17 Mar

Three Parenting Beliefs that Kill Your Child’s Creativity, Joy, and Potential (and How to Turn Them Around)

We all carry beliefs that shape our parenting behavior. Many of these beliefs were formed in early childhood and are deeply lodged into our brains.

Some of these beliefs are helpful in our quest to raise kind, compassionate, resilient and responsible children.   

Some of these beliefs are not. These are killer beliefs because they kill creativity, potential, joy, and relationship.

Let’s start with one of my favorites . . .

“If I don’t nip this (fill in your child’s unwanted behavior here) in the bud right now, my child will end up homeless, forever lonely, a sociopath, or (fill in your worst fear here.)”

Have you thought something like that before? (I have.) When you have that thought, how do you feel? Maybe worried, fearful, or a bit panicky? And when you feel worried, fearful, and a bit panicky, how do you respond?

My response usually sounds something like this:  “That’s it! No more (thing my child most wants) until you can get your act together! I can’t believe you (did that thing that makes me crazy)! Shame on you!”

And now the turn-around belief that can change everything:

“The child in front of me is not the person they will be as an adult. They have lots of time to learn and grow. I can help guide them to become a respectful, responsible, kind and independent adult, but this is a long term process.”

How do you feel when you have this kind of thought? Are you feeling a little more calm and confident, patient and thoughtful about what to do next? In 99% of cases, your child’s behavior is not an emergency. You can almost always take some time to calm down, reconnect to your creative brain, and find solutions that might actually be helpful.

I remembered this turn-around thought about 6 hours after I read my son’s report card a few years ago.

My first reaction after reading it was despair, then anger:  “Oh no! Missing assignments again? And a lousy grade in science? But how could this be? We got him a tutor, we created a new homework routine, I put Post-It Notes on his planner . . . he’s clearly too wrapped up in his computer games! That’s it!  I’m throwing that laptop out the window! And no more iPhone, either!”  

My partner was completely on board.  

But later, I caught myself in the doom loop. I remembered that my child is still learning and growing and I did not need to react right then out of anger and fear. This was not an emergency; I could accept what had happened without catastrophizing and focus on what to do next.

Which is what I did. I accepted the report card for what it was in that moment. And then together with my son (the next day), we brainstormed solutions for the future. With this more calm, future-focused approach, my son was more open to problem-solving. He suggested that he meet with his teacher weekly to stay on top of material and missed homework. We also got more disciplined about putting his phone in the phone basket (out of reach) during homework time.

The result? Our relationship stayed strong, and his performance in science class improved. But even if his grade had not improved, a more even-keeled response increases the odds that he’ll be open to problem-solving in the future.  

Now here’s another belief I carried for years without knowing the harm it was doing:

“Parenting is a series of challenges to overcome.”

This one is popular. Is it yours? People who hold this belief tend to feel like parenting is hard work, serious, and full of responsibility. They believe that they must constantly be on the lookout for possible problems. They feel driven to find the best solution, as quickly as possible, for the good of the child.

I didn’t realize how damaging this belief was until my then four year-old daughter called me on it. One evening while getting tucked into bed, she said, “I don’t want to be a Mommy.”

I asked her why not.

She replied, “Being a Mommy is so hard. There’s always so much to do. You have to take care of everyone and everything. It’s awful.”

Yikes! What a wake-up call! My belief that parenting was basically drudgery not only sucked my own joy from the process, it stole some of hers, too. While it’s true that the parenting rollercoaster feels excruciating at times and can literally make you sick to your stomach, there are other times too:  beautiful, heart-warming, deeply satisfying times. 

Now notice what shifts when you replace this belief with something different:

“Parenting is a mystery to explore*” or “Parenting is an adventure to enjoy.”

What shifts for you when you choose one of these mantras instead? As for me, I feel lighter, more excitedly curious, at peace with the unexpected, and more open to the joy along the way. What mantra helps you enjoy the journey? I’d love to hear what you come up with! (*Thank you to Maria Antoniadis, PhD, for suggesting this new perspective to me in 2010.)

