Sometimes when I’m working with a family we need to confront this fact: you have to earn the right to discipline a child.
This can be frustrating to adults who are used to thinking that kids should listen to adults because grown ups are grown ups and therefore get to tell the smaller people what to do. The problem is discipline is about relationships. Children need to know that the person in front of them is someone that they can trust.
This can be an issue for teachers too — why do you think kids are often so terrible to substitutes? The difference is that the teacher’s role as teacher (a position that’s been invested with authority by the culture of the school) buys some time.
But for babysitters, childcare providers, stepparents, grandparents and other loving adults who are stepping into a temporary or permanent parenting role, it’s not realistic to expect blind obedience right from the get go.
This can be frustrating for grandparents who come for a visit and don’t understand why the child won’t listen to them or for stepparents who don’t understand how they got cast in the “mean stepparent” role. There can be lots of frustration and lots of hurt feelings — on both sides and for the parents, too, who may be at a loss to how to support their kids and their loved ones.
So what can you do?
- Understand that relationships take time and some kids are slower to warm than others. Just because your granddaughter loves it when you treat her to ice cream doesn’t mean she’s ready when you correct her for whining to her mother.
- Although you may be crazy in love (or like) with this kid, that doesn’t mean he feels the same way about you. You may absolutely adore your stepchild but he may be struggling with issues of loyalty to his mom, or be worried about sharing dad with new step siblings, or feel angry and resentful that a relationship he believed was temporary is clearly not going away.
- Respect the child’s boundaries and appreciate that a child’s natural tendency to be cautious about listening to authority can stand her in good stead down the line. Blind obedience is never a good thing.
- Appreciate a child’s need for consistency especially during times of stress and change. If big things are happening — like holidays, like divorce, like moves, like vacations — a child is going to be even more leery about listening to someone new. His instinct will be to shut down and go for the familiar. For grandparents, this may mean remembering that Christmas is super fun but it’s also super stressful and kids are often naturally more clingy and less willing to listen to you. For stepparents, this may mean being patient and waiting for things to settle before you try to get your stepdaughter to clean her room up; let your partner do the heavy lifting.
Remember that discipline is way more than just telling kids what to do, how and when. Discipline happens when we create connection so that the child can trust us when we assert our authority.
It’s the therapy stereotype, right? It’s always your mother’s fault! No wonder then that many of the parents I see come in feeling defensive or feeling guilty.
“Did I do something wrong?” they ask me. “Did I create these issues? Is it all my fault?”
My answer to this is probably going to feel frustrating: I don’t know and what’s more, I don’t think it matters.
Here’s the deal: different kids need different kinds of parents and sometimes those different kids live in the same family, which means the fool proof technique you had for dealing with one child’s tantrums is not necessarily going to work with dealing with the next child’s tantrums. In fact, it might make things worse. Remember there is no one size fits all parenting.
Let’s take childhood anxiety. Anxiety has at its core a whole lot of nature and a healthy dose of nurture. Parents with anxious temperaments often give birth to children with anxious temperaments. That’s not anyone’s fault; that’s genetics. Also parents who deal with the world in an anxious way inadvertently model that anxious way of dealing with the world for their children. That’s nobody’s fault either anymore than the way parents who read a lot tend to have kids who read a lot. Modeling is powerful.
That said, once the family realizes that their child is struggling with anxiety there is an opportunity to explore the way that parenting choices may be influencing that struggle.
Let me give you an example. Consider bedtime routines. Any parenting expert type out there will tell you that bedtime routines are terrific, right? Do a quick google and you have people promising you that having a routine will make your evenings “battle-free” and “sleep-inducing.” And I agree — having a predictable routine before bed is great sleep hygiene. But if you have a child with an anxiety disorder then that friendly little routine can become a prison where mom or dad has to stand in the doorway and say “Good night” exactly this way with exactly that inflection or the whole routine has to start over again.
Then it may be that changing the parent’s behavior is part of what needs to happen next — the solution may lie in part in the parent’s actions — but that’s not the same thing as saying that it’s all the mom and dad’s fault for creating a bedtime routine in the first place.
When my son was small I used to fantasize about having a Sims-type game where I could program all of my son’s characteristics into the computer and try out different parenting choices to see which would be the best one. Like, this Sim-baby I could send to preschool and that one I could keep home. This one I could be really stern with and that one I could lean more towards permissive. At the end of the game I’d know exactly the right way to raise my actual baby here in front of me.
