Viewing entries tagged
loving discipline

Parenting Time Machine: Imagine your children in the future, and how you got them there

Here's a little exercise that can help you think about what you want to prioritize as a parent. 

First, engage in some time travel.  Imagine yourself in the future, when your kids are grown.  (If you want, you can have it turn out that you don't look any older than you do now and that you’re driving a convertible sports car instead of a stinky minivan.)  From that vantage point, look back at the way you raised your children.  How will you feel about the parenting decisions you've made?  The experiences you've given your kids. 

For me personally, I'm constantly learning new things that make me say, "I wish I'd known that earlier."  I expect I'll probably write a book in the future about what the parenting expert wishes she’d done differently, given the perspective of time (and emerging research.) 

But if you were to ask me now to predict what I will one day say are the most important things my husband I did as parents that made the biggest difference in how well our three boys turned out—in my imagined future, it so happens that my kids are fantastic humans who have a very young-looking mother—here’s what I’d say. 

  1. We disciplined by using reflective dialogues and collaborative problem-solving, rather than punitive consequences.
    Actually, I wish we did more of this, but I truly believe that traditional punishment as a discipline technique is not only less kind and caring, but much less effective as well when it comes to changing behaviors and building character.  (Watch for my upcoming book, No-Drama Discipline, written with Dan Siegel and published by Random House, for a book-length discussion of this idea.) Nearly any discipline situation can be better handled by talking to our kids and at times even asking for their opinions on how to address a situation.  Firm boundaries and high expectations can be maintained while also using discipline moments to build insight, empathy, and problem-solving.
  2. We built secure relationships with them.
    Instead of simply "managing" our boys and getting them to their activities, we got to know them, and let them know us.  We all talked and laughed and argued together, deepening the connections between us all.  We consistently (not perfectly) responded quickly and predictably to their needs, and they had repeated experiences that wired their brains to know that they can trust in relationships.  And, we were tuned in to their emotional world—we focused on understanding and talking about the internal experience:  thoughts, feelings, wishes, regrets, motivations, etc.  Sensitive, emotionally attuned, predictable care leads to secure attachment.  Secure attachment is the single best predictor for children to thrive.  We weren't perfect parents, but we did build strong relationships with our kids.
  3. We sent them to sleepaway summer camp.
    Our boys happen to have gone to a magical place called Camp Chippewa in Northern Minnesota.  But summer camp in general is great for kids, in that it allows them to overcome difficult situations like homesickness.  Being away from parents and living in a cabin with other kids and mentors of all ages is transformative for many children.  The activities at camp are great; they have a blast learning to canoe and shoot a bow and pitch a tent, but it’s the skills, the mastery, and the frustration management that make it so good for their development.  The friendships they make, the traditions and rituals they learn, being in nature, and the independence they gain are fun, and they build resilience.  They learn a lot about themselves through this experience.
  4. We made our home a place their friends wanted to be.
    One of the best ways we got to know our kids was by watching them interact with their friends.  We also liked getting to influence the environment our boys and their peers grew up in. 
  5. We gave them other adults who cared about them.
    Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other close friends all became important people in the lives of our children.  They never wondered whether they were worth loving or being paid attention to, because there was always a crowd of people in their lives who were loving them and paying attention to them.
  6. We were present with them without rescuing all the time.
    Sure, there were plenty of times when we gave the distracted "uh-huh" while we heard about the latest Lego creation.  But we did our best to really be there with our boys.  To listen to them, to talk to them, to pay attention to what bothered them and what mattered to them.  We wanted them to know that we delighted in them as people, and that we were there for them.  Always.  Even when they were badly behaved, or they were having meltdowns.  We saw our job as walking with them through struggles and letting them know we were there with them—without rescuing them from every negative emotion or situation. 
  7. We gave them a chance to find and do what they loved.
    Whether it was sports or piano or art or joke-telling, we did all we could to let our kids chase and enjoy their passions.
  8. We protected playtime.
    I'm not saying that there weren't periodic seasons when our boys ended up being over-scheduled, but for the most part we worked hard to make sure they had time to just hang out and play.  We were big fans of enriching activities, but not at the expense of having time for unstructured play that let them imagine and dream and even deal with boredom.

So that's an example of my list.  What would be on yours?

Notice that this exercise asks you to think about what you're doing well.  You could make a similar list about what you wish you'd done differently.  (Watch for a future article in which I outline some of the regrets I imagine I'll be living with in the future.  There will be plenty of those, I'm sure—although I always remind parents, as I do in this article, that even our parenting mistakes can be beneficial for our kids.)

The point in all of this is simply to remain aware and intentional about what we're doing as parents.  We might see changes we want to make, but we'll also realize that there's plenty we're doing that we'll look back on some day and smile, and even be proud of. 

 

 

Ten Bites of a Quesadilla: Transforming Moments through Creative Discipline

Parenting is transformative. Few experiences are as transformative as parenting. At its core, parenting is about transformation. One of our most important jobs as parents is to witness and influence the evolution of our children from wrinkly newborns with raw nervous systems into integrated, whole humans who know who they are and how to be in the world. And parenting obviously transforms us as well. There are smaller transformations—we learn to do most things “one-handed” while carrying a baby on our hip; we begin to eat at McDonalds; we memorize the names of dinosaurs; we learn to play video games again; we even buy a mini-van (which for some is a bigger transformation than for others). And there are huge, life-changing transformations—we adjust our priorities; we make sacrifices that cost us greatly; we learn to live with worrying and “what ifs”; we forever expand our hearts.

