So much advice floats around in cyberspace.
We parents can spend much of our days living in uncertainty about this child-raising, and so we welcome any and all advice, but after browsing through these plentiful articles, I can only hear the words of Alfie Kohn, a prominent author and lecturer, when he says, “More than a hundred parenting books are published in the United States every year, along with countless articles in parenting magazines, and most of them are filled with advice about how to get children to comply with our expectations, how to make them behave, how to train them as though they were pets. Many such guides also offer a pep talk about the need to stand up to kids and assert our power—in some cases explicitly writing off any misgivings we may have about doing so” (Unconditional Parenting, 4).
I used to be the parent who read every book published and took notes on all those article-tips because I used to be a parent who wanted my children to always, no-questions-asked, no-arguing-allowed behave and obey and comply, too.
But in the last year, I have begun to understand the beauty and wonder of emotionally intelligent parenting, of engaging in mutual relationship with my children (important note: this is most definitely not a “friends” relationship but more of a mentor/mentee relationship), of honoring the ideas and opinions of children because they matter, even if the whole world thinks they don’t.
I have seen the miracles of it.
Maybe giving generously and mindfully and intentionally when it comes to our children looks like breaking them free from the hold of society’s expectations (“This is what many people in our society seem to want most from children: not that they are caring or creative or curious, but simply that they are well behaved. A ‘good’ child—from infancy to adolescence—is one who isn’t too much trouble for us grown-ups” (Alfie Kohn, Unconditional Parenting, 2)) and raising children who know what it’s like to feel and dream and listen and overcome and most of all love.
This is what parenting from a relationship does.
One recent article began with the author saying, “When your kids tell you you’re mean, take it as a compliment.”
I believe words are important, so I need to clarify this. Kids will say you’re mean. My 7-year-old says it at least five thousand times a day. Kids will feel like they hate you and that there is nothing else they can do with all that pent-up emotion but to let it out in hate words because emotion can be hard to control when you don’t really know what to do with it. But if we only take those words as a compliment, we miss the mysterious beauty of that big-emotion moment.
We miss hearing a child’s heart and teaching a better way.
When our children call us the meanest parents in the world, when they say they want a new family, when they tell us they’re going to run away in the night while we’re sleeping, those words open an opportunity to listen to the hearts of our children; to practice empathy in our parenting so we understand a heart that is, this moment, hurting enough to wish for a new mom or dad; to engage and accept and educate about that anger and sadness and frustration instead of ignoring those negative emotions.
Children don’t live in relationship with people they think are mean, not by choice. They do live in relationship with people who love them and understand them and honor them, and this does not mean we give in or erase all those boundaries we’ve drawn around the non-negotiables, but it does mean that when our children run into those boundaries or crash against those places where we’re unwilling to give in, that we engage in conversation and listen to their side and seek to understand how they feel.
Our children deserve better than “because I said so.” They deserve parents who bend to their level to identify with and teach about all those confusing feelings, parents who explain the reasons why so they know and feel the love behind those reasons, parents who then empathize for the disappointment of a child who does not always get his way.
“When children feel understood, their loneliness and hurt diminish,” writes Dr. Haim Ginott (Between Parent and Child, 8. This book was first published in 1965, so this is nothing new.). “When children are understood, their love for the parent is deepened. A parent’s sympathy serves as emotional first aid for bruised feelings. When we genuinely acknowledge a child’s plight and voice her disappointment, she often gathers the strength to face her reality.”
Sometimes all it takes is to feel we’ve been heard, and this is true for the children, too.
An article-author said, “This rising generation has been called the laziest, rudest, most entitled kids in history,” and I just have to say here that it grieves my heart that we have already labeled an entire “rising” generation so prematurely, before we have even given them a chance to come into their own selves.
(And, who does this labeling anyway? I know I didn’t…)
How about we just get rid of that ugly word, “entitled” for…maybe the rest of our century? (My generation, too, has been called entitled. (Side note: about 80 percent of us grew up in control-based homes. Weird, I know.) Read my response here.)
