I’m going to write about one my favorite things, and it’s called giving kids credit even and especially when they are struggling. This is something that I didn’t know how to do, or even that I should do, when my kids were growing up, and I feel bad about it.
I used to point out my children’s transgressions or issues, rave a bit, then demand change. I was usually nice about it, or so I thought, though occasionally when they got older and lippy – I went AWOL – and AWOL was not OK. It was entirely understandable and no one would exactly have blamed me, but not good.
But now that I know what I know, I think that I wasn’t just abusive the few times I lost my marbles, I was more abusive sometimes when I thought I was being nice.
Parents come into my office and some of them whisper things they don’t want their kids to hear and others say things out loud but no matter how much I can relate, when they tell me about some problem, issue or flaw having to do with their kids……I just cringe.
I cringe because if the child is sitting there, I can feel the embarrassment and the shame creeping into that kid’s heart. And I know that since kids are really good at protecting themselves, they often are going to decide somewhere down the road to just go for it, to hell with it, and fully live up to whatever assessment has just been dealt them. That’s when you lose the kid. They’ve had enough of feeling bad, thank you. That’s when you’ve got an oppositional kid on your hands and it is no party.
To help parents understand this, I say to them, “Hey, if I just reminded you of some butthead thing you did, and then added in that you were maybe deficient in some skill or attribute, exactly how motivated would you feel to work on that thing?”
Pre-school teachers get it. They talk about things kids are “working on” or “learning to do.” Janey hit Billy, in the hands of a real pro becomes, “Janey is really working hard at keeping her hands to herself, and she had a big challenge today and learned some important things she might want to tell you about later.” But too often parents get told in front of their kid that their kid bopped someone, then everyone gets all serious and disappointed and the kid – who needs a hug at this point – just crumbles inside. You can’t always tell because sometimes the kid is arguing or deflecting or still acting out a little – but the kid always feels bad in some way and we just make it worse.
It may sound like new-age mumbo, but it is super important that we become effective coaches for our kids and our language – how we frame things – is critical.
I tell my families that we used to smack kids and that was a kind of reverse motivation – the motivation not to get smacked. Then we went through a phase of bitching about our kids behavior (that’s where I got stuck) which actually was even worse than the old paddle to the behind, if you ask me.
At this point some parents think I’m advocating a good whack. To that I’m going to say that only very rarely and under very specific circumstances would I ever do that, and before you go nuts hearing me say that, the actual point I am making is that parenting has evolved, and that parents don’t have to hit their kids to abuse them. Occasionally some form of physical restraint, or “punishment” might be reasonable. But that just isn’t where we are as a culture.
Since you’re not going to let the corporal punishment thing go until I explain myself I will tell you about the time I pinched my kid so hard that he cried one of those cries where no sound came out. To this day, I feel zero remorse. Even he laughs and says I did the right thing.
What happened is that my eighteen month old son had been pinching me and leaving bruises on my arm. My first advice about that is that if your kid hurts you, immediately put them down and walk away. That’s it. Every time.
But instead, I had been saying some version of “Hey, stop that!” over and over and of course he kept right on pinching me. So, one day I said, “Listen, my fingers pinch too, and I don’t want to hurt you but if you pinch me I’m going to pinch you back.”
You all are better than me so you probably know that if you present a kid with the “Don’t” challenge they damn well are gonna. It’s Psych 101 – that’s why we are supposed to say, after we turn our backs on our pinching kids, “I’ll talk to you when your hands are gentle.” But I didn’t know that a NO draws a kid like a moth to a flame. So I said it and he promptly pinched me. True to my word, I kinda pinched him (but it didn’t hurt.) Then he pinched me again. I pinched a little firmer. Back and forth and it ended with me pinching him hard enough to leave such an impression on him that he damn well never did it again. I did what I had to do, but I wouldn’t have had to do it if I had known how to shut down and extinguish the behavior. I could have done better if I had known better. But I don’t feel particularly guilty because he was old enough to understand what was going on and he walked into it of his own free will. And I wasn’t mad. Hugs, and on we go.
I whacked at my kids a few times, but the real abuse I handed out was subtle and emotional. I wasn’t a good coach. I’m better now, though still not the best. But I used to really suck at it. Abuse may be too strong a word. What I did was, I demoralized my kids and missed opportunities to help them learn.