When parenting is a mystery to explore I could become curious rather than disgusted when my daughter came home from school, refused to clean up her mess, cried and then fell to the floor like uncooked spaghetti. Rather than, “My child is a whiny mess,” I can choose to think, “Hmmm, I wonder what’s going on for her today?”  

Then I might look in her lunchbox and notice that nothing was eaten. A-ha! Curiosity in this case might lead to putting a bowl of peaches in front of her (which I did, and the whining disappeared.)

Now here’s a belief that many of us hold, but don’t like to admit:

“If my child doesn’t get straight A’s and go to a top ranked college, she will be unhappy forever.”

This belief has us check over homework every night, make sure flash cards have been neatly created, and avoid giving children household responsibilities due to their jam-packed schedules.  

Not only is this belief untrue (check out Madeline Levine’s Teach Your Children Well or Frank Bruni’s Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be), but it also gets in the way of children learning many important long-term life and social skills like:

  • recovering from failure
  • standing up for oneself
  • finding creative solutions to problems
  • and even how to cook a basic meal

When we hold this belief, we value results over relationship. We push our children toward ever greater achievement “in the name of love” not realizing that love is the greater achievement.

The Harvard Grant Study, which is the longest running study of human development, charted the physical and emotional health of more than 200 Harvard alumni since 1938. The study found that the most important influence, by far, on a flourishing life is . . .  love (George Vaillant, in Triumphs of Experience).

The alumni who felt more connected to other people were not only the happiest, they were also the most successful at work and at school (Christine Carter, The Sweet Spot).

So I invite you to be curious about your parenting beliefs. Are they helpful? Or hurtful?

Beliefs become behaviors and “thoughts become things. So choose the good ones.”  (Mike Dooley, www.Tut.com)

To read more about how thoughts drive feelings and behavior, read this short article:  The Power of Perspective in Parenting

Like what you’re reading?  Subscribe to our (mostly) monthly newsletter here.

17 Feb

Your Child May Have The Best Solution For Unwanted Behavior

This story about giving up some parenting responsibility comes from Louann, who recently took my 8-week Parenting with Positive Discipline virtual class . . .

My then 3-year old son and I were at our favorite family camp one summer. My son loved to play in the woods – grabbing handfuls of red earth, and throwing them up in the air like fireworks. The beautiful color and sound filled him with joy as the dirt rained down over his head and body.

I, on the other hand, felt no joy when he laid his dirt-filled head of hair onto the pillow that night. I told him that if he wanted to play in the dirt, that was fine, but he’d have to take a shower after so that we could get the dirt out of his hair.

Seems like a very logical consequence, right? However, my son hated the shower. He screamed, cried, and hollered the whole time. We both left the bathroom feeling resentful and exhausted. This battle persisted the following night.

On the third night, while walking up the hill to our cabin and dreading another tear-filled shower, I thought to ask him for solutions.

“Hey buddy, I can see that you love playing in the red dirt, and I love seeing how much fun you’re having. The thing is, the dirt gets stuck in your hair and leaves a mess in the bed.  You seem to really hate the shower, so what could we do?”

And then, something unexpected happened. This three-year old child actually offered a reasonable solution. He said, “Mommy the shower hurts my eyes. How about I just lean my head over the sink, put a washcloth over my eyes, and you can wash my hair that way?”

I was so surprised because that idea never occurred to me! As soon as we arrived at our cabin, I washed his hair over the kitchen sink. He smiled throughout! As I dried him off, he looked me in the eye and and gave me a big grin with sparkling eyes. Then he hugged me and said “Mommy, I love you!” He was so proud of himself and I’d never seen him that happy and expressive. For the next year, that became his preferred method for washing his hair.

I love this story because it’s a fantastic example of how our children can help solve their own problems – whether they’re behavior problems or any other kind.

Just last night I experienced a heavy upset right alongside my own child’s when he bombed his math test.

As his mother, I don’t want him to hurt, or struggle. I feel depressed when he does. I ache when he aches (and often when he doesn’t).

