Our children are geniuses. They know so much more than we think. In some sense, this is good. It helps them learn and grow. In other ways, not so good because they know much more about what is going on at home than we might imagine. For instance, a study published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies revealed how much children between 3-years-old and 6-years-old know about their family’s relationships and conflicts. They were able to describe negative and positive aspects of their family’s relationships. They could give detailed descriptions about family dynamics—good and bad dynamics. They could explain the emotions of various family members by giving detailed descriptions of facial expressions, tone of voice, and behavior. In other words, children are watching AND learning.
Based on this finding, we have to ask ourselves: Are our interactions and conflict management styles teaching our children how to interact and manage emotions in a positive way? Are we giving seeing and learning healthy skills as they watch and learn from our behavior, facial expressions, tone of voice, and interactions? What will they learn about relationships from us? What will they carry into their families based on the lessons they learn by watching us? Be aware and make sure your children learn more positive lessons by watching you.
The authors of this study also found that conflict between a parent and their child often remained unresolved. As a result, the child turned to a sibling or a pet for comfort during tension with a parent. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my child to feel like a family pet offers more comfort than I do. So, resolve the conflict to keep the relationship open for comforting and support. You can resolve the conflict in a variety of ways, depending on the situation. For instance,
You can sit down and talk after everyone has calmed down. Talks about what happened and why it created a problem. Then discuss how to manage similar situations in the future in a more productive and healthy manner.
Apologize if and when you need to. Apologizing to our children when appropriate teaches them important lessons about responsibility, justice, and humility.
Reaffirm your love for your child. Make sure they know you love them even when you disagree with them, get upset with them, or even discipline them. Affirm your love verbally and nonverbally every day as often as you can.
Children are keenly aware of the family dynamics in our homes. They watch us to learn about marriage, relationships, conflict resolution, compromise, and many other life skills that they will take with them into their own marriages and families. Make sure the lessons they learn from you are the lessons you want them to know for life.
Parents rightfully desire to correct their children. They love their children and want them to grow wiser and more mature. They feel the duty…no, they feel a love that compels them to correct their children and promote their growth. I applaud that desire. Take note, though, that effective correction involves teaching. But parents often get caught up in the heat of the moment, triggered by ghosts of their past and fears of the future, and, rather than correct, they criticize. They think they are correcting, but their words are criticizing. And criticism interferes with learning. Let me share a few examples.
Criticism: “John, clean your room. It’s a disaster. You’re living in a dump.” Of course, there is a directive—”clean your room”—but the rest is criticism, not correction or discipline. Correction would sound more like, “John, clean your room. Everyone thinks and feels better in a clean space.” That offers the corrective teaching that leads to understanding and growth.
Criticism: “Save some candy for everyone else. You never think about anyone but yourself, do you?” Hear the criticism? But where is the teaching? A more effective teaching statement might be: “Save some candy for other people. You don’t want to eat so much you’re not hungry for dinner. Plus, it’s polite and shows kindness when you save some for others.”
Criticism: “Be quiet. You’re so loud. It’s irritating.” Once again, criticism with no real teaching or correction. Correction might instruct, “Be quiet” and add a polite ending (“please”) followed by teaching like, “people find it disrespectful when we get too loud in the house. You can be loud outside if you want.”
That’s only three examples, but I think you probably understand the point. We, as parents, often slip into criticism when we really want to instruct, correct, and teach. When we slip into criticism, we lose effectiveness. Not only do we not get to teach, but our children suffer the ill consequences of constant criticism.
When the time comes to correct your children, and those times will come often enough, listen to yourself. Are you correcting or criticizing? Then adjust to correcting in love.
I have often heard about the dangers of using manipulation when parenting. Manipulation in parenting contributes to an increased risk of rebellion, excessive guilt, and even depression in the child being manipulated. But what exactly is manipulative parenting? What practices make up manipulative parenting? We need to know the answers to these questions, so we don’t accidentally engage in manipulation. With that in mind, let me explain 5 ways in which parents might manipulate their children as they try to discipline.
Withdrawing love or isolating their child. Children need their parents. They need to know their parent’s love for them is unshakable, present, and available. When we send our children to their room for an indefinite period of time or suddenly withdraw ourselves emotionally from their world, they become insecure. They question their own lovability. And they will do almost anything to regain the security of their parents’ love and attention. When we withdraw our love or isolate our children, we have used their innate need for our loving presence and attention to manipulate them into behaviors we desire. So, rather than give your child an indefinite time out, give them a timeframe (a short timeframe). Then restore the relationship. Even better, give your child a “time-in” instead of a time-out. If you find yourself needing some emotional distance from a situation with your child, talk to them first. Explain to them that you simply need time alone and how they can provide that space without even leaving the room by quietly engaging in an activity on their own. Also, give them a time frame for your time alone. Once again, reunite with them immediately afterwards.
Eliciting a “guilt trip.” We have all seen parents attempt to make their children engage in desired behavior or make a particular decision by sending them on a guilt trip. You know…phrases like, “I can’t believe you would do this to me after I…” or “I taught you better than that” or “You drive me crazy. Why don’t you just sit still and be quiet?” Even a look of disappointment and shame can send our children on a guilt trip. Using guilt to elicit the behavior or decisions we desire in our children is manipulation…and detrimental to their emotional health. Rather than sending your child on a guilt trip, explain what behavior you desire and the reasons you desire it. Take time to teach.
The “silent treatment.” “Silent treatment” is another way parents isolate their child. The still face experiment (seen in this video for both an infant and a married couple) reveals how the silent treatment negatively impacts our children. They become emotionally dysregulated and will do anything to reengage with their parent. Getting our children to do what we want by engaging in ” silent treatment” is manipulation. Learn, instead, to talk with your child. Teach them. Explain yourself. This may include becoming a bit vulnerable at times. But, when we talk, teach, and listen, our children will grow. You will grow. And their positive behavior will increase.
Humiliating, shaming, or embarrassing. Of course, this is manipulative. We never want to humiliate, shame, or embarrass our children. Really, we want to model healthy ways of interaction in our own interaction with them. We want to treat our children with the same respect and love with which we want them to treat us and others in the world. They will learn through their experience with us.
Social comparisons. Social comparisons manipulate by inducing guilt, embarrassing, and even humiliating our children. There is no need to compare our children with anyone else. In fact, we find our children’s best self in their uniqueness. Accept them for “who they are,” strengths and weaknesses alike. Acceptance carries great power to promote their growth and maturity. Children learn to value themselves and their capacity for growth when they find acceptance in and from us.
These five practices are signs of manipulative parents. Each one has a detrimental effect on our children. Each one backfires in the long run. Each one interferes with healthy relationships. But each once can be replaced with loving respect, kind instruction, healthy interactions, and acceptance. When we replace manipulation with respect, instruction, acceptance, and healthy relationships, we will enjoy a growing relationship with our constantly maturing children.
I like the words of Alison Gopnik in her book The Gardener and The Carpenter. “Children not only do as you do, they do as you intend to do, as you really ought to have done, and as it would make most sense for you to do.”
It’s true. Children don’t simply do as we tell them to do. They do as we do. They imitate our actions and repeat our words. Who hasn’t had the experience of hearing your toddler shouting out the profanity you said only one time in moment of frustration. Our children learn by observing us. But they learn even more than that. They learn and do as we intended to do, even when we mess up along the way. Consider the study involving 18-month-old toddlers watching someone trying to take a toy apart. As the person tries to take the toy apart, their fingers keep slipping. The 18-month-old children do not imitate the slipping fingers. They recognize the intent and imitate the intent by taking the toy apart without their fingers slipping. (Consider this example too. It’s one of my favorites and it’s An Amazing Parenting Insight Learned in Three Parts). Yes, our children imitate our intended behaviors.
