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How to Win Back Power from Too Clever Kids

Child too smart for his or her own good? Parents can take back the reins by being equally wise – with these seven tips.

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3. Address feelings, not behavior

It's not realistic to expect that you'll be able to – or that you'd want to – list a rule for every situation that might pop up. What about when your child comes home and asks to dye her hair blue like a friend's? Unruh explains that a parent's initial reaction might be just to say "No" immediately. Instead, he recommends that you listen to your child's reasons for wanting to do something, especially noting her feelings before giving a decision.

You want to validate those feelings, instead of just talking about behavior, notes Unruh. So in the example above, maybe say something like, "I know that must sound really fun," or "I can see why you'd like to do that" – and then go into your reasons why you have concerns. You can always save your decision for later. This approach can show your child that you're considering her opinion and giving her ideas some thought. Again, use your child's personality and the situation to guide your response.

Unruh explains that children will likely challenge parents on certain rules and expectations because of the experiences they have with peers. "With the onset of verbalization, children are constantly on a quest for independence," says Unruh. "But part of that quest for autonomy relies, at least half of the time, on peers."

In other words, kids often compare themselves to their friends and other kids at school, noting the differences. As they become more and more aware of "what other kids are doing," that might be the argument you hear from your child to convince you to let her do something you wouldn't normally allow her to do, like maybe dying her hair.

4. Explain bent rules (carefully!)

"There is no such thing as a perfect parent, or perfect parenting for that matter," says Gleason. There will be times when your kids are tired, or you're tired – or both – when some of your negotiable rules might need bending. In these instances, Gleason says a little explanation can go a long way. Take a day when you've come home from a long visit to the zoo and your kids are begging to eat dinner while watching TV. But what about your rules on "no food in the family room," and "no eating dinner in from of the TV"?

Gleason suggests saying something like, "'We're all tired and so today we're going to go ahead and do something special, or something different.'" When you approach it in this way, explaining that this circumstance is "special" or "out of the ordinary," you're not quite breaking the rule – just bending it a little.

"That doesn't mean you have to explain everything," continues Gleason. "There's a range of where you can slip up and where you can't." Going back to the non-negotiable and negotiable rules, even if you're tired, there's no budging on the "no going across a busy street without a parent" rule for youngsters – whereas parents might bend the "no yelling" rule at times and a child might call them on it: "Dad, you said no yelling at our house and you just yelled." For those instances, Gleason explains, "Maybe you can say, 'It's not OK for me to yell. I shouldn't have done that.' It's important for kids to understand that parents are human."

5. Let children have a say

One way to help children agree to and follow rules is to make sure they feel like they had a say in creating them. Making a list of expectations can help, but in day-to-day scenarios, getting your child's input will make her feel like you're listening to her point of view.

So, if we return to the example of tired parents and kids at the end of a long day, give your child choices – "Do you want to put down a blanket and have a picnic with PB&J sandwiches in the family room or we could do cereal right in the kitchen?" Younger children will need more specific choices to pick from, whereas you might offer tweens and teenagers a more open-ended question: "Hey, I know we're all tired, any suggestions for dinner?"

6. Praise the positive

Often, parents remember to enforce the rules – but not always to congratulate kids when they follow them. "Establishing good behavior takes more positive reinforcement than negative," says Unruh. "The tendency is to be strict on certain things children do and then, when they do well, say nothing."

Unruh says it's crucial to take time to praise kids when they behave. This can come in a formal way, like if you are having weekly family meetings where you include a discussion of rules, point out that your kids have been doing a good job following them. Or more informally, when they listen on the playground and don't throw sand, let them know you noticed; or, when you drive to grandma's house and no one pinches or pokes a sibling, say thanks.

7. Practice what you preach

Kids notice what you do, says Gleason, "and as they get older, they're going to be way more vocal on how they call you on it – especially pre-teens and teens." So little things, like observing when a parent yells or cusses or any number of things the child has been told not to do but sees a parent doing, are opportunities for your child to call you out. That means you not only need to be consistent with making sure kids follow rules; you need to consistently watch your own behavior, too.

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