Fortunately, my kids were pretty good a lot of the time, especially before puberty, so I’d like to think it wasn’t too bad. But we are here to do better.
Just like a really sweet but firm pre-school teacher, we can reframe a kid’s misbehavior, and that can make all the difference in the world. We can demonstrate clearly that we expect our kids to keep working on their issues but that everyone is challenged, and we can do this by making damn sure that the kid feels the consequence of their behaviors, both good and bad. But it takes a little finessing. You can’t just blurt it out at the curb on the way to the car. In fact, I would suggest that you mention nothing icky or hard on the drive home from school with your child. I made that mistake a kazillion times too because, well – captive audience!
A little later, we can say, “Janey, you are so thoughtful and kind, something must have been tricky today.” Then maybe Janey will tell you that Billy called her a dinglehead right before she smacked him. “Wow, that sucks. He must have been in some kind of mood himself today!”
Then pause and show that you understand your kid by not launching into part two immediately.
Part two can come a little later, maybe after she’s had a snack, a hug, and a little more time to de-stress. And if you’re dealing with a teenager, you are best to say,”I think we need to talk about this, but you also need time to unwind and regroup so come find me later tonight.” Otherwise, if you push, all you’re gonna probably gonna get is sullen impatience.
Part two is: “Since hitting isn’t allowed, we’re gonna have to think of other ways to handle it when someone calls us a name.” I like to commiserate a little. “I remember when Sally Eagan said my lunch smelled like fart and I got super upset!” I also like to throw in a little humor. If you are lucky your kid will be feeling better and may even be engaging in the conversation at this point.
At the end of part two, if things are feeling good, you gotta close with inviting the child to make things better. This is for the other kid, but mostly it’s also so that your own kid can accept responsibility and move on. This step needs to be timed just right. If your kid is still struggling with taking responsibility, it might make sense to say, “Sounds like you are going to need more time to reflect on this.” and then bailing for a little longer.
But if you get to a good place, you can even help your kid think of a nice way of apologizing or making amends. Maybe all Janey can say to Billy is “It was dumb of you to call me a dinglehead but I still shouldn’t have hit you – so I’m sorry for that” Good enough.
Sometimes your child is going to detach and you might not find a way in. In that case, keep it simple and don’t talk too much. If the teacher or someone else has handled the issue maybe you don’t even have to say much other than, wow, rough day. Tomorrow will be better.
I understand that kids can do more serious things but we have a lot of power. We can insist that our kids accept responsibility without judgement or negativity. We can say, “It sucks that you and Emory cut school yesterday and now I have to drop you off at 8:00 am myself on your late day rather than have you bike in later.” I like to deliver the noxious consequence without a get out of jail card or any instructions about how to get the privilege back if the kid is over twelve or thirteen. I like the kid to come up with the fix. If they say, “what do I have to do to get my late morning back?” my answer is , “You tell me.” and then act all loving and sweet, because you aren’t angry, you are just in control and acting from a place of strength. If you give them the fix, you will have robbed them of the opportunity to make amends all on their own. If you are angry or overly punishing, you will incite more opposition. Kids know what’s fair.
You can help deliver consequences but it’s better if the consequences relate to the infraction. Taking away your kid’s phone in my opinion is only appropriate if there has been an abuse of the phone. Of course it’s also appropriate to not give them a phone in the first place, your call. But taking a way a kid’s phone just kindles the fire. You could say, “Tonight we are taking a technology break for an hour, mandatory – to regroup, take a bath and meditate on some of this shit because today was a doozy and I as your parent am going to impose a little calm.” but I wouldn’t take a phone away for more than an hour or two or at the most an evening. Unless you want to get into a pissing contest. I know all about this. The phone was my secret weapon and I don’t think taking away my kids phone did diddly..
So the take home message I’m trying to get across is to treat your kids with respect and give them credit for wanting to do the right thing, even when they screw up. You don’t need to go on about the problem, you can just state the expectation with “Listen, I know that if I told you you could drop out of school tomorrow and work at McDonald’s for the rest of your life as the fry cook you probably wouldn’t want that, so getting to school is a no brainer for you.” And if they say they want to drop out of school you can smile if they are just being a smart ass. If they are serious, offer to sit down and help them work out a budget and a plan for moving out and supporting themselves. Because that’s the way life works. I don’t mean do it in an assholey way. I mean, say, “Wow, that would be hard. If you are serious then maybe we should look at what it might take.” You are also free to declare that a high school diploma is a non-negotiable but I prefer a healthy dose of the real world. It’s way more motivatey.
