Most parenting books get it wrong. They get it wrong as soon as the book opens and you are told how to solve some problem your kid is having.
The biggest reason they get it wrong is because they suggest things you should do to a kid – some system – that they swear will solve the problem. And then a parent launches into 1-2-3 Magic or some other technique that might produce some short term altered behaviors but long term, nothing much changes.
Let’s start with the beloved 1-2-3 Magic, because it’s the worst invention ever. Basically if a child is misbehaving or you need them to do something you count in a regimented way, and if they still don’t comply, you slam them into a time out.
Well, here’s the problem. Most of teaching kids is setting expectations, helping them understand and accept the expectations, and then teaching them to self-soothe and find the motivation to comply with the expectation. That’s it.
I have found that most parenting books find ways to actually interfere with this process.
First up is setting expectations. We spend too much time telling kids how to act, but not enough time clarifying and holding to the expectation. You don’t tell a kid to hang up their coat when what you really want to teach them is to put away their things. You end up struggling over the coat and miss the bigger lesson.
“We must put away our things.” must be followed by the second part of this. You can ask your child if they are older, “Do you know why we must put away our things?” They probably can answer with a lot of reasons: so that the house doesn’t get messy…okay go on…(that isn’t a very compelling reason for kids, really)…so that we can find our things when we need them later….(a bit stronger reason, no?)….so that our things are well-cared for and last….
If you start at a young enough age you won’t even remember having the conversation, not until the kid gets older and starts to rebel a bit. Well, then it’s time to regroup and have the conversation again. You can go over all the reasons why and see what the kid has to say about it and generally speaking agree at the end of the day that putting things away is important. But they might not do it.
Then what? Well this is where you must get creative and be persistent. Say your kid comes home from soccer and throws their clothes on the floor. What now? Personally I wouldn’t ask them to put their clothes away. I think that already sets you up for failure. At the most I would say, “How will you have clothes for the next soccer game with your clothes on the floor?” Then wait. And here is what’s hard. I wouldn’t do diddly even if your kid ends up without their clothes or with dirty clothes to wear at soccer next practice. If you need more discipline, it can be that you as a parent will not let them go to soccer without a clean uniform. Then let them figure it out. Need more? Well if your kid asks for soccer and you pay the fee and they can’t go because they don’t have a uniform then they must do work for you or somehow pay back the wasted soccer fee. There’s always a way to teach whatever lesson is at hand. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. It can be super tough!
What if your kid doesn’t want to do anything? There’s always the kid who will say, fine, I didn’t like soccer anyway and I like sweeping so who cares? Well…..crud…thinking fast….I think it’s ok to have family expectations along the lines of “everyone moves their body and plays an instrument”. In that case they can run laps instead of soccer. But you do set a few absolutes.
What if they refuse even that? Um, come back later. I don’t know. I had a kid like that and I just don’t know. There are some truly tough cookies out there, but fortunately most kids aren’t that challenging.
Still thinking……I think when it got to that point we tried scuba diving. Because what person can resist that? I’m pretty sure that every kid wants to do something but you do have to be open to letting them discover it. And once you have their buy in, you’ve got their hook.
You can configure this any way that you want, but the point I’d like to make is that unless you are involving your child in understanding expectations and learning self-discipline, you are cutting to the chase too quickly and stunting your child’s progress and learning.
When you are 1-2-3-ing all over the place you are being loud and intrusive. Your kid can’t think. They might comply, but nothing is internalized or learned. The “best” kid may do everything you ask before you get to three, but that kid will only have learned to comply and will have no idea how to do the right thing next time.
That’s why to me, it’s super important that we give consequences, or allow consequences to happen, that are a direct extension of the topic at hand.
But we don’t. We say, if you don’t hang up your clothes you can’t have dessert. So let’s talk about dessert. Should you tell your kid that they can have dessert if they eat all their dinner? Not the way I think. Dessert is fluff and so if our diet is healthy we can afford a little dessert. The kid who gobbles down everything doesn’t necessarily need dessert! So if a kid wants a cookie then they only need to examine whether the rest of their diet is healthy enough to support that. So it’s subtle, but it should be reframed like this: did you get enough that is healthy to have a cookie now? If not, let’s work on eating those things today and saving room for dessert tomorrow.
That means that a kid who is eating crap most of the time can’t afford dessert. You can say to your kid that in order to have a hit of sugar, the rest of your diet must be healthy. A lousy eater who will “only eat” mac and cheese doesn’t have a healthy enough diet to eat dessert. Sorry.
On the other hand, a kid who has been eating well all day might be in a position to eat a little sweet thing. But only if he has room. So let’s see, what if you ate some of your meal then saved a little room for dessert? Wouldn’t that be better than overeating to get to dessert? Isn’t that what you REALLY want to teach your kid? Why not help them plan a healthy smaller dinner with room for a sweet at the end? If you say, eat your dinner first, you really haven’t taught them how to eat well, even though that is what you meant to do.
Not every example I might give is one that would fit every family, but what I have learned is that somehow as parents, we often lose the lesson in whatever we are trying to teach and we do this by barking orders, moving too quickly through an issue, and not giving our kids both the time to think it through and the gift of natural consequences so that they can adjust their behavior if it isn’t working well.
Everyone feels pressure and stress, everyone acts out and then there’s some blow up when this happens – rinse and repeat.
It’s really hard to watch your kid sit out something that they wanted to do because they didn’t prepare adequately. But it is equally gratifying to have your kid remind YOU that it’s time to leave in ten minutes to get to school! If you nag and micromanage, you will never have a kid who wants to get to school on-time. You are better off setting the alarm and letting them do most of it, but don’t forget to dangle a very positive consequence. And don’t shield them from the pain of realizing that if they don’t get to school on time, they will have to stay in on Saturday and help you organize the basement because they’ve wasted your time nagging, and you have things to get done!
My favorite lesson is helping kids think through their choices. Parents used to “let” their kids run away from home. It was a cute standing joke among adults. They’d even help their kids pack a bag. (Now sadly “I’m going to kill myself” has replaced “I’m going to run away…but that’s a whole other post)
This was a valid exercise. A kid would get frustrated and angry with the rules, and tell his parents that he was just going to run away. The parent would say, “Well, I’m really going to miss you, but let’s get packing.” Most kids made it down the block and came back within an hour or two. They weighed it all and decided to come back home. And the parent said, “I’m so glad your back, is there anything you’d like to discuss?”
I’m not saying that we should let our kids hit the streets, or callously turn them away. Kids aren’t used to free-ranging it anymore and the world may not look out for them in quite the same way as when we had more intact neighborhoods. But some version of that, done lovingly, gives a kid their autonomy back and generally, that’s a good thing.
So, be clear about expectations, make sure your child understands and is on board, then hand it back to your child and let them figure out (perhaps with a little bit of coaching) how to achieve the goal. You can certainly step in with rules like having a weekly room check but don’t overdo it or you’ll have a kid who resists taking responsibility for themselves.
Here’s a really good article on the topic, and they are hard to come by: