Tag Archive for discipline

The Dangers of Strict Parenting?

Most parents want their children to grow into healthy, responsible adults. They don’t want defiant teens or lazy young adults as the fruit of their parenting labors. The parental fear that our children might become defiant or lazy can lead to a strict, controlling style of parenting that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let me explain. Strict parents respond to their fears with rules and more rules. They focus so much on the rules that they neglect the relationship with their child. Their children come to believe that rules are more important to their parent than they are. They learn that performance, achievement, and living up to strict standards are necessary ingredients for acceptance. Strict parents punish their child any time they break a rule or falls short of a standard… And standards are generally high and rigid. Obedience is expected at all times…at all ages…without question or discussion. Discipline often includes harsh words, guilt inducing
statements, and shame.  They make comments like:

  • “I won’t let my kid walk all over me.”
  • “My children better behave.”
  • “I’m tough on them because I don’t want them to end up on drugs or in jail.”
  • “Kids need a parent, not a friend.”
  • “Quit crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.”

Unfortunately, strict parents come off as unresponsive, cold, and unsupportive. You can imagine that this type of strict parenting has a negative impact of children, a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to the very things the parent fears. (Learn more about parental assumptions and how they impact discipline in Parental Assumptions & the Cycle of Discipline.) In fact, research suggests that children raised with this type of parenting:

  • tend to exhibit more rebellion, anger, aggression, and delinquency,
  • lie more often,
  • are more likely to be unhappy and suffer from depression,
  • develop extrinsic motivation and show less initiative and perseverance as a result,
  • lack self-esteem and confidence in decision-making,
  • tend to have greater peer rejection and relationship problems, especially in romantic
    relationships,

All that being said, our children do need structure, limits, and rules, don’t they? Don’t parents need to enforce those rules and limits? Good questions… and the answer is “yes.” Not all strict parenting is dangerous. Some is beneficial. It all depends on at least two things.

  1. What motivates the parent to be strict. Strict rules and limits become dangerous
    when parental fear motivates their creation and enforcement. They become even more dangerous when that fear leads to parental attempts to control. However, rules and limits motivated by a sincere desire to teach accountability and responsibility, to instill self-discipline and an awareness of others, and to encourage healthy self-reliance can lead to a positive outcome…especially when combined with #2 below.
  2. The type of relationship the parent builds with their child. When a parent builds a responsive, nurturing relationship with their child, they know what structure and limits will most benefit their child at their current maturity level. Their child will also respond better to the limits when they feel their parent listens and is responsive to their needs. Building a warm, caring relationship contributes to a child who desires to please their parent by obeying rules and limits appropriate to their maturity level. All-in-all, the stronger the parent-child relationship, the less likely the rules feel strict. Instead, they become an expression of love and a much-desired safety net. (Learn more in What “Master” Parents Do.)

Perhaps we can sum this up with two familiar formulas:

  • Rules without Relationships contributes to Rebellion in the parent-child relationship.
  • Relationships with Rules contributes to Resilient children in the parent-child relationship.

A Word of Warning for Parents

A study published in a 2020 issue of Development and Psychology offers an important warning for parents (Does ‘Harsh Parenting’ Lead to Smaller Brains?). Researchers from the Université de Montréal in partnership with researchers from Stanford University monitored parenting practices and child anxiety levels every year while the children were between the ages of 2 years and 9 years. Then between the ages of 12 and 16 years, the researchers assessed the same children’s anxiety levels. They also performed MRI’s. What this data revealed serves as an important warning to all parents. Here it is: Repetitive exposure to harsh parenting practices during childhood led to smaller brain structures in adolescence. These practices also contributed to higher anxiety levels in adolescence. Consider these results carefully:

  • First, we need to consider what “harsh parenting practices” entail. For this study, harsh parenting practices included getting angry, hitting (spanking or smacking), shaking, and/or yelling. Harsh parenting practices fell short of legally abusive practices. In fact, many people find the parenting practices included in the definition of “harsh parenting practices” acceptable. Yet, according to this study, these harsh practices have a potentially negative impact on our children… which brings us to the next bullet point.
  • Harsh parenting practices have a negative impact when used repetitively, when they become your normal pattern of parenting.  If you have a bad day and behave harshly on occasion, it will likely not have a large negative impact on your child. But a consistent, repetitive pattern of harsh parenting will have a negative impact. That being said, we do our best to avoid even rare occasions of harsh parenting because of the potential negative impact it can have over time.
  • The impact of harsh parenting practices actually changed the physical structure of the children’s brains in this study. Those who experienced a high degree of harsh parenting exhibited a smaller prefrontal cortex and a smaller amygdala. These two areas of the brain play a key role in regulating emotions. In other words, the physical changes to the brain in response to harsh parenting makes it more likely that your child will more be overwhelmed by his or her emotions, leading them to shut down, cry, or act impulsively behaviors in response to overwhelming emotions such as desire, fear, sadness, or loneliness.
  • The brain regions impacted by harsh parenting also play a role in the development of anxiety.  Harsh parenting then, may contribute to anxiety.

Perhaps children need to come with a warning label: “Beware. Consistent use of harsh discipline measures is hazardous to your child’s brain development and mental health.” 

Now that we know the warning, how can we effectively discipline our children? Here are a couple of quick principles to keep in mind.

  1. Children learn best by example. Live the life you desire them to learn.
  2. Children learn best within the context of a positive relationship. Invest time and energy in developing a positive relationship with your children. Learn about their interests.  Spend time playing, eating, and talking together.
  3. Children thrive in a predictable and structured (not rigid) environment. Develop daily routines and rituals to help structure the day. Good routines actually help to discipline proactively, before a problem even arises.
  4. Children learn best when they know the rules and the rules are age-appropriate. Take time to establish concise, age-appropriate rules in your home. Communicate them clearly to your children.

These four principles lay the groundwork for a positive style of parenting within which your children will thrive, a parenting style based on an appropriate balance of intimate relationship and appropriate structure.

Effective Parents Do This

Effective parents do this all the time. Although this skill undergirds almost everything else an effective parent does, we rarely talk about it. When do effective parents do this? Before they discipline, before they step in to help, before they assign a chore, before answering a question (like “Where do babies come from?”), and before granting a privilege represent just  few of the time a parent will do this.  What is “this” that effective parents do this often? They observe their children deeply and sensitively.

Sensitive observation involves listening as well as watching. It begins at birth (if not in utero) and continues for a lifetime. Sensitive observation carries many benefits. Observation helps them build a stronger relationship with their child. It also gives a parent wisdom and power as they discipline and teach their child. How does it do this?

  • Sensitive observation teaches a parent about their child. They learn to recognize the signals of boredom, tiredness, and hunger. With this knowledge a parent can intervene in the wisest manner possible when inappropriate behavior arises. They can respond differently when inappropriate behavior is a response to hunger or tiredness than when it is a ploy for power or a testing of limits.
  • Sensitive observation also helps a parent differentiate between a child’s needs or problem behaviors and their own parental fears and projections. It helps a parent recognize their own escalating fears as opposed to the objective difficulty of a situation. A parent who engages in sensitive observation of their children does not have to take on their children’s failures or mistakes. They can allow their children to learn from those moments instead. They do not feel the need to rescue their children for poor time management or simple neglect. Instead, they can allow their children to experience the consequences and grow. On the other hand, a parent who engages in sensitive observation does not have to gloat in their children’s success. They can allow their children to enjoy their own success and the effort they invested to achieve that success.
  • Sensitive observation allows a parent to trust their child’s developing cognitive and motor skills. It allows a parent to recognize their child’s competence and ability. This will also provide a parent with wisdom regarding when and what household activities to invite a child to participate in. It will allow a parent to step back and allow their children to take appropriate risks within the scope of their children’s abilities.
  • Sensitive observation allows a parent to accept and acknowledge their child’s emotions…all of them. With sensitive observation a parent can exhibit empathy while remaining confident in their own ability to hear, support and problem-solve with their child rather than shame, guilt, or distract. They will be able to accept their children’s emotions and hold them safely while helping their children learn to express and manage them effectively.