So, in an effort to embrace the whole picture of parenting, I have compiled my own list of ways I believe we, as parents, can begin to live in relationship with our children, offering them the honor and respect and dignity all children (and all people) deserve.
(If we disagree, that’s OK. You know your child better than I do, and you know what works for your family. Sometimes we can get caught up in the so-mysterious makes-me-feel-inadequate nature of parenting and forget that we know more than we think. Trust your intuition. And if it doesn’t feel right to “do it the way it’s always been done because we turned out just fine,” then, please, trust that intuition, too, and be open to hearing another way.)
1. Consult your children.
One parenting article recommends making your children go to bed at a reasonable time. I agree. My kids are in bed after baths and Story Time and Silent Reading and Prayer time, between 8:30 and 8:45 every evening (depending on which mishaps we encounter along the way). But this was not just a parent decision. We have consulted our children on the bedtime routine and periodically revisit it during our weekly Family Council meetings every now and then. (If you are wondering what any of the above mentioned activities are in my family, click here.)
Consulting children, though young and still in need of guidance, on these everyday issues helps them learn to make decisions and negotiate and compromise, and it also gives them greater ownership in keeping to the schedule they helped make.
(Note: I am NOT saying that if kids say they should go to bed at a time with which we are uncomfortable we cannot suggest and enforce another time. We are, after all, still the parent. But we should always explain our decisions and the reasons behind them (see #5 below). A little consultation and explanation goes a LONG way.)
Kohn writes, “Our default position ought to be to let kids make decisions about matters that concern them except when there is a compelling reason for us to override that right. We should be prepared to justify why, in each case, kids shouldn’t be allowed to choose” (Unconditional Parenting, 168).
2. Don’t be afraid to compromise.
While many parents believe that compromising with our children means they will expect it every time or they’ll learn they can just walk all over us or they’ll discount what boundaries we do set up as immovable, this is simply not true.
“ ‘Give ‘em an inch, they’ll take a mile’ turns out to be true primarily of children who have only been given inches in their lives,” (Kohn, Unconditional Parenting, 174). “In short, with each of the thousand-and-one problems that present themselves in family life, our choice is between controlling and teaching, between creating an atmosphere of distrust and one of trust, between setting an example of power and helping children to learn responsibility, between quick-fix parenting and the kind that is focused on long-term goals.”
3. Give kids the freedom to make their own decisions.
As much as we’d like to believe that we can teach our children how to make the right decisions by demanding that they obey our already-made decisions, this is not the case.
“The way kids learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions,” (Kohn, Unconditional Parenting, 169-170). “It makes sense to raise (children) with respect, to offer then unconditional support and to give them choices on a regular basis. That foundation allows them to evaluate the controlling people and institutions they’ll eventually face by applying the higher standard they encountered while growing up. It also means they’ll be more likely to work for positive changes in our society rather than just accepting power-based arrangements as they are—or believing those arrangements are inevitable.”
4. Let your kids argue with you.
Allowing our kids to present their point of view not only gives them practice in forming their own opinions but also communicates to them that we honor and value those opinions, that their voice is important enough to be heard in a world of “more important” adult voices.
“What counts is that kids know their needs matter to us and that we’re willing to take their ideas seriously,” Kohn writes (Unconditional Parenting, 175). “Data shows that children are more likely to control themselves if their parents are willing to negotiate and are open to changing their minds in response to children’s arguments.”
“(Children) will feel less need to challenge every decision when they’re confident that it’s possible for them to object,” he adds.
5. Don’t discount the importance of explaining the reasons behind your decisions.
Whether it’s asking for treats every day (One article says we should not give our kids dessert every day, and I wholeheartedly agree. My kids get dessert maybe once or twice a week. We are also a family that does not eat processed foods, which means our desserts are not quite as sugary as traditional desserts.) or asking for TV privileges or to play video games, we must explain to our children why we make boundaries—because love stands behind those boundaries.
Even our 3-year-old and 4-year-old can tell you why we don’t eat processed foods (because food is energy and processed food is not real food, and real food fills our bodies with the energy it needs to walk and run and jump, is what they would say).
