17 Mar

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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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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.

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27 Jul

3 Easy Ways to “Connect Before Correct” in parenting

Connection Before Correction is one of my all-time favorite Parenting with Positive Discipline mantras. I believe these are words to live by both in the moment of dissatisfying behavior, and in the long run as a foundation for any relationship.

artwork by Lana Tillis

artwork by Lana Tillis; phrase from Jane Nelsen’s “Positive Discipline”

Several years ago I began to feel like a nag to my then 11 year-old son so I tracked the content of our interactions.  On one side of a paper, I tracked the “correction” interactions.  On the other, I tracked the “connection” interactions.    After only one day the corrections more than doubled the connections.  No wonder we were both annoyed with me!

When children feel strongly connected to you (they feel loved, valued, and understood), they are simply more open to your influence.

It’s true for adult relationships, too.  Think of someone who really likes or loves you, respects you, understands and listens to you.  How open are you to that person’s influence?  

On the other hand, how open are you to someone who’s frequently telling you what to do, how you’re wrong, and what you need to change?  

If you’re guilty of jumping to correct undesirable behavior without connecting first, it might be for one or more of the following reasons:

  • It’s faster and more efficient to get right to the point
  • You believe the other person values your candor
  • You’re busy and have more important things to do
  • You feel the behavior needs to be corrected immediately

Sometimes these reasons hold.  However, when we focus on correcting behavior all the time without investing in the relationship, at some point, the relationship degrades and the correction falls on deaf ears (or even worse, defiant ones.)

So if you’re a “get it done and move on” kind of person, I invite you to pay attention to your own tally, and try out these three easy ways to practice Connection Before Correction:

1. Give Hugs.  So simple and effective!  Hugs (and any form of physical affection) release oxytocin, a “feel good” neurochemical, into the brain which helps the child calm down and be more receptive.

Correction: “I’ve asked you five times to put away your toys.  Do it now!”

Connecting first with a hug:  “Oh, come here, buddy (Big Hug).  I see toys that need to be put away.  Do you need help or can you handle it alone?”

2.  Acknowledge Feelings / Empathize.   Acknowledging feelings can help children learn that feelings are always OK, but how we act on those feelings is not always OK.  Empathy also helps children feel understood, which again helps them feel more calm and receptive.

Correction:   “You cannot grab things without asking first!  Give that toy back to your brother!”

Connecting first by acknowledging feelings:  “I can tell that you really want to play with that toy, it’s really cool!  And, we have to ask first.  Let’s try again.”

3. Say, “I love you.”  Start with these three words (spoken in a warm, heartfelt way), and whatever comes next feels softer.  

Correction:  “No, you cannot have ice cream before dinner, so stop asking!”

Connecting first with I love you:  “I love you, and the answer is no.”  When delivered with compassion and kindness, the “no” doesn’t feel quite so bad.

These three examples all use Connection Before Correction in the moment of undesirable behavior.   However, this mantra is most powerful when connection defines the relationship long term, not just in moments where parents want compliance.  

You’ve probably heard the quote, “I don’t care what you know, until I know that you care.”  I don’t know who said it first, but it sure rings true in my experience as a parent (and as a partner and professional, too.)  

So make it a habit to play, laugh, listen, hug, empathize, and share your love with your child in good times and bad.  That strong, connected relationship will be the foundation for the future, when your child is a teen or young adult, and you pray that your influence still counts!

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