Immediately I shifted into Problem-Solving Mode, and tried to figure out what I could do to make everything better. It’s my responsibility as a parent, right?

It’s natural to feel these feelings, of course, and it’s not wrong. At the same time, I don’t need to take all the responsibility for solving his problems, nor is it in my child’s best interest for me to do so.

I took a deep breath, empathized, and resisted the urge to fix (super hard for me). Instead, I asked him what his plan was.  And what do you know? He had one.

He said he had already written his teacher to find a time to meet.  In addition, he was watching Youtube videos that explained the math concepts he didn’t understand.

When I remember that my children are naturally creative and know themselves better than I do, and I invite them into the problem-solving process (or just let them own it), the solutions are often better than anything I could come up with on my own. (Would I have thought of Youtube?  No chance.)  Plus, when children participate in solving their own challenges, they’re more likely to own the solution and follow through.

The invitation can be as simple as Louann’s in her story:  “What can we do?”  or “How could we solve this problem? Any ideas?”

Simply asking the question — even if your child is unable to answer it — lets children know that you believe in their ability to think creatively and solve problems.

So remember that you don’t have to take all the responsibility for your child’s behavior or dilemmas. Share the load with your child. It’s great practice for both of you.

Learn more about joint problem solving and other ways you can help your children become respectful, resourceful, and self-disciplined for the long term at the upcoming live, interactive online class, Peaceful Parents, Cooperative Kids:  from conflict and chaos to cooperation and calm in 8 weeks.

It starts March 1st in a virtual classroom using video conference. Check out the details here.  You can participate live or watch the replays.

The joint problem solving process I teach in this class inspired one participant to write this article, How a Parenting Class Made Me a Better Manager (and Parent).

You may also enjoy this Joyful Courage Parenting Podcast in which I am interviewed about sharing the problem-solving responsibility with children.

Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to my (mostly) monthly newsletter here

15 Jan

Set limits for your children (that stick!) in 3 simple steps

I keep a notebook about each of my children in which I record major events, questions, and notes from parent-teacher conferences and other meetings.

I happened to be thumbing through my daughter’s notebook while at a doctor visit last month, and a folded piece of paper fell out.

On it, I’d  described a challenging parenting situation that I wanted help with. At the time (10 years ago), I was taking a parenting class with my husband because we were both exasperated by our daughter’s behavior after her baby sister was born.

Here’s the scenario . . . perhaps you’ve experienced something similar?

It’s bath time, and my 4YO daughter is happily splashing around, diving underwater with her swim goggles on.

Mom:  Time to get out of the tub.  You can have 5 more minutes.

(5 minutes pass)

Mom:  OK, time to get out.

Child:  Oh, please, just a few more dives?

Mom:  OK, 2 more dives.

Child:  No, 4 more.

Mom:  3 more.  3 is a few.

Child:  No, a few means 4!  How about 3 and a half?

Mom:  I’m not willing to do 3 and a half.  It’s time to get out.

(Child does 3 dives)

Mom:  OK now, time to get out.

Child:  Oh please, please just one more dive??  (She is panicky, and about to cry)

Mom:  OK, if we do one more dive, what are you going to do?

Child:  Get out.

Mom:  OK.  1 more dive . . . GO!

(Child does 5 – 6 mini-dives)

Mom:  Get out NOW!  (Diving continues)  If you can’t live up to your promise, I’ll have to take privileges away!

(Child begins to get out, but veeeeerrrry slowly, and very upset)

Oh, when I read this scenario I ache and laugh all at once. At the time, I was absolutely perplexed about how to get this kid out of the tub without resorting to threats.  In my view, there was no alternative . . . she drove me to it! I was the victim.  Hah!

I wish I’d known then about a little 3-step tool I created several years later.  I now teach it all the time in parenting classes.  It’s called, “ELC™” and it comes in very handy when children are pushing pre-established limits.

When a limit is being challenged, try a little “ELC™!”  

ELC™ stands for Empathy, Limit, Choice or Curiosity Question. This is a play on the acronym, “TLC” which stands for Tender Loving Care.