Unfortunately we don’t have that. Instead we have a lot of advice and a lot of research, (which is helpful but not definitive) and a lot of books and neighbors and teachers and therapists and then we have our own hopes and dreams and histories and expectations. Then throw in kids with wildly different temperaments, abilities, interests, talents and challenges and well, we end up with a whole mess of confusion.
In short, we’re going to do some things right and we’re going to do some things wrong. Sometimes the wrongs are no big deal and sometimes we’re going to have to course correct. Sometimes a bedtime routine is awesome and sometimes it’s ripe with dysfunction for no other reason than there’s a perfect storm of this parent, this technique and this child and it’s not working.
(This is also why none of us should ever be smug with each other. Show me a parent who has a child who is a shining beacon of perfection and I’ll show you a parent who got lucky. In parenting, like in all things, some of us have it easier than others just because.)
So if you come to me and say, “Is this all my fault?” I’m going to say that I think you’re asking the wrong question. I’m going to encourage you to say, instead, “What can we do now to help things be better?”
Way back when, back when Hector was a pup and I had a lot less gray hair I used to schedule screenings like this at the YWCA in Portland. Now I’m sharing this with you but you gotta get on it — the screenings happen this Wednesday. If you can’t make it then give the ECRN+ a call and find out when they might be happening in the future.
Child Developmental Screenings - Mind and Body
Wednesday, January 28th 9 a.m. - 12 p.m.
Grove City YMCA - 3600 Discovery Drive, Grove City, OH 43123
What is a developmental screening?
A developmental screening is a snap shot look at a child’s development to determine if a child is reaching appropriate milestones. Your child’s social-emotional development (mental health) is an essential part of their overall growth. Mental health in childhood simply means reaching developmental and emotional milestones and learning healthy social and coping skills. Children with good social-emotional skills function well at home, in school and in their communities. In addition to their social-emotional screening, your child’s speech and language, fine and gross motor skills, self-help skills, vision, and hearing will also be checked.
Thanks to the generous support of The Columbus Foundation, the Early Childhood Resource Network+ will be providing FREE screenings to all children ages 1 month through 5 years. Screening appointments are not necessary but encouraged.
TO MAKE AN APPOINTMENT OR FOR FURTHER INFORMATION, CONTACT:
Katie Lombardi or Margie Dalton—Developmental Consultants 614-543-9000 ext. 218 or firstname.lastname@example.org
EARLY CHILDHOOD RESOURCE NETWORK+
6555 Busch Blvd, Suite 112, Columbus OH 43229 614.543.9000 ymcacolumbus.org/ecrn
Sometimes when you’ve won an argument you can help the person who lost save face by letting them get the last word in. I think this can be particularly helpful with kids.
You can help move things along by letting a kid stomp away mumbling. This seems counterintuitive and I know it’s tempting to holler, “What’s that? Who do you think is such a mean mom? Get back here, young lady!” but don’t give into it. If you pull them back, “What was that you said?” you’ve entered into a power struggle. Power struggles are tar pits; do not get stuck in them.
You can pretend not to hear it even if you do, which is going to help things get back to normal more quickly than if you bring them back in to escalate the argument.
We want our children to be respectful and for some families that makes it very hard to let someone grouch off to her chores muttering under her breath. But here’s the thing, if you let her do it, if you let her turn away and get a dig in that’s meant to be just loud enough for you to hear, you’re actually coming out ahead because you’re saying, “I am big enough to withstand and allow your muttering.”
Same thing with slammed doors.
Same thing with eye rolling.
Same thing with “whatever” under her breath.
You can address the things that are truly out of line in your family later (maybe in your family slamming a door is against the rules or maybe it isn’t, remember there is no one-size-fits-all parenting). You can address it when people are calmed down because it’s easier to work out one conflict at a time.
Make your point, let them mutter or stomp or slam. Once everyone is back to an even keel then bring it up, “Hey, when I talked to you about those chores and you rolled your eyes while I was talking, that upset me. In this family we show each other respect even when angry.”
One conflict at a time. Chores or eye rolling, not both at the same time. Otherwise you’re in the tar pit, mucking around in an argument you never intended to have and the chores still aren’t done. Which may be the very reason they’re doing all of that eye rolling.
