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Lessons for Everyday Parenting
The Connective Parenting Newsletter
Lesson: Taking Responsibility as a Parent so Your Kid Can Too
We have a problem in parenting today. Many parents do more for their kids than they should. Therefore kids are entitled, above the rules, inconsiderate of others, disrespectful, and rude. (Mind you, I am making a huge generalization.)
The pattern looks like this: Child has perfectly normal angry feelings and developmentally appropriate demands, likes and dislikes; parent doesn't know how to deal with the anger and resistance and does what ever seems necessary to avoid further anger and resistance; child learns that anger and resistance causes parent to back off or fix; child expresses more anger and resistance; parent either backs off or fixes; child grows dependent on parent to back off or fix; child grows incapable of handling own problems; parent gets furious over child never taking responsibility for self; child expresses disdain toward parent, whom he resents being dependent on to solve his problems.
Did anyone follow that?
And all that happens with our best intentions of being great parents. Often we parent in reaction to the way we were parented. Reaction parenting is about us, never about our children and their individual needs. We tend to parent the way we wish we had been parented. If we had uninvolved parents who paid little attention to us and our problems, we are likely to be over-involved and fix or rescue our children from their problems so they won't feel abandoned like we did. After all isn't that our job?
No, our job is to raise children who know how to solve their own problems. But we either try to fix our children's problems for them or we blame our problems on our children and build that resistance.
For example, I ask my daughter to clear the dishes from the table. She doesn't want to and says so. I yell at her for thinking only of herself and what she wants—and why doesn't she ever do anything I ask. She resists further and stomps off saying she hates me. I complain that I have a rude child. My motherlode goes into high gear because a good parent does not have a rude child, so instead of taking responsibility for my rudeness to her, I come down harder on her for her anger and resistance in an attempt to teach her not to be rude (all the while increasing my rudeness). What she hears is that I don't care about her, I only care about what she will do for me. She resists further. I go in one direction or the other: I either give up asking her to do anything around the house because I don't want to deal with her blow ups, or I punish her by taking away her phone, or something else equally ridiculous, further fueling her wrath and identity as a bad kid.
Can you see that both of those options do not in any way hold her accountable for her actions? And that I am making her responsible for my problem? I am the one who is upset about her not helping. It is my responsibility to own that problem by saying, "I would like your help clearing the dishes so I don't have to do it all." When she argues, instead of yelling at her for arguing, I can say, "Of course you don't want to. I'm sure I wouldn't either if I were you. (I accept that her resistance is normal, not a sign of rudeness or disrespect). As soon as the dishes are cleared, you can get to your homework/call your friend/go outside." That way, I acknowledge her in a way she can hear (calmly and neutrally), I motivate her instead of threaten her, (If you don't get that table cleared, there will be no TV.) and I expect that she will help.
When this expectation is set from the beginning, helping becomes regular. Resistance is expected and therefore does not provoke my anger. I trust my child to cope with her resistance and frustration, to find time in her agenda to be helpful—but only when I am considerate of her. I trust that I don't have to either forgo what I want and let her off the hook or punish her to teach her to help when she is asked. I trust that her desire to help is natural, and I also understand that her desire to do what she wants will trump what I want every time, because that's natural. She is an egocentric being. The world revolves around her. In order to help her revolve outward toward the needs of others, I have to model that with my respect of her needs and desires—even when she can't have them. I have to allow her to learn to cope with her frustrations.
So "man up" parents! Allow your kids to express their feelings without cowering and walking on eggshells and letting them off the hook because it's just easier (hard I know… I was there!), without stepping in to fix their problems because you can't stand them feeling pain, without threatening them because you don't trust they will learn without the carrot and stick method.
Next Lessons newsletter will be in September. Q&A will come in a couple weeks. Then I'm taking August off from the newsletter.
Questions and Answers
I want your questions. Here's how it works: You email me a question to email@example.com, and I answer pretty quickly. I put it in a newsletter at a later date. Please try to keep them brief without leaving out critical details.
