Parenting

3 Teacher Tips for Taming the Chaos at Home

Che Guevara mural on dilapidated wall, Havana, Havana, Cuba. (Getty Images)

“Want water cup!” my son yells, running after me as I head to the kitchen to place the cup on the counter. “No, you can’t have the water cup,” I tell him. “Remember? I said, ‘If you dump your water on the floor again on purpose I’m going to take the cup.’ And then you dumped it. So I took it.” “Dump water!” my son yells. “Take ‘way!” I stand watching his little face as he processes this information and I think to myself, Finally! A situation I knew how to handle!

For ten years before becoming a mom, I taught elementary school in New York City. Until recently, my son bore no resemblance at all to the kids I taught. He began as an amorphous sort of blob and transitioned into a ball of kinetic energy noticeably lacking in reasoning skills. But lately, I’ve been noticing a shift. He’s much more able to communicate, to understand and to reason. Suddenly being a mom and being a teacher have a lot in common.

I may be new to this whole mom thing (and there sure is a lot I’ve got absolutely no clue how to do) but if there’s one thing a teacher’s got to be good at it’s creating and enforcing some semblance of order. So here are three things I learned as a teacher that are pretty helpful for being a mom.

1. Be Consistent

If there is anything at all I’ve learned from my years as a teacher it’s that kids love consistency. They love it, but it’s a secret. They don’t want you to know they love it. In fact, they’ll do anything to convince you it’s their worst enemy, that all they want in this world is for chaos to rule supreme. But it’s not true, trust me.

Routines make kids feel safe. If they know what’s coming next and where the boundaries are they are much more able to focus on what they’re doing. Otherwise they have to spend all their time trying to figure out where the limits are and what will happen if they break the rules. You may think they should just do what you say because you say it. But that’s irrelevant. If you don’t tell them what’s going on and what the rules are, they’re going to do all they can to figure it out for themselves.

Kids are scientists by nature. If the answer to a question doesn’t immediately present itself, they’ll perform an experiment. For example, if you tell your son that if he doesn’t stop thwacking you in the head with his water cup you will take it away, you’re probably about to be thwacked in the head with a water cup. But make no mistake, if you take that cup away a few times he’ll give up thwacking you in the head with it and focus on drinking from it instead. And he’s also much more likely to believe you the next time you say you’re going to do something.

2. Enforce Logical Consequences

Relatedly, kids are much more willing to follow the rules if the consequences for breaking them make sense. Saying, for example, that you’re going to put him in time-out because he just intentionally ripped all the flaps off his new lift-the-flap book makes no sense. What does sitting quietly for a couple minutes have to do with what he did? If ripping up his book seemed fun to him, he’s just going to sulk in time-out for two minutes and then happily return to performing surgery on his reading material.

Take the book away instead. He’s much more likely to make the connection between his actions and the consequences for them if the two are directly related. If he’s careening through your home screaming and yelling and deliberately knocking things over, then put him in time-out. He obviously needs a little break from the world.

But remember, it’s consistency that matters. So even if (for some reason) you decide it’s actually okay for your son to rip up his book, if you said you’d take the book away, you’ve got to take it. If you don’t, he’ll be off to his laboratory to discover which rules you’ll enforce and which you won’t. Which, in this case, basically amounts to a whole lot of shredded paper.

3. Have a Schedule

Kids at home (just like kids at school) need ample time for free play, but if they don’t know when that time begins or ends, (or what else they’ll be doing that day) they’re much more likely to declare that they’re bored and ask to do every single random activity you once let them try but realized you should never do again (like make a collage out of Cheerios. He eats those. Too confusing).

Instead, make sure there are some consistent touchstones in your day: meal times, nap times, bath time, etc. Then create a plan for the day that includes free play, structured kid-friendly activities (like painting or water play), an interesting outing, and necessary tasks (like going to the grocery store or visiting the doctor). Make sure he knows what’s happening now and what’s happening next. He’s much more likely to play by himself if he knows that, in fifteen minutes, you’ll both do some drawing together.

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Don’t get me wrong, trying these things isn’t going to turn your child into a model citizen. But it might help create a more peaceful starting point from which to devolve into chaos. I mean, hey, it’s the little things.