No parent is given an instruction manual for raising kids. We all just hold on, do the best we can with the tools we have.
Some of us are better at reading cues and rerouting our efforts than others, but even the best intentions leave me reflecting on how I missed the mark so many times. My children, now adults with families of their own, turned out healthy, happy and pretty well adjusted to this world. As I have continued my own personal development and professional growth, I can see today how many opportunities I missed, how much energy I wasted and why I am a better grandparent than I ever was a parent. Consider the following tips so you can avoid missing the mark.
Learn the difference between protest and disrespect. Protest is a communication of feeling about a particular request, practice or event. Disrespect is when those feelings result in making it personal. Let me give you an example.
Child: “I don’t want to do my homework.”
This is protest and you could probably identify with the feeling of not wanting to do something from time to time. Many times, our children protest, and adults get “triggered” into a power struggle and respond with
Parent: “I don’t care, do it anyway.”
Child: “You’re mean” or “You can’t make me.”
Notice how quickly the interaction shifted from protest to disrespect … on both parts? Empathy and understanding will gain cooperation on most tasks much quicker and will prioritize your relationship with the child over the task and mindless compliance.
Prioritize relationships over consequences. Regardless of how children come into your life, at what age or for how long, all discipline techniques will fail without a strong loving relationship. From the moment you meet a child your priority should be to learn about them, their thoughts, feelings, interests, etc., and in turn they will learn about you.
When this happens during infancy, that relationship is built through responding to the infant’s cry in such a way that makes them feel relaxed, soothed and comfortable. As children get older, they start to develop traits that are unique to them, such as liking touch or not liking touch, being compliant or stubborn, being active or passive and again, it is an adult’s intervention that shapes future responses.
When children exhibit undesirable behaviors, it is also the adult’s response that is going to shape what kind of learning occurs. Stern, firm compliance-based expectations will likely not achieve the results you desire. Whereas, discipling from a point of “I know and care about this child, who made a poor decision and I want them to learn without feeling shame” will be far more successful.
There were moments when I didn’t care, in my own frustration, if any learning occurred at all. There were times the consequences I thought up had very little to do with the child learning and more about my poor emotional regulation. No discipline will be helpful when the adult’s emotions are out of control and no learning will occur, but the relationship will be damaged. Children are very intelligent beings — they do not need immediate consequences for learning to occur. Here is the formula I use today:
- Initial response should be empathy. “I am sorry that didn’t work out how you thought it would.” “It must be hard when you feel targeted by others.”
- Engage in conversation about the issue in a non-judgmental way. Be a good asker of questions to spur the conversation – DON’T FORGET TO LISTEN to the response.
- Typically, a learning opportunity presents itself in the conversation, if not ask the child how are they going to “make it right”? Always allow natural consequences to do the work for you if possible.
- Praise them for their cooperation, remind them how special they are to you, normalize making mistakes and emphasize learning.
Don’t ever give up! Giving up can look many ways. It can be having a child removed from your care, cutting ties with a child after a breakup or simply “checking out” when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Every child needs to know, without a doubt, that if they are willing to trust you with their heart you will be there for as long as they need you.
Tonya Bauman is the training and recruiting specialist for Building Blocks Foster Care. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and secondary education from South Dakota State University in Brookings. She holds certifications in several areas of psychology, therapy, trauma and parenting. “I’m a parent … what now?” is a monthly column from the Grand Island Association for Child Abuse Prevention, which represents many child-serving agencies in the community. If you need help dealing with parenting issues, call the Nebraska Family Helpline, “Any Problem. Any Time,” at (888) 866-8660.