Along the way, we become more creative than we ever knew possible. I’m not talking about the creativity of artists, song-writers, or novelists. I’m talking about the creativity that’s required for survival for anyone caring for children. I knew I’d been forever transformed by my role as a parent when, in my attempt to get through to my non-compliant little streakers, creativity sprung forth from desperation and I made up a song with a chorus that began, “No naked butts on the furniture.” (Unfortunately, it was so catchy that one day I actually found myself singing it in the car by myself. As I said, parenting changes us.)

What’s more, transformation isn’t limited to people. We can also use our creativity to transform moments, so that the situations and circumstances we face can change into something else. Moments can be transformed for the worse, like when our downstairs brain shifts into overdrive and a sweet, bedtime cuddle turns into a fierce battle, complete with crying, wailing, and gnashing of teeth for all involved.   But likewise, we can transform moments for the good of ourselves and our children, so that an ordinary, everyday parenting challenge is converted into an opportunity for growth, connection, and relationship. And to do this, it almost always requires creativity.

Creativity allows us to transform a battle and a disconnection into an opportunity to bond, to play, to teach, and even to develop the higher parts of our kids’ brains. I don’t always achieve this goal, but when I’m able to, I’m reminded of just how powerful it can be when we use our creativity to transform the moments we’re given.

Challenge transformed into opportunity.

For example, while eating at one of our favorite Mexican food restaurants, I noticed that my four-year-old had left the table and was standing behind a pillar about ten feet away. As much as I love him, and as adorable as he is most of the time, when I saw his angry, defiant face coupled with his repeated tongue-thrusting aimed at our table, “adorable” wasn’t the word that came to my mind. A few diners at surrounding tables noticed and looked at my husband and me to see how we were going to handle the situation. In that moment, Scott and I felt the pressure and judgment of those watching and expecting us to lay down the law about manners at a restaurant.

There are many ways to respond in moments like these. But in this moment, two choices popped into my mind as I walked over and crouched down eye-level with my son. Option #1: I could go the traditional “Command and Demand” route and open with a clichéd threat uttered in a stern tone: “Stop making faces. Go sit down and eat your lunch or you won’t get any dessert.”

Knowing my little guy, this verbal and non-verbal confrontation would have triggered all kinds of reactive emotions in his downstairs brain—the part scientists call the reptilian brain—and he would have fought back like a reptile under attack.  The situation would just escalate with this approach.

Or, Option #2: I could tap into his upstairs brain in an effort to get more of a thinking—as opposed to a fighting/reacting—response.

Now, I make plenty of mistakes as I parent my boys (as they’ll freely tell you). But just the day before, I had given a lecture to a group of parents about the upstairs and downstairs brain, and about using everyday challenges—the survival moments—as opportunities to help our kids thrive. So, luckily for my son, all of that was fresh in my mind. I went with Option #2.

I started with an observation: “You look like you feel angry. Is that right?” (Remember, always connect before you redirect.) He scrunched up his face in ferocity, stuck out his tongue again, and loudly proclaimed, “YES!” I was actually relieved that he stopped there; it wouldn’t have been at all unlike him to add his latest favorite insult and call me “Fart-face Jones.” (I swear I don’t know where they learn this stuff.)

I asked him what he felt angry about and discovered that he was furious that Scott had told him he needed to eat at least half of his quesadilla before he could have dessert. I explained that I could see why that would be disappointing, and I said, “Well, Daddy’s really good at negotiating. Decide what you think would be a fair amount to eat, and then go talk to him about it. Let me know if you need help coming up with your plan.” I tousled his hair, returned to the table, and watched his once-again adorable face show evidence of doing some hard thinking. His upstairs brain was definitely engaged. In fact, it was at war with his downstairs brain. So far we had avoided a blow-up, but it still felt like a dangerous fuse might be burning within him.

Within fifteen seconds or so, my son returned and approached Scott with an angry tone of voice: “Dad, I don’t want to eat half of my quesadilla. AND I want dessert.” Scott’s response perfectly dovetailed with my own: “Well, what do you think would be a fair amount?”

The answer came with slow, firm resolve: “I’ve got one word for you: Ten bites.”

What makes this un-mathematical response even funnier is that ten bites meant that he would eat well over half the quesadilla. So Scott accepted the counter-offer, my son happily gobbled down ten bites and then his dessert, and the whole family (as well as the restaurant’s other patrons) got to enjoy our meals with no further incidents. My son’s downstairs brain never fully took over, which, lucky for us, meant that his upstairs brain had won the day.

Again, Option #1 would have not only escalated things, but it also would have missed an opportunity. My son would have missed a chance to see that relationships are about connection, communication, and compromise. He would have missed a chance to feel empowered that he can make choices, affect his environment, and solve problems. In short, he would have missed an opportunity to exercise and develop his upstairs brain.

And I hasten to point out that even though I chose Option #2, Scott and I still wanted to address his behavior. Once our son was more in control of himself, and could actually be receptive to what we had to say, we discussed the importance of being respectful and using good manners in a restaurant, even when he’s unhappy.

