I thought I was being helpful. My child made a mistake, and I thought I was helping by delving into the ramifications behind the mistake. Why it occurred, why it shouldn’t have occurred, what kind of behavior I expect next time. What I didn’t realize was that the undertones of shame (How could you do that?), disappointment (I’m really surprised at this) and threat (Don’t ever do that again) in my speech conveyed far more hurt and far less help than I intended.
I was so caught up in teaching a lesson that I forgot that what I really needed to teach was skills. My kids don’t need a disappointment-laced lecture from me or a consequence that is just unpleasant enough to ensure they’ll never behave that way again. What they do need is someone to help them learn the skills for solving problems and thinking through their decisions. They need a teacher.
The most effective parents don’t manage their child’s behavior, they teach a child how to manage his own behavior.
Managing a someone else’s behavior is exhausting and frustrating because ultimately, you don’t have control. It’s like trying to contain a puddle of water with your hands. You can constantly apply pressure from all sides, but the water is going to behave according to its natural properties. You can constantly work to control a child’s behavior, but ultimately, he can exert his will, initiative, and autonomy at any time.
I was reminded of this–quite pointedly–towards the end of an evening one night.
Me: OK, it’s time to go up and get ready for bed.
JJ: No! You can’t make me!
Maybe you have heard this declaration, too? My six-year-old was right; I couldn’t make him. Although in the moment I thought I could, just to prove how in control I was. I began to think of all the ways in which I could “make” my son get ready for bed…they were all threats and punishments and force. And I realized all I could do was manipulate or coerce him into going upstairs and getting ready for bed. As Marshall Rosenberg, author of Nonviolent Communication, says,
You can’t make your kids do anything. All you can do is make them wish they had. And then, they will make you wish you hadn’t made them wish they had.
Humorous, but true. When we try to make our kids behave, we end up in a cyclical power struggle with them…everyone is trying to prove who is in control. Well, what if we let go of control? What if we let go of the idea that we have to remain in control of our kids to manage their behavior? We realize that ultimately, our children are in control–not of us, but of themselves. Upon accepting this, we are able to take the energy spent on behavior management and focus it instead on teaching self-awareness, self-confidence, and self-control–all skills necessary for managing one’s own behavior. Instead of putting parents and children at odds vying for power, relinquishing control facilitates parenting through connection and acceptance.
This means that our kids’ behavior may not always be appropriate, and we have to be OK with that. We have to see it not as a reflection of ourselves–a shortcoming to be embarrassed or ashamed of, or to regain control over–but simply as an opportunity for connection and guidance. An opportunity to teach our kids how to manage their feelings, actions, and choices.
When the focus of parenting is on acceptance and teaching, the atmosphere in the home is of peace, not power.
If, at times, you find yourself stuck wondering what kind of consequence is best to “teach a lesson,” you’re probably trying to manage too much. The consequence is more likely to be a punishment than a helpful teaching tool. Ask yourself, “Am I just doing what I can to control my child’s behavior? How is this teaching my child to manage his own behavior?” Because the most effective parenting isn’t managing, it’s teaching.
For more examples on this topic see How to Teach Children to Manage Their Own Behavior.