They also do what we “really ought to have done” and what makes most efficient sense. Consider this example. A group of 18-month-old children watch as a person tries to make a box light up. The person’s arms were wrapped up, so he was unable to use them. So, to make the box light up, he lightly bangs his head on the box. The 18-month-old children do not bang their head on the box to get it to light up. Instead, they recognize the intent was to hit the box so it would light up. They also recognize the person’s inability to use their arms and the greater efficiency of using arms. So, they bang the box with their hands to make the box light up. Children do as we “really ought to have done.”
Still, on more caveat about this quote. Children are more likely to do as we intend and as we “really ought to have done” when we have a relationship with them. Children learn best from within a loving relationship. Which leads to a second quote by Alison Gopnik that I really like: “The key to love in practice is doing things together…participating in the world in a way that accommodates the strengths and weaknesses of both of you,” you and your child. Our children learn by observing and imitating. They imitate our intended purpose and will modify their actions to those that are most efficient and effective…even when we mess up. So, love your child by doing things together. Let them observe your patience when interacting with things in the world and your kindness when interacting with other people. Let them participate in the shopping, the acts of kindness, the cleaning, the games, the cooking. Let them observe your patience, your kindness, your joy… and they will imitate. They will imitate our intended actions and attitudes even when we mess up. (Really, this is great news. Consider how great this news is by reading My Children Are Copy Cats, No What?.)
None of us want our children to become a bully. That’s why I really like the study published in the Journal of Youth and Adolescence. The researchers of that study followed 1,409 children from 7th through 9th grade to explore how parenting style impacts a teen’s ability to manage emotions such as anger. This study revealed the negative impact of a parenting style that expressed criticism, sarcasm, put-downs, and hostility toward children while using emotional and physical coercion to gain compliance from children. They called this a “derisive parenting style.”
This “derisive style” of
parenting contributed to children who had poorly regulated or poorly controlled
anger. In the peer interactions, poorly controlled anger led to more negative
emotions, greater verbal and physical aggression, and hostility. The poorly
controlled anger put teens at greater risk for bullying AND victimization AND
for becoming a bully who is also victimized by other bullies.
I don’t know any parent who wants their child to becomes a bully, a victim, or a bully-victim. So, rather than using “derisive parenting style” let me suggest a kinder, more loving kind style.
Rather than criticism offer sincere
appreciation for what’s done well, constructive appraisals around areas of
potential improvement, and acceptance for differing ideas.
Rather than sarcasm offer playful
banter, respectful limits, and loving boundaries.
Rather than put-downs offer much
needed encouragement, admiration of positive effort, and compliments on
Rather than verbal hostility offer verbal
affection, loving and firm boundaries, and light-hearted opportunities for
Rather than physical coercion offer healthy
physical affection, physical assistance, and gentle guidance.
Rather than emotional coercion like
shame and guilt offer the emotional support, acceptance of different ideas
and methods, and assurance of love.
Ironically, replacing a
“derisive parenting style” with a more loving, supportive parenting
style results in greater compliance as well as a more independent, confident,
and self-controlled child. Step away from building a bully with
“derisive parenting;” build a strong, confident child by using a
kinder, more loving parenting style instead.
I discovered an amazingly impactful prep school for young adulthood romance, aka, young love. Notice I said “impactful” not “effective.” This prep school can effectively promote healthy romance in young adulthood, but it can also effectively promote problematic, drama-filled and even violent romance in young adulthood. Makes you wonder if we even want our children to attend this prep school, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, you have no choice about whether your children attend. They will and do attend this prep school. Fortunately, you have total control over staffing and curriculum! The prep school is your home. The staff are the parents of your children (that’s you). The curriculum is your marriage and your parenting strategies.
