The simple formula for happy, responsible kids

In today’s busy world, I am often asked for the ‘bottom line’ approach to bring things under control and get on track for a better life at home.  This simple formula is an ideal starting point for many families. Consider this if your kids…

  • Complain and whine excessively
  • Constantly push limits and seek more
  • Can’t accept no without a battle or tantrum
  • Expect the world to always give them what they want
  • Don’t cooperate with chores and/or homework
  • Always react with HUGE drama, even for small events
  • Can’t seem to find happiness in a good life

In each of these situations, it is likely that corrections can be made quickly, with a few adjustments.   

1. Start small.  Pick 3 specific situations to improve in 30 days.
It is critical to start with a clear focus and abandon trying to change everything in a short time, which doesn’t work.  Instead, select three problem situations and identify exactly what you want.  Do NOT try to make progress by focusing on what you don’t want.  For example, let’s say your number one concern is lengthy, argumentative morning routines.  The kids just take too long to get out the door in the morning (DON’T WANT). In order to be successful, you must identify the goal you are moving toward (which is a DO WANT).  In this situation, the goal is to have the kids up by 7am, dressed and ready for school by 7:30am, with 15 minutes of free time before the bus arrives. Perfect.  We have a clear goal, with a direction that we can move toward. Write it down.

2. Use leverage to get cooperation…not more words or nagging or prodding.
Essential to a happier, stress-free home is the drastic reduction of words to manage behavior. More talking about behavior (in the form of daily reminders, prodding, pushing and forcing the kids along) results in Mom or Dad just working harder and harder each day. It’s exhausting and frustrating and leads to conflict.  We must give up this relentless and futile effort to have our words manage behavior.  Instead, we turn to leverage. If used regularly, leverage will predictably create a reality-based system that makes life easier. In our example above leverage could be used in several ways.  First, no breakfast is served until dressed, ready for school and sitting at the table. (In the interim, as your kids waste time doing nothing you are going to stay calm and quiet.  The key is to let the leverage start to work.)  

Breakfast is from 7:15am to 7:30am. If they don’t make it, just relax for a few days. Let’s see what happens. Let the leverage start to teach. After breakfast, brush teeth and ready for school. If so, then you get to play your favorite game for 15 minutes before the bus arrives.  BUT ONLY IF you had breakfast and everything is ready to go. This is another use of leverage. Thus, you see that we have two easy leverage points to use in our example. Breakfast is a huge leverage point IF MOM AND DAD keep their attention to the breakfast table. Secondly, a video, IPad, TV show or a game with mom or dad is a significant second leverage point to put to use.  Please keep in mind:  this will not work if you keep reminding and prodding and pushing them with your words.  

3. Set clear limits using consequences not threats.
Too often I experience very well-intentioned parents who know the value of consequences.  Yet, they often fail to follow through and rely more upon threat after threat…hoping their kids will soon get it.  This is a losing formula if you want your child to learn to honor the limits you set.

Limits are essential to teach and we won’t do this with another lecture or repeated reminders.  Instead, we turn to consequences.  In the example above, if your child were to miss the bus (a clear limit) I would suggest that you make certain that the world gets very quiet and very boring for the next hour or so while you take a LONG time getting them to school.  Do not write an excuse: let them be late and deal with the consequences at school.  I would also let them know that there will be no ‘goodie’ when they get home later.

These consequences will quickly teach the lesson you want.  While likely a huge hassle for you to follow through, this approach means you do not repeat the consequence day after day.  Instead, after one or two times, you will see your child quickly ‘gets it.’  Lesson completed.

While more can be added here, these are the basics to the simple system.  In next month’s article, I will bring this formula to life in another practical situation as we discuss food and eating behavior. Until then remember to visit for more information and guidance.

Dr. Randy Cale offers practical guidance for a host of parenting concerns. For more information visit


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