3 Ways to Make Parenting Simpler (and More Effective)

It feels like déjà vu to me.

Billy misbehaves, so Dad gets in his face to convince him that the behavior is unacceptable. Dad builds a case like a lawyer, spelling out as many reasons he can think of to discourage Billy from behaving that way again. Then Dad follows the evidence with sentencing. But ten minutes after Billy is out of timeout, he’s a repeat offender.

We want kids to link their actions to consequences, but bombarding them with information is giving them too many cords for one outlet. We need to simplify our process if we want to actually get through to them and inspire them to behave better.

So before you arraign your juvenile for his next infraction, slow down, and choose just one of the following responses.

Option 1: Ignore them

"Why are you ignoring me? Oh, you're too busy parenting... got it."
“Why are you ignoring me? Oh, you’re too busy parenting… got it.”

Why would you ignore somebody you love? Sometimes kids, even subconsciously, just want attention. And if their behavior gets that attention they crave, they’ll repeat that behavior.

A former mom-boss told me how she thought “What would Michael do?” when Hugo was acting out. In his tantrum, he went into the bathroom and pulled the toilet paper from the roll, calling upstairs that he had done so. Instead of scolding or punishing or reacting at all, she kept about her business. A few minutes later, Hugo began gathering the toilet paper up and calming himself down.

Ignoring isn’t necessarily a default response. The only way to ignore children appropriately is to ignore them intentionally (i.e. only in response to behaviors that are perhaps obnoxious but not unsafe). As the child learns that their destructive behavior doesn’t work, they’ll choose other (and eventually constructive) means to get your attention.

Option 2: Enforce a consequence

But some behaviors merit a consequence.

For a consequence to be effective, it must be directly related to the behavior. Taking away dessert privileges for breaking a lamp reflects the parent imposing his authority rather than informing the child of the situation, which is what we’re after. Doling out punishments inspires fear and disempowers children; developing introspective skills and awareness discourages the behavior in real, sustainable ways that can be extrapolated to future situations.

However, it is crucial to the application of a consequence that it be presented devoid of emotion. If the father is angry when he tells his daughter to clean up a mess, then the wires get crossed and she may believe she is sentenced to clean up because her dad is angry and mean, rather than realizing it’s to rectify her action.

"You have feelings too? Good to know."
“You have feelings, too? Good to know.”

Option 3: React authentically

We’re human. We react like humans. If you have an emotional reaction to something the child did, sometimes the best thing to do is to just let it out.

If you try to use this as a manipulation to manufacture some response, you are really lying to your child and yourself. But if you are truly saddened, disappointed, frustrated, or otherwise upset by something your child did, articulating that sentiment can serve as a discouragement in their mind.

A loving relationship is the reward of parenting, and if you have built that strong bond, the child won’t want to hurt your feelings. I’ll say, “I’m mad that you stretched out my shirt” or “I’m sad that you broke my Lego tank” and then Hugo can use this information to frame his perspective on how to behave.

Once you’ve chosen how you want to respond, give that response its moment to sink in.  After you see that the child has processed the situation fully, you can then open up a discussion and expand upon ideas or feelings. Or perhaps you reacted authentically in the moment but there’s still a broken lamp or errant T.P. so after a little while, it’s time for the consequence (time to clean up!) The situation may call on diverse responses, but in due time. Put simply: don’t overwhelm the child in the moment.

Overloading the child with lots of reasons he erred just dilutes each point so it’s less likely to be retained. We want the child to learn and mature, so the next moment you’re struggling to find an appropriate response to destructive behavior, make it easy on yourself and do one thing at a time.

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The Manny Ends the Debate: Should You Be Friends with your Kids?

“We’re doing the same thing!”

The online debate rages: Should you be friends with your child?

With echoes of Amy Poehler saying “I’m not like a regular mom, I’m a COOL MOM” in Mean Girls, some profess that they have to be on their child’s level to get the scoop. The caricature of these friend-parents includes allowing underage drinking, failing at jargon, and standing idly by as their kids make prodigious mistakes.

And in the red corner: the heavy-handed authoritative parents step into the ring. Like the God-fearing residents of a pre-Footloose Beaumont, they worry that if they give an inch, their child will take a mile. They clutch to their parental role as the only remaining thread of a severed rope preventing their child from plunging into the abyss of egregious deviance.

If you’re even asking yourself this question, you’re far from the reason for parenting.