Researchers at Penn state recruited 974 adolescents to assess this prep school (Read about it in Parents May Help Prep Kids for Healthier, Less Violent Relationships.) They met with the young people three times between sixth and ninth grade to gather information about how their families got along, how consistent and harsh punishment was in their home, and how they interacted with their parents. Then, when the children were around 19.5-years-old, the researchers asked them about their romantic relationships including their feelings of love, their problem-solving abilities, and whether they ever engaged in physical or verbal violence with their romantic partner. They discovered three curriculum and staffing guidelines for the most positive and effective prep school for young love.
A prep school that produced young adults who engaged in better problem solving within their romantic relationships utilized staff (parents) who created a supportive home and practiced positive parenting (Dunkin’ Donuts & A Better Behaved Child tells more). Supportive home and positive parenting practices strike a balance between rules and relationship. Parents in such home lead in love, promote values built on a foundation of love, and discipline from a position of love. (Where are you On the Parenting See-Saw )
A prep school that produced young adults who felt more love and connection in their romantic relationships promoted a positive engagement between children and staff (parents). Work to create a close bond with your children. This will involve investing time in their lives, following through on promises, and learning about their interests and hobbies. Engage with your children in daily routines, play, and activities that promote connection. (Here are 3 Simple Ways to Bond With Your Child)
A prep school associated with a lower risk of violence in young adults’ romantic relationships was one which built a more “cohesive and organized family climate.” In other words, the family prep school provided enough structure and love to promote a sense of security and safety. It provides the structure of a predictable daily life that allows each person to have a fair understanding of the “next event” as well as their role in the home. It also provides the love that undergirds each person’s sense of inherent worth and value while guiding them toward a healthier, independent life. This combination of structure that flows from love promotes cohesion and stability. In this balance of structure and love, curriculum includes validation and problem-solving, learning to persist, acceptance of temporary failures as learning experiences.
If you are a parent, you currently run a Young Adulthood Romance (YAR) Preparatory School for your children. I propose you implement these three curriculum and staffing guidelines for your children today. You will be so happy you did when they bring home their boyfriends or girlfriends in the future!
I had to fix a hole in our bathroom wall. The towel rack had pulled out leaving a hole; so I set about to fix it. Unfortunately, I am not a handy person. I did my best, but when I pulled the towel off the newly hung towel rack it pulled right out of the wall again…leaving an even bigger hole. I followed the directions printed on the patch material I purchased. I asked the staff at the hardware store. With every “repair,” the hole grew larger. “One last time,” I thought. “I’ll try one more time.” So I stood at the store staring at the display of materials for patching a wall. I tried to reason through my experience to figure out my next step…my last step. An employee offered his explanation. I didn’t have the heart to tell him, “Already tried that…made the hole bigger.” After he left, another shopper said, “Hey buddy.” (I always wonder if something shifty is coming when I hear that.) “What that guy said…it won’t work. It’ll just make a bigger hole.” I knew that! He had my attention and continued, “I do this for a living and I’ll tell you exactly what to do.” He spent the next five minutes explaining how to fix the hole in my wall. He even drew a few simple diagrams. I went home with renewed hope and followed his instructions to the letter. The towel rack supported by the repaired wall is now the most secure towel rack in the bathroom.
I could not have fixed the towel rack and the hole in the wall without the help of that man. He met me at my level of knowledge and taught me. He gave me guidance, introducing ideas and concepts while remaining responsive to my questions. He was friendly and patient. I tell you all this because I learned four very important lessons about effective parenting from this one interaction with my “construction mentor.” Let me explain.
The man waited until the employee had left and then spoke with me one-on-one. He was sure to have my full attention and he did not try to “correct” my difficulties in public. Effective parents also teach in private. Rather than “correct their children in public, they move to a private place and speak to their children one-on-one. They make sure they have their children’s full attention and speak to them one-on-one in a calm and respectful manner.
