The demands of the holiday season leave young children with opportunities to misbehave. Take them shopping and they could cut loose, leaving...

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The demands of the holiday season leave young children with opportunities to misbehave.

Take them shopping and they could cut loose, leaving you worried, exasperated and even more stressed. At a family gathering, one cousin might grab a toy from another, provoking a push and creating tension. While you’re busy with holiday preparations, big brother might just shove little brother, drawing you away from your task to settle the situation. In response, parents might use time-outs, consequences, threats and bribes. The parent at the shopping mall might say, “The consequence of running away is that I’m not reading you a story tonight.” The theory, of course, is that the child won’t run away again because she wants the bedtime story. But this rarely works. The child is left feeling punished but with no better skills.

The next trip to the mall, the parent might say, “If you’re nice while I’m shopping, I’ll buy you a candy cane.” The child may behave, but it has little to do with the possibility of receiving a treat. The child hiding in a rack of clothing is only thinking of the fun and excitement of doing so, not about the candy cane.

As for the grabbing cousins, parents might put each on a chair designated for time-out, hoping they will cease grabbing and hitting to avoid isolation. But, again, seldom does the desired result occur. More likely, one child will resist the time out, and the parent will turn angry. The situation ends with an escalation of emotions from all involved.

The parent at home might offer a threat: “If you push your brother again, you won’t get to watch your TV program tonight.” The child, who lives in the moment, can’t think ahead to the evening, so probably won’t keep from pushing his brother again.

Instead of using these techniques, adjust your disciplinary approach by asking yourself, “How can I guide, manage and coach my child so he’ll be competent in each of these environments?”

Here are four techniques that will help you reach your goal. They’re not instant fixes, however. They take time and patience, both requirements for effective parenting.

State your expectations. When going shopping, tell your child, “I expect you to hold my hand. We’ll be buying pajamas for Grandpa and a nightgown for Grandma. I’ll need your help choosing.”

Involve your child. Whatever your holiday preparations, involve your child or think of a related imaginative play activity that replicates the real-life event. Through playing about shopping, your child practices shopping rules and expectations.

Monitor children. Young children need an adult in proximity, intervening only to move the activity along positively.

Assume control. If your child exhibits hurtful behavior, say clearly, “I won’t allow you to run around the shopping mall (grab toys, push your brother).” The child will probably protest; nevertheless, hold to your point. Stay with the child until his outburst subsides. Then redirect his attention, enabling him to create a positive habit.

These disciplinary approaches will assist your child on the road to being competent not only during holiday activities but for all situations she encounters, year-round.

Jan Faull, a specialist in child development and behavior, answers questions of general interest in her column. You can e-mail her at or write to: Jan Faull, c/o Families, The Seattle Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. More columns at