Proactive Parenting: Dipping into their Bag of Tricks


Dipping into their Bag of Tricks

Dear Dr.T.,

I wouldn’t say that my kids are bad kids – maybe they are a little spoiled? I don’t know. The point is that they drive me crazy when they want something. They are better with my husband and – wouldn’t you know – angels in school.

Here’s what it’s like: My five-year-old whines and nags till he gets “it.” “It” could be Shabbos cereal, a new toy, whatever. Lots of kids do that, but I think he is over the top. He can go on all day! And even in public places like the market. I try very hard not to give in, but it really gets on my nerves, and it is so very embarrassing.

My eight-year-old daughter does not carry on, but is not above lying. She will tell me, “Tatty said…” or “Morah insists…” She will deny taking a cookie or breaking her brother’s toy.

I hear other moms saying the same things. I don’t know if I am just too critical or the situation is out of control. Honestly, I don’t really get what is going on, and I worry that my overreaction (is it an overreaction?) is making all this worse.

How do I get this stuff to stop?


Dear Maya,

To get it all to stop, you have to first understand what is going on. For the sake of this article, I am going to assume that your children do not have any physical or mental challenges that complicate this picture. Let’s assume that they are basically typical kids, albeit with some unpleasant behavior.

As every young mother knows, each baby is born with a different temperament and different reactions. His environment and interactions with his parents mold these reactions and create a pattern of behavior. What I am saying here is what you already know: we are not born behaving in any particular way, but rather learn how to behave from the way our environment and close relationships impact our being.

Each one of us learns “a bag of tricks” to get us to our goals. Even as adults, we may be polite and respectful – or dishonest and manipulative. We may criticize harshly or flatter shamelessly. Somehow, we develop a go-to strategy to maneuver through life. But, as we move forward, we can – and hopefully do – recalibrate and modify our script. We may decide to be more assertive, or less aggressive; not so passive, or so confrontational. In short, we give up some of our tricks and pick up some others instead.

Well, let’s apply this to your children. Somewhere down the road they picked up some negative behavior. I would guess that they even know that what they are doing is wrong, unpleasant, and damaging to their relationship with their parents. After all, they have seen your reaction – which more than likely includes some harsh words and/or negative consequences.

So, why do they hold on to this bag? The answer is simple: because it works!

And, in all fairness – because they are so young – they simply don’t what else to do instead. In their immature minds, they need to dip into their bag to get their wants and needs met. It is our job as parents to help them learn more pro-social strategies.

Why your children picked up this bag is not as important as getting them to drop it. But, for the curious, behavior that you reinforce will last. I would guess that some of the whining did its trick – maybe when you were too distracted to put an end to it. So, for example, when your son begs for chips while in the check-out line, you may have simply given in. But kids are smart. If a little kvetching begets chips, imagine what a whole onslaught might bring! With each incident, the stakes are higher and the behavior is more firmly entrenched.

Similarly, I would bet that your daughter knows she is lying and is simply manipulating you to get what she wants. Eight-year-olds know the difference between fact and fiction. But, why learn negotiating skills when she can simply create a scenario that gets her what she wants?

At this point, it’s time for a change. Change is a gradual process and needs your direction, but it can be done.

Begin by identifying for yourself what needs to change. Be limited and specific; target one clear area. More important than saying what has to stop is saying what has to happen now.

Ask for whatever you want with a nice voice.

Tell me what really happened, not a made-up story.

Once the desired behavior is clear to your child, follow the two principles of behaviorism to make it stick.

  1. Easier said than done, but ignore other non-targeted behaviors when possible, so that the focus is on what has to happen now. Also ignore small lapses. Remember, change is a gradual, not all-or-nothing, practice.


Moishe starts off by begging and whining for a prize in the market – but then stops short. He doesn’t exactly say, “please,” but he does remember to finish in a quieter voice. Moishe has learned something, so you can afford to ignore his opening.


  1. Use positive reinforcement. We all learn best when rewarded. We work for pay, dress up for compliments, study for a good grade. When a behavior is rewarded enough times, it becomes second nature. Positive reinforcement for good behavior pays off.


Everytime Rikki tells it like it is – no embellishment, drama, or manipulation – she gets a big smile, compliments, and sometimes even a treat or prize. Eventually, she will learn that honesty does pay.


What I describe here is an outline of how we can help our children change. Obviously, there are many small steps and actions involved in the execution of this plan – far more than can be enumerated in this article. I encourage my readers to continue to seek answers by joining a parent group, reading articles and books, and listening to lectures. Change can happen – and it is for us to figure out how best to achieve this goal.

The Book Nook: 1-2-3-Magic for Kids: Helping Your Kids Understand the New Rules is a delightful book for children of all ages (parents included). In this book, the authors, Thomas Phelan and Tracy Lee, write a kid-friendly version of their classic 1-2-3-Magic series. Kid friendly, with wonderful illustrations.

Sara Teichman, Psy D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles and Clinical Director of ETTA, L.A.’s largest Jewish agency for adults with special needs. To submit a question or comment, email