If your answer to this question is “no,” forgive me, but either you are lying, clueless, or gullible. All children lie. Some just better than others. The question is, what do we as parents do about it?
Four-year old Mandy slips unnoticed into the family living room, as her mom is in the kitchen finishing clean-up from supper. Mom pauses in her work and just listens. She hears nothing. “Mandy, sweetheart, what are you doing?” she calls out. After a longer than expected silence, Mandy responds, “Nothing.” Mom puts up her drying towel and goes to find her daughter.
In the living room, Mandy was attracted to the shiny, glass figurine of a ballerina that had been up on a too-high-for-her shelf in the bookcase. She had slid a plastic play chair over to the bookcase and was reaching for the figurine when her mom rounded the corner to the living room.
“Mandy!” The little girl froze at the sharp call of her name, losing her grip on the figurine. It fell to the floor and crashed into little pieces. Mandy teetered standing on the chair. Mom rushed to catch her, saving her from spilling to the ground as well.
“Ooh, baby. It’s okay. I’ve got you.” Soothed her mom, assuring that her preschooler was all right. Mandy sat in her mom’s arms and began to whimper. Mom rocked her gently until Mandy calmed.
With crisis averted, mom is at a choice point. Is this about power or relationship? Is this about mom’s authority or Mandy’s choices? If mom goes the power route, she scolds her daughter and punishes her. “What were you thinking, young lady?” Mom begins to pick up the pieces of the figurine. “You grandmother gave this to me after I won a dance contest as a teen. Now look at what you’ve done.” Mom vents at her daughter’s expense. Mandy cries softly, but pulls away from her mama, feeling distant and guilty.
If mom goes relationship and choices route, she calms her daughter and they carefully pick up the pieces of the figurine together. As they do so, mom asks, “Honey, I’m glad you’re okay, but what were you thinking? This isn’t like you. What else is going on?” Mom’s observations and questions open the door to understanding Mandy’s feelings through active listening. When settled, mom can address Mandy’s poor choice, set healthy boundaries, and give her a brief consequence to help her make better choices in the future. A crisis averted becomes a teachable moment.
Did you know? Parents come in all shapes and sizes. There are dictators, push-overs, just friends, overbearing, whatever, and absent parents. Most parents try to do the best they can do. Some are overwhelmed and just trying to keep their heads above water. What kind of parent are you?
Maggie and I had Rachel after 7 years of marriage. We planned our family and were ready, or so we thought. Rachel ended up having the colic, probably for 4-6 weeks, but she played it for 4 months. At our wit’s end, we sought help from specialists at the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital. Only the best for our little girl. The doctor took 5 minutes with our daughter and 20 minutes with us. After giving us assurances that our little girl was fine, he noted, “You know, guys, Rachel is now one third of your family. She deserves one third of your time and attention.”
Wow! That comment hit me like a ton of bricks. You mean, I can have time for myself and for my wife? Yes, you can. In fact, such time adds to the quality of time you have with your children. In Amy Chua’s book, The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, the author makes a case for being all in with your child. She says, “demanding perfection and mastery, at all costs to you and to a balanced life, is worth it for your child to accomplish great things.” Well, no thanks. The price is too high.
Others prefer the role of “the soccer mom.” These parents seem to be at their children’s beckoned call, shuttling them to soccer games and other events in hopes of giving them “a well-rounded childhood.” Also at great cost to you. Neither extreme provides a balance of activity and responsibility among all family members.
Other authors, Elizabeth and Charles Schmitz, in their book, Building the Love that Lasts: The Seven Surprizing Secrets of Successful Marriage, advocate for keeping the marriage strong above all else. In Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, I describe a Plexiglas pyramid, where above the point is God. As we are in relationship with Him, we have healthy resources for ourselves. As we are in relationship with ourselves, we can be there for our spouse. As the marriage is healthy, we can be there for our children. These pyramid relationships provide the balance of activity and responsibility within which all family members thrive. Where are your priorities, and what kind of parent are you?
Did my little girl really grow up that fast? Wasn’t it yesterday that I was changing her diapers and singing her lullabies? How time flies. Now, college is just around the corner.
“Mama, is this outfit going to make me look like a nerd?” Allison held a blouse and pants up to get her mom’s opinion. “Well, sweetheart. I don’t know. What do you think?”
Allison sighed and then puffed up. “Mama, don’t give me that crap. Tell me what you think?” Mom stiffened under her daughter’s attitude. She took a deep breath and then let it out. “Ally, you know more about what college kids wear these days than I do.” She paused to let her words sink in. “For what it’s worth, I think the blouse and pants look fine. They highlight your soft skin and your blue eyes.” Allison looked down and turned away, but then turned back toward her mom. “Mama, I’m sorry for biting your head off.” She paused, and then continued, “It’s just…it’s…it’s all so overwhelming. I don’t know.”