Sensitive observation is a powerful parenting tool we all need to use. So put on the glasses, open the ears, and observe your children. You might even discover how amazing your children actually are.

Help, My Child ALWAYS Argues With Me

If you’re a parent, you’ve had the experience. You know the one. It’s the experience of making one simple request of your child only to hear them start to argue with you…AGAIN! Suddenly, the last few days come to mind and you notice that every time you said something to our child it turns into an argument. And, every time they spoke to you, it became an argument. Those days of arguments feel like weeks and those weeks suddenly feel like months of constant arguing. I know the feeling. So, if you’ve ever been there, if you’ve ever thought “Help. All my child does is argue,” here are a few tips to help stop the cycle.

First, recognize that arguing is normal for children. It provides them the opportunity to practice using their developing cognitive skills. It helps them assert their growing independence. It even provides them the opportunity to think through their priorities, values, and morals. After all, it’s a lot more effective to let mom and dad debate one side than to debate both sides of the argument in my own mind.  Knowing that arguing is developmentally appropriate means you do not have to take it personal. It’s not about you. It’s all part of the process of growing up. Let them bump.

Second, arguing is not about being right. Again, your child is asserting independence, testing your fortitude, practicing cognitive skills. You can focus on the relationship rather than proving yourself right and your child wrong. You can focus on connection. Remember, your child learns best from those they feel connected to, those with whom they have a relationship. As a rule: connect first, teach second. Relationships rule.

Third, sometimes the best way to stop the cycle of arguing it to not argue back. Take a breath, bite your tongue, and do not argue back. In fact, as soon as you take the bait and respond with an argument, you have given your child the power. By NOT engaging in the argument, on the other hand, you teach your children how to have a respectful argument with someone they disagree with.

Fourth, acknowledge your child’s stated concern and implicit feelings. Many times, our children simply want to be deeply heard. When you restate their concern and reflect their feelings back to them, they will know you are listening. They will learn you value them enough to listen deeply. They will feel deeply heard and trust you more. A simple pattern to assure you listen deeply is to say something like, “It sounds like you feel ‘x’ because ‘their statement of concern.’” After they confirm you understand, you can follow up with a statement like “Let’s work on that together” or “Could I explain my reasons as we work together on this.” This will open the door to discuss the issue at hand and, more importantly, connect with your child.

Arguing is normal. It is not about you. It is an opportunity to connect with your children while learning more about them and their development. So, do NOT simply argue back. Listen. Learn. And work together.

Your Child Learns Best When

We all want our children to learn life skills. A study published in Nature Human Behavior [August, 2020] reveals a great way to help our children learn those life skills quickly. In this study, participants were asked to choose one of two symbols on a computer screen. Some symbols resulted in a cash reward at the end of the exercise while other symbols took the cash reward away (punishment). The initial step in this study involved “trial and error learning.” In this section of the study, the participants quickly learned which symbols offered the reward (receiving cash) and which offered punishment (taking away the cash reward). Interestingly, they learned from the reward symbols more than they learned from symbols that punished.

In the second part of the study, the participants made their choice and were then immediately shown which symbol gave them a reward and which resulted in a loss.  In this scenario, the participants learned equally well from reward and punishment. It seems that immediate teaching led to both reward and punishment being effective in helping the participant learn which symbol rewarded and which symbol punished.

In the final segment of this research, participants completed “forced-choice trials.” In this case the participants were told which symbol to choose, either the reward symbol or the punishment symbol. They simply chose the symbol they were instructed to choose. In these trials the participants learned much more slowly.

Consider these findings and what they can teach us as parents.

