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What is in Your Parenting "Tool Box"?

By Jody McVittie on March 19, 2009 4:04 PM

Most of us have days when parenting "works"; when we show up as the loving parent that we want to be while still setting appropriate limits. There are other days though (when we are stressed), when we can hear our own parent's voices (when they were stressed) coming out of our own mouths. That is when we wonder, "What is it with this child?" or hear those internal voices criticizing our own ability to parent or even be a reasonable human being. Those are not the "parenting moments" that we look forward to. But we all have them.

We also have a pretty good idea about what gets us in these situations. It is that feeling of being "trapped" or having our "buttons" pushed; of not having any good options. It is as if, in the stress of the moment, we open our parenting "tool box" and the only tools in there are the ones our parents used when they were desperate: the ones we never liked as kids and swore we would never use. That same person (you) who noticed that these tools were not effective or respectful as a kid doesn't like them as a parent either. They break the connection with your child and you both feel bad. We've been taught to rationalize this bad feeling: we do it for "their own good."

Hurting and punishing kids isn't good for either the child or the parent. Not even in the "name of love." It is time to question our culture's deep unspoken assumptions about how to "teach." At some level we believe that for learning to take place, there has to be some suffering involved. You know the sayings: "No pain, no gain," "He'll pay for this," "This should teach him a lesson," "She won't get away with it this time," and many more.

Before "re-stocking" the tool box, it is helpful to think about what children need to thrive. Children need a sense of belonging (connection) and significance (meaning) in their world. They also need an opportunity to explore, take risks and mess things up (freedom) as well as clear limits (order). Having a clear set of guidelines about how to interact socially in a home gives children a sense of emotional safety and a freedom to explore in much the same way that a fence at the side of the path along the Grand Canyon allows one the safety from which to really appreciate the splendor of the deep valley.

The good news is that there are lots of simple, respectful (to both the child and parent) parenting tools that are effective in the long term. By using kindness and firmness at the same time we can discipline (teach) our children the life skills they need without being either permissive or punitive. We build long term relationships. By filling the parenting "tool box" with more resources you will find that those "old" parenting tools gradually rust at the bottom of the box. Here are some tools that come from parenting principles that work:

Children need a sense of belonging (connection) and significance (meaning). Mis-behavior is a mis-guided attempt to connect or feel important. Creating opportunities to connect and contribute will limit misbehavior.
• Spend special time with your child, invite your child to help with dinner or house repairs, have household jobs for all.
• Ask curiosity questions ("what" and "how" questions) to learn about how your child saw the situation.
• Support them in finding socially useful ways to get the belonging they seek. (What would happen if you ask your brother to play instead of taking his toy? I can tell you'd like to be with me now, would you like to help me cook? Etc.)
• Remember that children learn best when they have a sense of value and connection. Jane Nelsen says, "Connect before you correct."

Maintain dignity and respect for yourself and for the situation and child.
• Unless safety is an immediate issue, there is no rush to solve problems. We all have more resources to learn from our mistakes when we are feeling a little better.
• Stay calm! (If you aren't calm, get calm before you address the issue even if it means saying "I'm too upset to solve this right now. We all need to go cool off.")
• Use clear language that focuses on what to do, not what not to do. (People are for hugging, not hitting. You can have a cookie after dinner.) Children learn by watching.
• Use the "problems" as opportunities to teach (and model) problem solving. Aim toward solutions not "consequences." The difference is that a solution is always helpful.

Life has ups and downs and children learn resilience by practicing.
• Don't rescue children from feeling sad, angry, hurt (instead use empathy) but don't add those feelings from the outside by yelling, shaming, inviting your child to feel guilty, or punishing.
• It is not your job to keep your children happy. Setting appropriate limits has bigger benefits than immediate happiness.

Mistakes are opportunities to learn.
• When you make mistakes, come back later and apologize. Enjoy your child!
• Practice noticing what your child IS (strengths) instead of what she or he isn't.

Refill your tool box slowly. It might be that you choose to make a special effort to play with or listen to your child today. Or perhaps for one week you'll practice staying calm. Gradually, with practice you won't be reaching for those "old" parenting tools nearly as often. You'll understand that it is possible to discipline (teach) our children with kindness and firmness without being either permissive or punitive: from the heart instead of the hip.