Q. I know you don’t believe in consequences, but is there ever a circumstance where a consequence is effective even when knowing the root cause of the behavior? Example: My 10-year-old son expressed this morning that he wished he didn’t have to go to school. He was moody and angry. I did some digging and turns out he hates music and it’s his first class of the day. I get it. I said missing school isn’t an option and asked if he could think of anything to make the day bearable. He was super angry and wasn’t open to hearing me and started to call me vulgar names/swears. I told him that calling me names is unacceptable—something I’ve told him many times. He stormed outside to ride his scooter for a bit, and I was left wondering if he should lose YouTube after school. Will it make him remember or think twice when he is in the red zone swearing at me? Is it just a thing parents do to feel in control when the situation feels so out of control? Can I do both? Does it make sense to say, “in our home when you call me vulgar names you lose privileges”?
All parents struggle with fears and worries about their children and many end up just getting in their own way. When you take your children’s behavior personally and use your authority to control them to do what you want, you may wind up creating the scenario you most fear.
The problem comes when we think it’s our children who need to change when indeed it is us. Whatever you need to do to get to acceptance is the answer.
The following is a story from one of my clients that I find truly inspiring. Her struggles to understand her son and ultimately herself have led to a wonderful relationship. I hope it motivates you to trust your children and let go of a small bit of your fears. You will always have fears and doubts — you wouldn’t be a conscientious parent without them. But in the moment, when your child needs your connection, you must be able to at least temporarily put those fears aside.
Reflections on my journey with my son – Mother of three
I am enjoying a playful moment in the kitchen with my 6’6, 17 year old son. He likes to get in my space and see if he can startle me with his big teenage energy. I get flustered and cry out, “You make me feel anxious when you do that!” He smiles with this gentle warmth and looking right in my eyes he says lovingly, “Mum, it’s not what I do that makes you feel anxious. It’s what you think about what I do.”
Toxic stress in early childhood can harm children for life, warns the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease Control (CDC). Don’t think your children have experienced toxic stress? All children do to differing degrees. Whoever said childhood is bliss didn’t know what he was talking about. Children experience stress just by being a child. From nightmares, worry about transitions, being afraid of the dark or thunder storms, social fears, children have a hard lot. And that doesn’t cover huge emotions and dysregulation that they cannot possibly understand when asked, “What’s wrong?” Then being punished, criticized, or threatened for behavior they can’t control…. You name it, a day rarely goes by when a child doesn’t experience stress.
Stress arises for a child when sensing a threat with no one to protect him from that threat. Children who experience this kind of stress in the early years, even prenatally through mother’s hormones, “…are more likely to suffer heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other physical ailments…also more likely to struggle in school, have short tempers and tangle with the law.”
Q. My 4 year old loves pretend play. She often starts out the day by saying, ” pretend I’m Peter Pan and you’re ….” It almost seems like a deep-seated need to play this way. I find that if I don’t play with her like this then she is harder to deal with. I guess another way I think about it, is that when I play with her and follow her direction, it fills her up. I haven’t studied child psychology, but I was wondering if you could provide more insight into this type of play.
A. You are exactly right. It fills her up. Imagine life for a young child. She is pretty much told what to do, when and how to do it all day every day. School only adds to that. Even after school activities are always adult directed. Our children have lost the opportunity to direct their own play. So when she directs you, she is getting that opportunity to lead, to decide, to direct, to imagine, to create. Let her direct you as much as you can stand. It is here she gets to call the shots.
Kids don’t want to do chores. That’s a fact. Expect this. That doesn’t mean let them off the hook. It is essential for our kids to be contributing members of the family to develop an investment in and consideration for their family members. A family is a team. When you are on a team, every team player is important to the working of the whole.
But when you yell, bribe, or threaten them to do their chores, the underlying assumption is that they should want to but they don’t. This unrealistic expectation means you will yell when that expectation is not met. But if you understand that kids don’t want to do chores, you will be more effective at ensuring they get to work.
Remember when your toddlers and preschoolers begged to run the vacuum, fold laundry, wash windows, and sweep the floor? It would have taken the entire morning and you’d have to do it over anyway. You didn’t have the time or patience so you got them out of the way to just get it done. Well, you might have missed your chance. Little children want to help — until we make them.
Becoming a parent is easy. Being a parent is the hardest job you will ever have. There are as many “shoulds” and “oughts” about parenting as books on bookstore shelves. What should you do? Who do you listen to?
Some say trust your instincts. I agree. After all we are evolved to procreate and raise children in the culture of our heritage. It should be as easy as it appears for the birds and the bees. But where are all those wise instincts we’re born with? For most of us, they are buried under layers upon layers and years and years of being told what to do, when to do it and how to do it. We’re taught if we don’t listen to parents and elders, we will be in trouble, maybe not be loved or accepted. Years of learned experience has set up detours and roadblocks tricking most of us away from our instincts to look in the wrong direction for the answers.
