Be More, Teach Less

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Dad and child being sillyThis summer I want to revisit my Be more, teach less philosophy. Summer is often a good time to be more laid back when school work is not looming. It’s time to simply BE with your children.

Think of a favorite memory you have of a happy time with one of your parents. One that you have never forgotten, one that warms your heart. Was it a moment when your parent was teaching you something? I doubt it. My guess is that it was a time when you were just being together doing something fun or feeling loved and accepted by your parent—maybe you were being silly and laughing hard (that’s my memory).

Spend time this summer focused on being and not doing—on making some of those memories with your kids. Doing things together is great. What I mean is just being with instead of doing to your child. Even if your child is doing something she shouldn’t be doing. Trust her to know that she made a mistake instead of harping on her with your corrections or criticisms.

I know what you’re thinking: How can I leave something bad alone—like hitting? How will he learn if I don’t give him a consequence? She has to know that it’s not okay.

I get it. It’s a risk I am suggesting you take. Think of it as an experiment. Give it at least a month. If it’s something you fear needs teaching, simply say, “I know you know that was not okay. I trust that you are working on getting control over that.” And leave it there.

Children resist with all their might when they think we are against them—when we criticize, blame, threaten, lecture—when they don’t trust that we understand and accept them. To find their way, they need to trust us to trust them. We parent by the misconception that our job is to teach our children how to perform in the world, and if they don’t do it right (according to whom?), then they must be forced with some kind of manipulative, punitive tactic to get them on track. What track? Whose track? What if your child is meant to establish a new track or a track you don’t approve of? What if it’s a track that public schools don’t teach? What if it’s a developmental track that maturity will take care of?

Of course there is unacceptable behavior that must change. Do you think your child doesn’t know that? Unacceptable behavior is far more prevalent when the child is reacting to and resisting being treated unfairly and disrespectfully. That unacceptable behavior is due to something that needs tending, not teaching.

What children need from us is our guidance and leadership. They need us to keep them safe, set the rules, and make the decisions they cannot be expected to make. They should never be expected to act like a grown-up, to know better, to understand tooth decay, to want to do their homework or go to bed, to hurry up and get out the door in the morning. We must trust that they want to be successful, that they want to please us, the most important people in their lives. They want to learn; they want to find their paths. It’s when we get in their way with our own agendas, our critical tones, and our disapproving eyes that they come to the conclusion that the most important people in their lives can’t be trusted—so they look to their peers.

Guidance and leadership does not mean engaging in power struggles to prove our rightness and put down their arguments. It does not mean punishing them, taking away their favorite things, isolating or grounding them—making them feel miserable and thinking that will motivate them to do better. Our intentions are well placed; the methods we traditionally use to motivate are misguided and wrong. They send our children right down the track we most fear. They leave our children floundering in a world of unpredictability, distrusting that we will be there to listen when they face problems.

Practice being; practice trusting. Start by simply listening and truly hearing what your kids are trying to tell you, even and especially when you don’t like the noise they are making. And let me know how your experiment goes. It would be great to have some stories (positive and negative) to share here.

You might also like Building Defensive Behavior One Brick at a Time


Questions and Answers

Aggressive Behavior

Q. I can’t stamp out aggressive behaviour in my son. He has known since he was a toddler, using hands or feet to hurt is “NOT OK”. I tried every type of scolding, consequence etc. but none of it made any difference. Since learning about Connective Parenting I don’t scold any more (it doesn’t work anyway), I have been validating the feeling, acknowledging his anger and asking him to work with me to find different ways to express it. Nothing helps. He hurts other kids at school. In kindy his teacher was concerned but not much. Now, going into year 1 it is completely unacceptable. I see that he’s HAVING a problem but for the school, he’s just BEING a problem. In class there is no validation of feeling, just warning and a punishment system. Last year he was such a good kid in class. This year he is rapidly being labeled as a ‘troublemaker’, which concerns me deeply. When I try to discuss the behaviours the teacher has reported to me, my son says “Shut up. Don’t talk about it. I don’t want to talk about that.”