I have to say that recently I told one of my patients who was being a little twatty about accepting her parent’s guidance that she was 16 and could emancipate herself if she really wanted to. Her mother gently shot that, and me, down and I felt pretty bad for just blurting it out. I tried to explain that I think when a kid is really struggling against our guidance it is helpful to play along and take it to its full conclusion. Of COURSE this kid didn’t want to be emancipated. On the way home she and her mom were talking and doing great and I’d like to think it’s because for a second she got to experience what it would feel like not to have her mom right there beneath her wings. But that was a close one in that I almost alienated someone I care very deeply for.
When you tell a kid that they are responsible, even when they slip up, or kind, even when they lash out, or gentle, especially when they are harsh – they will believe you just a little and they will ascribe to those higher behaviors. Especially if you acknowledge the extenuating circumstances that drove their behavior in the first place. Especially if you don’t pronounce judgement on them as a person. That kind of judgement is humiliating.
I’ve had really nice, but pissed off parents come in fed up with their teenager and say to me that their kid just isn’t very mature, grateful, responsible – that kind of thing.
I turn to the kid and usually they actually are most of those things, at least a little bit and certainly when compared to all the other kids I see. So I tell that kid – “You have just scared your parent and caused them to doubt something, now it’s going to be up to you to make amends and demonstrate blah blah blah.” When I tell them that I believe they possess some positive trait, they are much more willing to work towards attaining it.
Sometimes I can’t get the parent to stop with whatever the judgement is, and it’s usually because they are worried about their kid. I have to point out that at a certain point your kid is your kid the they are the way they are right now and they’re going to go out in the world very soon and everyone gets to – and has to -make a ton of mistakes. That’s the process of letting go and we all should do it as much as we can in raising our kids. Our culture infantilizes kids and teens by making it all about parenting. It’s not. It’s mostly about your kid.
By the time your kid is 16 or 17, you should mostly only step in when true safety is at stake or if some very serious issue is at hand. Then, you gotta fight like a momma or a poppa bear. But mostly, a kid that age should be working their own life pretty hard and be getting ready to launch.
There’s a guy named Ross Greene and he is really good at working with oppositional kids. He’s got some books and a website. His message is, “Kids do well when they can.”
Our job is to enable all the doing well that we can, and we can best do this by remaining positive and encouraging, and by supporting our kids in solving their own problems.
My other favorite thing to tell a parent who is super angry and pissed off and just done with their kid (usually a teenager or a toddler) is – pretend you are their teacher, not their parent right now. The distance really helps us chill out and be more effective.
One of my kid’s favorite teachers in middle school was his band teacher, Mr. Athayde. Mr Athayde was hard on his students, but usually fair and respectful. If a kid misbehaved, he respectfully gave them lunch duty in the band room. Since they interrupted him and wasted his time, he let them do work to pay him back. Usually the detentions were fun and everyone had a good time. My kid would say, “I deserved it, and we had fun cleaning up the room anyway.”
What a gift he gave these kids by cheerfully expecting them to do the right thing, to make amends when they slipped up – no hard feelings – just carry your weight, work hard and do your best.
That’s all I’ve got for today….
***disclaimer…there are a few really challenged kids. This approach still applies, but some kids need more. Some benefit from medications that help them stay calm so they can learn to handle things better. Some benefit from occupational therapy or riding horses or mentoring or a different kind of classroom. There are kids who need more, but they still will still benefit from good positive coaching and natural consequences. Be very careful that you find someone good to help you if you have a kid like this. Schools are coming around, but they used to flip cards and set out contracts and some of these kids were unable to pull it together with just a contract or card-flipping as a (negative) motivator. These kids who have extra challenges require more help, more understanding, and they need a lot of happy motivation and self-esteem (translate – responsibility, and small successes) to master their own bad selves. It’s even more important that we help them stretch towards all the good inside of them with positive coaching. But sometimes more is needed.
*** **** *** **** ****
One of my kids is very headstrong and we really got into it recently and I just shut it down and went limp and backed away. With some space, he came around by sending me one of his songs. I listened to it several times. No words. No insisting on having it out. Just space to let us each reflect on our own behavior. Because all you can do is get up and try again.