In the bathtub situation above, ELC™ might have sounded like this:

Empathy:  “You’re having so much fun splashing around and diving in the tub!  Wouldn’t it be awesome if the tub were as big as a swimming pool?”

Limit:  “AND (not but), you’ve had 3 dives, so it’s time to get out . . . “

Choice or Curiosity Question:  “How will you get out . . . would you like to blast off like a rocket?  Or leap out like a leapfrog?  What do you pick?”

Notice that the choice is about HOW not WHETHER to hold the limit, a very important distinction.  

You may be thinking, “Nice try, Marcilie, there’s no way that will work for my child.”

I hear you. It’s true that it might not work, because no tool works every time for every child in every situation.  However, I invite you to try it out, and see what happens.

Why does ELC™ work?

It works because you’ve started with empathy. Empathy puts you and your child on the same team.  With real empathy, your child feels validated and understood and is more able to hear and cooperate with what comes next.

It works because the limit is clear and concise. Parents get into trouble when they give long explanations about why the limit is fair.  Less is more.  A clearly stated, succinct limit leaves less room for negotiation.

It works because the child experiences some power in deciding how (not whether) they will hold the limit. By providing a choice or asking a curiosity question (usually beginning with, “What” or “How,”) you give your child some autonomy, or control over the situation.  Autonomy is a major driver of intrinsic motivation. (Daniel Pink, Drive)

Tips to make ELC™ work even better:

  • Don’t have too many limits, and don’t have too few.  Some children have so many limits that they (and even their parents) can’t possibly hold them all.  Other children have no limits at all and go wild.  Some but not too many limits allow children both freedom and safety.  I find that I can reasonably enforce 4-6 limits in a day before I feel worn out and naggy. Your number may be different. (Toddlers will need more, deep breath!)

  • Don’t fake your empathy! Really get into your child’s world so you can see things from their perspective. To them, they worked long and hard to get to level 10 of their computer game! It IS exciting and fun to splash around the tub in swim goggles!  It IS hard to leave Mommy in the morning to go to school. Let them sense that you really get it.

  • Don’t negate your empathy with a BUT. When you say, “I can see you’re really having a great time with your friends BUT we have to go,” you’re  negating everything that came before the BUT.  Replace your BUT with an AND. Both can be true:  you ARE having a great time AND it’s time to go.

  • Do agree on limits in advance. Whenever possible, discuss the limit during a calm time when everyone is levelheaded. When children know what to expect, they’re more likely to remain calm and receptive when the limit is held.

  • As children get older, even as early as 5-8 years old, do involve them in the process of setting the limits. Getting their input will increase their buy-in and follow-through because it allows them some input and control. You might be surprised at how reasonable children can be when their input is sought.

  • Do give advance notice that the limit is imminent. E.g., “five more minutes,” or “10 more dives.”  Advance notice gives the child some time to finish what they were doing, let go of their own agenda, and shift over to yours.

  • Do allow your child to be upset when the limit is held. Often we cave in because we don’t want to deal with a tantrum or argument.  But if you have established limits in advance, involved your children in the process of setting them, given them advance notice that the limit is imminent, and truly empathized with their feelings, then you’ll find that it’s a lot easier to kindly and firmly hold the limit and tolerate the upset that may ensue. It’s OK!  You’ve been respectful all along and your child will be OK and move on eventually.

Are you willing to give it a go? If you are, I’d love to hear about your results. Please leave your comments below.

Click here to get a 1-page handout on Setting and Holding Limits with ELC™ that includes more examples of ELC™ in action.

Note:  ELC™ is an acronym created and trademarked by Marcilie Smith Boyle’s Working Parenting.  It is a play on the term, “TLC” which stands for Tender Loving Care.

ELC™ is one of many tools and tips you’ll get at the upcoming Virtual Parenting with Positive Discipline class:  Peaceful Parents, Cooperative Kids.  Starts March 1!  Get more info here.  

Like what you’re reading?  Subscribe to my monthly newsletter here.