A. Aggressive behavior must never be “stamped out”. It need an acceptable outlet. It’s the stamping out process that perpetuates unacceptable aggression. The key here may be “for the school, he’s just BEING a problem”. If he is being labeled at school as a troublemaker and dealt with punitively, talking about it with you makes it worse. Unless you can acknowledge his point of view so he knows you support him no matter what. When he trusts that, he may open up. Your work now is with the team at school. Try to convince them that his aggression is innate and punishing him is what turns that aggression physical and angry. In fact, giving him more opportunity to be positively aggressive is the direction to be taken. Is a different school an option if they do not understand his needs? Does he have enough physical activity? Can you get him into a martial arts class? If he is still hurting you at home, he is not yet trusting your new approach. Stay with it but do not allow him to hit you. Tell him you do not want to be hit, and you hope he will never allow anyone to hit him. But do tell him what he can hit and kick and punch. That energy needs to come out, not be pushed in.

Diaper Dilemmas

Q. I’ve been working on empowering my toddler more since your talk, which has brought down the frequency of frustrations for all. She serves her own food (and now ours!), and helps make decisions about clothes, activities, etc. — just generally respecting her as a person with opinions. I do find myself several times a day in a situation where she does not want to do something, say, change her diaper before bed. I’ve been using an approach like this (always keeping a gentle tone): “Before we read books we’ll need to change out of our wet diaper into a nice dry one for nighttime.” “OK.” (Then she dashes around her room playing wildly.) “We need to change your diaper. Please come here.” “Nooooo.” “OK, either you pull your diaper down yourself so we can change it, or I’ll need to come over there and take it off myself. (pause…) 1.2.3.” and she comes running over in a good mood. I’m thinking this is ok because I gave her a choice and she ended up doing the right thing. But, I use this technique quite often.

A. Sounds like you are well along the right track. I would tweak the diaper scenario a bit. Making it a game is good, but it’s also a job you must do. Pussy-footing around and calling it “our” diaper gives her the leeway to run off and get silly. If it gets you frustrated and angry, you are not playing the game but she doesn’t understand why. “It’s time to change your diaper” or “I need to change your diaper” is much more direct and logical. Then use motivation. “Are you ready to read books?! Okay. As soon as I get your diaper changed, we can get to books. Tell me what one you want to read first while I’m changing you.” A counting game is fine as long as your 1-2-3 is not threatening (I do not endorse 1-2-3 Magic) but is a challenge. “Let’s see how quickly you can run into my arms. I’ll count. 1-2-3 – etc.” Find a game that works and do it the same way each night. She’ll likely love the routine – something predictable.

Consequences Can be Dangerous

Q. I have read Confident Parents and love it. Thank you. I have a 7 yr. old son. His mother and I separated before he was born. I have contact with him once every 2 weeks. His mother and I, whilst civil to each other, do not really communicate. I must deal with any misbehaviour issues, issuing consequences for these in the short time we are together. Whilst I would describe him as well-behaved, there are incidents of tantrums and misbehaviour.  I have tried to set appropriate consequences. I try to explain why it’s important to have consequences for his behaviour, and also ask him about his feelings. However, I don’t want most of our time together to be taken up with consequences. I want him to have fun. For instance, his teacher told me he needs to work on remembering to pause after a full stop when reading I was doing that at the library, and he had a tantrum, saying that that was not how he did it in school. I explained that his teacher told me this was how they did it, but he would not accept that. He then called me a ‘bloody idiot’, was rude, interrupting me, started kicking chairs and throwing books. I informed him that the consequences for his behaviour were that when we got home he would have to read to me the relevant ‘help me be good books’, which we have read before.  When we started reading the first book, he got rude again interrupting, kicking and punching me. After some time he did calm down, and managed to finish reading the relevant books.

A. The only consequences I recommend are either natural (ALLOW the disappointments and struggles of life that are often a child’s most important teachers) or logical—one’s that are agreed on by both you and your child. Never arbitrary consequences (read: punishments) that you impose to get the behavior you want). I would encourage you to reread Chap. 2 – Behavior is Your Clue. Of course you don’t want to spend your time together doling out consequences. Your son’s behavior was telling you that he wants his dad, not a remedial teacher who forces punctuation lessons on him. That is why he had a tantrum and called you a bloody idiot. Ask yourself what he wanted to say to you that wasn’t coming across without loud and dramatic behavior. Then respond accordingly. “You don’t want to do punctuation with me. You just want to have dad and son time. Let’s skip this and do something fun.” Even if it is something he has to do, do something fun first. He waits a long time to have you and then all he gets is more school. Telling you they don’t do it that way, is his way of saying you are not his teacher–logical. You kept trying to get him to see it your way—not fair or logical. If he misbehaves, look beneath to the emotional core and think about what emotions to connect with. “You really don’t want to do this” begins connection. “I want you to get your coat on and you don’t want to. Hmmm. How do we both get what we want?” This leads to finding a solution that you both agree on. Making him read “Help me be good” books (please throw them all away) is your way of telling him that he is not good, not acceptable to you—so he kicked and punched you, not to be bad, to try to get you to understand what he needs from you. He’s having a problem, not being a problem. Please have fun with him in the short time you have. Laugh, do boy things, toss a ball around, roughhouse—all the things a boy needs to do with his dad. And when his behavior is unacceptable, look for the emotional state inside him that is provoking the behavior and address that with positive attention and acknowledgment.