Challenge met, opportunity seized, moment transformed. (This time, at least.)

It’s all about watching for the opportunities.

As parents, we look for all kinds of ways to teach our children, to nurture their development. And it’s great to take them to the museum, to piano lessons, to the observatory, to a baseball game. But we also want to pay attention to the rich, minute-by-minute opportunities we’re given, and creatively transform these moments as well. What this requires—and there are plenty of times when I’m not very good at doing it—is that we take ourselves off of auto-pilot and look at each moment with fresh eyes. And though it isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, when we can step back and achieve a certain amount of critical distance from the situation at hand, that’s when we can begin to transform moments. And really, that’s just about the most we can hope for as parents. We can work hard to remain watchful for moments—hundreds of moments, large and small, throughout the day—and transform them, and allow them to transform us and our kids as well.

 

20 Discipline Mistakes All Moms Make

Some of you have seen my posts about common discipline mistakes even the best parents make.  Mom.me has just posted a re-working of those ideas as a gallery with pictures.  It begins like this: -------------------

Because we’re always parenting our children, it takes real effort to look at our discipline strategies objectively. Good intentions can become less-than-effective habits quickly, and that can leave us operating blindly, disciplining in ways we might not if we thought much about it. Here are some parenting mistakes made by even the best-intentioned, most well-informed moms, along with practical suggestions that might come in handy the next time you find yourself in one of these situations.

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View the whole gallery here.

 

 

Five Reasons I’m Not a Fan of Time Outs

More and more, I find myself questioning time outs as an effective discipline strategy.  I’ve written some about this already, but now I’d like to go into my reasons in a bit more depth. I know lots of loving parents who use time outs as their primary discipline technique.  I’m not saying that time outs are completely unhelpful; more that I don’t think they’re the best alternative we have when it comes to discipline—the goal of which, remember, is to teach.

 

Reasons I’m Not a Fan of Time-Outs:

#1.  What we know about the brain. 

Because I know that brain connections are formed from repeated experiences, I don’t want my kids’ repeated experience to be isolation, which they may view as rejection, when they’ve made a mistake.

What I DO want them to repeatedly experience is doing things the right way.  So, instead of a time out, I’ll often ask my kids to practice good behavior.  If they’re being disrespectful in their tone and communication, I might ask them to try it again and say it respectfully.  If they’ve been mean to their brother, I might ask them to find three kind things to do for him before bedtime.  That way, the repeated experience of positive behavior is getting wired in their brain.

 

#2.  False advertising and missed opportunities. 

What’s the point or the goal for a time out?  It’s supposed to be for a child to calm down and reflect on his or her behavior.  In my experience, time outs frequently just make children more angry .  And how often do you think kids use their time out to reflect on their behavior?  I’ve got news for you:  The main thing they’re reflecting on is how mean parents are.

When they’re reflecting on their horrible luck to have such a mean, unfair parent, they’re missing out on an opportunity to have experiences of building insight, empathy, and problem-solving.  Putting them in time out misses a chance for them to practice being active decision-makers who are empowered to figure things out.  We want to give them practice at being problem-solvers, and at making good choices.  You can do your kids a lot of good by simply asking, “What are you going to do to make it better and solve this problem?”  Given the chance once they’re calm, they’ll usually do the right thing, and learn in the process.

 

#3.  Time outs often aren’t linked to the misbehavior.

Usually, we want to choose consequences that are directly and logically connected to the misbehavior.  Using a broom to whack the TV means the broom is put away until the child can make appropriate choices with it again.  Riding a bike without a helmet means no riding for a few days.

Time outs, though, often don’t relate in any clear way to a child’s bad decision or out-of-control reaction.  As a result, they’re often not as effective in terms of changing behavior.

 

#4.  Time outs are too often used as punishment, as opposed to a teaching tool.

Even when parents have good intentions, time outs are often used inappropriately.  The idea behind time outs is to give kids a chance to calm down and pull themselves together.  Then they can move from their internal chaos into calm.

But much of the time, parents use time outs punitively.  The goal isn’t to help the child return to her calm baseline, but to punish her for some misbehavior.  The calming, teaching aspect of the consequence gets totally lost.

 

#5.  Kids need connection. 

Often, misbehavior is a result of a child inappropriately expressing a need or a big feeling.  She may be hungry or tired, or maybe there’s some other reason she’s incapable in that moment of controlling herself and making a good decision.

Like, maybe she’s three, and her brain isn’t sophisticated enough to say, “Mother dear, I’m feeling frustrated that we’re out of my favorite juice, and I’d like to respectfully request that you put it on your grocery list.”  So instead, doing her best to express her crushing disappointment, she begins throwing toys at you.

It’s during these times that she most needs our comfort and calm presence.  Forcing her to go off and sit by herself can feel like abandonment to the child, especially if she’s feeling out of control already.  It may even send the subtle message that when she isn’t perfect, you don’t want to be near her.

 

Again, if done appropriately with loving connection, such as sitting with the child and talking or comforting – often called a “time-in” – some time to calm down can be helpful for children.  But there are often more nurturing and effective ways to respond to kids than to give them a time out.

