So it seems that the children’s story about Goldilocks and the Three Bears applies to effective parenting as well. You remember, Goldilocks found herself in the home of the Three Bears in the woods. The Bear family was not there. After helping herself to their meal on the table, Goldilocks got sleepy. She found their beds to be too hard, too soft, and then just right. I’m hoping that you are working on a parenting style that is just right.
“Patrick, you’re room is a mess. Stop what your gaming and clean it up.” “But, dad, I…” “I said, ‘now’ son.” “But why can’t I…?” “What part of ‘now’ don’t you understand?” “But why…?” “Because I am your father and I said so. So get to it. No more buts.”
Here is an example of waaay too hard parenting. Others would call this authoritative, or drill sergeant parenting. This kind of exchange is fear-based and power-oriented. There is no relationship here, only authority. Most children in this environment end up being bullies to their peers and can’t wait to leave the home when they come of age.
“Patrick, hey buddy. Your room is looking a little ragged here. Mind if I help you pick it up?” “Knock yourself out, Dad,” Patrick replied, with his thumbs flying, keeping his eyes locked on to the game. “Uh, do you mind putting your snack wrappers and soda cans in the trash can by your side there? I’ll pick up your dirty clothes.” “Can’t you see I’m in the middle of mortal combat, Dad?” “Well, sure, son. Okay, then, finish your game and pick things up before you come down for supper, okay?” “Yeah, whatever, Dad.”
Here is an example of waaay too soft parenting. Others would call this permissive. The child is left to his own devices, with no substantive direction. Who’s in charge? Patrick. Children are too young to be in charge. It just gets them anxious and hyper. They grow up feeling like they can do anything they want, with no consequences. They don’t play nicely with others. As young adults, they never want to leave home. Why would they? All their needs are catered to.
“Yo, Patrick. Dude. This place is a pigsty.” Dad moves to the gaming station and pushes the pause button.” “Dad!!! What are you doing? I’m in the middle of this.” “And you will continue to be in the middle of it after you clean your room. This room is a health hazard. You can be neat and stay healthy and still finish your gaming afterward.” “Aww, man…” Dad lingers and directs Patrick’s efforts, putting a few things away himself. As he is helping out, he active listens Patrick’s complaints and redirects to the positive consequences of his clean-up actions.
Finally, Dad got it right. This is just right parenting. It promotes relationship, responsibility, accountability, and reward. Kids with just right parenting play nice with others, are considerate, and plan well for coming events. They understand give and take, accept responsible freedom, and are launched successfully into young adulthood. Is your parenting just right?
Charlie came stomping in the back door from outside, grumbling to himself. His brother, Pete, followed him and mumbled, “Sore loser.” Charlie turned on his heel and started yelling at his brother. Their mom heard the commotion from the kitchen, sighed, wiped her hands on the dish towel and turned toward them at the back door.
“Charlie, that’s enough,” she started. “We don’t talk like that around here.” “But…but, he broke the rules,” he pleaded with his mom. “I said, enough,” mom barked. She then sighed and directed, “Go to your room to calm down.” Charlie stomped off and complained under his breath, “Sure. Take his side, again.” Pete smiled to himself as he found his iPad and cued up a game.
Mom went back to the kitchen thinking, “Well, that didn’t go well.” As she went back to drying dishes, she made a decision, “I need to go to Pete, apologize for snapping at him, and let him talk it out. I need to pull out my active listening.”
This is a snapshot of the journey parents travel from surviving to thriving in a healthy family. For all of us, stuff happens. It’s what you do with the stuff that makes for teachable moments. The journey has 4 parts. First, we tend to do what’s familiar, even if it’s not working. Then, when we learn something and decide it’s a better path, we try it. With repeated effort, and lots of missteps, we get used to the new path. Finally, the new path becomes second nature to us.
For Charlie’s mom, she caught herself on a familiar path, using her power to solve the immediate problem. That works well…for the moment. However, Charlie has lots of unexpressed feelings and sees Pete as her mom’s favorite. That makes for longer term issues.
How cool was it for mom to catch herself in old, unhealthy habits that were familiar, and then to venture out on a new path, active listening? She started with an apology to her son. With her apology, and then active listening, Charlie’s feelings went from angry and frustrated, to confused, to heard, to hopeful. She could see his emotional fever come down. He’s not off the hook for his behavior, but the process has gone from power to relationship.
