Parenthood: As Taught by a Nine Year Old

(scroll down for Q&A)

Parenthood: Taught by Nine Yr. OldIn reading through my journals from my kids’ childhoods, I came across this story. In my opinion, this is how parenthood should be understood.

When my daughter Molly was nine, she and I were having a conversation about envy and jealousy. She always was a little philosopher with amazing insight. I asked her if she ever still felt envious of her older brother Casey like she had when she was younger.

Note: Casey always had an easier time of it—in school, with friends, with us, with life. Once she grabbed ahold of his beloved Dukes of Hazard (remember them) matchbox car and wouldn’t let go until my empathy (“You want that car and don’t want to let it go.” I had no idea why.) prompted a flood of tears. “I just want to be Casey,” she cried as she opened her hand to give back the car.

She plunged right into talking about the time when she wanted to be him. She explained how she would give him something she didn’t want anymore, and if he liked it, she would want it back. She told me that Casey taught her “the basics” and because she loved him so much she would always go along with him and like what he liked. Now, she explained at her ripe old age of nine, she was more herself and could decide for herself what she liked.

“Like Nirvana. Casey loves them and I hate them,” she said. “But Bob Dylan. I didn’t really like his music, but because Casey did, I decided to let him take me along, and then I decided that I did like him after all. But Nirvana, I never liked them even when I tried.”

She explained how Casey would always lead the way for her and then she would decide for herself. “And then sometimes we would go off on different tracks, and I would be looking down at my track and then all of a sudden I would look up and there would be Casey. But I was there because I wanted to be, not because he said I should be to be cool or anything or that he wouldn’t like me if I wasn’t. He would teach me the basics of what was cool and then I’d follow and then I’d be able to decide for myself.”

It occurred to me that what she was describing was a connected, balanced parenting approach: A gentle guiding influence always there teaching without force or insistence, so that the growing child can internalize the learning, follow that influence and then have the freedom to use that learning to decide for oneself the best track to take.

Another philosophical riff of Molly’s a few years later offered more about effective parenting. “I think a parent’s job is to take their children to the crossroads,” she explained. There are many different paths to choose from there. The child chooses one path and the parent’s job is to support that child along that path.”

Out of the mouths of our babes come some of the best wisdom. We need to be still enough to listen and trust in order to discover and follow that wisdom. We must get off our own high horses of rightness (I’m the parent. You must listen to me.) thinking we always know what is best, and dictating orders before we can truly take in what is right in front of our noses.

Why are we so afraid to listen? Why do we think they can’t possibly know anything about what’s best for them? Because we have been sold a bill of goods that children are only wild and out of control unless tamed by rewards and punishments.

In order to have a cooperative relationship with your child, you have to risk not being right about everything to give them breathing-room. They require a lot of that, especially the strong-willed child. Being a guide rather than a police officer is a hard switch when you believe that everything is your job and you must maintain control at all times. When your children do not feel forced but instead feel your strong support, they will be eager to follow your influence.


Questions and Answers – and a story

Getting Your Husband on Board

Getting husband on boardQ. I am doing well with connecting to our son’s feelings by hugging, holding & whispering to him that I love him, it’s okay to be angry and that we’re going to figure this out together, but my husband’s favorite line, “there’s going to be serious consequences for your/that behavior” just “pokes the stick at the bear”, and our son either runs screaming or gets defensive against his Dad. Then I have to “referee” the two of them. When I try to explain to my husband about connecting to our son’s feelings, getting down on his level instead of towering over him with his arms crossed, he just rolls his eyes & walks away saying that he’ll parent the way that works for him. Any suggestions to get my husband on board with what calms & supports our son, as well as validates his feeling?