(I have one child who is a master at this deflection. I say, “Pick up your socks” and that child stomps, arms crossed, pouts and says, “Why do you hate me” and I say, “I don’t hate you” and that child says, “You are so mean!” and I say, “I am not mean!” and it’s three hours later and there are still socks all over the house.)
So how could you respond?
You: “Please clean your room.”
Him: [sigh] “Ok, mother.” [eye rolling as he turns away]
You: “Thanks. I appreciate your help.”
You: “I said no PS3 tonight and I mean it.”
Her: [stomp] “You are so unfair!” [storm away, door slammed]
You: [nothing because you made your point]
You: “Please go change your shirt before we go out to dinner.”
Him: “This shirt is fine! I’m just going to get it dirty again anyway!” [turning away to go change, muttering, “Like your clothes are so awesome!”]
You: [nothing because you made your point]
You: “I said the trash needs to go out and it needs to go out NOW.”
Her: “It’s not like you make anyone else take out the trash! You pick on me! Why are you so unfair?” [as she storms off with the trash bag]
You: [nothing because you made your point]
If they still try to draw you in, stay one-note and stay calm, “I’m not talking about whether or not I’m unfair, I’m telling you to turn off the PS3.” “I’m not discussing standards of cleanliness right now, I’m telling you to change your shirt.” “We can discuss chore assignments later. Right now it’s time for you to take out the trash.”
Sometimes it helps to turn away physically to indicate the conversation is over. This shows that you’re confident. Resist the urge to keep an eye on them. Resist the urge to end any directions with, “OK?” As in, “Please go change your shirt before we go out to dinner, OK?” You’re just giving them permission to tell you how not OK they are with your instructions. Unless you’re really interested in their opinion, don’t ask for it.
Then let them mumble, mutter, stomp or storm away from you.
I’m not saying that ignoring a bad attitude is always the way to do things or the only way to do things but if you catch yourself getting stuck in arguments you never meant to have, try it — bite your tongue, sit on your hands, exchange meaningful angry glances with your partner but stay quiet — and see what happens.
We’ve always liked Andy Dwyer at our house and we hear the guy who plays him does some pretty nice things but I’m sharing this clip of Chris Pratt on The Ellen Show (heads up courtesy of Jezebel) because it illustrates some great parenting.
First, this guy knows about child development as evidenced by his understanding that the “terrible” twos are developmentally appropriate since many toddlers are frustrated by their inability to share the complex wants and wishes that drive their behavior. (This is why they freak out about details — the wrong shirt, the wrong spoon for the cereal, the wrong way to open a door and enter a room — they have a very specific idea about what they want and they can’t communicate it to you.) Knowing about child behavior can really help us be better parents because it explains so much; that helps us be more understanding and perhaps less frustrated. And having a grasp of our child’s development holds the keys to an effective response since knowing what drives the behavior helps point us in the direction to address it.
That bit about letting his son stay up later? See, that’s a parenting choice that I think is super personal and isn’t right or wrong. It’s not a problem if it’s not a problem and if it becomes a problem, well, that’s the time to change. I think people get hung up on details like this (how to do bedtime) but what we’re seeing at play here is the ongoing creation of a responsive relationship. You might do it differently. You might enforce bedtime anyway and that’s fine, too.
The second great thing he does is prepare his son for a potentially hectic situation. He does this gently in a way that suits his pretty articulate kid and he’s open to his son’s response. That shows terrific attunement, focusing on the situation and his son’s needs and then communicating in a way that allows his child room to create his own response. The holidays are rough for all of us and acknowledging that can be a huge, huge help in keeping everyone sane.
Ok watch the clip and then I’ve got a little more below.
Ok, so that thing where he warns his son and his son responds with a heartwarming platitude and Chris tears up just talking about it? That’s swell. But the thing that struck me is often we parents start with the platitude. We start with the expectation that this holiday is going to be fun, dangit! And wholesome! And everyone is going to have a really good time!!! And our children are saying (in words and deeds), Well, I’m overwhelmed. I find Santa terrifying. This mall is too crowded. This holiday food is too complicated. I want my routine. And we get super frustrated because we’re already stressed and then our grand plans are falling apart and our kids are melting down and Aunt Lucy is making that disapproving face she makes and ARGH!!!!!