Mom gathered her young adult daughter into her arms like she was 10 again, and kissed her forehead. “It’s all right, dear. We’ll get through it somehow, together.” Allison continued to ponder, vent, and vary her mood all over the map. Mom helped her pack, but also active listened her struggling daughter. Allison both couldn’t wait to leave for college, but also was terrified of leaving home.
The day I left for Wake Forest University in North Carolina, ten hours away from my home in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, I remember struggling also. My little Chevy Malibu was packed to the gills, with only a tiny cockpit behind the steering wheel, where I could barely move. Being so far away from home, I only could afford to come home twice a year.
During such times of great transition, as the mom, as the dad, you need to be there for your child. Be there emotionally. Hang on for dear life and active listen all those feelings. The moods, the yelling, the late nights after curfew, the trouble-making, none of that is who your manchild/womanchild is really. Bail them out, literally if need be, but recognize that all is just a phase and not who you’ve grown them up to be. They are reacting to the natural life transition that they both desperately want and also terribly frightens them. If college is just around the corner at your house, hang on. You will all get through it.
“Get out, you little brat,” Emily screamed at her little sister. All Grace had done was crack the bathroom door to see if it was in use. She had to pee really badly. Emily continued, “Can’t I ever get just a little privacy?” Grace dissolved into tears. With compassionate active listening and a few hugs, Mom came to the rescue for Grace.
Many parents in these circumstances would have defended the younger daughter by using power and control over the older daughter. “Emily, don’t talk to Grace like that. Can’t you see that you’ve upset her?” Of course, while settling the issue, Mom’s comments would have fueled continued sibling rivalry and put a few more rows of bricks on the wall between Mom and Emily. A very powerful teachable moment would have been lost.
Thankfully, mom responded to Grace’s distress by active listening her feelings. When she saw her daughter’s emotional fever subside, Mom asked, “You know, Grace, I can tell you why Emily barked at you, if you want.” Grace was still pouting and added, “It’s because she’s just a jerk.”
After again consoling with active listening, Mom launched into The Talk with Grace. She noted that Emily was in the bathroom at that moment because she was having her menstrual period and needed to take care of it. Rather than launch fully into topics of human sexuality, Mom simply addressed the questions Grace asked. She particularly talked about the emotional side of hormones and how body changes can lead to moodiness, anger, and outbursts. While not an excuse for bad behavior, mom added that it helps explain it.
Grace calmed as she understood more. She grew quiet while thinking and then added, “I wish I was a boy so I wouldn’t have to deal with hormones.” Mom cautioned, “Oh no you don’t. You are just a beautiful little girl. Boys have hormones too, you know. They just come out in different ways, like being competitive, playing sports, boasting about how much weight they can bench press, and trash-talking others.”
The emotional side of hormones is just God’s way of getting us ready for adulthood and learning how to take care of ourselves. Mom turned what could have been a crisis into a teachable moment.
Early in our marriage, my wife received a unique, stocking stuffer, Christmas gift. It was a circular pot holder. On it was this message. “This is a Round Tuit. Did you ever think about something you had to do, but failed to get around to it? Well, now you have one, so, stop making excuses and do it.”
Often parents think about doing things differently with their children, but seem to be stuck in the same ol’ behavior patterns. If what you are doing isn’t working, then change it. The standard definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Now in middle school, 12 year old Anthony continued to get up late, miss breakfast, and run out the door, often missing his school bus. He rang up the tardys at school and was getting extra assignments because of them. He wanted to change his morning habits, but he didn’t seem to ever get around to it.
With yet another tardy slip in hand, he slumped in the chair at the kitchen table. His mom sat down next to him and heard his tale of woe. She used her best active listening, without judging, without her own solutions. Seeing that he was more settled, she added, “I have some thoughts about your frustrations. Do you want to hear them?”
Mom went to the family events calendar on the corkboard and retrieved the family “round tuit” potholder. “Here,” she gave the potholder to her son, “I think you need to hold onto this for a while.” Both laughed, as the round tuit potholder had been passed from one family member to another over many years.
Mom and Anthony then talked over a plan that involved collecting his stuff and setting his clothes out at night, an earlier bedtime, two alarm clocks set a distance from his bed, post-it prompts around his room and the kitchen, and cash incentive for daily and weekly compliance to his new morning routine and reaching his goal of being on-time for school each day. The round tuit potholder stayed in his room as a reminder, until his new routine was set in stone.
Do you need to get a round tuit? This cute little reminder will help you move from planning helpful changes to actually doing them.
So, fancy words for a very simple tool that needs to be in every parent’s parenting toolbox. You use a cognitive reframe when you take something negative that your child says or does, and flip it to draw a positive outcome from it.
Fifteen year old Adam takes the pillow off his bed, holds it up to his face, and lets out a muffled scream into it. Mom comes charging into his room. “Adam, are you okay?” “Leave me alone, Mom,” he replies as he falls onto his bed and turns away from her.