When You Know It’s Working

My 9 year old son woke in the middle of the night. I went in to his room and to give him a cuddle.  I was particularly tired and frustrated when he called out but I went and gave him a cuddle in his bed. I was just ready to go back to my own bed, thinking he was pretty much back to sleep, when I heard my 5 year old daughter call out from her room! I gave a pretty tired old sigh and because my son wasn’t quite asleep, I anticipated a bit of a struggle from him at having to deal with me leaving him to go into his sister. But instead he said “it’s hard for you Mum” and turned over and said “good night Mum”. It was so lovely. All of the validation I’ve been giving him came back to me. His understanding felt so good! I said, “thanks for understanding sweetie” and gave him a kiss good night.  It really touched me!


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31 comments on “Newsletter
  1. amy russell says:

    So true. I appreciate the simplicity of the message: let go of the fear and be there. Thank you.

  2. Anita says:

    How very true! I feel so guilty of not been able to do just this 1 thing – “Be there for her”.
    But as I read this article, I find some hope that it is never too late to change

  3. Amelia Trabilsie says:

    That’s brilliant Bonnie, I can never get enough of these messages; sometimes the same message “wrapped up” in different ways, and every time it makes it more and more easy to absorb and take on board in an unconscious/subconscious way. Thank you for these gifts Bonne! Warmest Amelia 🙂

  4. Kristi says:

    Amen Bonnie,
    For many years my son was overwhelmed with the stimuli of the world and fell apart multiple times daily. He would become a screaming, writhing, spitting creature who scratched his own face to bleeding trying to deal with the difficulty of ordering food from a menu! So many public breakdowns it was so hard to know what we should be doing! Get tough and demand that he “behave”? Well that really didn’t help. Thanks to you and a local therapist I learned not to get caught up in MY emotions when he was out of control of his, just be there. We learned to limit the stressors for him. Today he is a different kid. Successfully navigating the high school waters of intellectual, social and physical challenges and knows when he has had enough and needs to have some downtime. As a primary care provider who sees a lot of parents struggling-I tell them to relax-be there, keep them safe and don’t take their behavior personally- and of course I recommend your books and website! Keep up the great work, and thank you.

    • admin says:

      Kristi – Thank you so much for this comment. I hope everyone reads it. I may even add it to another article when I share parents experiences. You have been in the trenches and know what it’s like to have a difficult kid, didn’t try to change him, and came out the other end with a great kid. These stories are so important for parents to read.

    • Betsy says:

      “Don’t take their behavior personally” — This has become a mantra for me, thanks to Bonnie’s advice. I wish I had employed it when she was a toddler and preschooler. But better late than never!

  5. Amber says:

    hi bonnie,
    thanks for sharing this. I worry about my daughter a lot too, but I guess I don’t give her enough credit either.

  6. Kirsten says:

    This was a timely piece for me. Had just done back to school night and came home to an 11 year old anxious about leaving all his school work at a friend’s house. He was anxious and I had listened to the message of the night, “let them have these experiences where it is safe, don’t rescue them, 70% of this year is organization”, but I knew what my own child needed in order to sleep wasn’t my fear that he wasn’t ever going to pull it together…I also have a much more emotionally challenging middle son (9) and he is often trying so hard, but so inflexible about the actions of others, and still having tantrums, yet intelligent, sweet, and sensitive, sometimes the scariest part is when we aren’t present and then everything gets catastrophic. I was pleased to see the comment above and curious as to how Kristi got through the trenches without worrying about the impact on the family and her son’s self image ?