After her conversation with Charlie in his bedroom, mom asked how he felt and then what he thought about how his mom handled the situation. Afterward, she told him that she was trying out active listening as a way to understand him and his needs and feelings better. Charlie said he liked it and told her to keep doing it. Such is a parent’s journey to thriving, and to many more teachable moments.
“You know, Joe and I have a great relationship,” started Marilyn in the first counseling session. “We do things together,” she continued, “and our love life is good. We share common interests. The problem is, though, we never talk. You know, just sit down and talk. So that’s why I thought marital counseling might be helpful. You know, just to learn to talk more with each other.”
As their therapist, I let Marilyn continue for a while. Joe sat on his end of the couch, staring at his hands. Occasionally, he sighed, or nodded in agreement with his wife. Once, he started to say something, but Marilyn shushed him and directed him to let her finish.
Finally, I put my hand up in a stop motion to Marilyn and, after she stopped talking, then I turned to Joe. “So, Joe,” I started, “why do you think that you and your wife don’t, just, you know, ever talk much?”
“Well, I,” Joe started to respond, but Marilyn tried to cut him off and answer for him. “He just…” I stopped her again, gently put my index finger to my lips, and took a deep breath. Marilyn hushed and looked expectantly to her husband.
“You see, Doc, I can’t get a word in edgewise,” he said, continuing, “She talks for the both of us, so I just nod in agreement and go about my business.”
A lot of parents also feel shut out of their children’s lives. Especially teens tend to keep their own company, until given time and space to talk. The cure for such family dynamics is for parents to listen in general and to active listen in particular. Listening to hear your child’s feelings will open them up to want to share more with you.
Also, when time and circumstances allow, ask about their day, their schoolwork, their activities, their friends. These things are their world and you can enter it with permission when you ask. Don’t settle for one-word responses from your child. Be playful but persistent in drawing them into a conversation with you. And remember, the conversation is about them, not about you. So, keep in mind that you will get farther doing more listening than talking.
Does it feel sometimes that you are running around like a chicken with your head cut off? Do you wish you were an 8-armed octopus, just so you could keep up with the many and varied demands on your time and help? You know what? Me too,
sometimes. There are, however, ways to keep yourself and your family more organized.
“Mommy,” pleaded 10 year old Allison, “can I please, please, please have Sara spend the night tonight?”
“Yo Mom,” called 16-year old Buck from his bedroom, “is my green shirt washed yet? I’m taking Cloe to dinner tonight.”
“Sweetheart,” called Nick as he left for work, “don’t forget we’re meeting my boss and his wife for dinner tonight.”
Whew! What a whirlwind of activity in the Lawson household. Mom, Mary Lawson, has her hands full, if she lets her brood get away with it. She wouldn’t have all of these demands on her if she were more organized, if she delegated, and if she revised house rules.
First, a good rule for families with young and teen children is that every request for entertainment requires at least 3 days’ notice. Sleepovers, going to the movies, car keys for dates, all fall into the entertainment category. This not only gives you planning time, but also teaches your child responsibility and consideration as to how their requests affect others around them.
Second, as soon as your kids can do for themselves, teach them and let them. Buck’s green shirt? His job. His responsibility, not yours. If he complains and cajoles, active listen his frustration and encourage a plan B that he can undertake (another clean shirt, maybe?)
Third, a habit of weekly family planning meetings and a family calendar placed in the common area of the home, say the kitchen or family room or hallway, covers a multitude of logistical problems. Mary can and should be ready for the work dinner with the boss if it’s been on the family calendar.
Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but being all things to all people at every moment is not an option. There are ways to keep yourself and your family organized.
Even the best of children have their moments. Younger ones will cut their eyes at you while testing your limit. “Will she catch me?” “Does she really mean that ‘no’?” Even the worst of children have their moments when they want to do and be good. What’s your best course of action? Always choose first to catch ‘em being good.
When called to the table, 13 year old Alec groused that he didn’t feel like coming to eat dinner with the family. He shuffled out of his room, earbuds in place, wanting to be anywhere else but eating supper with his family. As he sat down, dad gave him “that look.” Alec huffed and whispered, “This is such B.S.”
