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.
We all love to receive a gift. Even more, we love to give gifts to those we love. Who doesn’t like to see our child’s face glow when they receive a gift from us? Or watch our spouse’s eyes glitter when they receive a special gift? Here is a gift you will love to give. Not only will you spouse and children love to receive this gift but you will experience all kinds of benefits…like more conversations, greater joy, and growing intimacy. What is this gift? The gift of attention!
You can give the gift of attention by listening intently. Listen to their words and listen to their tone of voice. Observe carefully. Observe their body language and their facial expressions. Observe what excites them and what brings them down. Listen intently and observe carefully so you can understand them deeply.
Then, and only then, begin to speak. But don’t move to fast. Use your first words to confirm your understanding. State what you’ve observation. Repeat what you’ve heard. Listen again as they either confirm your understanding or clarify your understanding.
Now, once you understand and your partner knows you understand, you can respond. This sounds like it will take a long time and sometimes it does…but not always. Take this example:
“It’s a beautiful sunny day,” your wife says looking out the window at the flowers in the back yard.
“Yes. It is a sunny day. I like how it shines on the flowers in our backyard,” you reply.
This simple interaction includes the observation that your wife is looking out the window when you talk about the flowers she is looking toward. She knows you listened as you repeat her words back to her–“sunny day.” A simple interaction that gives the gift of attention. With a gift this simple, you can give it away to your spouse and children multiple times a day. It’s almost like Christmas. Merry Attention. Happy Listening.
Parents love to see their preschooler exploring the world around them. We encourage our children to engage in exploration and play. Rightly so…such exploration helps them discover their interests and strengths during elementary school, their passion and identity during their teen years, and their vocation and independence in young adulthood. Exploring is crucial to healthy developmental in each age group. And, if you really think about it, it requires a great deal of courage for our children to explore the world and “become their own person.” Unfortunately, many parents unwittingly embezzle their children’s innate courage, robbing them of the grit and determination needed to develop healthy independence. Don’t embezzle your children’s innate courage, invest in it and nurture it with these four tips.
- Accept your children’s unique style of exploration. I have two daughters. One jumps into new activities and experiences. The other wades in slowly, first one toe and then another before her whole foot slips in. Then she slowly (sometimes painfully slowly) wades further in until she is fully immersed. (She takes after me, by the way.) Eventually, both daughters become fully immersed in an adventure, but they required different kinds of support and encouragement. One needed encouragement to “think before she leaps.” The other needed a hand, support, and even a gentle nudge at times. As young adults, they still have different styles and ways of approaching new experiences; but both of them have become independent and capable of courageous exploration. Accepting each child’s unique style of exploration and nurturing it in a complementary manner allows your child to explore courageously.
- Observe before removing obstacles. Our children will encounter obstacles, problems, and frustrations along the way. It is inevitable. Do not jump in to help too quickly. Step back for a moment and observe. Watch them to see how they respond to the obstacle. Give them the opportunity to solve the problem on their own. Watch a preschooler with a toy and you will see them try several actions with it before settling for the one that seems most appropriate. Let your elementary age children and your teens do the same with challenges that arise. Let them struggle with various attempts to solve the problem before you offer a suggestion. You might be pleasantly surprised at the creative solution they discover. (More on “stepping back” in Do Your Rob Your Teen of Victory?)
- Teach problem-solving. Of course, our children will not have the ability and knowledge to solve every problem that arises. So, when they come to you for help or you see them reach an impasse, teach them problem-solving. Teach problem solving rather than simply solving the problem for them. Ask questions about what they have done and why it did not work. Ask questions to prompt other ways of looking the problem and thus give rise to a potential solution. Help them look at the obstacle from various perspectives and points of view. Come up with three or four possible solutions and let them choose which one they will try first. Learning the process of problem-solving gives children the confidence they need to courageously explore the world around them.
- Acknowledge effort and reframe failures as learning. Children become more willing to explore when they know that effort produces success and failure is simply a step toward success. So, acknowledge and praise children’s effort. When they do make a mistake or fail, return to step three and teach problem-solving. Effort and problem-solving opens up a world of possibility and emboldens exploration. (Read Growing Your Child’s Mind for Success for more.)
These four tips can help increase our children’s courage to explore…and that can help us avoid the “failure to launch” syndrome as they mature. It will also give you the pleasure of watching your child explore the world with confidence and, in so doing, grow more independent and mature.
All children get angry. It’s a part of life. In fact, anger can be good. For instance, our children’s anger can help us identify what they find important. After all, a person rarely gets angry about something they don’t care about. Anger also gives us the energy to address that priority. The trick is to not let the anger overwhelm us but to learn how to use the energy of our anger to address the priority in a positive and productive manner. With that in mind, we can address our children’s anger by exploring what priority lies underneath their anger. Here are a few to look for:
- Feeling unheard. Children get angry when they feel “no one listens to me.” We may inadvertently contribute to this feeling if we have not learned to be observant of our children. For instance, if we do not observe the subtle cues of boredom, tiredness, hunger, or nervousness our children may escalate to anger. We did not “hear” their subtle behaviors telling us they needed a break so they broke out in anger to be heard. Learn to listen well. Listen to their words but also to their body language and actions. Listen with your ears and your eyes.
- Being emotionally hurt. Hurt often lies underneath our children’s angry outbursts. Remember our children do not think like adults so what you may think of as a minor infraction might be perceived as a major betrayal in their eyes. For instance, I told my daughter we could get ice cream one night; but then I got called in to work for an emergency. She felt as though I had broken a promise, betrayed a trust. She was hurt. We needed to repair our relationship. Broken promises, teasing names, strained friendships, a teacher’s comment, and similar experiences can lead to hurt…which can be expressed in anger. Observe your children’s anger carefully to discover if there is a hurt underneath that anger.
- Fear. Children often respond to fear with anger. Fear might arise in response to the unknown or the unpredictable. Perhaps you have experienced your children’s anger on the first day of school, as they prepare for the new and “unknown” of a new school and new teachers. Or, you may have noticed the increase in your children’s anger when routines get changed and life becomes unpredictable. Our children thrive in structure. They excel when they have a predictable routine letting them know what comes next. If that routine gets changed, be sure to keep your children informed. Doing so can cut back on angry outbursts. (For more on the benefits of routines, read The Discipline Tool You Can’t Live Without.)
- Attention. Everyone likes to be noticed. Children especially need to know their parents notice them and delight in them. Sometimes, however, parents give their children all kinds of energetic attention when they misbehave and very little attention when they are behaving. We think, “Don’t upset the apple cart” when they behave and avoid interrupting as a result…which they interpret as receiving no attention. When they misbehave, we jump on the misbehavior to nip it in the bud. Unfortunately, we have given attention to the angry misbehavior and ignored the positive behavior. We have reinforced the angry misbehavior with attention and taught them the best way to get attention is with angry misbehavior. Once again, we must remain observant of our children. Verbally acknowledge their positive behaviors and address negative behavior in a calm, neutral voice. (Read Catch the Little Rascals Red-Handed for more on the impact of attention in discipline.)
I’m sure there are more reasons lying beneath our children’s anger; but these four give us a start. You can learn the specifics of what lies under your children’s anger through careful observation and loving interaction. As you observe your children, tell us what you find…it might help all of us deal better with our children’s anger!