  7. Amelia Trabilsie says:

    Kristi your comment was so good to read, thank you too 🙂

  8. Leah Davies says:

    I love your quote, “You are your child’s mountain. While she swirls and blows like a hurricane, sometimes a tornado, around you, she needs to count on your stability and most of all your faith that she has and will continue to have whatever it takes to get through whatever it is” That is wonderful advice. – See more at:

    For 11 additional complimentary parenting handouts, video, and activity that is dedicated to helping parents raise responsible, caring adults, see:

  9. Kristi says:

    In response to Kirsten’s question: it wasn’t elegant, or seamless or a straight path, (and still isn’t) that’s for sure – but I think that is the essence of parenting. No matter what our virtual personas (or that of our friends) depicts to the outside world. It’s messy and scary. Parenting can be like walking alone in a dark forest. We learned to recognize early when WE needed counsel, we also allowed our son a chance to intermittently work with a child therapist, and brought along his sibling. One of my biggest realizations was: I needed to let go of MY agenda for my child. He is who he is, AND he is not this behavior currently. I learned (to try) not to get attached to ANY behavior, whether I liked it or didn’t like it, because it is likely to change. The family dynamic is a huge challenge always. My husband and I try to find common ground and create a united front. We learned it didn’t matter what other people thought we should do with our child, including family… we simplified life. Keep them fed, safe, loved. Keep looking out of the trench occasionally for some inspiration Kirsten and remember “This too shall pass” !

    • admin says:

      Kristi – This is so beautifully put. I so appreciate your response. I totally agree – families are a messy business not matter that they look like. Parenting is the hardest job on the planet. I love the steps of your realizations and how you maneuvered your way.
      Thanks for this.

  10. MK says:

    What you write Bonnie rings so true for me. What can I do when I realise that the way I was parented undermined my confidence and felt like it cut me off at the knees. I feel I have very little resilience myself and don’t want to make the same mistakes. How can I build my own confidence along with my daughters?

    • admin says:

      MK – What you are describing is exactly why I wrote my book, When Your Kids Push Your Buttons. It is all about how our own childhood experiences effect how we parent our children – and most importantly, what we can do about it. I would highly recommend checking it out. You can get my book on amazon, you can get the audio download version of it on my website, you can also order the workbook filled with exercises to go along with it. And I have a When Your Kids Push Your Buttons teleseminar available for download that is 12 hours of the Buttons workshop and has the workbook included for more intense work. You can read about it here.

  11. i love the simplicity of this message! This is a challenge for me at home with two teenagers and the ups and downs that teenage life brings. I recognize how my frustration may have actually been perpetuated by my own actions of protecting and solving problems that they should be given the chance to handle themselves. With a college student 1200 miles away this challenge becomes more complicated at times. My goal is to practice by stepping back this week.
    Bonnie… I would love to add a link for this article on my preschool blog, which is private to families enrolled at The Amherst Preschool. Is that possible?
    Thank you
    Ellen Grudzien

  12. The question about teen disrespect brought up a few things for me.
    I’m passionate about this because I grew up with a father like this. He rarely listened to me. He only wanted a relationship on his terms. He was disrespectful to me and never apologized. As a result even as an adult I was never able to be close to him (Despite many attempts). Because he couldn’t be human with me I never respected him. Instead I felt sad for both of us. He was too proud to meet me as a human being. We both lost something valuable.

    In many families, ideas about “obedience” and “respect” get intertwined. Obedience is an action, respect is a feeling. Obedience comes from power over and respect comes from power with. Obedience is enforced using power and it disconnects the two people involved (and creates escalating power struggles). Respect relies on relationship and connections and comes from influence, not force. Like toddlers who are learning who they are in the world, teens too go through a developmental stage of learning about power. When a 4 year old is stubborn and says no or demands that she has to do it her way it can still be “cute”. Not so with a 14 year old.
    14 year olds want to be engaged and respected. This comes from listening, being humble and over and over again repairing mistakes. Adults get to lead on this. (We have the more developed prefrontal cortex).
    Working with a partner who is demanding obedience is challenging but using the same tools that are effective with teens work for partners too. Connect before correct.
    When (teen) is yelling and being inappropriate, it seems like you are worried that he will not grow up to be a healthy adult. You dream of having a son who has manners and treats others respectfully. I appreciate it that you are willing to stand up for me (This is the connect).
    Then the correct or request: My request is that when you sense he is being disrespectful to me that you ask before you intervene. I promise I won’t ignore the problem. My approach will be to wait until things calm down and then ask him to make a repair. I want him to be able to make mistakes – even if they are disrespectful and then have time to think about them and repair them.

    The other thing this mom can do is coach her son on making repairs and asking for repair. If the relationship isn’t already too strained it could be a gift to his dad. Eg. Dad, you were right. It was not cool for me to yell at mom. I’ve apologized to mom. I also didn’t like it when you called the police. When you are ready I’d like an apology and would like to make a plan about how to solve problems when you are angry.

