You remember the children’s story about Goldilocks and the Three Bears. This little girl was playfully skipping through the woods when she came upon a cabin. She looked through the windows and around the cabin, finding no one to be at home. The door was unlocked, so she went inside. It was about lunchtime and she found bowls of porridge on the kitchen table. Since no one was there to stop her, she helped herself. Of the three bowls she tasted, one was too hot, one too cold, and one just right.
The process of setting boundaries for your child has a bit of the Goldilocks story in it. They need to be just right in order for your child to grow in security, worth, and responsibility.
Mom meant well when she dressed 7 year old Jody to go outside and play. She layered her clothes, lathered her with sunscreen, and gave her a laundry list of what she could do and not do in the yard with her friends. As soon as Jody wiggled from her mama’s grasp and ran outside, she jumped into a mud puddle, got wet and filthy, and ruined her play clothes. That earned her a spanking, a bath, and quiet time in her room.
Mom’s boundaries for Jody were too strict. At Jody’s age, mom could have asked what she thought she should wear and do outside today. Take her suggestions, active listen her feelings, and problem-solve with wise counsel. Jody may have known what to do, but with her mom’s overparenting, Jody’s response was a resounding “I’ll show you!!”
Seven year old Tim’s mom handled the same situation differently. “Mom, I’m going outside to play with my friends.” “Okay, son,” his mom called out from her computer where she was paying bills. “Just be careful and be back for dinner.” Tim’s mom’s boundaries were too lenient, giving him too much responsibility and putting him in charge of his actions. This underparenting is a recipe for anxiety, insecurity, and limit-testing.
Mr. Adams heard a crash in the next room and got up to investigate. As he got to the door, he caught a look from his 10 year old son, Alex. “Boy! What did you do?” he bellowed. “It was an accident. I was going to watch TV and just touched it for a second as I came around the couch, Papa.” His dad began to take his belt out from the loops in his pants, steam seemingly swirling up from his ears.
Alex began to back away and he started to cry. “Papa, it was an accident.” “All accidents are preventable, Son. You weren’t careful.” Alex got to the door to the back yard and paused. He looked back at his angry dad approaching him. “Don’t you run from me, boy. You’ll just get more licks if you do. Take your punishment and learn your lesson. Be more careful.” Alex thought a moment and retreated back into the room, resigned to the licking.
I hope that is not a scene from the story unfolding in your house. Alex’ dad chose to parent by fear and power, under the guise of teaching his son a lesson in being more careful. But who benefitted from this punishment? Not Alex. Oh, Alex may have chosen to be more careful in the future, to avoid another beating. But that’s not a teachable moment. That’s survival.
A mindful parent, whose focus is on relationship, as well as accountability, would have handled this situation differently.
Mr. Adams heard a crash in the next room and got up to investigate. He found his son, Alex, standing over a broken vase on the floor. “What happened, Son?” “It was an accident, Dad.” “You didn’t mean to knock the vase off the table?” “No, of course not.” “Okay, what needs to be done now?” Dad then got a dust mop and a broom from the closet and handed them to Alex. As Alex cleaned up the mess, Dad noted that the vase needed to be replaced and asked how that was going to happen. He also noted that the vase was his mom’s favorite, in that it came from grandma’s home and matched the room’s décor so well. Alex and his dad agreed to dig into Alex’ savings account and dad would take him to the store to find a replacement vase. When mom got home that evening, Alex agreed to explain to her what happened, present her with the replacement vase, and apologize for his carelessness. That series of natural consequences not only captures a teachable moment between dad and Alex, it is way better than punishment.
When parents came to me as a clinical psychologist, they frequently asked this question. The knee-jerk answer is, “Of course!” However, let’s think about this. Is your spouse a clone of you? Does he have your childhood experiences? Your needs? Your feelings? Your expectations of your children? Of course not. Presenting a united front to our children is a societal myth that many people buy into, but that has no basis in reality. When the united front does happen, one of you is giving into the other and, guess what? Your kids know exactly what’s going on.
Because each of us has unique life experiences, we each bring different gifts to the parenting table. When we are honest about that, both with ourselves and with our children, that’s a good thing. Learning to adapt, and that people are different, are teachable moments.
Okay, then, who’s in charge? Who gets the final say in parenting? The unsatisfactory answer is, “it depends.” Since we have been given the blessing of birth jointly, leadership in the family is a joint appointment. As parents, we must negotiate who’s in charge continually, based on availability, circumstances, and the unique challenges of the moment.