It’s preposterous to think that loosening the reins will result in the child running wild and, conversely, that your child won’t open up to you if you don’t feign interest in One Direction. You can build structure and define expectations without being domineering. And you can have common interests and a repoire without being a pushover.

Your goal should be to build a RELATIONSHIP with your child. That relationship should be built on trust, respect, and communication (and those all go both ways). Aiming for or avoiding a “friendship” has no bearing on any of these pillars. The more caveats, restrictions, rules, or expectations you attach to the relationship, the more you limit what it might become.

So instead of asking whether you should be friends with your kids, why don’t you think about whether your child really knows the authentic you. Consider if you’re staring at your phone when you could be engaging with your child and whether you’re really modeling healthy behavior. We can dedicate our love and energy to more productive parenting ventures than labeling the relationship.

Things You Should Never Say To Your Kids

I never say never. But I never say these things to children:

Any Command

Authority is in direct conflict with a Practice Life Method philosophy. Our goal is to allow our children the freedom to cooperate, not to force them into submission. Issuing commands is not only verbally abrasive, but it reaffirms a tiered power-structure and invites power struggles with the child. Instead, frame things as “It’s time…” or “We need to…” to present circumstances clearly and objectively so children can understand expectations.

“You’re acting like a baby…”

I don’t believe that any particular facet of humanity is age-specific. Grown-ups can finger paint, kids can have responsibilities. Building a hierarchy based on age is discriminatory and won’t help empower your child to actually be a productive, constructive member of the family.

More specifically, comparing a child’s behavior to that of an infant’s is increasingly dangerous if there is a new baby in the home. As big sister watches and builds associations between baby brother’s behavior and the attention he gets, big sister may mimic similar immature behaviors to get attention. Then when you say “You’re acting like a baby,” all big sister thinks is “I know, that’s the point, now where’s my attention?”

Best case scenario? “Are you a baby? I thought you were a big girl,” confuses the child. Worst case scenario: you’ve crossed wires and your child doesn’t understand what’s wrong with acting like a baby, so she continues to act like one.

False Threats

We’ve all heard it. “If you don’t ___ right now, I’m gonna take your ____ away for a ____!” The child hardly winces because he knows that the parent is full of it. False threats represent an adult’s intention to parent by forced submission, which goes against our big-picture parenting goals. And, more immediately, false threats simply teach children that adults are not worth respecting because they don’t mean what they say.

“Stop crying!”

Elliott Cortez, Ph.D. says, “Telling a child not to cry is telling a child not to feel.”

My goal is for children to be outwardly expressive and internally critical with their emotions. That means they express their feelings to those around them while being mindful of what those emotions are telling them about themselves. To achieve this goal, we cannot diminish feelings or any representation of them. While I don’t allow feelings to change a circumstance—if he’s sad that he doesn’t get a toy when we go to buy a present for his friend’s birthday, that still doesn’t mean that he’s going to get one—I’m always willing to listen to him process his emotions and support as necessary.

A Lie

When Leslie Knope tells her triplets that “peas turn into cupcakes in their tummies” it may seem like a harmless little fib. But as we get to “Don’t go into the garage, there’s a boogey-man out there!” then it’s a little clearer to see that our white lies might do some damage. If you create boogey-men, you are inventing something for the child to fear. And at that point, what are you expecting to happen when you eventually do ask her to go out to the garage?

To avoid stepping over the line, don’t draw the line at all. A lie to get a child to (or not to) do something is a manipulation and circumvents reality (not what PLM aims to accomplish because we are striving for mindfulness).

If she shouldn’t go in the garage right now, then “The garage is closed.” And eating veggies should be implicitly expected and structurally supported. The Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, and Santa can still come around (tradition has its own merits), but full out lying is unnecessary and obtrusive to parenting.

 

Our words should be a clear representation of reality. If we can accurately articulate circumstances and our emotions, then maybe, just maybe, our children will use communication, not as a crude tool, but as an authentic means of expression.

5 Ways to Succeed as a Stay-at-Home Parent

Having a stay-at-home parent is an efficient use of many families’ resources. There are many stigmas and many advantages to having a parent work in the home, and in these modern times, it’s important to keep a good perspective on goals and realities. To maintain a Practice Life Method approach, stay-at-home parents should mind these guidelines to perform their job to the best of their ability.

Congratulations!

Pop some champagne: You just got a promotion.

