Be More, Teach Less
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This 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.
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Questions and Answers
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.
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!