  1. Participants learned more quickly when they were able to make a choice rather than being told what to do. Our children will learn more quickly and more effectively when given a choice. We may not always like the choices they make or the consequences of those choices, but they will learn better when they are allowed to make a choice. So, if you want your children to learn well, allow them to make a choice whenever possible…and it is often possible.
  2. Participants learned more effectively in response to rewards than they did in response to punishment. Our children will also learn best in response to rewards. Rewards can range from a simple “thank you” to a trip to the toy store. The most powerful reward, however, is your attention, recognition, and time. Notice your children’s work and positive behavior. Acknowledge it. This is the most powerful reward you can offer to encourage positive behavior as well as reinforcing their learning.
  3. Punishment did help the participants learn when accompanied by teaching. There will be times in which we have to punish our children. Children learn best from punishment when it is accompanied by teaching. When your child “loses” a toy or a privilege because of some misbehavior, explain the reason for this punishment. Teach them the positive behavior you desire to replace the behavior you are punishing.

These 3 principles all come back to making choices. Children, like all people, learn best when given a choice. And, when children learn through their choices, they also grow more cooperative, competent, and motivated. They learn from the consequences more readily…and they become more engaged in learning in general. Give your children a choice and watch them learn.

A Dad’s Crucial Role Starts Early

A study published in the Social Service Review (September 2020) confirms the importance of a father’s presence in their children’s lives. This study used data collected over a 10-year period (starting at five-years-old) to explore the impact of a father’s involvement on the behaviors 15-year-old children. They discovered that a father’s social engagement with their children as well as time spent with their children led to fewer behavior problems in 15-year-olds. A father’s quality involvement in their children’s lives impacts their behavior for the better. But how much will it improve their behavior?

This study (read a review) found that increasing father involvement among families from lower socio-economic-status (SES) reduced the differences in behavior of 15-year-olds from higher SES groups. Specifically, a father’s involvement with his children reduced the gap between lower and higher SES groups in behaviors like aggression, depression, and delinquency by 30-50% in children who did not live with their fathers. Their involvement reduced that same gap by 80% for those children who lived with their fathers. Even more powerful, this study suggests that a father’s active presence in his children’s early life has a significant long-term impact on their adolescent behavior.

Interestingly, cash support did not have this significant of an effect on adolescent behavior. Children need hands-on, time invested, social engagement of fathers to really make the behavioral difference we want, not cash. (Father’s still need to support their children financially. Children need the financial means to meet daily needs. But a father’s active involvement in their lives can impact their behavior beyond what simply throwing cash their way does.)

Fathers, your involvement is crucial, pivotal to your child’s future. Get involved. Experience the joy of engaging your child today and you will experience the joy of a relationship with them for a lifetime.

Powerful Combinations of 3 Little Letters for Parents

When it comes to parenting, some of the most powerful interventions appear small and insignificant. For instance, the simple, small act of  saying “thank you” to our children on a consistent basis has a powerful impact on their self-image and their behavior. Another small but powerful intervention involves the arrangement of three little letters combined into a single word.

Consider the power of three little letters arranged to spell the word “AND.” “AND” helps a child learn they can be angry AND remain polite. They can understand that they don’t enjoy doing chores AND they can still do them, even getting them done well. Or, more importantly, they can come to appreciate that you, their parent, discipline them AND you love them more than words can say. You can even be upset with them AND remain present, available, and consistent.

“AND” is good for our parenting philosophy as well. It informs us that we have a great child AND they misbehave at times, even making mistakes that require correction. We can feel bad disciplining our child AND know we discipline them because we love them and want the best for them.  We can hurt for our child when they experience the consequences of poor choices AND let them experience those consequences and learn from them.

We find another powerful combination of three little letters in the word “YET.” “Yet” carries the power of hope and the potential for change. It communicates faith in our child’s ability to learn and grow. Think about it. I can’t ride a bike…YET. I can’t stand up in front of my classmates to give a speech…YET. I can’t cook…YET. I can’t drive a car…YET. “YET” transforms each of these temporary limitations into a hope, an anticipation of future success.

“YET” does the same for parents. I can’t get my children into a good bedtime routine…YET.  I can’t stay calm when my children scream…YET. I can’t stand another week of on-line school…YET.  Each “YET” reveals an expectation that I can learn and grow as a parent. Each “YET” communicates that I am not the parent I want to be…YET, but here is still hope. I can learn and grow. I can become a better parent…YET.