Paul told the church at Ephesus, “Husbands and wives, submit to one another.” This verse precedes the more famous ones, “Wives, submit to your husbands,” and, “Husbands, treat your wives just as Christ treats the church.” So, our togetherness as parents precedes our individual leadership in the family.
Jeff asks his mom if he can sleep over at Billy’s house this coming Friday night. Mom sees no problem with this, but she knows that Dad and Jeff are planning to go to an early Father/Son breakfast Saturday morning. She could say yes to Jeff and talk to her husband later about it. Or, she could say no because of the conflicting schedules. Better yet, she could put the decision on hold and confer with Dad before getting back with Jeff. Best of all, since Jeff’s plans don’t impact Mom directly, she could defer to his Dad, who could then negotiate with Jeff himself.
A united front in this situation would likely leave someone feeling less than. We each bring different things to the table. The catch phrase, “When in doubt, check it out” applies here. If a decision impacts more than one person, take time to confer among all parties, understand needs and feelings, active listen, and make plans accordingly.
There’s a cute video clip I saw recently on the TV show America’ Funniest Videos. A toddler is sitting within reach of a tumbler glass that is too big for him to hold. As he reaches for it, off camera his mother tells him “no.” He stops and then looks at his mom. He reaches again and is told no again. He stops, and looks at his mom again, this time as he tries again to reach out for the object. This dance occurs between mom and toddler multiple times, with each effort increasingly exaggerated, much to the delight of the audience. I think it won first place that night on the show.
This clip is so funny because all of us parents have been there, done that. We caution our kids and they try things anyway. In fact, I believe kids are hard-wired to test limits. In Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, one of my imperatives is, Kids Will Always Test the Limits. Why is that, especially if it almost always leads to trouble?
The answer is that kids always test the limits to be sure that they are there. Limits are about having/setting healthy boundaries. Permissive parenting leads to wide exploration of boundaries. This is a good thing because it encourages exploration, creativity, and problem-solving. However, it can also encourage worry and anxiety. In addition to the fun stuff, the unknown is also out there and might be dangerous. As parents, we want to encourage our children’s exploration of their world, but within healthy limits. We want to have their backs.
Mom brought her 5 year old Andy to my office and told me that she just can’t control him and that he runs wild all the time. Andy proceeded to demonstrate his mom’s concerns by opening doors, touching things, and generally misbehaving, all the while having a smirk on his face, while mom’s words of restraint fell on deaf ears. I gathered Andy up in my arms, gave him gentle words of calm in his ear, and firmly explained the rules of my office. He calmed down a little bit, but still looked to mom to see if I meant what I said.
Our kids are doing great? Fantastic. Celebrate and enjoy a teachable moment. Will they also test the limits? You betcha. Be ready with firm boundaries, and don’t threaten if you are not going to follow through. By confronting, setting firm boundaries, and being in charge, you are easing their worry and anxiety, while also freeing them up to safely explore and have more fun.
When my son was a youngster, he wanted to play baseball. Of course, I helped him prepare and he tried out for Little League and made the team. Come game time, he occasionally struck out. At first, he would stomp his feet, throw the bat, and cry. The coach rightfully gave him a talking to, as did I later after the game. It also gave me motivation to join an adult baseball team. If, at times, he saw me handle striking out, then that might help him handle the frustration better as well. How are you as a role model for your children?
Some parents fall back on the old saying, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Wow! Not a healthy perspective. Wouldn’t that promote hypocrisy and the notion of getting away with as much as you can? How about this one? “Out of sight, out of mind.” Are you one way with company and another way at home? How are you as a role model for your children?
You get no time off as a role model. Your children are aware of who you are, what you do, how you talk 24/7. Certainly when they are toddlers, you are their world. As they get older and wiser, you are still their world. They’re just not going to tell you, and they are looking to find fault and exceptions. Proverbs 22:6 tell us to “raise your children in the ways of the Lord so that, when they grow old, He will not depart from them.” If our role model is the Lord, and we demonstrate His judgment, compassion, and mercy in raising our children, then we give our children every opportunity to succeed in life.
We were at a theme park when our kids were 13 and 10. Where got lunch was very busy. The hot dog man gave us our order through the window and turned to get the next order. “Excuse me, but did you want me to pay for this? I said. He sputtered, “Oh yeah,” and told me the amount. I paid him. As we left, my son piped up, “Dude, why did you do that? We could have just walked away and had a free lunch.” He was exactly right. However, seizing the teachable moment, I told him, “but, son, that would have been wrong, cheating, and that’s not who we are.” How are you as a role model for your children?