At that point, Alec’s folks had a choice to make. They could focus on their son’ attitude. “Enough, young man. Lose the attitude. Eat your dinner.” Such a parental response is very common. Parental authority and family values are being challenged. They would have every right to chastise their son for his disrespect, behavior, and language. If they chose this option, however, they would be trading relationship for power. Do you want your family interaction to be based on your power, or on quality relationship?
Or, Alec’s folks could choose to focus on his compliance, even when everything else screamed rebellion. They would start the meal by holding hands and blessing the food. Alec might offer his pinky finger to another at this point, or nothing at all. Mom and dad would make small talk, engage other children at the table, and draw Alec into the conversation in some small way.
Assuming the meal goes well, considering, then at conclusion, mom or dad could catch Alec being good. “You know, Son, you made a good choice coming to the table and eating with the family even though it was the last thing you wanted to do. I know you are trying to find your way, and family doesn’t seem to mean much to you right now. Family means a lot to us, obviously, and I thank you for joining us for dinner.”
When given options, choose nurturing the relationship over exercising your power. Your child will remember that lots longer. Pay attention to what you want to grow in your child. Catch ‘em being good.
Every good parent feeds their children regularly, 3 meals a day if possible. Sometimes meals consist of a sandwich or two. Meals help our children grow physically. A sandwiched comment can help our children grow in character emotionally and spiritually.
Alec is 6 years old. He gets frustrated reading out loud. When left to his own devices, he takes hints from the pictures and guesses the content of passages. His daddy is trying to help him read at bedtime.
“Okay, son. You read the first paragraph and I’ll read the next,” daddy coaxes his reluctant son, making the task a joint effort.
“You read it all to me, daddy. I don’t feel like it tonight.”
“Aw, son, you know your teacher told us to help you keep up with your reading. I understand how hard it is for you at times, but maybe we can struggle through it together. Okay? Let’s give it a try.”
Adam turned his back to his dad and grumbled to himself. Dad saw the emotional fever mounting and tried active listening. “It’s tough trying hard things, huh. You’re frustrated.”
Adam turned back to his daddy. “What do you do when you’re frustrated, daddy?” His dad told him a relevant story that happened at his work this past week and concluded, “Well, even though it was tough, I tried. I didn’t do it perfectly, but trying and getting more of it right helped me want to try more.” His dad then tickled his son and encouraged him to try reading. After struggling through the storybook, dad noted, “Look at you. You tried even though you didn’t want to. You missed a few words, but you used your phonics rules to sound them out. Let’s keep trying every night until you get it, okay son? I’m so proud of you.”
What dad used is what’s called “The Sandwich Effect.” When helping your child with hard things, or with making needed changes, start with a praise statement. Follow that with a critique. Conclude with another praise statement. This learning sandwich goes down much better for children. The credit you give them helps reinforce the learning. When looking for change, give your child a sandwich.
Do you like surprises? Some people do. Some do not. Most who don’t like surprises have some difficulty with self-consciousness, being the center of attention, or losing control. Others have had a bad experience with surprises and the memory lingers.
Transitions are not necessarily surprises. In fact, most transitions are very normal. However, we can even be thrown off our game by normal, expected transitions.
For school children, normal daily transitions include from asleep to awake, from home to school, from classroom to connections or lunch, from school to home, and from awake back to asleep. Sounds like normal stuff, but the issues most children will find often occur around or because of these and other, unexpected changes.
Eight year old Joey was a bear to get up in the morning. Every day mom felt like she was wrestling an alligator. She started being pleasant and low-key. “Hey, fella. It’s another glorious day. The sun is shining and your friends are waiting to say ‘hi’ to you at the bus stop. Let’s get some good breakfast and you can be on your way.”
Every morning, mom started out being pleasant, but Joey will have none of it. “Awww, ma. Just a few more minutes. I promise I will get up then.” And the battle begins. Some days Joey complies. Other day’s mom resorts to yelling and threatening.
For mornings and other transitions for your children, consider giving them a 5 to 10 minute heads up. First, in a quiet time away from transitions, talk to your child about how transitions are going. Active listen his feelings about change and share your frustrations with helping him adapt. Conclude with, “Sooo, looks like we have a problem and neither one of us likes how this has been going. Any suggestions?”