After a recent birthday party, my 7-year-old had a tummy ache, and he said, “I think it’s because I had too many treats. Treats make me feel bad.” He knows they make him feel bad and he also knows his parents don’t let him often eat them. In his mind, that means his parents don’t want him to feel bad. This is love.
(Note: Kids understand a whole lot more than we give them credit for. They always deserve a reason for what we do, and if we can’t provide one, maybe we should evaluate whether it’s a hill we want to die on—because there can be too many hills, and then we just die on them all.)
6. Feel with your children.
This is the meaning of empathy. One author says we should let our children feel loss. “If your child breaks a toy, don’t replace it. He’ll learn a valuable lesson about taking care of his stuff. If your child forgets to turn in homework, let him take the lower grade or make him work out extra credit with his teacher himself.”
I would add to this that we must mourn the loss of that toy with them. We must tell them that we understand how disappointing it feels to have that low grade because of something we forgot—because once, when we were a student, we aced a pop quiz but forgot to put our name on the paper and so didn’t even get credit for it.
Sometimes, we just want to know we’re not alone.
7. Make them do hard things, but be on hand to help.
One author says, “Don’t automatically step in and take over when things get hard.” I agree. But it is all in the way we frame it to our children.
If we say, “You need to do this yourself,” we are the people who could help but won’t. If we say, “You need to do this yourself because it’s good for you to discover that you can do more than you think. I believe you can do it, and I want you to believe you can, too, but I am here to help if you try and you still have trouble,” then we are the people who care and believe and will help when absolutely needed.
Realizing limitations and asking for help is an important skill for adults to have, too. Our children won’t learn it if they’re only told to fend for themselves in the hard places.
8. Pull some strings if you really need to.
“Don’t pull strings…if you don’t like your child’s teacher, science partner, position on the soccer field or placement on the bus stop, avoid the temptation to make a stink or pull strings until he gets his preference,” one author said.
It’s true that less-than-ideal circumstances surround adults on a daily basis, but I would add that we must be on stand-by for our children when the time is right (and we’ll know when it is). We must help our kids figure out their own solutions to their problems, not so we can solve them all for them, but so we can help them learn how to brainstorm. If we pat them on the back with that, “Tough break, kid, Figure it out,” how will they ever learn?
Self-imposed guilt over one such “don’t pull strings” sentiment kept me from doing it last year, when my son started kindergarten. If you don’t yet have kids who have started school, let me be the first to tell you: Sometimes our children are placed with teachers whose personalities do not click with our children. My oldest son had one such kindergarten teacher, and I felt it in my gut the first time I met her. But I did nothing.
This year, his first grade year, he has a fantastic teacher who understands his brilliance and doesn’t try to tame that doesn’t-think-like-anyone-else brain. At a recent parent-teacher conference, his current teacher told me that his kindergarten teacher had put him on the list for the district’s behavior intervention program (He didn’t talk back or say disrespectful things or hurt other people. He just asked too many questions about the way things were done, according to the write-up. At home, this questioning usually consists of his saying, “Why do we have to do it that way? Why can’t we do it this way?” which usually results in our saying, “Oh. Yeah. It probably would work better that way, wouldn’t it?” Children often have a much simpler way of seeing things than we do. My husband and I don’t want to miss these amazing contributions.), but she, the first grade teacher, took him off the list because she saw absolutely no need for it.
If I could live the whole last year of his life over again, I would have asked for a teacher change because my gut said so.
Don’t be afraid to pull strings when it matters.
9. Don’t expect your children to behave all the time.
I believe this is an unnecessary expectation we parents like to place on our children. Kids do not always have the capabilities we think they should have. Many times, what we parents expect them to do in the way of behavior is way beyond what they are physically and mentally and emotionally capable of doing and understanding. We just don’t realize it.
If all we demand is obedience, our children lose pieces of themselves.
“Amazingly well behaved children do what their parents want them to do, and become what their parents want them to become, but often at a price of losing a sense of themselves,” writes Kohn (Unconditional Parenting, 6, 7). “If we place a premium on obedience in the home, we may end up producing kids who go along with what they’re told to do by people outside the home, too.”