The "F" Word
Q. My daughter just turned four. A while ago she tried out using the "f" word with me and her Dad. We deliberately ignored it and she stopped. Recently (because I've let the word fly out of my mouth a few times) she has started using it again. Today, her teacher said she has been using it at school. I get the strong feeling that she wants see how we react. She also knows the word is wrong. I feel like I should give her a consequence for using it (because she knows it's wrong and still does it), but on the other hand I don't want to give it the reaction she is looking for. Any thoughts? Also, how should her teacher handle it at school — where other kids are at risk of picking up on it?
A. Yes, she knows the word is wrong, and that is the only reason she is using it—to learn more about the reactions to it, to figure out why it's wrong. Some people laugh, some ignore, some get angry. What does all that mean to a 4 yr. old? When she first used the word, you ignored it and it went away. She has likely heard it—from you, from other children, etc—and has absolutely no idea what it means but knows that it is powerful. Of course children want attention all the time—that's normal. So if she believes it will get attention, she will use a dramatic word. The only reason the word is wrong is because we have decided it is. To punish her (what we call a consequence), is to give the word even more power. Punishing her assumes her understanding of the word. But really you would be punishing her to force her to comply with something she doesn't know she is NOT complying with, if you know what I mean! If you believe it has gotten out of hand, I would have a good reasonable chat with her about it, explaining that it is a word that offends many people. Ask her to think of the meanest word she could say to someone. Then say that when the f word is used it feels worse than that mean word to many people. So that's why it is not a good word to use. Ask her if she has an idea of what she can say instead when she feels like saying that word. Then do some practicing with her.
Soiling — A Signal?
Q. I have three boys the youngest of whom is 5 and he's driving us mad because he soils himself almost every day often several times. I don't think it's a 'mechanical' problem as he can go for several days using the toilet. I trawled your archives where you suggested I hand him the responsibility for getting himself cleaned up. I've done this and he's doing well, but it hasn't stopped the soiling. If I ask him he says, 'I can clean myself up when I like. It's my responsibility'. My husband and his oldest brother in particular get really annoyed with this behaviour. He pees at school but keeps poos till home. He asked to start potty-training, and when he asked to stop nappies at night he managed fairly well for 4 weeks. Then going back to night nappies for a week's holiday set him back being dry at night for two years. I wonder if his soiling has to do with attention-seeking or feeling insecure. His middle brother has Aspergers and often needs extra care. This morning he came in and said 'Mummy, how about if I stay dry all day I can have a new app?'! This is precisely the kind of parenting I'm trying to move away from and why your columns struck such a chord as being the kind of parent I want to be but couldn't quite articulate.
A. Your son sounds pretty savvy to respond with "It's my responsibility"! I say, good for him, and he's absolutely right. That does not diminish your frustration. His request for an app if he stays dry means #1, he probably does have control, or at least thinks he does, and #2, he knows how important his staying clean is to you—which gives him power. He is a very smart boy, and you don't want him to use his smarts manipulatively. This can be the result of using any form of reward or punishment in order to get behavior you want. Rewards can be anything from "good boy" to "If you do this, I will get you that." He may very well think that if he presents this soiling problem, it will get the kind of attention his Asperger brother gets. My suggestion is that you count your blessings for now that he is taking responsibility for his soiled underpants. Five is not all that old for soiling. So you, your husband and son need to ignore when he soils, continue handing over the responsibility, and give him positive attention (not praise) when he changes his soiled underpants on his own. You can say to him, "This has got to be really frustrating for you. I'm sure you don't enjoy washing out your underwear. It will be over soon, I know. You will be able to control it very soon." Reassure him that he is fine, that you do not give presents for behavior, and try to switch your frustration to admiration for his perceptiveness.
