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

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24 Oct

When Kids Lie

The topic of lying came up in my parenting class last week. We were role-playing parents’ typical responses to a lying kid:

  • “Honey, did you just lie about that? Are you sure?” (When parent already knows the child is lying)
  • “Are you kidding me? You just lied straight to my face. How COULD you?”
  • “That’s it, no more (fill in the blank) for you!”

Never Tell A LieEveryone agreed that the typical responses above didn’t help the child learn to be honest, but they also wondered what the heck else to do!

Strangely, the very next night at bedtime, my own teen looked my husband straight in the eye and said he didn’t have his phone in his room (which is not allowed in our house.)

We scanned the downstairs charging area where the phones are supposed to “sleep” at night, and didn’t see the phone there. Or anywhere else. So I went back upstairs and knocked on my son’s door. He opened it and handed me his phone.

“I had a really important conversation that I needed to finish and I knew that Dad would not let me finish it. I’m done now so here you go,” he said.

I replied, “You know, if you had explained that to Dad, maybe he would have let you finish your conversation.”

“No chance,” my son replied.

“Well,” I said, “you didn’t give him a chance. He might have. And even if he didn’t, was the lie worth the loss of trust and relationship?”

“Good night, Mom.” Apparently, it was.

“Good Night, C. We can talk more about this in the morning. I love you.”

It’s an interesting question for parents to ponder: sometimes, to the child, the lie is worth the loss of trust and relationship. And sometimes, the lie is protecting trust and relationship (in their mind, anyway, because “If Mom found out that I actually did steal that candy bar, she would lose her trust in me and our relationship would suffer.”)

So what to do? How do we help our children to become honest, trustworthy, and develop integrity for doing the right thing?

“We may treasure honesty, but the research is clear.  Most classic strategies to promote truthfulness just encourage kids to be better liars.”   Po Bronson, Nurtureshock

Here are a few tips gathered from various experts on the subject.

  1. Just know that all kids lie. Home observation studies found that “four-year-olds will lie once every two hours, while a six-year-old will lie about once every hour . . . 96% of all kids offer up lies.” (Nurtureshock by Po Bronson) I used to feel completely betrayed when I discovered that my child lied to me. Now, I am less personally appalled, which means I can respond with less emotion, and increase the odds of productive learning in the aftermath.
  1. Avoid punishment. When children first begin lying, they do so to avoid punishment. The threat of punishment puts the child’s focus on self-preservation, rather than on the bigger issue of doing the right thing. “In studies, scholars find that kids who live in threat of consistent punishment don’t lie less. Instead, they become better liars, at an earlier age – learning to get caught less often.” (Nurturshock)
  1. Don’t trap your child in their lie. If you know your child has lied, don’t ask them if they have, which is an invitation to dig themselves even deeper into the lie. Instead of “Have you washed your hands?” when you know they haven’t, describe what you see: “I see dry hands,” and invite the next step: “would you like some help washing those germs away?” (Dr. Laura Markham, AhaParenting.com)
  1. When your child has lied to you, be honest yourself. Jane Nelsen and Lynn Lott of Positive Discipline recommend you say, “That doesn’t sound like the truth to me. Most of us don’t tell the truth when we are feeling trapped, scared, or threatened in some way. I wonder how I might be making you feel that it isn’t safe to tell the truth? Why don’t we take some time off right now? Later I’ll be available if you would like to share with me what is going on for you.”
  1. Reward honesty with immunity and appreciation. This advice comes from Dr. Victoria Talwar, one of the world’s leading experts on children’s lying behavior. If you want the truth from your child, teach them the worth of honesty by telling the child, “If you are honest with me, I promise that I will not punish you and in fact, I will appreciate you even more for telling the truth.” Her research shows that offering immunity PLUS praise for honesty reduces lying by between 50-75%.
  1. Deal with the actual problem. Lying about having hit one’s brother is a problem, but the real problem is feeling the need to hit in the first place. So put the focus on the hitting and look for solutions to that problem, rather than on the lying. (Positive Discipline A-Z)
  1. Be aware of what you are modeling. Turns out, adults lie too, at a rate of about one per day, on average. (Nurtureshock) The vast majority of these are little white lies to avoid hurting feelings, protect ourselves from looking bad, or avoid engaging in something we’d rather not. When a telemarketer calls and asks if you are home, do you ever say, “I’m sorry, he/she’s not here right now”? Our kids are listening!