When we go on vacation each summer, we buy a new jigsaw puzzle and lay it out on a table smack in the middle of our rental. At one time or another, each of us has put at least one piece of the puzzle in place. Some of us spend more time than others, but all contribute and the puzzle is complete before we pack up to head home.
The cover of my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, has a picture of a home with the puzzle almost all together. As Christian parents, we are all daily picking up random pieces of our family, looking at them from all angles, measuring, trying them out in a place, removing them, trying them out in another place. We look for clues by examining the picture on the box. That would be our ideal picture of how our family should look to the world.
But in our real world, we can't depend on what our family "should" look like. We are who we are. Our jigsaw pieces are three-dimensional, fluid, ever changing shapes. We are left to capture each piece in time and find a fit. We mold our shape to the shape of others in our family. Each of us is ever changing shape and yet fitting together as family in a unique, engaging, loving way.
Oh, for sure, there are times when individual pieces just don't seem to fit the puzzle. Think teens with hormones just trying to figure themselves out. Think terrible twos who are just figuring out how to say "no." Good luck trying to fit them into your concept of your family puzzle. The best we can do is change only that over which we have control. As Christian parents, we make every effort to be healthy, godly role models for our children. We can do that, and what we do and how we are has an enormous influence over our children, but they'll never tell you that.
The second thing we can do is be there for each of our children. Be there with time, with activity, and with heart. When little Tommy is out of sorts, set healthy boundaries, hold and nurture him, and use your go-to active listening to help him sort out his own feelings. Share your wisdom and find teachable moments.
As we go through life, individual puzzle pieces frequently fit together, occasionally . Savor those times. When all the family puzzle pieces align, even just for a moment, praise God, for He is at work in your home. Families are a puzzle.
Pre-teen Amy comes home from school and bursts through the kitchen door. “The other girls are being mean to me. I hate them,” she cries as she melts into her mama’s arms. You hug and console her, using your best active listening to help her through her hurt feelings. Amy feels better but concludes, “I’m never going back to school.” Your continued active listening brings her emotional fever down. She soon feels better and loses interest in talking any further.
Tweenager is the term for children who are no longer children but not yet teenagers. Tweenage drama is universal. You did your best in helping Amy with her immediate upset, but there’s more talking to be done.
Later that night, during the bedtime routine, you speak up. “Sweetheart, I’m so sorry those mean girls got to you today. Let’s pray that tomorrow will be better.” Afterward, you lead with, “You know, Amy, I have some thoughts. Do you want to hear them?” Whatever your child’s age, asking permission to talk to them perks up their ears and almost always leads to a yes answer.
Generally, drama comes from two sources, either worry or sadness. Worry starts with the question, “What if…?” What if they stay mean to me? What if I can’t get over it? And so forth. Sadness usually starts with the statement, “If only…” If only I had walked down the clear hallway. If only Kathy would have stood up to them for me.
Being a mindful parent involves helping your child understand their feelings in the moment by active listening. Then, help them stay in the moment as they interact with you and others. Consider my stretched out arms to be the ends of a straight time line that stretches from way in the past, on my left, through the present, to way into the future on my right. Take the midpoint and sweep your left hand out. Sadness is regretting the past. Take the midpoint and sweep your right hand out. Worry is fearing what lies in the future. By bringing both of your hands from the outstretched ends together at the midpoint, you are being mindful and staying in the moment.
Mom’s explanation to her daughter Amy was a profound teachable moment that helped Amy take care of her own problems, and not let stuff get to her, by being mindful and staying in the moment. Help your children be centered in their lives.
Life is full, and that’s a better option than life being empty. But sometimes a full life falls under the category of, be careful what you pray for because you just might get it.
In the Bower family, mornings can be chaos central. The alarm goes off but nobody gets out of bed. Mom drags herself up, rousts the two kids, and heads for the kitchen to find the cereal box. Dad grumbles as he gets into the shower. Mom hears her middle school daughter scream, “Mooooom! I can’t find the blouse I want to wear today.” Her high school son wanders sleepily into the kitchen wearing the same clothes he slept in last night. She starts to tell him to go change into clean clothes. Then remembers that she was too tired to do laundry last night. Her daughter screams again, startling her. She drops the box of cereal onto the floor and cereal scatters everywhere. Chaos central? Yep. Can this scene be avoided in your house? By all means. Three steps can get you on your way to a more cooperative, less chaotic morning routine. Join forces by using a family meeting to Prepare, Instruct, and Reward.