Three little letters combined into a single word with the power to transform, communicate acceptance, offer hope, and anticipate growth. Use them wisely.

Gifts, Experiences, & Your Child’s Happiness

We all know it’s true…so why do we do it? We know we can’t by our children’s happiness with material goods & gifts, but we try. Our children look upset and we buy them something to “lift their spirits.” We feel guilty because they seem so angry and disappointed after we discipline them, so we assuage our guilt and their anger with a gift. We hope it will make them happy. But a recent study demonstrates that giving gifts does not increase our children’s happiness. Well, sort of….

Specifically, this study demonstrated that children over 12-years-old derive more happiness from experiences than from material things. In other words, our children over 12-years-old are going to experience more happiness if we do something fun with them than if we give them a gift.

Children between the ages of 3- and 12-years-old, on the other hand, did derive more happiness from material things than experiences. But there is a caveat. This age group still loves experiences (just consider the joy of Chuckie Cheese, amusement parks, and trampoline parks). Developmentally, however, they need a physical reminder to jump start their remembrance of the experience and so experience the happiness it gave them. In other words, experiences provide an enduring happiness for children between 3- and 12-years-old as well…IF they have a picture or a small token to remind them of the experience. For children over 12-years-old, these reminders are not necessary. They simply find more joy in the experience than in the possession (see The ESSENCE of Adolescence & Love Your Teen’s Risky Behavior for More).

All this being said, our children will find greater happiness when they enjoy experiences with us. While you enjoy the experience, take a picture or two. Buy a souvenir. Talk about the experience and replay the happiness often (Learn How to Give Your Children the Memories of a Lifetime). Do this and children of all ages (0 to 99-years-old) will experience greater happiness.

A Little “Self-Nudge” Goes a Long Way

Have you heard of the “Quarantine 15”? Maybe you have even gained it. I know I’ve gained a good part of it. Overall, the pandemic has changed our routines, our activities, and our eating habits. It has impacted our moods, our emotions, and our relationships. We are home more, out less, and stressed more. One response to all this stress and inactivity could be choosing what is most comfortable, enjoyable, and attractive in the short run instead of choosing what’s best for us in the long run. The result? Weight gain. Binging our favorite TV shows while neglecting other important duties. Strained family relationships.

There is a way to help avoid this though. Self-nudging. Yes, self-nudging is a behavioral science term (Using self-nudging to make better choices). It describes a way of designing and structuring our environments to make it easier for us to make healthier choices. Although science refers to it as “self-nudging,” I believe we can also practice it within the loving support of our marriages and our families. When we do, it will strengthen our marriages and our families as well. Here are some ways to practice “self-nudging” in your family to promote healthier living and healthier families.

  • Use reminders and prompts. Reminders and prompts can encourage you to make healthier choices on a personal level and on a family level. For instance, putting reminders of your spouse’s birthday, your anniversary, and your children’s birthdays in your phone can prevent those important dates from “slipping your mind.” Leaving notes for your spouse or children to find that remind them of your love for them is another way to use reminders to strengthen your family. A picture in your suitcase can encourage faithfulness while on one of the many business trips you might have to make. The list goes on. Reminders and prompts can help build an environment that nudges you toward intimacy with your family.
  • Practice putting decisions into a different frame that reveals priorities. We often think of choices in light of what we want and find pleasurable in the moment. However, the choice between sitting down to play a video game or talking to my wife about childcare becomes more difficult in this frame. Perhaps, when it comes to our family, we need to frame our choices in terms of how to express love and build relationship. I want to play video games and relax. But talking to my wife about childcare expresses my love and concern for her. It allows us time together to build relationship. Or, I want to sit down and rest but taking my child to their friend’s house expresses love and allows us to have uninterrupted time to talk and build relationship. The choice becomes a little easier when we remember that higher priority of love and relationship.
  • Make the healthy things more accessible than the unhealthy. This self-nudging technique is obvious when it comes to food. For instance, keep more fruit and healthy snacks in your house than sweets and “not-so-healthy” snacks. But what about family? Not subscribing to channels that provide temptations or putting the computer in a common area of the house make unhealthy viewing less accessible. Charging children’s phones in a common area overnight rather than in their bedroom removes the temptation to stay up all night texting friends or surfing the net. Creating an environment in which your family knows you are accessible and available limits their need to turn to other people for their connection, sense of value, and desire for guidance. Keeping yourself available nudges the family toward health.
  • Build positive relationships. Support one another. Be accountability to one another. Use encouraging words to nudge one another toward health. Gentle guidance nudges families toward health. Clear, consistent rules and boundaries enforced with loving discipline will make healthy choices easier to make. Open communication and acceptance will encourage healthy choices.

