28 Feb

The surprising parenting lesson from my morning from hell

Whoa, this particular morning was a doozey. It took me a while to recover enough to write about it. Still not sure . . . but here goes.

Part 1:  Siblings Fight Over Piano Books2-kids-arguing

Thursdays are piano days for two of my kids. Their babysitter picks them up from school and goes straight to piano lessons, so they need to pack their piano books in the morning and take them to school.

This particular morning, it was time to head to the car and the piano books were not yet packed. I reminded my kids to pack them.

Jessie complies without complaint. Serena, however, thought her backpack was already too full and so asks Jessie to pack her piano books for her.

Jessie says no, “Today is art day and I want to leave room in my backpack for my art projects.”

Serena protests, “Your backpack is empty. My backpack is super heavy. See?”

Serena tries to put her backpack onto her sister, Jessie. Jessie steps away and says, “Stop it, Serena. I want to leave room in my backpack today.”

“Come on, Jessie, don’t be so mean,”  replies Serena.  “You have lots of room in there. Also, I always forget my piano books. If I put them into my locker at school, I’ll forget them.”

Jessie does not respond. She begins walking down the stairs from the kitchen to the garage.

“Jessie, you have to take my books.”  Serena says.  “I’ll forget them if you don’t take them! Just take them!”

From the top of the stairs, Serena throws her piano book bag down at her sister, hitting her in the head. Jessie begins to cry and rub her head.

You may be asking, “Where’s Mom?”

I’m at the bottom of the stairs, watching all of this in wide-eyed horror.

Part 2:  Mom Intervenes

Me:  “Whoa, there! What was that about? I’m pretty sure I heard Jessie say no! OK . . . now I just need to be quiet for a minute because I’m SO angry right now!”

After a few seconds of breathing deeply, I say, “I’m sorry that happened. Jessie, do you need an ice pack?”

Jessie shakes her head ‘no’ through the tears, and makes her way to the car. Everyone is silent (or crying quietly) while entering the car.

But as soon as we’re in, Serena says, “Jessie, why can’t you just take my piano books?”

I was doing pretty well calming down until then. And then, I lost it: “Are you kidding me, Serena? You just hit Jessie in the head with your books and now you’re back to badgering her? How can this still be about you?”

“But Mom . . .”  Serena tries to interrupt.

“You just hit her in the head, maybe the better thing to say right now would be, ‘I’m sorry I hit you. Are you OK?’ How about that?” I offer (with frustration.)

Serena, with robotic monotone voice: “I’m sorry I hit you. Are you OK. Now, will you take my books?”

Exasperated, I intervene again, “Serena! I heard ‘no’ several times now. It looks like you’re going to have to come up with another solution. Can you do it? Or do you need some help?”  We pull out of the garage and start driving to school.

Serena says, “I know, Jessie could just take my books.”

Boiling inside, not quite believing what I’m hearing, I ask calmly, “Any other ideas?”

Jessie offers one:  “How about you write yourself a note?”

“That won’t work,” replies Serena.

I offer one:  “How about you put your piano books into your backpack after you unload your binder?”

Again Serena refuses it: “I carry my whole backpack around to my classes. That won’t work.”

Then with a deep breath, I say, “Serena, I know you are creative and resourceful. What could you do to make sure you remember your piano books?”

And Serena replies, “Jessie could take them.”

“OK, that’s it,” I say. “I’m pulling the car over and will wait until you can let that idea go, Serena.”

I pull the car over to the side of the road, fuming, but silent, and wait. After about 2 minutes, Serena says, “Fine! I’ll smoosh my piano books into my backpack! Let’s just go.” (She is welling up with tears now.)

“Thank you, Serena,” I say, and pull back onto the road.

And then, I tried, but could not resist . . . THE LECTURE: “You know Serena, sometimes you just need to take no for an answer. I’m not sure why this is so hard for you. You don’t always get your way in life, and you’ve got to move on anyway. Blah blah blah blah blah.”

We finally get to school and I pull over to let my kids out.  I turn around to say goodbye but Serena is already halfway out the door, looking hurt and angry. She turns her back and walks into school.

Part 3:  Mom Learns an Unexpected Lesson

I pull away from the curb feeling pretty crappy, and proceed to re-think the whole episode while driving to work. What could I have done differently? Why didn’t Jessie want to help? What made it so hard for Serena to cooperate? Why couldn’t I think of something more helpful?