I’ve heard the recurring complaint from stay-at-home parents that they are part-chef, part-housekeeper, part-chauffeur, part-butler to their child’s whims and activities. But if you give more responsibility to your child then tasks are completed faster, your child has a better understanding of how a household is maintained, you are freed from servitude, and there is more time for extracurricular activities.

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“Yeah, Grandma put me down for my nap… have a good time getting a manicure.”

Think of your parenting role the same way a CEO thinks about her role in a company. Focusing less on day-to-day minutiae and more on the big picture and philosophy helps you clarify exactly what your goals are, and from there you can formulate strategies to achieve them.

Superiority Debunked

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In details a report released in 2006 by the Early Child Care Research Network, which studied more than 1,000 children over fifteen years. The study discovered no discernible differences in “cognitive skills, language competence, social competence, ability to build and maintain relationships, or in the quality of the mother-child bond” between the children of stay-at-home mothers and children cared for by others[1]. This disproves the 60% of Americans who believe that a child is better off with a mother at home versus a mother who works outside the home.[2]

Since neither stance is superior, either perspective casting judgment upon the other only gets in the way of thinking critically about how we parent. Employed parents should ensure that they engage with their kids during the time they do have together. And if you work in the home, understand how important it is to…

Keep the Passion Alive

People have myriad aspirations or interests throughout their lives. Just because you have a child doesn’t mean that those completely go away.

Even if you do feel fulfilled solely by being a parent, understand that the idea that a child fulfills you is an unfair expectation of him. Furthermore, if being a parent is your only identity, you may judge yourself unnecessarily harshly when facing inevitable parenting struggles. Find an outlet (volunteering, teaching your expertise, taking a class) for sustaining a feeling of purpose and a worldly connection.

Clock Out

Just because you stay at home with the children, doesn’t mean you can’t get out of the house. Grabbing lunch with friends, exercising, or any other attentiveness to your own needs is crucial to maintaining clarity for what may be a blurry work-life balance. Hiring a part-time sitter or handing off to the grandparents should be a regular occurrence to keep yourself in a healthy mental state for when you are on the job.

There’s No “I” in Couple

Even if one parent practices parenting techniques fewer hours in the day, there should be consistency between both parents. While a parenting team works together, the stay-at-home parent has more hands-on experience so he can help illustrate the procedures and expectations to the employed parent. It’s also important to remind the employed parent not to circumvent healthy structure and offer the children indulgences as recompense for fewer hours together.

 

Stay-at-home-parenting is right for families who see the job as a mandate towards helping their children develop skills and building healthy routines for the entire family. And whether your job is in the home or at an office, just be sure to retain healthy selfishness for yourself and a constructive, objective methodology for the child.

 

[1] Sandberg, Sheryl. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

[2] Caumont, Andrea, and D’Vera Cohn. “7 Key Findings about Stay-at-home Moms.” Pew Research Center RSS. N.p., 18 Apr. 2014. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

No Compassion for Empathy

I remember being a kid in vulnerable, difficult moments and, out of concern, my parents would reach out with empathy. I’d be struggling with a difficult situation and they’d offer an “I’ve been there” or “We’ve all been through that.” Yet I didn’t feel connected, I felt minimized. It’s another preconceived notion that empathy is an outright helpful, bonding effort, but those experiences made me realize that empathetic sentiments are not all they’re cracked up to be.

It's his moment, not yours.
It’s his moment, not yours.

 

Fast-forward to one of my most heart-wrenching moments from my manny career. It was early in the school year, and Ryan had been placed in a class that intentionally mixed students behind the curriculum with “example” students, while his brother, Evan, was in a class with many familiar friends. Ryan was handpicked to be an “example” student since he was exceptional, both intellectually and socially. But that meant new teachers and new classmates and new discomforts.

On this particular evening, the boys’ parents went to a dinner for all the parents of kids in Ryan’s class. When they left, Ryan got very upset. I asked him if he wanted to sit and talk.

Through tears, he shared that he felt like an outsider since most of the students had been together the two previous years. He felt like he wasn’t making friends and that the teachers were tougher on him, furthering the feeling of exclusion.

I sat.

I asked questions.

I listened.

I never tried to be empathetic.

I’m not saying empathy is inherently evil. In fact, in this situation, I was feeling extraordinarily empathetic because I’d gone through a break-up the day before. I too was feeling intensely sad and isolated, albeit in a very different context. But I still never reached for empathy.

Empathy gets in the way. It is not the parent’s job to fix the child’s problems, though a parent may be inspired to do so if he’s overwhelmed by the child’s distress. In P.L.M., our goal is to equip our children with the skills to solve their own problems.

