“If you don’t clean up your room right now, you’re grounded!” Ellen yelled at her daughter, Brittany. Brittany rolled her eyes—again—and stalked off toward her room.
This running feud was getting to Ellen. She was at her wits end. She began to dread coming home from work because she knew the bickering and yelling would start as soon as she walked through the door.
Ellen knew she had lost her way as a parent, and she even began to feel that Brittany didn’t have the same level of respect and love for her that she used to have.
Ellen knew she needed a different approach but she didn’t know what to do…
Ellen was raising Brittany the same way she had been parented. We all do this. I did the same ineffective things in raising my daughter that my parents had done when they were raising me, and my daughter and I were at each other’s throats by the time she entered high school.
What I didn’t know then, but do know now, is how ineffective the following three parenting strategies are: considering yourself to be your child’s boss, focusing on your child’s mistakes or flaws in their behavior, and using repeated warnings and yelling to force children to comply.
You are not your child’s boss; you are his or her guide
It is so common in America for parents to think that children should do what they’re told without question; we were all raised this way. But parents really aren’t their children’s boss; they are their children’s guides and mentors.
Just having this perspective makes parenting many times easier and more pleasant! When parents think their children are “trying to outsmart them,” we are attributing to kids something that doesn’t naturally occur to them. They just aren’t that interested in messing up our lives.
What they are interested in is making their own lives as pleasant, joyful, and secure as they can. They want to feel safe and able to protect themselves. They are looking for self-worth. They want to be valuable and loved. They want to matter in a positive way.
They naturally have no interest in tearing down others—quite the opposite—they want others to admire them. What I think goes astray is that we forget this in the midst of the stressful lives we lead, and we resort to the power/dominance mentality of parent-child relationships. And when we do this, we turn kids’ natural tendencies for empathy, helpfulness and tolerance into disagreement, hostility and defiance.
I was raised in the era when parenting wisdom consisted of the old adage, “Children should be seen and not heard.” I was expected to do as I was told, not to be a burden, and to develop a quiet, dutiful personality. My parents weren’t beasts—but they didn’t think about how to teach me character in any way except to force it into me.
That’s not how kids develop character. Kids learn respect when they are treated with tolerance. Kids learn honesty when their parents are fair. Children learn compassion when they are treated with patience.
Repeated warnings and yelling erode self-efficacy
Children feel safer when their parents take decisive action, and they know that their parents will always follow up on their promises. Kids are basically insecure—they need to trust their parents in order to feel safe. When you ask your child to do a task and he or she doesn’t follow through, how you handle the situation sends a message to your child about how safe he is.
Your child needs to be given the opportunity to develop a sense of personal competence and you can help develop this by giving your child age-appropriate tasks and making it clear that not following up has consequences. Every time the task is not done, the child receives the consequences that have been established from the beginning. No bargaining, no reminders, no excuses. Follow up on the consequences without showing irritation or impatience. It’s simply the way it is: when the child does not follow through, the logical (and appropriate) consequences are delivered. The child learns to trust. The child learns how to control the environment to get good results. The child learns self-reliance and self-confidence.
Focusing on mistakes makes your child feel criticized and weak
It’s hard sometimes not to see the problems and the glitches as children try things out, learn from their mistakes, and make imperfect attempts to guide their own life, but if you do what I did—continually mention my daughter’s mistakes, your child will feel like a failure. Kids who feel like failures have the ultimate burden—they can’t feel safe because they “realize” they aren’t good enough or strong enough to be in charge of their lives. This psychological burden comes about because kids unconsciously reason (without even being aware of it) that if they are such “screw ups,” then there is nothing anyone can do to keep them safe.
Instead of drawing your attention, and your child’s attention, to his errors, it’s better to focus on the process at work—you are guiding your child toward self-sufficiency, competence, and decency. That’s a big job, and it takes time. Every small step toward the goal is a reason to feel pride.
Raising kids to have character is simple—it just isn’t easy. Kids who are given age-appropriate tasks, consistent consequences, and uncritical support become responsible citizens, good friends, and great parents. To paraphrase the Peace Corps slogan “Parenting is the toughest job you’ll ever love”…hopefully!