 

Common Discipline Mistakes Even the Best Parents Make: Part 1

Because we’re always parenting our children, it takes real effort to look at our discipline strategies objectively. Good intentions can become less-than-effective habits quickly, and that can leave us operating blindly, disciplining in ways we might not if we thought much about it. Here are some parenting mistakes made by even the best-intentioned, most well-informed parents, along with practical suggestions that might come in handy the next time you find yourself in one of these situations. Common Discipline Mistake #1: We lay down the law in an emotional moment, then realize we’ve overreacted.

Common Discipline Mistakes Made by Even the Best Parents: Part 2

  [This is a revision of the second article in a two-part series.  Click here to see the first four mistakes.]

 

Here are more discipline mistakes made by even the best-intending, most well-informed parents, along with practical suggestions that might come in handy the next time you find yourself in one of these situations.

Common Discipline Mistake #5:  We get trapped in power struggles.

Everyone says to avoid power struggles.  But no one seems to tell us what to do once we’ve gotten ourselves into an inevitable one.  And when our kids feel backed into a corner, they instinctually fight back or totally shut down.  So here are three ways to help you get out of those lose-lose power struggles you sometimes find yourself in.

A.  Give your child an out or a choice that allows her to comply with your expectations, while still saving face:  “Would you like to get a drink first, and then we’ll pick up the toys?”  The phrase “It’s your choice” can be a powerful tool to wield, since it gives your child some amount of power, which can often diffuse stand-offs.  So maybe you ask, “Would you like to get ready for bed now and read four bedtime stories tonight, or play 10 minutes longer and read two stories?  It’s your choice.”  (If she chooses fewer stories, it’s a good idea to remind her several times before story-time about her choice.)

B.  Negotiate:  “We’re not really getting anywhere here, are we?  Let’s see if we can figure out a way for both of us to get what we need.”  Obviously, there are some non-negotiable issues, but negotiation isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of respect for your child and his desires.  It teaches him important skills about considering not only what he wants, but also what others want; and it’s a lot more effective in the long run than bullying or simply arguing with him.

C. Ask your child for help:  “Do you have any suggestions?”  You might be shocked to find out how much they are willing to bend and bring about a peaceful resolution to the standoff.  Recently, my 4-year-old HAD to have fruit snacks at 9:30 in the morning.  I told him he could have it after lunch, but he didn’t really like my plan.  He started to whine and flop about, so I interrupted him and said, “I know you’re really sad about not getting the treat now.  Do you have any ideas?”  His eyes got big with excitement and I could see his little cognitive wheels turning.  He called out, “I know!  I can have one now and save the rest for after lunch!”  He felt empowered, the power struggle was averted, and I was able to give him an opportunity to solve a problem.  And all it cost me was allowing him to have one fruit snack.  Not such a big deal.

 

Common Discipline Mistake #6:  We let “experts” trump our own instincts.

By “experts,” I mean authors and other gurus, but also friends and family members who offer well-meaning (It is well-meaning, right?) advice on how to raise your kids. But it’s important that you not discipline your child based on what someone else thinks you ought to do.  So fill your discipline toolbox with information from lots of experts (and non-experts), then listen to your own instincts as you pick and choose different aspects of different approaches that seem to apply best to your situation with your family and your child.

Also, be aware of times you might be disciplining differently because you’re concerned about what someone else will think.  If you need to discipline in public or when others are watching, you might want to pull your child away from the crowd and deal with the situation quietly, or even leave the room, so you won’t be tempted to parent in a way that pleases those watchers.  Instead, you can focus on what your child needs from you in that moment.

 

Common Discipline Mistake #7:  We discipline in response to our habits and our own feelings instead of responding to our individual child in a particular moment.

We all do it from time to time, don’t we?  We let our own feelings and issues override our decision-making about what’s best for our kids.  And we know it’s not fair (though it’s completely understandable) that we lash out at one child because we’re so fed up with his brother who’s been acting up all morning.  Or we explode in anger simply because that’s the way we were parented or we don’t know what else to do.

Practically speaking, there’s no simple solution to this common discipline mistake. What’s called for is for us to reflect on our behavior, to really be in the moment with our children, and to respond only to what’s taking place in that instant.  This is one of the most difficult tasks of parenting, but the more we can do it, the better we can respond to our kids in loving ways.  It can be helpful to consider how our children are feeling when we act in these ways and to take care of ourselves.  Parenting is physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting because it requires so much, so much of the time.  Taking care of yourself is an essential part of parenting well.

 

Common Discipline Mistake #8:  We confuse consistency with rigidity.

Consistency means working from a reliable and coherent philosophy so that our kids know what we expect of them, and what they should expect from us.  It doesn’t mean maintaining an unswerving devotion to some sort of arbitrary set of rules.  This means that sometimes you might make exceptions to the rules, turn a blind eye to some sort of minor infraction, or “cut the kid some slack.”

There may be times, then, that we should wait before responding to misbehavior.  For example, when our kids are out of control—when we see that they’re becoming an emotional tsunami —that may not be the best time to rigidly enforce a rule we’d enforce under different circumstances.  When the child is calmer and more receptive, he’ll be better able to learn the lesson anyway.

Recently, for instance, our 4-year-old has been insane at bedtime.  In response to our cajoling he’ll often say something like, “Well, I’ll come find you and kick your eye!” (I often have to hide my smile as his anger and threats end up sounding more funny than ominous.)  We’ve found that our usual strategies—trying to talk to him, offering incentives, redirecting him—haven’t been working.