The answer is found in trusting yourself.
But first you have to believe that you actually do know what to do? Probably you learned you shouldn’t trust yourself because you were taught to listen to your parents and teachers no matter what. Giving your opinion was thought of as rude and “talking back”. You probably decided to just keep quiet and stay out of the way so nobody yelled at you. Or you decided you didn’t need anybody and began listening to the wrong people. You learned so much in all those developing years – just not how to trust yourself.
Pull-ups for Poops
Q. My 4 yo daughter won’t poop on the potty/toilet. She uses a pull-up to poop (she is very independent in the process). She holds it if she isn’t at home. She is totally fine with peeing in the toilet and has been for about 2 years now. Two things I think are contributing are that she gets constipated and has had some pain with pooping. She says she isn’t ready to go on the toilet because she’s scared it will hurt more. We are working with her Dr. on resolving the constipation and in the last couple months it’s been a lot better. She also regressed in this area when her baby sister was born. I’m not sure if that’s still part of it or not after a year and a half. She does have a few “baby” things she still wants to do, so maybe this is one of those things too. She has said she knows she’s too big to still poop in a pull up (her dad and I have never said anything like that to her). We have tried really hard not to make a big deal about it and let her decide to do it on her own, but I’d really like to stop buying pull-ups!
I doubt if there is a parent alive who is okay with a daughter being sexually compromised, unable to stop unwanted advances, or getting less pay than her male counterpart — or a son becoming a bully or sexual predator who objectifies women for his pleasure and who expects higher pay than his female counterpart. Surely, we want our children to grow strong in their voices and opinions, while respectful of all those they are in relationship with.
So how do you do it? How do you raise a strongly opinionated woman who can stop any unwanted influence if you get angry and impatient with her demands at age three, seven, ten, fourteen? What does she learn about herself when the grownups in her life shut down her strong emotions, even when they get physical, with put downs, blame, shame, and punishment?
What about your boys who may not be into sports but would rather keep close to home, or who cry and have meltdowns beyond the point at which you think they should? What do they learn when they witness their fathers making demands on their mothers or when their fathers are physically or emotionally abusive to them or expect them to “act like men” when they are still children?
Old Beliefs Interfere with Appropriate Discipline
Q. I could never argue my case to my parents and was told not to sass them and be quiet or I wouldn’t get to do what I wanted or I’d have privileges taken away. I don’t like how my parents handled this, but I still ended up believing that if I don’t give consequences/punishments to my child, he will keep misbehaving. I will, however, let him make his case when he’s older.
Our son is 4 yrs. old. We have a rule not to get into daddy’s toolbox in the garage. He was drawn to one particular tool. I’ve explained that the tools are expensive and that he can only use them with an adult. After 3 times getting the same tool, I finally put it up high. A few days ago I was out in the yard and came back to the garage to find he’d gotten out a tube of Ultra Black. It’s VERY gooey, thick, black silicone stuff. It was an ultra PAIN to wash off his hands and feet. We also have a rule to stay in the back yard, which we’ve gone over MANY times—he still goes out of the back yard. (We’re waiting for a new fence to be installed.) Is a natural consequence of going out of the backyard that he can’t play outside any more that day? Do I just talk to him about this rule? Are my expectations too high thinking he will just stay in the back yard? Same for not getting into the toolbox?
Q. I’m wondering if you have any advice on “sleep training”. My baby is almost 8 months and breastfed to sleep for naps and bed time. We also co-sleep. But my husband is ready for him to move to his room and everyone is trying to give me advice about how to achieve this. I do NOT want to do the cry it out method. I’m having a hard time accepting the entire idea. Plus he’s never slept in his crib. I have tried the pacifier several times throughout the months, but he never has accepted it. It’s so hard because I hate to hear him cry, it will be torture not to pick him up or nurse him when he is resisting sleep without nursing. I’m thinking I’ll put a mattress in his room so I can be near while he adjusts to his crib. But I definitely need to mentally prepare myself for this entire process or I know I will give in.
A. You are at a good point to start sleep training (altho I hate that term). I think the first place to start is putting him in his crib for naps so he gets used to that. Keep nursing him to sleep so he goes easily and wakes up in his crib. Once that is accomplished the next step is to gradually put him down awake – without nursing him to sleep. This is the hard part but so important. When he associates going to sleep with nursing, that’s what he will expect when he wakes up at night. He no longer needs a feeding at night – that doesn’t mean you are going to stop – but just know that. When he will not stop crying at night until you nurse, that means he has made the association strongly. This is a hard time because you will of course go back and forth for awhile — nothing ever needs to be cold turkey. But the best thing you can do for both of you is to get him to go to sleep without nursing.