Kids' Biggest Discipline Problems, Solved!

From tantrums to disrespect to dinner issues, global parenting expert Jo Frost has seen it all. Now, she's doling out her best advice for grandparents.

By The Editors

Discipline is different when you're not the primary guardian. No one knows that better than Jo Frost, the British childcare specialist and reality show superstar. We asked her some of your toughest behavior questions, about everything from stripping to spanking. Her answers were just like you'd expect—no-nonsense, loving, and of course, effective. Want more? Check out her newest book, Jo Frost Toddler Rules.

GP: What can you do with grandchildren who trash your home? Can you teach them to respect your house, or is that the parents' job?

Jo Frost

Jo Frost: First and foremost, I think it is every parent’s responsibility to teach respect for their home and their environment. Therefore, the child should be fully aware of the social conduct expected when going over to his grandparent’s house. Grandparents have their own set of rules in their homes and children learn very quickly what is acceptable and what is not acceptable in the two different homes.

This truly is where we want to see parent and grandparent come together on the same page—when it comes to giving children warnings, following through on discipline, and general behavior expectations. Drop Johnny off at grandma’s and remind him the behavior expected before he spends a lovely afternoon with her.

Grandparents.com: What do you do when a child refuses to eat a prepared meal, even if it's something they like?

JF: Grandparents have a particular set of skills that sometimes parents don’t have the time for. It’s called imagination.

  • For 5 and under: I would think of making the meal part of play. … Sometimes the re-direction helps with children who can be naturally obstinate at this age. So, for example, you might have been playing Animals in the Jungle up until dinner time; you would then turn that dinner into camping food. If you are truly met with combative behavior every time, and if your attempts have continued to fail, then by all means let the children get down from the table knowing that 10 minutes later you will be strong when they want a cookie from the pantry.  
  • For older children: I would get them more involved in the process. Perhaps they help prepare lunch with you, and you stipulate a reasonable amount of food for them to eat before they can get down from the table. Again, a grandparent’s job is easier when the parents have done the prep work already.

GP: How can you deal with a kid who disrobes in public without shaming them?

JF: The key factor for a child who disrobes repetitively is to identify when it happens. Some children like to naturally do it and will happily spend most of their day free. Some children show this behavior in public as defiance, and it can be seen as a behavioral trait, or having a temper tantrum.

It is important to set up the expectations before you go out; let them know what they can and cannot do. Praise them for the efforts in being patient or exercising kind behavior. It’s all part of the verbal approval children need to continue the model behavior we want to see. When these rules are broken, it is important to discuss with the parent the consequences that will follow when this happens. If you nip the behavior in the bud, you are more likely to eliminate it.

GP: How should you handle a child throwing a tantrum in public, or a place you can't leave immediately?

JF: In all cases it is important to not try and control the temper tantrum, but to understand it. It is always a learning opportunity. Sometimes, if you cannot leave where you are, taking the child aside and waiting for the tantrum to tinker down before you talk to her might be all you can do. On another occasion, it might be that you can identify the tantrum and address it there. Then, you may exercise a certain behavior in order to eliminate the tantrum before you.

GP: When should a child be finished biting (if he/she ever started in the first place)? What can you do with a late biter?

JF: Biting usually stops about two and one-half years old. It can be seen as a form of dominance, as having a mock temper tantrum, or in order to manipulate. Developing emotional maturity is teaching your grandchildren and understanding appropriate behavior and how we resolve situations. Biting is inappropriate behavior and should therefore be followed through with appropriate consequences.

GP: Is yelling ever a good idea? What about spanking?

JF: The quicker we get on board with having confidence in establishing rules, creating boundaries, following through, validating and respecting, and communicating thoroughly with our children, the less we are likely as grandparents to feel frustrated, out of control, and angry. So now, there is no need to use an ineffective ‘spank’ or to ‘yell’ at our children in order for them to respect what we are saying and hear us.

GP: What are some constructive punishments, consequences, and disciplines?

JF: Consequences help in shaping a child’s conscienceness, empathy and self-discipline. For an older child who has broken a window, that could be doing tasks to repay the owner. If he pushes a friend off a bed, it could be the loss of riding abicycle for three days. ... Children need to learn to be accountable for their actions and to show responsibility. As adults we must guide them in a positive fashion.

GP: If a child is beyond your control - physically, especially - what should you do?

JF: This is where it is important for you to have a serious conversation with the grandchild’s parents. By no means should a grandparent be placed in a situation where the fear of a child—or of yourself not being safe—is put upon you. Most of the time, having your grandchildren should be a pleasure, and not a dread that your kids have pawned them off on you, hoping you will make things better. Grandparents are an integral part of a family and more so than ever in today’s society. They are leaned on to give additional family support, but we must not abuse the fact or take advantage of this.

GP: Can you establish boundaries at any age?

JF: Yes. As human beings, we need boundaries in place to have healthy relationships with one another. As grandparents and co-carers, we establish these boundaries along the way whilst helping to raise our grandchildren. If these can be put in place in the toddler years, then it eliminates a lot of the disrespect and wayward behavior you may possibly see in the tween years.

GP: Is it ever okay to laugh when a child misbehaves?

JF: No is the answer. It sends a mixed message. When a grandchild misbehaves and a parent says, “That’s naughty behavior,” and the grandparent seconds what the parent says, then there is no doubt in the child’s mind that they just misbehaved.

As grandparents, we want to support our children, and their children too. We want to be the sounding board for our children, as we have been there and done it already. Our words of wisdom and experience—if received with an open heart—can lead to healthy conversations that dispel unwanted behavior.

At the same time, as a woman who has worked with many a grandparent over the last two decades, I think it is of utmost importance that we are honest with our grandchildren’s parents with what we can and cannot do to support the family. Ultimately this creates healthy boundaries so that everybody knows where they stand, and with what can be achieved in a positive way.

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