So two nights ago I tried to simply avoid the situation.  As he began to argue from his bed, I said, “I love you.  Goodnight,” and left the room.  Amazingly, it actually worked!  (Apparently it never crossed the poor little dude’s mind to actually get back up out of bed.)  So then, yesterday, when he was in a great mood, I addressed the situation and told him I didn’t like the way he had been acting at bedtime, and we did some problem-solving.  He went to bed beautifully last night.  We’ll see how tonight goes. . .

In closing, let me emphasize that we’re all going to make mistakes while setting limits for our children.  But if we can discipline with consistent and clear boundaries, and with a high degree of nurturing and respect, then any mistakes we make will be clearly overshadowed by the reliability and love you offer your kids.

[This is a revision of the second article in a two-part series.  Click here to see the first four mistakes.]

 

Why We Should NOT Ignore a Tantrum -- or -- Where NPR’s Health Blog Missed the Boat

Several people have asked me recently about Shankar Vendantam’s post on NPR’s Health Blog, where he writes about a subject I’ve discussed a good bit: tantrums. In Vendantam’s article, he discusses a recent study that appeared in the journal Emotion, where scientists examined different toddler sounds that typify a tantrum. A couple of objections kept nagging at me when I read Vendantam’s post about Green and Potegal’s science explaining “what’s behind a temper tantrum.” Specifically, I kept wanting to hear less about how parents can “get a tantrum to end as soon as possible” (though I totally understand this desire and have felt this way during many of my own children’s tantrums), and more about how parents can be emotionally responsive and present when their kids are upset. In other words, I wanted a tantrum to be presented not only as an unpleasant experience that parents can learn to manage for their own benefit, but instead as another opportunity to make a child feel safe and loved, which would offer the added benefit that she’ll learn to better express her feelings, and reign those emotions in more quickly and appropriately in the future.

Proactive Parenting: Getting Ahead of the Discipline Curve

When your kids misbehave, your immediate reaction may be to offer consequences with both guns blazing. You hit your sister? That’s a time out. 

You broke the book shelf while climbing to reach the matches?  You just lost your playdate this afternoon.

 Your kids act, and you react.

If you’ve heard me speak, or if you’ve read other pieces I’ve written about discipline, you know I’m a big believer in setting and enforcing boundaries.  At times, giving consequences may be the best response in order to teach lessons about appropriate behavior and observing boundaries.

But here I want to make the case for stepping in before things escalate, before you have to start thinking about consequences.  I’m talking about proactive parenting, as opposed to reactive parenting.

When we parent proactively, we watch for times when we can tell that misbehavior and/or a meltdown are in our kid’s near future, and we step in and try to guide them around that potential landmine.  Sometimes you can even catch the misbehavior as it begins to surface, and redirect your child in a better direction.

Yesterday, for example, my sweet and usually compliant eight-year-old was getting ready to go to his swim lesson.  I noticed that he overreacted a bit when I asked him to apply sunscreen – Why do I have to use sunscreen every day?! – but I didn’t think much about it.  Then while I was getting his little brother ready, he sat down at the piano for a minute.  He started playing one of the songs he’s learned, then when he missed a couple of notes, he slammed his fist down on the keyboard in frustration.  I stopped what I was doing and walked over and set an apple in front of him.  He looked up at me, and I simply offered him a knowing smile.  He and I have been talking lately about his tendency to lose control of his emotions when he gets hungry.  He nodded, ate the apple, and moved back into a place where he felt in control of himself.

I’m not always this quick at reading cues, and of course, sometimes no obvious signs present themselves before our kids make bad decisions.  But this particular morning, I saw the signs and, out of justifiable fear at what was coming, took one simple, proactive step to address the situation.

Sometimes all we can do is react.  But other times, we can take proactive steps to stay ahead of the discipline curve.  That might mean enforcing a consistent bedtime so your kids don’t get too tired and grumpy.  It might mean stepping in to begin a new game when you hear that your children are moving towards significant conflict with each other.  It might mean telling a toddler, with a voice full of intriguing energy, “Hey, before you throw that french fry across the restaurant, I want to show you what I have in my purse.”

Parenting proactively isn’t easy, and it takes a fair amount of awareness on your part.  But the more you can watch for the beginnings of negative behaviors and head them off at the pass, the less you’ll end up having to lay down the law and give consequences, meaning you and your children will have more time to simply enjoy each other.

Does Your Discipline Ever Move From Consistent to Rigid?

There’s no question about it:  consistency is crucial when it comes to raising and disciplining our children.  Many parents I see in my office realize that they need to work on being more consistent – with bedtimes, limiting junk food, or just in general – when they interact with their kids.  But there are others who have placed such a high priority on consistency that it’s moved into a rigidity that’s not good for their kids, themselves, or their relationship. Let’s begin by getting clear on the difference between the two terms.  Consistency means working from a reliable and coherent philosophy so that our kids know what we expect of them, and what they should expect from us.  Rigidity, on the other hand, means maintaining an unswerving devotion to rules we’ve set up, sometimes without having even thought them through.  As parents, we want to be consistent, but not rigid.

