “I need to change your diaper; do you want to do it now or in one minute?”

2. Don’t Ask, Do Tell

I know what you’re thinking: Wait. Didn’t you just ask, like, ten gazillion questions in the tip above?

Yes. But notice that these questions all follow a declarative statement: It’s time to go upstairs, we’re going to eat lunch; I need to change your diaper.

When you ask a question, you must be prepared to accept the answer—otherwise, it’s better to not ask at all. In other words, if you say something like, “Want to go to Grandma and Grandpa’s house?” and your toddler says, “No!” then you ideally wouldn’t go to Grandma and Grandpa’s house. If you ask these types of leading question, expecting to get the answer you want, you should make every effort to follow through. Otherwise, your toddler will only be confused and frustrated when he answers differently, and you do the opposite anyway.

Lovingly teaching your child about consequences and how to make great decisions is the most important thing you can do as a parent.

My wife and I both suffer from a bad case of the “okays?” In some of our failed attempts at giving our toddler some autonomy in her life, we provide an option, but the worst kind—the kind that has an obvious answer we want and an obvious answer we do not want.

We are going to change your diaper now, okay?
We’re going to get dressed before we read a story, okay?
Don’t rub spaghetti into your hair like its dandruff shampoo, okay?

To break this habit, we are trying to replace “okay” with “understand.” The former can be confused with asking for permission, while the latter is just designed to help foster a dialogue with your little one (softening your commands).

“I am going to take away your toothbrush now, okay?”
“I am going to take away your toothbrush now, understand?”

See the difference? Words matter!

HOW TO APPLY: Get into the habit of telling your child what is going to happen—this part is not a choice: “We are going to Grandma and Grandpa’s house.” And then dress that up in some options: “Do you want to wear your white shoes or your pink shoes?”

3. Give a Heads Up

If I am busy writing in my office and my boss shows up unannounced telling me to stop what I’m doing and come to a meeting, I would feel a good amount of stress. If this happened all the time, I would be downright upset. It’s disrespectful.

Yet we do this to children all the time. They will be playing happily when BLAMMO! Mommy or Daddy will just up and announce that it’s time to go to bed or eat dinner. Just because you are bigger and older doesn’t mean you don’t have to respect your little one—in fact, it is precisely because you are bigger and older that you should be extra careful and respectful about how you interact with your toddler.

HOW TO APPLY: Warn your toddler of impending change. Say things like, “In one minute we’re going to go inside.” Or, “We are going to play for five more minutes.” It doesn’t matter if your little tike doesn’t have any concept of time . . . time is a construct anyway!

4. Establish Routines

Toddlers, like most adults, thrive when operating within boundaries and within the familiar. They are more comfortable at home, around people they know, and will act out much less frequently than when their environment is constantly changing. This is why it’s important to establish routines in your toddler’s life and that you try to stick to them—even if it means sacrificing your own fun.

We keep a very strict bedtime for our daughter and almost never keep her up past it. I think a lot of friends and family think we’re crazy how obsessive we are about it. But, again, imagine if you couldn’t control much in your own life and someone else decided that instead of going to bed tonight, you were going to go hang out at a strange house for a few hours.

In other words, just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

HOW TO APPLY: When you find a routine that works for you and your little one, try to stick to it. If you do need to break the routine, be sure to give a heads up—and try not to change too much all at once. This will only cause extra stress for your little one.

Your kid needs discipline. Rules and boundaries—paradoxically—make life freer and more open and exciting. Lovingly teaching your child about consequences and how to make great decisions is the most important thing you can do as a parent.

It won’t be easy. But it is the hard path that leads to greatness. You can walk it. And you’re not walking it alone. May the wind be always at your back; may the sun shine warm upon your face; and may your toddler not try to eat your dog’s droppings like a brownie.

You’ve got this. Good luck!

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