Stock image dads totally get it.
Stock image dads totally get it.

Coping with emotions is one of the most important skills our children can learn. Reacting on emotion alone is irrational, reacting without it is inhumane. Emotions should be felt, examined, and then processed in order to deal with issues. We want the child to practice that progression as much as possible.

So while Ryan shared, I simply listened, and when he came to the end of a thought, I’d ask a question to help us both understand what was going on. Once I had a grasp of the situation, I asked him, “Is there anyone in the class that you like and want to hang out with more?” From there, I asked if he had any ideas to make hanging out happen and the talking snowballed with fewer tears and more objectivity. We decided to text his parents at the dinner to see if they could connect with one boy’s parents to make playdates in the future.

Several minutes after our discussion ended, Ryan, unprovoked, called my name. I turned.

“Yeah?”

“Thanks for talking.”

“Anytime.”

You Just Didn’t Get Served

He gets it
He gets it.

On nearly every nanny job interview, I’ve been asked how I feel about “light housekeeping.” And my reaction is always the same.

When I am a member in the space, caring for it becomes partly my responsibility. So while I won’t clean up after the child—if he dumps out a box of Legos then that’s his responsibility to pick them up—I have no problem keeping things organized and clean as part of a team, which includes the child. If we played with the Legos together, then I definitely would help clean them up but would expect him to help as well. When I do that, I model behavior I want the child to replicate, we experience how working together makes completing tasks easier and faster, and the child comes to understand expectations and his responsibilities.

As somebody who has taken the time to hone his craft of working with children, I feel disrespected if a parent asks me to perform the functions of a butler or a housekeeper. Everything I do leads back to the child developing skills or understanding reality. So if I serve him a snack he could have gotten himself or I clean up his messes, I’m missing opportunities to help him mature.

After working hard to inform the twin boys I worked with that my function was not to serve them, they became more self-sufficient. They got their own snack, set their place at the table, and cleaned up after themselves. After dinner, we worked as a highly efficient team to clean up, switching roles from night to night (sink duty, dryer, and miscellaneous, usually called “missa”).

Since they knew I was just “Mikey” and not the do-stuff-for-them fairy, our relationship shifted. Thing 1 would go to grab some cashews and ask me if I wanted some. Sometimes, I’d say, “I’m going to the kitchen, can I grab you something?” Or Thing 2 would help me clean up a mess I made. We were simply friends so we’d help each other out from time to time. That’s caring without dependence.

The Pursuit of Healthiness

“I just want my baby to be happy and healthy.”

I’ve heard it time and time again. Parents possess this altruistic mentality in the hope that their child will breeze through an uncomplicated life. It’s beautiful, noble, and stupid.

I’m not concerned with the “healthy” part, that’s the part we should keep. A healthy diet, plentiful physical activity, and sufficient sleep are the easiest ways to set your child up for success. Furthermore, we need to ensure that children have healthy social sustenance too: attention balanced with independence and appropriate empowerment.

A “Happy Meal” perhaps. But a healthy one? Definitely not.

But then “happy” comes along.

It’s not the hope that a child is happy that’s dangerous (of course we want the child to be happy). But it is concerning that parents too frequently use instant gratification in lieu of a healthy structure.

Sometimes a parent will allow a sweet they otherwise would not have when the child had a rough day. Or bedtime is particularly flexible one night because the parent wasn’t returning home in time. Or the child just wants to veg out and watch TV even though he hasn’t run around yet that day. The parent obliges to make the child happy and directly negates the healthy initiative.

There are examples of situations where the happiness-inspiring action doesn’t specifically conflict with healthy behavior: giving a gift, being falsely enthusiastic, or giving bizarre amounts of affection. These can make the child happy, yes, but if a parent indulges his child too frequently, the child’s equilibrium of neurological chemicals and behavioral expectations gets shoved off-track.

I’m not arguing against finding nice things to do for your child. But there’s a world of difference between “I saw this and I thought of you” and “Since you’re sick, here’s a new Xbox game!” Make sure that the action is authentic and appropriate.

True happiness, or at least a more sustainable, more realistic happiness, is not an influx of stuff or attention. As a manny, I’ve witnessed drastic improvements in mood and behavior by focusing on the “healthy” approach to the physical, emotional, mental, and social aspects of life.

So let’s all repurpose the trope: “I just want my baby to be healthy so she can be happy.” Build a healthy structure. Happiness will come.