Children, just like any other human beings, are often self-determining, self-willed, even self-ish. According to child development theory, this self-centeredness is normal, appropriate, and hard-wired until midway through the school-age years.
As parents who want to raise kids who care about others and the world around them – or who simply behave and do what they’re told – this can unfortunately lead to expending a lot of energy trying to convince them to listen or do what we say.
Sometimes we try using the same skills of persuasion that seem effective with adults, such as reason or debate. However, this usually leads to endless debates and kids who become quite seasoned at the use of circular reasoning. To be honest, I have to admit there have been days when my own parenting style resembled something closer to begging than anything else. Perhaps, the worst method of trying to convince children to follow orders is when parents resort to physical violence or other methods that simply teach children that using power over others is the best way to get by in the world.
It’s not that our kids don’t need convincing of things. They need our influence. But, too often our parenting methods convince them of the wrong things. Parenting styles such as those described above usually leave our children convinced that we – as parents – are easily worn down, easily won over, or easily driven to distraction, anger, or the inappropriate use of our power.
In my professional counseling work with families as well as in my own personal life as a father I have had the opportunity to learn some great parenting ideas from resources such as Thomas Phelan’s “1-2-3 Magic” and the “Love and Logic” program of Jim Fay and Foster Cline.
As a result, I feel pretty strongly that when our kids are convinced of the following things, parenting becomes less stressful, more effective, and more likely to raise children who are ready to face the challenges around them with success.
- Children need to be convinced, first and foremost, that their parents love them and cherish them.
This doesn’t mean giving in to their every want and demand. Nor does it mean offering empty praise. This has more to do with embedding genuine compliments and affirmations in your interactions with your child, even when delivering reprimands and consequences. While love can be expressed in any number of ways, we need to be careful not to take it for granted or assume that our kids feel loved without taking periodic inventory of the ways we express our love to them.
- Children also need to be convinced, however, that we can handle them, even at their worst.
When we lose our temper, give in to whining and debating, or don’t follow through on the consequences we set we are sending a clear message to our children that we simply can’t handle them. Like an amusement park ride, this is both exhilarating and frightening for children to realize they have so much power over us. Conversely, when we stick to our guns in a loving, even lighthearted way (singing and smiling helps), our kids get the sense that we’re in the driver’s seat and tend to both feel safer and give up their own battle tactics quicker.
- Children need to know that we, as their parents, mean what we say and really will do what we say we’re going to do.
This is simply about follow through. If a child knows that after a certain number of protests you will back down, they will surely use up all those free protest passes you’re giving them. If you know you’re not comfortable following through on a particular consequence, you are much better off not giving it than betting against the odds that your child will not fight you on it. With most families I work with, finding effective consequences is one of the hardest parts of parenting. Yet, I remain convinced that for every child there is something important enough to them to promote motivation toward responsible behavior.
- Parents need to communicate: “I think you’re smart enough to figure this out.”
Explaining, lecturing, and reminding are three common ways that parents send messages to their kids that say, “I don’t think you’re smart.” We convey to our kids that we think they are smart when we give them safe opportunities to fail while the price tags are low, when we resist over-talking and hold their feet to the fire, giving them the chance to make choices, own problems, and learn from mistakes. I often use this technique when my kids come to me with endless “why’s”, responding with a smile, “That’s a great question. I think you’re smart enough to figure that out.”
- Lastly, children need to be convinced that they will be more affected by their poor choices than their parents will be.
This can be particularly difficult when the consequence for misbehavior may affect scholarships or a vacation or any number of important aspects of family life. It would be ludicrous to suggest that parents are not adversely affected by their kids’ poor choices. However, we must use effective ways to communicate to our children that by and large their choices affect their own lives more than anyone else’s. In “Love and Logic” they call this ownership of the problem, and we need to make sure we are handing that ownership back to our kids so they can learn and practice responsibility.
This is, by no means, an exhaustive list and these principles are much easier said than done. Nevertheless, I do believe that these are some of the key elements to building a foundation for effective parenting.
Andy Young has been helping individuals and families around the Chicagoland area for over 25 years. He specializes in couples counseling, parenting, substance abuse, anger management, and domestic violence.