I called my friend and Positive Discipline colleague, Lisa Fuller, to get her perspective.  After hearing my story, she told me I’d done a really good job under tough circumstances, and couldn’t think of much to do differently.

There were, of course, a few things I could have done better:

  • validate feelings / empathize first (e.g., “Your back pack is really heavy and full today.  You really really wish Jessie would help you out.”)
  • skip the lecture in heat of the moment (would she hear it then?  no chance!) and find a quiet, calm, private time for the two of us to talk about what happened later.

But there were also so many things I did well:

  • biting my tongue and taking a breath when angry – HUGE!
  • giving the kids some space to work it out on their own
  • inviting problem solving by asking “what” and “how” questions
  • encouraging Serena by showing faith in her ability to find a constructive solution
  • being kind and firm and modeling self respect by pulling over the car

And then Lisa said, “You know, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”

Whoa. Excellent point.

Here I was, examining everything I did right or wrong, thinking that I have control over the outcome, but in fact my kids owned the way this morning turned out, too.

I tried to help them find a constructive solution to the problem, and keep relationship all the while, but in the end, I cannot make them “do the right thing.”

The morning didn’t work out very well, but as with everything, this experience was a life lesson for all of us.

And here was my lesson: I can’t make my kids be understanding, kind, or respectful. I can lay the groundwork, teach them, and model the best I can.

And I also have to be OK with them failing, and have faith that they are learning something in the process, just as I did, for the long term.

Post Script:  After school that day, when we were both calm, Serena and I debriefed on our morning.  She was clearly embarrassed by her behavior.  I validated her feelings and she apologized.  We gave each other a hug.  The learning was happening, after all.

I always appreciate your comments. Please leave them below!

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01 Feb

Struggling to come up with “the right” consequences? Try this!

Click here for an audio version of this blog:

Over the past several months, I have heard some questionable tips from parenting experts on the topic of “consequences.”  What’s surprising to me is that these are parenting experts I respect and agree with most of the time.  But not this time.

Here’s an example of one tip that raised my eyebrows:  “The consequence should be meaningful (something important to the child, such as favorite toys, clothes, or activities).”

In other words, it’s got to hurt in order to work?  Hmmmmmm. . .

I agree that kids need to learn that actions have consequences. The problem with parent-imposed consequences, however, is that more often than not, they are just thinly disguised punishments, intended to make kids pay for their mistakes with blame, shame, and pain rather than learn from their mistakes constructively.

Slide1If we really believe that mistakes are opportunities to learn, then it makes sense to think more critically about what kids are learning from “consequences.”

A few distinctions are in order here. Logical consequences can be defined as consequences that follow logically from the action. For example, if a child spills her milk, the logical consequence would be that she cleans it up (or helps to clean it up if she’s too young to do it on her own.) All very logical so far.

Natural consequences occur without any parental or adult intervention. For example, if your child refuses to wear a raincoat, she might get wet. Natural consequences can be extremely effective in helping kids learn from their mistakes, so long as kids’ genuine safety is not threatened, and parents refrain from throwing in an “I told you so.” Makes sense to me, naturally!

These days, many parents accept that punishment is not an effective teaching tool. They know that making kids pay for their mistakes with blame, shame, isolation or threats backfires in the long run, and often the short run, too. (See Why Punishment Doesn’t Teach Accountability)

Punishment backfires because it predictably results in one of these 4 R’s (from Positive Discipline):

1)  Resentment:  “Mom is so unfair!  I can’t trust her.”

2)  Revenge:  “She’s winning now, but I’ll get even.”

3)  Rebellion:  “I’ll show her that she can’t control me by doing just the opposite.”

4) Retreat:  (in the form of reduced self-esteem) “She’s right . . . I am a bad person.” Or (in the form of sneakiness)  “I just won’t get caught next time.”

Why am I talking about punishment here? It’s because many parenting experts tout consequences without pointing out how easily they can become punishments.

Here’s an example I use in my parenting classes to demonstrate how it goes*:

Serena, a seven-year-old child dawdles in the mornings. Even though she’s been told umpteen times to get moving, she is still late, day after day, and it’s affecting the whole family and making everyone late! There must be consequences, right?!