Kids definitely need consistency from their parents.  They need to know what the rules are, and how we will respond if they break (or even bend) those rules.  Your reliability teaches them about cause and effect, and about what to expect in their world.  More than that, it helps them feel safe; they know they can count on you to be constant and steady, even when their internal or external worlds are chaotic.  In this way, we provide them with safe containment when they’re exploding because they want an extra scoop of ice cream.

So how do we maintain consistency without crossing over to rigidity?  Well, let’s start by acknowledging that there are some non-negotiables.  For instance, under no circumstances can you let your toddler run through a busy parking lot, or your older child swim without supervision or get into a car with a driver who’s been drinking.

However, this doesn’t mean you can’t ever make exceptions, or even turn a blind eye from time to time when your child misbehaves.  For instance, if you have a rule about no toys in a restaurant, but your four-year-old has just received a new puzzle game that he’ll play with quietly while you have dinner with another couple, that might be a good time to make an exception to your rule.  Or if your daughter has promised that she’ll finish her homework before dinner, but her grandparents show up to take her on an outing, you might negotiate a new deal with her.

The goal, in other words, is to maintain a consistent-but-flexible approach with your kids, so that they know what to expect from you, but they also know that at times, you will be thoughtfully considering all the factors involved.

The biggest deciding factor when it comes to discipline is what you’re hoping to accomplish with your child.  Remember, the point of discipline is to teach, not to give consequences.  If consequences help you teach the lesson you’re wanting to teach, then great.  But don’t be rigid on this, applying the same consequence to all infractions.  Look for other ways to accomplish your goal, and to effectively teach what you want your kids to learn.

For example, try a “do-over.”  Instead of immediately offering a punishment for speaking to you disrespectfully, say something like, “There’s a much more respectful way to talk to each other.  I want you to try that again. You can tell me how you’re feeling, but use respectful words and tone.”  Do-overs allow a child a second chance to handle a situation well.  It gives them practice doing the right thing.  And that’s often much more beneficial than a time-out.

Or, if you do decide to go the consequences route, be creative.  Saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t fix the broken Buzz Lightyear nightlight that was thrown in anger.  An apology note and using allowance money to buy a new nightlight might teach more.  Try asking them to brainstorm with you:  “What can you do to make it right?”

The point is that in your efforts to be consistent, remain flexible to other alternatives.  Kids need to learn about right and wrong.  But as an adult, sometimes you need to be able to see the gray areas, and not just the black and white.  Make decisions based not on an arbitrary rule you’ve previously set down, but on what’s best for your kids and your family.

 

 

 

The Power of Touch

Did you know that a loving touch, like a hand on our arm or a warm embrace, releases feel-good hormones (like oxytocin and opiods) into our brain and body, and decreases the level of our stress hormone (cortisol)?   When your child--or your mate--is feeling upset, a loving touch can calm things down and help you connect, even during moments of high stress.

Is There a Good Way to Respond to a Tantrum?

As a mom with three boys, who are three, six, and nine years old, my experience has been that ages three and four are the hardest ages (so far.)  The parts of the brain that help control impulses and calm emotions are just still very undeveloped, but their emotional range and desires are in full force!  At these ages, when they are losing it and having a full blown tantrum, they are not really in a teachable frame of mind.  So what do you do? 1.  Identify with the feeling:  "You're really angry/annoyed/frustrated."

2.  Give the directive to stop the behavior "Hitting is not OK" or “No more throwing, please.”

3.  Change the situation (either remove her, distract her, or get her onto something else).

4.  Talk about the behavior when she’s in a calm state of mind.

I want to focus now on this last step.  Conventional wisdom says you have to address misbehavior immediately, or the child won’t remember.  But the fact is that a child won’t hear what you’re trying to teach if she’s tantruming.  So yes, address the issue as soon as you can, but only when the child is in a calm and receptive state of mind (and it might even need to be the next day).

You can do it in a way where she feels like you two are just talking, not like she's in trouble.  Just something like, "Hmmm.  You know yesterday, you got so mad.  You hit your friend, then you kicked mommy.  I wonder why you were having such a hard time. . . Do you have any ideas about why?"  This way, she's being given the opportunity to get practice reflecting on her behavior and getting into the practice of self-insight.  I know you won’t usually get great answers at ages three and four, but you’re laying the groundwork.

Also, ask her what she could do differently next time she gets so mad.  Ask what she would like for you to do to help her calm down.  Asking questions like these will help her continue to learn about relationships, planning ahead, the need to regulate emotions, expressing herself appropriately, etc.  It will also communicate how important her input and ideas are to you.  She’ll more and more understand that she's an individual, separate from you, but that you are very interested in her thoughts and feelings.  LOTS of opportunities here for wonderful experiences that are great for a growing preschooler!

When Your Sweet Child Suddenly Becomes Difficult

Renowned pediatrician Berry Brazelton explains that when a child has a new developmental spurt, they often lose some of their current abilities while they learn to incorporate the new skill or development.  This is why when your little one learned, say, to walk, aspects of their speech might have regressed a bit during that time. It’s the same now that your child is older.  You can probably think of “phases” they go through—often lasting one-to-four weeks—where they’re just not themselves.  You repeatedly wonder, “Is she sick?  Tired?  Hungry?  What’s going on with this kid?”  And especially if this is your first child, you worry that this isn’t just a phase, and that they might be like this forever.

