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.

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.

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

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