The “heads up” rule is a universal starting point. Adjust bed time and awakening time to account for the extra 5 to 10 minutes transition. Minimize conflict by pre-planning. For example, help him get school clothes and book bag ready the night before. Make decisions about breakfast with input the night before. Smooth out other potential wrinkles ahead of time to allow for an easy transition. Finally, mark out a trial period for all of the changes and identify reward and consequence based on your child’s efforts and response.
Transitions can be tough, but the “heads up” rule can help them go better for all of you.
We all live in a fast-paced era of computers and electronics. Many families struggle with the proverbial tail wagging the dog. Is that your home?
“Jason? Dinner, son.” His dad called out from downstairs, while Jason continued gaming on his computer in his bedroom. A pile of homework lay untouched on his desk next to his bed.
“Jason! Come on, son. Don’t let your dinner get cold.” Jason could hear frustration in his dad’s voice. He called out, “Okay, Dad. In a minute. Just let me get to where I can pause this game.”
“No, son. Now! Put the game up and get down here.” Jason paused his game and started downstairs. “Geez, Dad. Don’t get your panties in a wad.”
This kind of hassle and disrespect on both sides can be eased with a few additional house rules. Computers, cell phones, smart phones all have great, unbelievable benefit to our lives. Research, information, and fun are all easier, faster, and more readily available. The question is, though, at what cost? When electronics interfere with, or take the place of, relationships, especially in your family, it’s time for a family meeting. Talk about the impact, the trade-off, the needs and feelings, and find a way to safeguard family and relationship while also benefitting from all of these electronics.
Currently, there is a Wait Until 8th movement that encourages parents to not get their younger children smart phones until at least they are in the 8th grade. Some phone services offer contract plans with GPS, texting and calling only to specified numbers, but no apps. A Colorado physician who instigated Parents Against Underage Smart Phones (known as PAUS) found that 13-15 million kids in the US are on devices without content restrictions. Parliament in the country of Ireland passes a law this year, The Internet Access for Minors Law, 2017, where parents can be fined when found that their children under age 14 are on internet enabled devises unsupervised.
A couple of suggestions for kid-friendly, family-friendly use of electronics. First, limit gaming to 1 hr/day for children and only after homework and other duties are completed. Second, have as many family meals together as you can, and have them without electronics. Finally, collect electronics from your children at bedtime, so they can enjoy more and longer quality sleep. Return them in the morning.
Consider these rules for electronics in your family and you will find both respect and relationships dramatically improving.
“What? Oh, sure, honey. Yeah.” Her dad was peering intently at his computer screen, while 8 year old Alexa was rubbing her elbow. She didn’t think her daddy was listening, but he said he was. So, she went on.
“Why do they call it my funny bone? There’s nothing funny about knocking it on the door frame and getting all tingly.” She paused and peered at her father, as her dad’s focus continued glued to his screen.
“It hurts, Dad. I think I broke it.”
“Uh, huh.” Was the only response she got from her dad. Alexa sighed, rubbing her elbow, and concluded, “Oh, never mind.” She then walked away.
So, Alexa’s dad may have been hearing her, but he certainly was not listening. He was in his own world where Alexa didn’t exist or, at best, was an intrusion. No parent intentionally puts their child in that position of invisibility.
Hearing is a neurological phenomenon, where sound waves enter the ear, connect with the auditory nerve, convert to neurotransmission, and are sent to the brain for interpretation. It’s medically very elegant. One of God’s ways of alerting us to our surroundings. But in relationship, hearing another is only the tip of the iceberg.
In the ocean, we only see 10% of a floating iceberg. 90% is underwater. Similarly, hearing is only 10% of relationship. Listening is the other 90%. Listening generates interaction with your child.
If daddy had been interested and really wanted to hear Alexa, He would have done several things immediately after she came to him. He would have paused his computer program and turned the screen blank.
He would have turned from his desk and faced Alexa straight on at her eye level. If he was unsure of her comments, he would have asked for clarification. Seeing that she had physical pain, having bumped her elbow, he would have asked to examine the injury. Knowing by her words and actions that she had an emotional fever, he would have gathered Alexa into his arms for a hug and then used active listening to help her understand her feelings. As he saw Alexa’s emotional fever lessen, he might have turned to the funny bone comment and had a teachable moment with his daughter. Listening is much more than hearing. Are you listening to your spouse and children?
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.