So it’s a good reminder that before all this happens, we always have the opportunity to remember last time. We can remember how the last holiday went or how the last trip to the mall, the zoo, the visit to Dave & Buster’s or Chuck E. Cheese went and we can prepare ahead of time. We can also prepare our kids, “Do you remember how last time at Chuck E. Cheese you started feeling overwhelmed?” (this gives language to that feeling they have) “Remember it felt too loud?” (you can problem-solve for this, offer earplugs or a signal to get the heck out) Maybe your child will look up at you all doe-eyed and adorable (Chris Pratt’s son) and say, “It’s family.” Or maybe they’ll say what my son used to say, “I’m not going.” (My kid missed so many birthday parties as a sensitive toddler/preschooler/schoolager!) But you’ll get to process it and make good decisions before disaster strikes. (For the things my son could NOT miss, we did a lot of planning about how to manage it. Code words that meant, “Mom, Dad, please help me find someplace quiet to calm down,” Quiet days before the big event. Exit strategies. Plans to wind down after.)
Anyway, that Chris Pratt is charming. Good stuff. Good parenting. And nice to see on a daytime talk show.
This is the problem with parenting advice even really good parenting advice. Sure you can give pretty safe general advice if you look at a child’s developmental stage and you can give even better general advice if you also take the child’s temperament into account and then if you have some time to sit down and discuss the family culture and the school culture (if the child is in school) and the broader world in which the child exists, then you can give pretty good advice because it’s not general anymore.
Let’s take discussions about Ferguson. In one of my professional groups we’ve been talking about how Ferguson has been coming up in our counseling sessions. Sometimes it’s coming up because parents are wondering what to tell their kids. I don’t have a One Size Fits All piece of advice about talking to your child about Ferguson because there is no way I could do this appropriately. Instead I would need to know a whole bunch of stuff including but not limited to:
How old is your child? What race is your child? What race are you? How does (or doesn’t) your family talk about race? Has your child brought it up? If so, where did he learn about it? How are they discussing it at school or at the babysitter’s or around the family table at Thanksgiving? What is your child’s temperament? What are his questions? What are his concerns? And finally what do you think about Ferguson?
There is simply not one right way to talk about Ferguson.
There is not one right way to handle bedtime.
There is not one right way to deal with tantrums.
I do give advice here on my blog because there is some general advice that I think is generally good. But that doesn’t mean it’s right for you and your child and trust me, if you get in my office and talk to me I will know that.
Like bedtime routines. Generally speaking a predictable bedtime routine contributes to what sleep experts call “sleep hygiene.” Good sleep hygiene is important. However some kids need less predictable bedtime routines. Some kids with anxiety may become too dependent on predictable routines (such as kids who struggle with OCD) and so that general good advice doesn’t work for those families. Those families need something more personalized.
Or tantrums. Some kids tantrum because their parents are too lax. Some kids tantrum because their parents are too strict. Some kids just tantrum because that’s where they are developmentally and it has nothing to do with their parents.
If you come in and see me we’re going to spend at least the first session just talking about you and your child. I’ll have a lot of questions to try to get a picture of what your child is bringing to the problematic situation and I’ll want to know what you tried, what didn’t work, what sometimes worked and what was an unmitigated disaster. And we will revisit that as we go because we are always learning and working towards greater understanding.
We’re not just trying to solve this problem; we’re also trying to give you and your child insight for you both to take into the future. Part of this is building concrete understanding of our selves (parent and child, together and alone) and part of this is learning how to problem solve in a way that works for everyone in the family. That way when you’re looking at One Size Fits All Parenting (or other) advice you’ll know what’s worth considering and what’s not worth the bother.
And I’ll tell you what, the parents who come to see me often feel lost but they know so much more than they may realize when they’re peering into the murky crisis that brought them to my door. Sometimes the very first part of our work is throwing out all that unsolicited One Size Fits All Parenting advice (from friends, family and strangers) because that’s making the crisis even murkier.
“Shouldn’t she be past this by now?” they ask me.
“Why?” I ask back.
“Well, I read it somewhere/my mother told me/all her friends have stopped doing it.”
And yes, sometimes she should be past this by now and we’ll work on it but sometimes she shouldn’t be and that’s fine and once the parents know that they feel a whole lot better about it.
So. No one knows your child better than you do. I know that and if you’re doubting it, I will help you know that, too.