  13. Karen Daley says:

    My husband and I have been having this food argument since our son started solid foods. He’s 10 now. My husband still eats as if he’s a teenager, pizza, chips, pop,etc. & I gave up junk food when I became an adult, minus my once a month sugar fix a week before my cycle starts. We work different shifts so when I’m home it’s all the good stuff & when my husband is home he’s either a short order cook, making two different meals or they are munching on take out (grease & more grease)when there is a full fridge of healthy options. My son knows all about healthy eating & all the good stuff is served in school. How do we all get on the same “healthy eating” page?

    • admin says:

      Karen, it is of course important to convince your husband that modeling good food eating and having only good food in your house is important. You might talk to him about what he thinks in terms of his own health and if he approves of your son following in his tracks. Make sure he understands how serious you are about this issue and what your worry is.

  14. Mary Ellen says:

    In response to “Transitions from Day Care”, sometimes children fall apart because they are exhausted from their day. Not because of stress or because they don’t want to stop playing, but because they have run out of inner resources. None of us deals well with change at the end of a long day, but people will look funny if we act howwe are really feeling! :o)

    • admin says:

      Thank you Mary Ellen. You are so right. I include exhaustion and lacking inner resources with stress. Stress comes in many degrees and varieties. When children are stressed in any way, they need our understanding and patience more than ever.

  15. Julietta says:

    I resonated with the one about “stupid”. Sometimes my son calls me stupid or dumb, too. In addition to the strategies Bonnie suggests in her reply to the reader’s question, all of which I totally agree with, my strategies for dealing with this have been 1) to say “Please leave off the label” (obviously we’ve had discussions about what i mean by “label”) – with a tone of request, not reprimand/disapproval, ie telling him what I want him to do rather than telling him off. After all, kids learn to use labels at school – it is common behaviour at school. It is natural that he’ll emulate that behaviour. But together the two of us can carve out better ways of being. It’s about teaching, not telling off. 2) The other thing I do, which seems most effective, is to state, calmly & as a fact, not a reprimand: “No, I’m not stupid. Sometimes I make mistakes but I certainly am not stupid.” ie, call him to account on throwing around labels without thinking, by challenging him to think about what it means & whether it’s true – while at the same time requesting the respect I think I deserve (& modelling it by respecting myself). Saying it in a calm tone, also involves refusing to respond with an upset tone, because as you point out, if they get a rise from it that’s why they keep doing it. (Fun to make Mum, or brother, react!) – of course, my son is older, but these suggestions might help someone. All these strategies are founded in ideas from Connective Parenting. Also – just want to say that telling my child what i “DO” want him to do – not what i don’t (as in the main article) – has been one of the most effective ‘tricks’ i’ve learnt.

    • admin says:

      Thanks for this Julietta. All great suggestions when your child calls you stupid. And of course in order to practice any of this, you have to be able to respond rather than react. And that means not taking it personally, understanding why your child wants to use a strong word, and responding to him in a way that is logical not blaming.

  16. Kate McGuire says:

    What a great newsletter to read as my child breaks up from his first year at nursery. I was wondering what I should do with him but now am feeling less pressure and that just “being” with him – truly present, is enough. These are precious years, you are right, and by taking the pressure off myself and him, we get to have a much more fun, playful time. Which is what life is all about, I believe. Thank you as always Bonnie.

    • admin says:

      Yay, Kate. Your son will be happy to have you present. He has so much time ahead of him to be engaged in activities. Enjoy each other.

  17. Resa Aschbacher says:

    Parenting is such a learned skill! I have four children all grown into their 20’s now. What I thought was personality driven behavior I now realize was “Parenting Skills” driven. My oldest got the parent, me, who punished the anger. My youngest got the parent, again me, who opened her arms for a hug. I am so sorry I didn’t have more skills when I had my first child. He forgives me!

    • admin says:

      The wonderful thing Resa, is that it is never too late. The fact that your son forgives you says that you owned your mistakes and asked for his forgiveness. That in itself is so huge and what sooooooo many of us parents wish our parents would do. Good for you for having that courage—because that is what it takes.

  18. Yvonne says:

    I am especially encouraged to hear information on how to help children who are misbehaving to act more responsibly. I have grandchildren and I am a fifth-grade teacher who has seen behavior affect relationships and learning

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