Kids Are Messy, Impatient and Loud

Children are not miniature adults. The more we align our expectations with who they are, the less we will add our frustration to the mix.
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Dear Susan,

My 6-year old twin boys sometimes act like little terrors. They leave messes wherever they go, shout as they race through the house and insist on making goofy faces for every family photo. Any advice?


Exhausted Mother

Kids are messy, impatient and loud. They leave toys in their wake as they move from one activity to another, beg to be chased when it's time for a bath and track mud across your newly-mopped floor. It could be said that children are terribly uncivilized. It could also be said that they're... children.

Don't get me wrong. I know how annoying it is to take a nice family photo with little ones refusing to stand still for even a few seconds. I understand that you would like your house to be reasonably tidy and quiet. And I would never suggest that we give kids permission to create chaos wherever they go. But children are not miniature adults. The more we align our expectations with who they are, the less we will add our frustration to the mix.

Here are some things to consider:

• Your children have only been on earth for six years. That is a brief period of time, relative to what I hope will be a very long life. Part of the challenge of parenting is civilizing youngsters without crushing their spirits. Children gradually do master the rules of civilized life, but it takes time. Be patient. Think baby steps.

• Send your kids outside. Children need unstructured time outside to get their ya-ya's out. If you have a yard, turn your kids loose to climb, dig and play. If you don't, take them regularly to a local park. It's easy for kids to spend most of their free time inside, in front of the computer or TV. Make sure your twins have plenty of opportunities to vent all that 6-year old kid energy.

• Create realistic expectations. A 6-year old does not have the developmental capacity to control urges and impulses the way an older child or an adult does. Line your expectations up to match who your children are, rather than who you wish they might be. Yes, it's fair to expect them to put away their toys and speak courteously. But no, they aren't likely to remember to do it each and every time without being reminded.

• Be playful. Speak with a goofy accent when you ask your sons to use their inside voice. Act the role of a queen, inviting them to tidy up the playroom for the royal ball. Years ago, when I was a teacher, I would sometimes tell my students that my name was Mrs. Shinglehausen, assuming a ridiculously strict and stern personality. They loved it! By revealing your playful side, your kids will be more open to your direction and requests.

• Avoid turning on MOM TV. Do you turn the volume up on your own reactions when your kids run wildly through the house or refuse to smile for the camera? If so, you may be unintentionally rewarding them for doing the very thing you don't like. The less dramatic you make your responses, the less you'll be contributing to your children acting out. Speak with authority, but without desperation and neediness.

• Don't compare your children to others. 6-year olds come in every size, shape and color. Some are quite mature for their age, while others may resemble a 3 or 4-year old, especially when they're competing for attention with siblings close in age. Focus on discovering the strengths of each of your children as well as their unique challenges, and on meeting them where they are.

• Acknowledge what's going well. When you trip over a toy in the middle of the night, or you have to repeatedly remind your kids not to roughhouse with the dog, it can feel like you're fighting endless battles and getting nowhere. Make a special point of noticing -- and commenting on -- what is going well, and you'll see more improvement.

• Prevent problems. Recognize when your children are running on empty and don't push them beyond their limit. When little ones are tired, hungry or over-stimulated, they don't have the internal resources to be on their best behavior. Just as a good ship captain scans the horizon to avoid stormy seas, make sure your kids are well-nourished and rested to help avoid power struggles and meltdowns.

Keep things in perspective. The things that bother you today will be dim memories sooner than you can imagine. Don't let the sweetness of today -- as messy and noisy as it is --be overshadowed by your desire for a perfect and orderly household.

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Parent Coach Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and credentialed teacher. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.