Mom moves to his side, sits next to him, and begins rubbing his back. “Pre-algebra kicking your butt again?” She asks. “I don’t get it…and I never will,” Adam grumbles. He sits up facing his mom and continues, “Just give me the F now and be done with it.” Mom gathers her son in her arms, “Aww, baby, I’m sorry it’s going bad for you just now. Come. Sit at your study desk and show me what you’re stuck on.” After a big, dragged out, sigh, Adam joins his mom at his study desk.
This could be every parent’s journey with their child. Thankfully, mom didn’t dismiss Adam’s words and actions, or scold him. Rather, she used both verbal and nonverbal active listening to help him lower his emotional fever. After he was calmer, she offered help. With her help, Adam had a clearer path to pre-algebra success. After the crisis, Mom could then offer a cognitive reframe.
“I guess, Son, you needed to blow off steam and clear your head so you could think through that math problem. Nobody got hurt. You calmed yourself down. You got the job done. Way to go. I’m proud of you. Another thing. You know, you can ask Mr. Stevens questions when you don’t get his explanation of the class material. In the Old Testament, when Joseph confronted his brothers, after they had tried to kill him, he commented that, “what Satan intends for evil, God can turn to good.” Think about that. How can you make a problem into a blessing?
“Yeah, well,” Adam added, “Mr. Stevens is pretty satanic.” They both laughed. “I guess I’ll get this stuff eventually.”
When you can re-state the problem as part of the solution, you are using a cognitive re-frame and creating a valuable teachable moment for your child.
“Awww, mama, do I hafta?” As parents, how many times a day do we hear that plea, or one like it, from our children? Give most children a direction or task that takes away from what they are doing in that moment, and expect the fuss and resistance. In my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, I devote an entire chapter to this fact. Children will always test the limits. Children want to be helpful and cooperative, but their direction is oftentimes elsewhere. By setting healthy boundaries, with expectations, we can help our children turn those have-to’s into want-to’s.
“Sweetheart, it’s almost time to go to bed. You need to put all of your toys and stuffed animals back into the toy box, and then I’ll help you get ready for bed.” Megan’s mama was well-intentioned with this direction, but she left Megan with some wiggle room and frustrated with one more have-to task that she’d rather not do.
So, what are the possible outcomes here? If Megan wants to stay up longer, she can stall by not getting down to the clean-up task. Mom did qualify that she would put her to bed after the cleanup. Megan could also ignore her mom’s direction, drag her feet, or do the task poorly. Any of these options could lead to mommy getting mad and Megan having upset right before bedtime. This could lead to restless sleep, nightmares, or other disruption to her health.
How can mom encourage Megan to turn what she sees as a have-to, unfun chore into a want-to? There are several options. Young children typically respond positively to challenges. “I bet you can’t pick all this stuff up before I count to 50.” They are also appreciative of help. “Come on, sweetie, you take that side and I’ll take this side of your playroom.” Reward works as well. “Megan, if you get this chore finished before your bedtime, we can spend more time together, and I’ll read you a second story.”
Any of these options help your child turn a have-to into a want-to. Always active listen their feelings, frustrations, reluctance. Remind them of the benefits of doing things they might not want to do at first. Turning have-to’s into want-to’s have a way of becoming teachable moments.
As parents, we are charged by God to “raise our children up in the ways of the Lord so that, when they grow old, He will not depart from them.” (Proverbs 22:6). That’s the signature verse for my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting. That verse challenges us to love, honor, respect, guide, teach, and be there for our children in all circumstances. It also challenges us to set healthy boundaries, confront, restrict, and, yes, even say “no” at times to our children’s requests. Saying “no” is a vital part of healthy, Christian parenting.
“But Mommy, why not? Huh? Why not? You said ‘yes’ the last time. Mommy, pleeeease!” Eight year old Amy was not going to give up her request that her mom accept being her 3rd grade classroom mom. Denise had hesitated in answering her daughter just long enough for Amy to hope her no could be turned into a yes. Reminding her mom that she was her 2nd grade classroom mom last year was Amy’s effort to play the guilt card.
“Sweetheart, it’s time for another mom to step up. I’ve got too many things to do as it is. I can’t add something else to that list.” Amy stuck her lower lip out and pouted, adding, “You don’t love me anymore.”
Denise could have given in or fussed at her daughter for accusing her of not loving her. Instead, she saw Amy’s emotional fever rise and active listened her hurting daughter. “Aw, baby. I know you’re disappointed.” She gathered Amy into her arms for a big hug. Amy pushed her mama away and stomped her feet. Denise began to feel manipulated and that angered her. “Young lady, enough. What part of “no” do you not understand?”
Had Amy persisted, a brief time-out would have been in order. In Chapter 3 of my book, I challenge that children will always test the limits. Saying “no” strategically eases your child’s anxious and fearful feelings. They need for you to be in charge. They just will never tell you that. You have needs and feelings too, and you balance yours with theirs. Saying “no” builds character and resilience, and can be another path to teachable moments.