Girl having a temper tantrumWe’ve all witnessed it: You’re in a supermarket or restaurant or mall, and a child is misbehaving. You usually hear the mom (or dad) first.

“Stop it, or I’m going to take your binky away!” (This is followed by more bad behavior by the child.)

“I’m going to count to three. One, two….I mean it, stop it right now.” (This brings more bad behavior and more noise from the child.)

“That’s it. I’m taking your binky now,” says the mom. (This invariably brings louder noise from the child and new bad behavior.)

“No? You don’t want me to take it away? Then stop it!” (The negotiating continues, then there’s silence. You look over, and the child still has his binky, but now he also has a lollipop or his mom’s cell phone or the toy he was crying for in the first place. He’s beaming with satisfaction because he’s just used his highly effective and well-honed skills to get what he wanted.)

I cringe when I see this, not because I know this mom has rewarded bad behavior (which she has) or because she has virtually guaranteed that her child will repeat this behavior soon (which he will). I cringe because the young children with me have also witnessed this display, and I hope it doesn’t give them ideas.

I have two children and often receive compliments from strangers about their good behavior. My kids speak politely to adults, and they are a pleasure to converse with at restaurants. But they weren’t born this way; I’ve worked hard to teach them these skills. You can teach your children, too. Here are my five secrets for getting kids to behave:

1. Make your expectations clear.

Before you leave home or get out of your car, make sure your children know what you expect of them. Even a 2-year-old can understand, “We’re going into a store now. I expect you to behave, hold hands, and be quiet.” Young children do not instinctively know they should be quiet in a library, or that they shouldn’t run in a store. By clearly explaining how they’re supposed to behave, you enable them to succeed and to earn your praise.

2. Follow through.

Whether you promise a reward for good behavior or threaten a punishment for bad, follow through. If you say, “Don’t do that again or you’ll have a time out,” you must give that punishment if your child continues the behavior. Likewise, if you promise, “Behave at the store, and you can watch a cartoon when you get home,” make sure your child enjoys this privilege only if he acts as expected. If you don’t follow through, your children learn to ignore your empty promises.

3. Make sure your child understands that you’re the boss.

Many parents allow children to dictate where, how, and when things are done. An exasperated mom once told me, “Experts say you should try to see the world from your child’s point of view, to understand where she’s coming from, and give her decision-making power.” This is a great idea, but she was saying this as she tried unsuccessfully to reason with her 2-year-old in the middle of a temper tantrum. I think this mom was applying the theory the wrong way, since it’s impossible to reason with a hysterical child.

Empower your children by allowing them to make choices. This includes such things as, “Would you like milk or juice?” or “Why don’t you pick out your own clothes today?” Children need to understand that the parent is the one in charge. There should be no negotiating with a child who’s throwing a fit, and it should be clear that listening to your instructions is not a choice.

4. Be prepared.

It’s difficult for young children to sit quietly for long periods. If you need your children to be still for more than 10 minutes, bring something to occupy them. A coloring book or a toy might work well for a wait in a doctor’s office. For a trip to the grocery store, try bringing a snack and a handheld video game. Give your children these items on arrival so they can avoid getting into trouble.

5. Be fair.

Children are supposed to be silly and loud and joyful, so give them opportunities for fun. If they must sit still for a while, let them burn off energy before and after. You want to ensure they always obey, so try not to nitpick or give orders about trivial things. And if you punish their bad behavior, also reward them when they’re good

It’s hard work to teach your children to listen and behave, but well worth the effort.

Sarah Whelan and her children are often out and about, and she never counts to three to extract good behavior.