When this happens, there’s a good chance that some big changes are happening in their brain.  This “spurt” of brain development could explain these “just not themselves” times.  When I realize that this may be going on, it helps me feel more patient and nurturing when my kids act up.   And I don't know if you've noticed this, but for my boys, it seems that they seem to eat more during these “spells” and sometimes experience growing pains overnight.  Then in the next week or two I notice that they've outgrown their pants or shirts—in other words, their bodies are growing during these times as well.

The good news is that the phase doesn’t have to last forever.  Eventually, your child will become themselves again, with another step taken toward growing up.

From Black and White to Technicolor: Helping Your Child Express A Wide Range of Feelings

Making a child aware of the emotional rainbow that exists within them is one of the best ways to help connect the left and right hemispheres of their brain. When they come to understand their own mind and the minds of others, they can then move beyond a black/white assumption that feelings are good or bad, happy or sad. Instead, they can begin to understand the broad spectrum of emotions they experience, and learn to name and express them. Once developed, these skills will last them a lifetime.

Sick of Time-Outs?

[Update:  I've spelled out some of my main reasons for not being a fan of time-outs here.]  

There are far worse discipline tactics than time-outs, but I think that there are some alternatives that can be better in certain situations.  Few children actually use their time-out time to reflect or calm down; in fact, it can even cause them to get more upset, depending on the child.  I prefer some other approaches that require my kids to get more practice using the problem-solving, empathetic, choice-making part of their brains:

  • A “re-do.”  One way I do this is by saying “Stop, please.  Now go out of the room and then come back in and ask me the right way,” or, “I’m going to take that toy, and save it for you when you’re ready to play with it nicely.  Just let me know when you are ready.”  Sometimes I even say, “I know you know how to do this the right way.  I’m going to give you a do-over.”  Not only does this approach address what your child has done wrong, it (more importantly) gives them practice at doing something right.
  • Ask questions about intent.  Sometimes misbehavior occurs when a child is trying to make something happen, and goes about it poorly.  By asking “Is that what you meant to happen?” or “What could you do differently next time?” you can get at motives and intent.  For example, if your child really wants another child to play with them, and the other child is not interested, your child might grab the other child’s shirt to make them play.  This would be a good time to ask these questions and talk with your child.
  • Encourage them to repair the situation:  Ask, “How can you make it right?” or “How can you show your sister that you’re really sorry?” or “How can you help your friend feel better?” This gives them practice at thinking about how their actions affect others, and how to begin to think about how other people feel.
  • Ask them to help you solve the problem:  “I’m not sure that taking the car out of his hand is the best thing to do.  But how we are going to solve this?  You want to play with the car, and your friend wants to play with the car. . . hmmm.  Do you have any ideas?”  This gives them problem-solving practice, as well as giving them a little choice, instead of hearing “Share!”  commanded all the time.
  • For older kids,  earning privileges for good behavior works really well as well (like a family walk, getting to choose what’s for dinner, getting to choose where they sit at the table, getting a game time or longer reading time with a parent, or other things that are important to them).

Clear and consistent boundaries are, of course, very important when it comes to good parenting.  The question is how to most effectively set and communicate those boundaries.  I’m not saying not to use time-outs.  But I do think that lots of time (and possibly even most of the time), we can find more productive and effective ways to respond to our kids’ misbehavior.

[Update:  I've spelled out some of my main reasons for not being a fan of time-outs here.]

Do You Discipline on Auto-Pilot?

When your child needs to be disciplined, how do you decide what to do?  Do you decide, or are you just going with what you always do?  Are you disciplining on auto-pilot?  Most of the time, when we need to discipline, the first question we ask ourselves is “What consequence should I give?”  Instead, I’d like to encourage you to begin asking three different questions: 1.     Why did my child act this way?  If we look deeper at what’s going on behind the behavior, we can often understand thatour child was trying to express or attempt something that they didn’t handle appropriately.   If we understand this, we can respond more compassionately, more proactively, and more appropriately.

2.     What’s the lesson I want to teach in this moment?  The goal of discipline isn’t to give a consequence.  The goal of discipline is actually to teach, but we forget this easily.

3.     What’s the most effective way to teach this lesson?  Answering this question may allow you to be more creative and effective in teaching the lesson, instead of just doing the same thing over and over.  In fact, answering this question may reveal that your current practices aren’t actually teaching the lesson you want to teach in the best way—or, it might make you feel great about what you’re doing.

Ask Tina: Friend vs. Authority Figure

Q:  Is it really true that I should be an authority figure and not a friend to my daughter?

A:  I hear this idea sometimes, too.  Something along the lines of “Your child already has lots of friends; she needs you to be the parent.”  I think this notion was probably cleverly expressed by someone, and it started getting passed around as gospel without any critical examination.

I can see why parents have been advised that they should be authority figures.  After all, children need structure and boundaries and to be held accountable for their behavior, and an authority figure provides these types of important limits.  All of this is backed up by scientific research.

But does that mean that we have to be only an authority figure?  Why this forced dichotomy?  Why can’t we be both?

Definitions always matter.  What do you think of when you think of a friend?  Predominantly, friends are people we like spending time with and have fun with.  Friends are people we talk with, share our lives with, lean on when things are tough, celebrate with when things are good, etc.   Hmmm.  Sound like something that would be great for a parent-child relationship?