The man saw my need for help patching a hole in the wall and hanging a towel rack. He didn’t just explain how to fix the hole in the wall but how to fix the hole AND make the spot strong enough to hold the towel rack. He didn’t teach me how to fix the toilet, either. He simply addressed the need I had at the moment. Effective parents meet their children’s need “at the moment.” When their children begin to whine, they explore the need rather than simply yelling at them for whining. There will still be time for teaching, but find out what your children need first and then respond to that When responding to your children, let them lead you to their need rather than deciding what they need.
The man taught to my level. He even drew simple pictures I could take home with me. Those pictures really came in handy for my limited skill set. Effective parents meet their children at their children’s developmental level and skill ability. They do not expect a four-year-old to understand what a 12-year-old does. Nor do they assume their 12-year-old knows how to do something just because they’re twelve. Instead, effective parents teach their children how to do what they want done. They teach keeping the level of their children’s ability to understand in mind.
The man allowed me to ask questions and made sure I understood his instructions. He trusted me to do the job after I had received his instructions. Effective parents allow their children to ask questions and effective parents trust their children to do the best they can.
A trip to the hardware store and a fallen towel rack resulted in my learning how to fix my wall and, more importantly, four great lessons to put into practice as a parent. Give these four tips a try with your children. They may end up being the most secure children on the block.
Effective discipline involves teaching appropriate behavior, not just punishing negative behavior. In fact, the most effective discipline focuses first and foremost on teaching positive behaviors with these three steps.
Model the behavior you want to see in your children. If you want honest children, model honesty. Tell them the truth. Keep your promises so they know “your word is good” and truthful. If you want your children to avoid drugs and alcohol, live a drug-free lifestyle. If you desire polite and considerate children, be polite and considerate to your children as well as the adults around you. if you want children who have clear boundaries, set clear boundaries yourself. if you notice your children consistently engaging in some negative behavior, check your own behavior. Make sure you are not modeling that behavior in some way. Teaching positive behavior begins with you your own behavior. Model the behavior you want to see in your children.
Point out the effect of you children’s misbehavior on those around them. Statements like “If you run through the crowd, you might knock someone down and hurt them,” “Your friend is sad because you won’t share,” “People in this restaurant are getting irritated with your loud behavior.” Pointing out the effect of their behavior on others can help your children learn to consider the consequences of their behavior, recognize how others are responding to their behavior, and to have empathy for others.
Teach your children the behavior you desire. Don’t expect your children to know what behavior you expect. Show it to them. Explain it to them clearly. This may be as simple as cleaning their room with them or folding clothes with them so you can teach as you go. It can also include heart to heart discussions on topics like drugs, public behaviors, dating boundaries, expectations around driving. You could speak about these topics directly or through characters in stories or movies, current events, or experiences of friends. Whatever the topic, keep the expectations clear and concise. Avoid lecturing and nagging. Just dive in clear, concise and to the point. I know. It may seem like our children should already know better. But, how will they know unless we teach them? We need to make sure they know. So teach them again. The conversation may feel awkward; but a little awkwardness is worth the assurance that our children know exactly what is expected of them. And, that awkward conversation will actually contribute to a deeper relationship as well.
Did you ever see “The Colour Changing Card Trick” on YouTube? It is a cool card trick…and so much more. In fact, the “so much more” makes the trick astounding and teaches us an important lesson about family. Take a short 2 minutes and 43 seconds to watch “The Colour Changing Card Trick” in the video below. You won’t be disappointed. Then read what this trick taught me about family.
People learn and grow; they mature and change. More to the point, your spouse, children, and parents learn and grow. They mature and change. Taking the time to recognize and acknowledge how they learn, grow, and change honors them. Adjusting our response in accordance with their growth also honors them and communicates respect for them. Unfortunately, we often miss the real changes, the significant growth, because we focus on some small aspect of their life or behavior that has irritated us. We focus on the “cards” and miss the all the changing shirts, table cloths, and back drops. Let me give some examples.
We recall the time a family member was late in picking us up and tell that story for years, but never acknowledge how many times they were there for us when we needed them…or how they have grown more responsible over the years.