As for my own situation with my teen, the next day I told him, “Dad and I really value trust. And we also recognize that you might feel trapped – you both want our trust and you want to be connected to your friends at school, especially when there’s a lot going on like the Homecoming dance, homework, and the PSAT. We understand that. We try hard to be reasonable people and when you’re feeling pressure to conceal the truth from us, we hope that you will let us know so that we can look for a win-win.”

Will he lie less in the future? I don’t know. I can’t make him be honest. All I can do is my best to create an environment and a relationship that make honesty easier. And model it myself, of course.

I’ve decided to notice how often I lie today. Already caught one (I can’t believe it!  Dang!) More results later. ( ;

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04 Sep

6 Things Great Parents Do . . . at least sometimes

Let me start out by saying that if you do all of these things regularly, I bow down to you. In my view, these are 6 things that great parents do at least sometimes. Because doing them all, all the time, is a pretty tall order.  It is for me, anyway.

So here they are, 6 things great parents do at least sometimes:

1. Make time to have fun with their kids, 1:1.  I was skeptical when a parenting consultant, some 10 years ago, recommended I spend daily “special time” (1:1 time with your child doing something they enjoy) with my child to diminish defiant behavior. I don’t think I followed through. At the time, I couldn’t see the link between having fun with my child and getting them to stop being so darned difficult.

But now I know how potent this investment is. When children feel loved, connected, and really understood by us, they are calmer, more grounded, and quite simply, more open to our influence. In their 2008 Article Assuming the Best, Rick Smith and Mary Lambert cite evidence that teachers who spent two minutes a day for 10 days in a row by having a personal conversation with a difficult student (“2 by 10 Strategy”) improved the student’s behavior by 85%.  That is HUGE!  Imagine what 10 minutes a day might do for your own child.

And of course, the real benefit of spending quality 1:1 time with our kids is that we build relationships that nurture us both for the long term.

2.  Hold limits with firmness and kindness.  I watched some parents do this masterfully at a pool party several years ago.

Their 4YO daughter had been swimming blissfully in the pool when it was nearing time to go.  The Dad walked over to where his daughter was swimming, got her attention, and let her know that in 10 minutes she would need to get out and dry off.  He then explained that 10 minutes was about enough time to do 15 handstands or 15 dives.

Nine minutes later, he got her attention again and said, “One more minute!  Time to finish what you’re doing.”  After another minute, he approached her with an open towel and told her it was time to get out.  She resisted with complaints and negotiation.  But the Dad stayed there, and calmly repeated, “It’s time now.”  He didn’t get immediate compliance, but he waited patiently with open towel and within a few minutes his daughter swam to him, crying and whining about having to get out of the pool.  It was quite a scene, actually.  Her cries were loud and heartfelt!

But the Dad simply wrapped her into the towel and picked her up. “That pool was a lot of fun.  It’s hard to get out, huh?” he empathized as he gathered the rest of his family, cheerfully said good-bye to me and other guests, and left, his daughter crying in his arms all the while.

Nicely done, Dad!  He didn’t grab her harshly and yell at her.  He didn’t storm out while demanding that she stop crying.  On the other hand, he didn’t give in and let her swim for another 10 minutes, either.  He had very respectfully set the limit, let her know it was imminent, and then when she resisted, he held the limit with gentle firmness.

3.  Model what respectful behavior looks like.  One of my Positive Discipline mentors once said, “It’s very hard to be disrespectful to someone who is being respectful to you.”  I have found this to be true in my own experience.   What are our kids learning about respect when we yell at them, demean them, or avoid giving them responsibility?  Respectful behavior looks like:

  • really listening
  • moving to where your child is and getting their eye contact before making a request (vs yelling from another room)
  • following through with what you say you’ll do
  • giving advance notice for changes or transitions
  • giving kids meaningful responsibilities
  • letting kids make and learn from their own mistakes
  • involving kids in problem solving and more

Often people confuse respect with obedience but they are most certainly not the same.  Respect literally means to admire.  When we show our kids respect, we show them that they are worthy of admiration.  If we want to be respected, we must give them something to admire.  When children feel admiration for and from us, it is just natural for them to be more cooperative.