In fact, the research shows that the best outcomes for kids result from having caregivers who have high expectations and enforce limits (as an authority figure does), but who also are very warm and nurturing (as a friend would be).  (I’ll be writing an article on this subject soon.)

The concern comes when parents rely on their kids to meet needs that other adults should be meeting for them.  It’s clearly inappropriate for parents to depend on their child to listen to them complain about their serious financial problems or to comfort their emotional turmoil, since doing so can cause all kinds of problems for the child.

What is OK, more than OK, is to have a parent-child relationship with a strong friendship dynamic as well.  Because, think about it:  If you have to turn in your friend hat and put on your “authority figure” hat instead, won’t you miss out on a lot in your relationship with your daughter?  And won’t she?

With my boys, I try to be both.  I’m not always able to make it happen, but I hope they think I’m fun and want to spend time with me.  I hope they want to tell me things, and I hope they feel like they have a friend in me—even though they know I’m also going to be a hard-nosed disciplinarian when they need me to be one.

Teen Rebellion: How to Respond and Cope

Mark Twain is said to have advised that when a child turns 13, his parents should put him in a barrel, close the lid, and feed him through a hole in the side. Then, when he turns 16, plug up the hole. I offer this quote not to advocate incarceration or starvation as a healthy response to teen rebellion, but to help you see that you’re not alone. In fact, cross-cultural research shows that there are two universals when it comes to teens: spending less time with their parents (and more time with peers), and doing things differently from their parents (teen rebellion!).

Help! My Child Has Anger Issues

To be so little, children sure can experience big emotions, can’t they? And anger is often the biggest emotion of all. Even the youngest find ways to let it out. Recently, my 2-year-old threatened me with an angry voice, “I’m going to color your face!” It was hard not to laugh. Poor (and sweet) kid. He was trying to be mean and angry, and coloring my face was the best he could think of. It’s good news that our children experience their feelings and get opportunities to deal with big feelings. The problem comes when children don’t handle their anger in ways we’d like them to. So how do we help our kids express their anger in ways that are appropriate and healthy? Here are a few suggestions. Say yes to feelings, even as you say no to inappropriate behaviors. It’s crucial that you set clear boundaries for your child in terms of what actions are OK. In other words, you have to say no to certain behaviors that result from anger—throwing things, hitting and kicking, breaking objects, etc. However, it’s very important—and this can be challenging for most of us—that you also communicate that it’s OK to feel angry. As parents, we often make the mistake of

Setting boundaries AND connecting emotionally

One thing that isn’t on the notes that we discussed is the importance of boundaries and consequences. It’s important for us to remember that connecting emotionally with our kids, joining with them, and looking at the underlying needs/emotions beyond the surface behavior doesn’t at all mean we should be indulgent. As an example, I think it would be weak and indulgent to respond to a child who’s crying and tantruming in public because he doesn’t want to leave somewhere by asking, “Are you upset? Why are you upset? It’s OK. We can talk when you’re ready.” And leave them crying and being upset, and not making them leave–giving them control over the situation. It doesn’t feel good to them or to you to allow their emotional states to dictate what is happening. A more appropriate response would be something like, “I can see that you are upset. Do you want to tell me about it? Ok, well, we can talk when you are ready, but right now we need to get in the car. You can either come right now on your own or I’ll help you get in the car. “ These are subtle distinctions, but important ones.

Sometimes they don’t know why they are upset—they just feel it. What’s important is that we let them feel that we care about how they are feeling, but also that we provide some limit and structure to the situation. For an older child, when she is losing it at bedtime, we can say something like “I know it can be hard sometimes and you can go ahead and let your feelings out. I’ll be here for you if you need me, and I can just listen if you want to talk or I can just sit here with you. In 5 minutes we’re going to turn off the light so you can get to sleep, but I can be here for you however would feel best to you for the next 5 minutes.” Our non-verbal tone of voice, body posture, facial expression matter a lot in how we come across.

I saw a mom at the park this afternoon who had a son who was about 5 or so. He was being a bully on the play structure and the mom didn’t intervene (saying she didn’t want to solve his problems) until another mom let her know that he wasn’t letting the other kids go down the slide, etc. The mom reprimanded him at which time he started calling her stupid and throwing sand. She told him they had to leave and gathered their things and kept trying to get him to leave, but never enforced it. They were still there when I left.

A way this mom could’ve been both attuned to his emotional state AND enforce boundaries would be to tell him that the way he was acting wasn’t OK and that they were going to leave (it might be OK to give him a second chance with a clear warning about what would happen with any future infractions depending on the situation and severity). When he started calling her stupid and throwing things, she could say “I can see you are really angry and disappointed about leaving the park. We can’t stay at the park because you didn’t make good choices, so we are leaving now. You can either walk yourself to the car or I will take you to the car. It’s your choice.” And then make it happen.

When we tell them “I know you’re having a hard time” or “I can see you are really upset” or whatever we say to connect with them emotionally and to let them feel felt, we also MUST expect behavior to meet our expectations, give consequences. We do want to offer emotional connection, but we never want to indulge their behavior. Again, it doesn’t even feel good to them to allow their emotional states to drive the situation.

Emotionally responsive parenting is at the heart of optimal development, but emotionally responsive parenting isn’t at all about being indulgent.