We focus on a family member’s angry reaction to some pet peeve and neglect to recognize how patient they have become in the last year or how patient they have always been in so many other areas.
We constantly talk about our children’s messy room while ignoring how well they clean their dishes, the car they drive, or the desk they study at.
We bring up the time a family member said something obviously wrong (“Is this chicken…or is this fish? I know its tuna, but it says ‘Chicken of the Sea.’) while neglecting to acknowledge how intelligent they are and how much more knowledgeable they have grown.
I’m not saying we need to let inappropriate behavior run amok in our families. Inappropriate behavior needs addressed. But, we show respect and honor when we recognize how our family members have changed and matured. Take a look at the “big picture,” the whole picture. Notice the changes your spouse and children have made. Admire their maturing character. Acknowledge new behaviors and attitudes they have developed in response to lessons learned. Notice the changing colors of their life as it grows ever more mature. It’s a great way to show honor and respect.
I often meet children described as having “anger management problems.” They blow up in anger, yell, and scream. They may even get physically aggressive. As I talk with them and their family, I discover these children often have little or no language for emotional expression. As a result, they have no delay, no buffer, between their emotion and their action. They impulsively “act out” any emotion they experience. Anger impulsively leads to aggression. Joy and excitement translate into uncontrollable energy. When these children and their families learn to put their emotions into words and, even more important, learn to connect with one another through their emotion, impulsive acting out often decreases. Self-control increases. Mutual understanding and intimacy grows. In reality, these children did not have anger management problems. They had limited emotional expression problems. Fortunately, parents play a huge role in teaching their children to put emotions and feelings into words. I say fortunately because that means you, as a parent, can help your children learn this skill. So, put on your coach’s hat and get down to the business of emotional coaching with these tips.
Accept your children’s emotions. It sounds cliché, but it’s true: all emotions are acceptable. Whether your children experience happiness or sadness, pleasure or anger, allow them to have their emotional experience. Accept their emotion. (By the way, the Pixar movie Inside Out does an excellent job of showing the benefits of allowing the experience of every emotion.) Do not judge or evaluate your children’s emotions. Doing so may leave them feeling like something is wrong with them. Simply accept their emotion. Sure, put limits on the behavioral expression of that emotion (“You can be angry, but we do not hit”), but be open to their experience. Allow them to experience all their emotions.
Explore the emotion and the context in which it occurs. Become curious about your children’s emotional experience. Where do they feel that emotion in their body—their stomach, head, arms, legs? Does it make them feel better or worse? Is it heavy or light? What happened right before they experienced the emotion? What are they thinking? What is the priority revealed in the emotion? Answering questions like these requires you to focus on what is happening “inside” your children, not just their outward behavior. Your goal is to listen and understand their emotion so well that you can completely empathize with it from their young perspective.
Keep your interaction as conversational and intimate as possible. Avoid lecturing and explaining. Spend more time listening, clarifying, and understanding. If you lecture, your children will shut down. Their eyes will glaze over and their mind will drift. You will have missed an excellent opportunity to connect with them. Keep it conversational.
As your children begin to calm, encourage them to think more about their emotion. Help them to recognize the priority, need, or desire behind the emotion. Think through possible actions they could take to actually satisfy that need or effectively communicate their priority. In essence, problem-solve an effective response to the situation that aroused their emotion.
Empower your children with appropriate labels for their emotions. The ability to label an emotion carries great power. A label allows people to express their emotion rather than impulsively act it out. People who can label and communicate their emotions have a better chance at investing their emotional energy in reaching a satisfactory result rather than expending the energy on physically acting out.
Encourage your children to recognize how their actions impact those around them. Make them aware of the emotions displayed by those who witness their behavior. Gently point out the subtle cues of how others respond to them. This teaches them to recognize those cues independently and adjust their interaction accordingly.
We could list other tips, but these six provide a great start. If you want more information on emotions and your children, read Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, an excellent book by John Gottman.