These four points offers only “the tip of the iceberg” in describing what you can do in each area to “nudge” you and your family toward healthier choices. Get your family together and talk about each area. Let the whole family come up with ideas for “self-nudging” your family toward health. Write them down…and enjoy a healthy, growing family.

The Message Behind the Words

Children and teens are still learning. Parents know this, but we still get angry when they make bad choices. We know children make mistakes. They push the limits. They compound already stressful situations by becoming distracted, breaking down into tears, or even having a tantrum. And we, as parents, respond. The real question is: what is the most effective response? How can teach our children appropriate behavior and responsibility for their actions while still communicating we love and value them? I’m glad you asked.

An effective response begins with the words we use. Our words carry two messages. One message is the objective meaning of the words…the least powerful message of the two. The other message, the more powerful message, is the implied meaning behind the words. Effective parents learn to use power of words by using words that imply an affirmative message rather than a negative message.  Consider these examples.

Implied Negative MessageImplied Affirmative Message
“When are you going to finish cleaning up your mess?” This communicates the negative implication that any effort your child makes is not enough. It’s never going to satisfy you.  “Good start. Looks good so far.” This acknowledges their effort, appreciates what they have done, and leaves room for more work to be done.
“Don’t forget” implies your child needs a reminder because forgetting is their norm.“Remember” expresses faith in their ability to remember and trust in their desire to remember.
“I have no idea what you’re babbling about” communicates that your child is not worth listening to. They are just a “babbler.”“Whoa. Slow down. I’m interested in what you have to say but I can’t keep up.” This implies you value what your child has to say and teaches them to speak in a manner you can understand.
“What are you doing? See those streaks? Are you blind? Do it right.” This statement communicates that your child is incompetent and cannot live up to your standards. There is no room for individuality and growth.“You’re really getting the hang of cleaning the tables now. Let me show you how to avoid leaving streaks on the table.” This communicates a trust in their ability to learn, an appreciation of their growing ability, and an awareness of them as part of ‘your team.’
“Why? Because I said so.” This statement offers a challenge. It presents a power play. Power plays and challenges always invite debate and rebellion.“I love you too much to let you do that. I’m afraid you’ll get hurt because….” This statement expresses concern and a belief in your child’s ability to understand the reason behind the rules.
“You are so careless. Watch what you are doing!” Name calling (“careless”) and global characterizations generally express negativity. How can a careless person watch what they’re doing? They’re careless.“Oops. We better clean that up. You’ll know to be more careful next time.” This statement acknowledges a mistake was made and normalizes that mistake. It also communicates a trust in them to learn from those mistakes.
“Quit crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.” Minimizes or dismisses feelings. Makes children feel shame for their feelings. Limits their ability to learn to manage their feelings.“That has made you really sad.” Accepts and acknowledges feelings, which allows children to learn to better manage their feelings as well.
“Relax. What are you so angry about?” Once again, this dismisses their feelings with all the related negative results.“I appreciate your passion. It really shows how important this is to you.” Not only does this accept your children’s feelings, it communicates that feelings have an underlying value, a purpose. It encourages children to look for the deeper priority under the emotion.

What words do you remember hearing as a child? Those words that carried a negative message may have left scars you still experience today while words that carried an affirmative message continue to boost you and propel your forward. We want our words to propel our children forward with confidence and respect for authority. With that in mind, we must ask ourselves:

  • What words do I use with my children that carry a negative message?
  • How can I reword those phrases to send a more affirmative and effective message to my children?
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