There is a lot of literature out there about what parents can do to have perfect children who do as they’re told without back-talk, dawdling or attitude. Books and articles school us in the one “magic” program or technique we must learn and practice. How to get your child to obey commands in 10 days…Three weeks to a happy child…Instant Pot child rearing, etc. Eighteen years is far too long! So many of these programs are based on excellent fundamentals such as:
- consistent discipline that teaches more than punishes;
- attention to our kids when they are getting it right, not just when they need correction;
- communication face to face and eye to eye to be sure they hear the first time;
- A quiet, non-distracting environment at home where they will obediently complete home work with short breaks as needed;
- Belief that behaviors are good or bad, children are never wholly bad, etc.
When I was raising my own kids, Dr. Benjamin Spock and T. Berry Brazelton were the gurus on the formula for raising all kids, regardless of their strengths or limitations or diagnoses. The focus (or what I clung to) was how to keep them alive until adulthood and create considerate and friendly little humans, motivated to please.
Today, the pressure is really on for parents and teachers – if only we used the perfect techniques in the perfect manner, at the perfect time, individualized for each child at each stage, we would certainly not struggle to get our kids to perform and obey, the literature would suggest. The truth is, there are some good strategies out there and some of them will work some of the time with some of the kids. Some parents choose to try the rewards system – credit for good behavior, debits for missing the mark. Some feel too authoritarian not talking things out with their little grumblers and work to create a democratic environment where everyone’s feelings and ideas count equally. I always enjoyed the “make it fun, and they will want to do it” idea, until I too often veered into the nagging lane and eventually careened into the “yell loud enough so I win” crash-and-burn pileup.
Here is what continues to bubble up as I work with kiddos and support parents in my practice: The underlying “magic” to get Bobby or Sue to do what we say (at least most of the time) is the relationship we create and maintain with them. We will not always do the right thing all the time, and may have some regrets after losing our temper and saying the things our parents said to us which we swore we’d never say. But we will be allowed some mistakes because most of the time, we are giving our kids the time and attention that they need to trust that we are not, in fact, determined to ruin their lives.
Certainly, we can’t be their best friends – they need us to be in charge. Natural consequences are the best teachers, but we can’t let them test out walking into traffic, putting pennies into electrical outlets, or trying drugs. Some lessons are just too costly to let nature teach. But in any fulfilling relationship, there are more positive encounters than negative ones. Like a bucket, we each have an amount of space for positive and negative. When we spend time together, play together, listen to their concerns and compromise where we can, we are filling them up, connecting with them, showing them that they are important and they matter. In the “bucket” analogy, we imagine that each child has a bucket filled with the positive fruits of parent-child relationships— pleasant conversations, shared joys, encouraging words, constructive corrections. And when we criticize, chide, nag, shame, or simply ignore our kids, we lessen the positives and replace them with negative thoughts and feelings- about us, or worse, about themselves.
In the chaos of our everyday lives, it’s easy to lose sight of the importance of just spending time connecting. When schedules, screens, and sports dictate the quantity of quality time, we pollute buckets more than we fill them with good. But, if we’re focused on making sure that at the end of most of the days, the week, the childhood, our children’s buckets are mostly full of the positive words and unconditional love we have been tasked to provide, then that’s a parenting win!
Certainly, it’s all a bit more complicated than that. But, no matter the circumstances or challenges we face, a focus on relationship is an important foundation upon which to build any and all other parenting strategies. If we have relationship and connection, if we have filled their buckets with good things, we’re that much closer to raising an almost perfect person in 18 mostly short years!
-Lisa Lawson, Licensed Professional Counselor