When I ask parents to help me brainstorm consequences for Serena, they typically offer suggestions like these:

  • take away her favorite toy
  • yell at her
  • no playdates after school for a month
  • make her write an apology note to every member of the family
  • no breakfast

Imagine you are Serena.  What are you thinking and feeling as you hear this list? How motivated are you to change your ways? How effective will these consequences be in helping you to build skills and be successful for the future?

Now let’s shift gears. Forget about consequences. This time let’s brainstorm solutions that might help Serena develop the skills she needs to get ready on time and more independently. What could we do that would help her be successful long term?

Here’s a typical list of brainstormed solutions:

  • help her lay out her clothes the night before
  • involve Serena in creating a morning routine chart
  • ask Serena what she thinks would be helpful for her
  • teach Serena how to use an alarm clock
  • get up 10 minutes earlier

As Serena, what are you thinking and feeling after hearing this list? How motivated are you to cooperate? How effective will these solutions be in helping you build skills and be successful for the future?

Both lists could be interpreted as “consequences” (the result of an action) but they are profoundly different.

The first is really a list of thinly disguised punishments — I call them “conse-punishments” —  meant to make Serena pay for her mistakes. They’re mostly hurtful. The second list feels so different:  empowering, skill building, and . . . helpful in learning from her mistakes for the long term.

So how do parents come up with consequences that are helpful and not hurtful? Jane Nelsen of Positive Discipline suggests you simply forget “consequences” and just “Focus on Solutions!” According to her, good solutions meet all 4 of the following criteria:

1) Reasonable

2) Related to the action/problem 

3) Respectful 

4) Helpful 

Let’s use “no playdates after school for a month” as an example consequence and run it through the criteria here.

Is it reasonable? Chances are, the parent threw this out in a fit of anger, and doesn’t really intend to follow through for a whole month. For me, a month seems extreme so it fails on this criterion.

Is it related to the situation?  What do playdates after school have to do with getting ready in the mornings? I don’t see the connection. Fail.

Is it respectful?  This criterion is not just about what the consequence is, but also how it’s delivered. I envision this consequence given in anger and without advance warning, therefore it fails here, too.

Is it helpful?  Great parenting is about much more than keeping our kids “in line.” It’s about helping them develop life skills and beliefs that will enable long term self-discipline. How would losing playdates help Serena become more successful in getting herself ready in the mornings? It wouldn’t.

So for me, this consequence fails on all 4 criteria and thus is actually a “conse-punishment.”

Click here to see how I used these criteria to evaluate “no breakfast.”

I admit, coming up with SOLUTIONS can be tricky at first. Here are some hints for using solutions effectively:

1) Make sure you’re level-headed before coming up with a solution. Give yourself a few seconds, minutes, hours or days to calm down and access your higher thinking brain before trying to help your child learn from their mistake. There are some situations where you must respond immediately. Most, however, are not emergencies.

2) Involve your child in coming up with a solution.  When we take the time to involve our kids in solving problems, they learn so many things:  that we think they are capable of solving problems, what respect feels like, and how to solve problems. What’s more, they are more likely to follow through with a solution that they’ve helped to find.

3) Plan ahead.  Our own disorganization has consequences too and kids can end up paying for our mistakes!  A little advanced planning can prevent many problems from ever happening.  Get up earlier, make a routine chart, discuss the problem with your child during a calm time, pack lunch the night before, etc. Planning ahead is almost always an effective solution!

4) Ask yourself what your child is thinking, feeling, and learning from the solution.  Are they learning that when they mess up, there’s hell to be paid? Or are they learning that you have faith in them to fix their mistakes, and will love them even when they are messing up big time?

The difference between a logical consequence and “consepunishment” can be hard to distinguish at first.  But if we give ourselves the chance to practice and consider the 3R’s and and H, we’re much more likely to encourage learning (the helpful kind!) for the long term.

Want more?  Here’s what Dr. Laura Markham has to say about consequences.  I happen to agree with her ( :

Good Luck!  If you’d like support in this awesome parenting job, check out a Parenting with Positive Discipline class.  More here.

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*This example, "Solutions vs. Consequences" is from Teaching Parenting the Positive Discipline Way by Jane Nelsen and Lynn Lott