A. Ah, the question of 80% of the mothers I work with. Let’s start with what not to do. Do not lecture your husband with what you want him to do and why. When you come off acting like the expert, he will dig in his heels further. Especially if you say anything blaming or derogatory. He will respond better when you do exactly what you do with your son—what we should all do in all our relationships. And that is to empathize with his point of view. Understand that he wants to do what he thinks is best for your son just as you do. You are simply going at it differently, but you are both doing what you think is best. When you are alone, tell him your concerns by owning them. They are your opinions after all. “I know you and I want the same outcome. My fear is that our son digs more into a defensive position when he feels blamed, just as we all do. What I have found to be more successful is when I …. I’m concerned that when he hears our anger toward him, he just thinks he’s bad. Can we both work hard toward telling him what we want him to do instead of what we don’t want him to do?” Start your sentences with “I” and “we”, never “you”. Then model for your husband what works for you or getting caught up in his criticism. He will eventually see that he is losing his relationship with his son. Very hard when you don’t approve, but so important not to judge or blame him and do the same thing he is doing toward your son and you. And keep in mind you don’t have to parent on the same page, but it helps to be in the same book.

Aggressive 4 year old

angry preschoolerQ. I have a dilemma with my four year old, who lashes out physically when he is angry. He kicks, punches, pinches, scratches, when he doesn’t get his way. My strategy is to carry him to a private place, sit down with him facing me on my lap and talk to him. “We don’t hurt in our family”, “I don’t like being hit”, “You are angry, but you cannot hurt people”, etc. Nothing is effective! How do I help my four year old control a behaviour that may cause problems next year at preschool? What strategy can I teach to help him in the moment of anger? I thought he would outgrow this behaviour, but now it seems to be the ingrained response.

A. You have a physical, impulsive boy—as so many boys this age are. He needs to express himself physically and when he is angry he needs something physical to do with that energy, not to be told to calm down. Stay with how angry he feels rather saying, “We don’t hit…” He cannot understand your reasoning because you are not fully understanding him. Great that you go to a private place and remain calm—very important. However, his energy needs expression. Have punching pillows available in different rooms. When he gets physical, grab one and tell him to show that pillow how angry he is. Show him yourself how you hit the pillow when you’re mad about something. Show him how to draw your face/stomach or his brother’s on the pillow and give it a good punch. You then teach him is that it’s ok to get his energy out physically, but not on people. He knows he’s not supposed to hit people, he just can’t help himself—yet. You can use paper and markers and tell him to draw how mad he is and then tell him to rip it up in as many pieces as he can. Banging on a keyboard, hitting a stick against a tree, squeezing clay or playdoh etc. are other good outlets. Get him a punching bag and gloves for his next present. As long as you model loving, caring behavior, providing outlets for him to get his anger out will eventually dissipate the energy as he matures and gains self-control.

Defining Name Calling

cyber bullyingQ. Our 10 year old boy is being called names at school that he doesn’t understand, so he’s been looking up the definitions on our home cell phone & getting websites and graphic pictures as well. Is it time, perhaps, to have “the talk” with him & include slang words connected to the anatomical words he’s hearing or ban the phone?

A. Absolutely talk to him about the meanings of these words. If he’s looking them up, he wants to know. And do discuss the slang meanings that are often different from the real meanings. This can lead to some good discussions about what feels good and bad to be called, what is not okay to call somebody else and why, what is just stupid to call somebody, etc. Get proactive with this so he is getting his info from you and not the internet. You certainly don’t want the internet taking him places you don’t want him to go. Look them up together so you can tell him what’s what. This is not the time to be embarrassed, shy or protective. It’s all out there for the taking and you want to be part of what it is he’s taking.


I never heard the world “boundary” until I took my first parenting class with you, Bonnie, when my daughter was 3.  In my family growing up, any emotion that anyone else had was blamed on somebody else. One of the most important lessons I have tried to teach my daughter (now 15) and my son (age 11) is that we are all responsible for our own feelings.

Today when I was upset and using an irritated voice with my son… he got up from his video game, came over with a big smile and outstretched arms, offering me a big hug. I grabbed hold of him and all the agitation drained right out of me. I said, “I’m sorry I’m upset but your sister is really upset right now”. He took a step back, looked me in the eye and said, “Just because she’s upset doesn’t mean that you have to be. She’s responsible for her feelings and you can chose to be happy right now.” This from an 11 year old boy!!!! There is NOTHING more satisfying than hearing your own words coming out of your kid’s mouth and knowing that he really truly “gets it”.  


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24 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.

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