Prepare by planning ahead. Anything that can be done the night before, should be. That includes showers, children putting out their clothes to wear the next day, homework, strategically locating bookbags and electronics, getting the load of clothes done, and reviewing breakfast plans.
Next, instruct each family member on their role and responsibilities. Nobody gets off the hook, especially Dad if both parents work outside the home. Be detailed. Write down each person’s expectations and give a copy to each family member.
Finally, reward jobs well done. When you see the plan working, make a big deal out of it. It’s true that the carrot works better than the stick. Where there are issues, use your active listening to understand the frustrations and to encourage cooperation. Schedule a follow-up family meeting to re-tool the system and plan a family reward for the weekend after a successful week.
Because each of us has so much to do each and every day, your home can be chaos central at times. If you prepare, instruct, and reward the troops through family meetings and with active listening, with consistency over time, it doesn’t have to be.
“Why do I have to use behavior management, when I can just whip him and he’ll do what I want to avoid another whipping?” “Aren’t you just bribing your child to do good, with all that fancy psycho-babble?” Oh, the things I put up with as a practicing child psychologist. Don’t get me wrong. I know that you folks are well intentioned and that you have your child’s best interests at heart. Nonetheless, when you notice concerning behavior from your child, whipping it out of him may lead to compliance, but out of fear and at the cost of any meaningful, emotionally intimate relationship with that child.
One form of behavior management is simply defining reward and consequence for your child. “Andy, play nice with your sister and you both get a treat. Be mean to her and you will spend the rest of the day in your room.” This may encourage compliance, and reinforces your absolute authority, but does not bring you closer together.
When little Janey is involved in the process, then behavior management becomes a teachable moment, your authority is secure, and you are working on the “Good Kid” project together. In chapter 2 of my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, where I answer the question, “Who’s In Charge,” I lay out use of The Good Kid Chart. This is your go-to for using behavior management as a teachable moment. First, you define the target behaviors in positive terms. “No hitting your sister” becomes “Play nicely together.” These target behaviors are tracked daily through the week, with both daily and weekly reward for your child showing the behavior. Reviewing her progress as a part of her bedtime routine encourages the joint effort.
In addition to the Good Kid Chart, put together three, brightly decorated posters. With her help and participation, list daily rewards, weekly rewards, and consequences on one poster each. Be creative in what goes on each list. Encourage her involvement, but only include items that are within your time and expense restrictions. Once all is in place, try it for a week and see how it goes. As she succeeds at certain items, celebrate, and talk about what else she might work on. Remove and add items as she progresses. The beauty is that this is a fluid and continual chart that gives you opportunity to be an involved parent, work and grow together, and create teachable moments in your Christian parenting.
After my grandparents passed, we inherited their fireside bench. It was nice, cushioned, about 4-ft long, comfortable. We put it in our living room. However, in short order, it became the location for time-out punishment for our kids. “Son, really?? Go to the bench!!” After a while in use, THE BENCH became our hallmark of time-out. Our kids would just see my look, without words, and acknowledge, “I know, Dad. Go to the bench.” With the required sigh of consternation.
I actually studied the impact of time-out on troubled kids as a part of my doctoral research. I compared 5-minute and 30-minute time-outs in a classroom setting where the students were all troubled kids. I measured self-esteem, understanding of the consequence, and relationship with the teacher. With the longer time-out, the student’s self-esteem went down, they were clueless about why they were in time-out, and the teacher was the enemy.
A general rule of thumb is to give a length of time-out no longer than twice your child’s age. So, a 10 year old boy would top out at a 20-minute time-out. Be sure, however, to check on your child every 5 minutes or so, using your active listening to help lower his emotional fever during the time-out.
Finally, before a time-out is completed, ask your child these questions. “So, son, what did you specifically do that got you this time out? How did that work out for you? What could you have done to have avoided this time-out? In the event that you have these feelings or circumstances again, what are you going to do differently, so that we don’t have to have this conversation again?”
Given the severity of the behavior, your child could have both a time-out and a consequence. Time-out is simply designed to give him space to think about what just happened, cool his jets, and come back to the family with a calmer head. A natural consequence following a time-out provides a choice point for your child. “Is it worth it to me to act out again, or can I handle it better?” Such natural consequence might be giving apology, verbal or written, returning the item, writing definitions related to the behavior, or other behavior to help the problem be a learning experience for your child.
How much time-out works best? The shorter the better, but make sure it’s strategic, so it will be another teachable moment.