When We Teach Kids to Manipulate
Q. My 18yo high schooler has been getting $10 a week spending money since he was very little. I used to give his brother (12) and sister (9) the same, but now we are not doing well financially and they relinquished theirs last year. The 18yo has refused to give up his weekly $10. After he got his license, using our car (which we insure and pay gas for), he got a bank card and an account, and told me to direct deposit the $10. He started buying Starbucks coffees and snacks and told his dad that he had to pay for it. Which his dad did. His dad and I agreed to give him $5 more per week with the understanding he would by his snacks. Recently he overdrew his bank account and then came "crying" to us to help. I said I would advance his allowance once, and that I would not rescue him again. Now he has overdrawn again. I feel financially strapped not to mention he is never grateful but demands the money as his "right." Giving him the money, when his sibs get nothing, and rescuing him makes me feel angry with him 24/7. He never helps around the house - says "maybe later" which never comes, says it's my "job" to make him meals and is generally nasty to all of us. I feel guilty about not knowing what is "reasonable" to give him. Should we give him any money at all? Is that our "responsibility"? If so, how much? We already pay for his food, including special requests, gas, car (he uses our newest and safest car whenever he likes), car insurance, his clothes, heat bill, electric bill, phone bill, housing. Help!! This is just going to get worse this summer (he has no plans at all) and next year in college.
A. It sounds your 18 yr. old has been given the power to call the shots for quite some time. Isn't it your choice to stop the direct deposits as opposed to him refusing to give them up? For some reason—I'm sure there are many—you are afraid to make him mad even when you don't have the money to give. He has taken but hasn't learned to be considerate of others, so the balance has been off for a long time. He has come to depend on you to solve his problems and support his habit of getting what he wants. Unfortunately when this happens, we cannot blame our child for behaving in ways we have actually taught. His dependency served him for awhile but now he resents you for that dependency. It will be very important for you to support his attempts to find a way to make his own money. What it requires is for you to be strong in your conviction. I think allowances are very important for kids to learn the value money. Your younger two should be getting one but your 18 yr. old should being earning his own. I know the economy today makes it very difficult to find jobs, but if he needs money, he can find a way. I suggest that you and his father establish a deadline for ending his allowance and helping him transition to earning his own. He will hate it and hate you initially. That is the risk you need to take. It will serve him for the future. Make it clear that you will continue the $15 until that deadline. Colleges offer many opportunities to make money. I imagine you feel guilty when you don't give him what he wants. That guilt is yours to examine, not to enable your son. Think clearly what you will and won't do for him and then be consistent.
Since we talked, I have taken time to talk with Connor at bedtime and in the morning about how I understand that it's hard to get up, go to school, get dressed, brush his teeth, etc. Per your advice, when he's complained about mundane things, I've mirrored his comments agreeing that yes, taking swimming lessons every week is boring and I know he'd rather just play in the water but it's nice to know that he can always feel confident in water because of the lessons.
At a school concert this week, after his class sang the three songs they had practiced, his teacher decided to add on another song at the last minute. Right up on stage, Connor proclaimed that it wasn't fair. Normally, I would be mortified by this but I remembered that my embarrassment is my issue and that night, I confided in Connor that I agreed it wasn't fair, how I also hate when people say one thing and do another and I don't like surprises or things that are unplanned. I told him I knew exactly how he felt up on that stage but that because I'm older I have learned to cope with things like that. The funny thing is, in showing compassion for who Connor is, instead of asking him to be someone he isn't, I'm realizing we have much more in common than I thought. The only difference is because of my need to please others, I've adapted my behaviour over time, and he's not willing to do that.
He had two positive notes home from school this week. That has never happened before so I can only attribute it to me spending five minutes empathising with him in the morning when I wake him up. And my mom noticed that he seemed much happier than usual.
So, thank you Bonnie. My husband and I are feeling more relaxed about things, Connor is more relaxed and because you shared the story of your own daughter, I am liberated from the notion that I need to change Connor in order to help him navigate through life. My focus now is helping him to realize that he is loved and understood and hopefully the rest will take care of itself. I am also working hard to accept that he may not have an easy path through life but that is his journey, not mine.
Bonnie Harris, Connective Parenting
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