4.  Look for solutions rather than blame, shame and pain.  We now have overflowing evidence that punishment backfires in the long run, and often short run, too.  Blame and shame invite resentment, rebellion, revenge, or retreat (“Wow, you’re right.  I am a bad person.”)  Solutions, on the other hand, invite problem-solving or skill-building for the future. Here are a few examples.

A father once lamented that his toddler could not keep his little hands off the father’s iPhone. Every time the child touched the phone, the father put the child in time-out, yelled at him or threatened to take a way a toy. Nothing helped. Finally the father shifted his focus from punishment to solutions, and simply put the iPhone up high into a cupboard the toddler could not reach. Nice solution!

My own example is when my child kept forgetting to turn in his homework.  Week after week, he would go to the effort of completing it, but then not turn it in!  For a relatively organized parent like me, this recurring problem was infuriating.  I initially thought to take away his computer, eliminate his free time, or give him extra chores for every late or missing assignment.  But this kind of thinking would only address the behavior, not the cause of the behavior.  When I shifted my focus to solutions, and involved my child in helping to solve the problem, we came up with a way to tag and file his finished homework so that he was more likely to see it, and thus turn it in.

5.  Involve their kids in solving behavior problems.  As parents, we often feel we must take complete responsibility for solving our kids’ behavior problems.  We forget how powerful it can be to involve our kids in the process:
– First, kids are much more likely to follow through when they are part of the process.
– Second, when we ask our kids to share how they see the problem, we can get a much clearer picture of the problem’s root cause.
– Third, kids can come up with some great ideas!
– Fourth, as we involve our kids in the problem-solving process, we are teaching them how to solve problems for the long term.

After weeks (years, maybe, if I’m honest) of nagging, complaining, taking away privileges and angrily cleaning up after my kids, I finally asked them to help me solve the problem.

During a family meeting, I asked my kids to share their feelings about the messes.  “Sometimes I just forget to clean up,” one said.  Another offered, “I sometimes have to rush off to piano or school and I don’t have time to clean up.”  I empathized and validated their feelings.  Then I shared mine:  “My concern is that I enjoy a tidy home and get crabby when I have to clean up after everyone else.”  Then I asked them to help me brainstorm solutions for a “win/win.”

I wrote down every idea, theirs and mine, no matter how ridiculous they seemed.  After eliminating a few ideas that were not respectful, we voted on what was left.  The winner:  “Mom or Dad will say, ‘Rub-A-Dub-Dub, Clean up your mess’ as a reminder.”  I thought the idea was stupid and would never work, but went along with it to honor the process.  Then and even now, five years later, when I say that magical phrase, my kids go right to the mess and clean it up (most all of the time, not kidding.)

6.  Give themselves time to cool down before responding to challenging behavior.  When my child defies me outright, talks back, or ignores my requests, I immediately feel triggered.  I think, “How could she do that?!  After all I’ve done for her!  I will not stand for this!”  My heart starts pounding faster, my breath gets shorter, my eyes get squinty and I lean forward ready to pounce.

Inside, my limbic system is getting activated, and I’m moving into “fight or flight” mode.  But as energy moves into the limbic part of my brain, it’s moving OUT of the pre-frontal cortex, the part of my brain that allows me to use self-control, access moral reasoning, and find creative solutions.  In this triggered state, I’m literally dumber (some studies show that when angry, an adult’s IQ drops up to 60 points, or 50% of the average IQ.) How many times have you said something in anger that you quickly regretted?  That’s because you were dumber when you said it.

So while it is very tricky to pause before responding to your child’s infuriating behavior, it is way more effective to do so if you are feeling triggered. Very few situations are truly emergencies that must be dealt with immediately. Give yourself a few minutes to walk away, take some deep breaths, focus on nature, or write down your thoughts rather than speak them right then. When you feel more calm, you are much more likely to come up with a solution that is helpful, rather than hurtful.

So there they are:  6 things that great parents do at least sometimes!  I’d love to hear your feedback in the comment section below.  Please tell me what would make your top 6!

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