Anyone who’s a parent will agree that raising children is some of the hardest work you’ll ever do.You are never quite sure if you got it completely right, and you can retroactively pinpoint mistakes even years later.I was a divorced, single mom for 5 years from when my daughter was in a carseat until she entered first grade, budgeting grocery shopping and often working two jobs. To this day, I can tell you about mistakes in parenting I made (and so can she).What I’ve observed in the last thirty-five years in working in various capacities in the mental health field and observing countless parents and children is that many parents (certainly not all!) assume far too much responsibility for their child that belongs to their child.They engage in pleading, negotiating, and bargaining with their child, thereby shifting a kind of power differential to the child.They allow chaos, a total lack of structure and consistency, and then punish their children for being cranky, willful, and demanding.They send mixed messages to the child, of “Do as I say, not as I do”, as well as of, “I said no.But drive me crazy enough, and I’ll eventually say yes, just to get you to stop.”Or one I constantly observe, “Behave.I told you twelve times already.Be good, okay?PLEASE!!??”They are not specific enough, often don’t follow through with requests or expectations of their child. They often are wracked with guilt, stressed, exhausted, and busy and it’s often understandable when a parent is just too tired or feeling defeated to invest the time and effort into really effective parenting.They are often doing the very best they know how to do, or are parenting a lot like they themselves were parented.
They also convey to the child that a privilege is a God-given, inalienable right.They buy into the fear that their child’s friends’ parents will judge, shame or reject them if they don’t parent as “lax” or “cool” as they do.They invest more energy and time into criticizing than noticing positive behavior.The saying, “Anything rewarded is repeated” is true.This certainly doesn’t have to mean that parents need to heap gifts and rewards on children every time they actually do what they’re supposed to – it takes conscientious, real effort to make a point to notice when your child is doing or behaving in a way you wish them to.Statements such as, “Paul, I saw how you opened the door for that elderly lady at McDonald’s this afternoon.You were such a kind gentleman.”, or, “Lisa, when you shared your school supplies with Tracy because she didn’t have any; that was really considerate and thoughtful of you.” , or, “Christopher, it sure did help me around the house today when you raked the leaves without being asked!”, are valuable ways to build into your child proper and decent behavior, that catches them, proactively, exhibiting prosocial behavior that not only is helpful and kind around the house but to larger society – a trait we should be developing in children.Catching good behavior and attitudes is very specific. It is not laced with empty flattery.It also builds character.It shapes and molds children into seeing what it is that parents, school, the community, and society itself, expects in order to live fully.
The American Association of Pediatrics has advised that parents give more attention to positive behaviors than to negative in children, and to be consistent and reliable in activities and expectations of children. The AAP further suggests that families can benefit when parents teach children how to express themselves well, with words instead of acting-out behaviors whenever possible.Parents can benefit from reading a good book on emotional intelligence in children, and sitting with the child when they are upset, frustrated, and having a tantrum, helping them to appropriately express themselves with words and talking about their feelings.When a child throws something or destroys property, screams, tantrums, calls names, it’s often because he or she doesn’t know very well how to express themselves well and appropriately.
It is very important to give children age-appropriate responsibilities, tasks, chores that are clearly-stated, fair and dignified, and safe. Children should have a set of things they are expected to do in their home simply because they are a part of a larger family system, without necessarily being paid or rewarded to do it (other than a thanks and courteous appreciation). Then there can be other things they can do if they would like to earn extra money or privileges.
Discipline or punishment? It’s a bit like the difference between shame and guilt.Discipline, like the guilt that God instills us with via our conscience, guides, corrects, builds character and keeps children out of chaos, tragedy and trouble. Punishment is non-specific, and much like shame (and is shaming). Slapping a child across the face or calling them “Stupid idiot!” for making a mistake is shaming and hurtful and far exceeds the “crime”.Parents can use the useful option of withholding privileges from a child, such as removing a computer game, TV or telephone time, or a toy or playtime until a chore or homework or expectation is done, or for behavior that is inappropriate.
It is important to know that choices in these areas should be given to the child - - “I asked you twice to load the dishwasher and you didn’t.No TV tonight until it’s done, please.”Then walk away. Be calm, very specific, respectful. Communicate clearly and calmly what you want done, or what the child was supposed to do and didn’t (or negative behavior they did), ask for what they’re supposed to do, by when, and what will happen if they don’t.Don’t engage in a power struggle, argument, and do not plead (“Look. Just please, please go load the dishwasher. Give me a break, Bobby…”).Do not negotiate or send a mixed message (“Bobby, load the dishw……well; okaaaay….you can watch TV for just ten more minutes, but then…..”).When you calmly, respectfully “stick to your guns”, in effect, the choice whether to do what you are expecting is now on the child.If they do it, fine. If they don’t, then THEY CHOSE IT, not you.They, not you, chose the consequences.
I can tell you that they will test you first, especially if this isn’t the practice in your home and it’s new.They are testing to see if you’re serious, if you know what you’re doing, and if you’ll hold out and put down limits.Please know that children find security in your loving – calm - limits.When parents don’t have limits, children will often test and push to see where they are.This is very unfair to children and can create insecurity and anxiety in them.Keep putting the calm, pragmatic choices back on the child.Natural consequences are when the inevitable fallout of a choice falls on the child (eat 12 cookies and you might get a stomachache).A child learning from their own consequences will take this lesson into adulthood; they will learn quickly that sometimes things aren’t worth losing respect, freedom, privileges, friendships, etc.They will count the cost before a decision when they have come to realize over time that virtually every action has a reaction and a consequence (positive or negative).
When you put the consequences and choices on the child, it will take a lot of stress off you.You can be empathetic and kind, even when a child is being disciplined.The first time I saw a parent lovingly hug their child right after finishing a timeout session, I was stunned.And then I realized that love, and discipline, can and should go together.Young children will test your limits, such as getting back up out of bed for the 7th time, or getting back out of timeout when you put them in a chair.Each time, do not negotiate, don’t speak overly much with them, just be very calm, quiet, not a lot of eye contact, and be practical and simply put them back in.They will eventually learn that it’s not a lot of fun to keep bringing mommy back in the room, and they aren’t getting a reward when they do it, because, please remember, the very act of you having to stop what you’re doing and put them back in again and again, is in itself a kind of “reward” to the child.
Be consistent. And when upset, please – don’t let your anger or frustration be your voice.It is perfectly fine to tell your child that you need a few minutes alone to think, or that you are disappointed right now and need a few minutes before you sit down to talk about the discipline.It shows that you are real, that you hurt and that disappointment is real.It also models to the child that their misbehavior can really hurt others.It also gives you maneuverability in taking a few moments to calm yourself, breathe, before stepping up from calm, focused discipline up to harsh shaming or punishment.
My counseling practice, Sincera Wellness, LLC, practices licensed associate marriage & family therapy, and can assist you with parenting issues that are impacting your family. Call me at 501.238.2557 or email me at MaryAnne@sincerawellness.net (www.sincerawellness.net) if I can help. Sincera Wellness is pleased to give a speech, presentation, lead a workshop in this area for your group, club, school, business, church, etc.