To the parents of teenagers who complain “He was such a good kid, so well behaved, so well mannered, so well dressed. Now look at him,” author Barbara Coloros says, “From the time he was young, he dressed the way you told him to dress; he acted the way you told him to act; he said the things you told him to say. He’s been listening to somebody else tell him what to do…he hasn’t changed. He is still listening to somebody else tell him what to do. The problem is, it isn’t you anymore; it’s his peers.”
Again, this does not mean we don’t establish boundaries and we don’t have moral principles. Kohn says, “We need to establish clear moral guidelines, to be explicit about what we expect, but in a way that minimizes coercion. Yes, there has to be some force behind what we say to them…but it’s important that force itself doesn’t become the message. If it does, we create a climate of fear that gets in the way of learning. If we lead kids to worry that doing bad things will result in the withdrawal of our love, all we buy is temporary compliance without understanding or intrinsic motivation” (195).
An adult who behaves honorably and respectfully and lovingly because he believes it’s right, not because someone tells him it is, is worth a whole childhood of misbehavior, if that’s what it takes to teach him the right way.
10. You can’t make your child do anything.
As much as we’d like to believe we can, we can’t.
If we threaten, we only teach them to threaten others to get their way. If we coerce, we only teach them to coerce others to get their way. If we withhold love we only teach it is perfectly acceptable to withhold love from others who do not give them their way.
One author suggests making your child apologize, and I used to be the mom who did. Until I realized I was making my children lie.
It’s hard to feel sorry for something we did when we are living in the heat of emotion. We know this as adults. When I am arguing with my husband and I feel out-of-control angry and words slip out that I really don’t mean, I cannot, truthfully, apologize for my rash reaction because I still feel angry.
Neither can our children.
Often, it is not until the end of the day, after a gentle reminder from a parent, that my children are ready to apologize—and mean it—for their not-so-great choices.
And they absolutely learn from us. If we are not willing to apologize for our mistakes, neither will they be.
11. Even children deserve honor and respect, especially from their parents.
Our children will not learn the way of honor and respect (one author calls it manners) if we do not relate to them with the same honor and respect.
“Love is the whole and more than all” (e.e. cummings). Honor and respect stem from love.
We all deserve to be treated with love and honor and respect, including the children. Period.
12. Teach them to serve.
This is both a conversation we need to have (explaining the why) and an example we need to set. If we are not willing to mow the yard of the widow next door, neither will our 13-year-old be.
13. Listen to what your child’s emotions are telling you.
One author says, “While parents don’t ever want to hear it, there is a time to tell a kid to stop the waterworks when they don’t get their way or they get their feelings hurt. Remember that old, ‘You want to cry? I will give you something to cry about!’ line from our parents and grandparents? Well, it really wasn’t such a bad line.”
I disagree. Our children’s emotions are important, and if we, their parents, discount those emotions, they begin to discount them, too, wondering if they should be sad about this or if they should really feel angry about that.
Children don’t keep crying because they think it might get them their way. They keep crying because no one has sought to understand why they’re crying and empathize with the grief there in a little heart (empathy does not mean giving in so they stop crying but understanding a broken heart). We would never, ever tell another adult, “You want to cry? I will give you something to cry about!” Neither should we tell the children.
Why? See the last two sentences of # 11.
“Strong feelings do not vanish by being banished; but they do diminish in intensity and lose their sharp edges when the listener accepts them with sympathy and understanding” says Ginott (Between Parent and Child, 17).
Ginott also says, “It is a deep comfort to children to discover that their feelings are a normal part of the human experience” (21) and “At times of strong emotion there is nothing as comforting and helpful as a person who listens and understands. What is true for adults is also true for children. Caring communication replaces criticism, lecturing and advice with the healing balm of human understanding” (29).
14. Parenting is not a job.
Many parents say it is, but I think what we have here is a semantics problem. Parenting is not a job, it’s an honor, a responsibility, a gift. It is not a job that names us boss so we can demand obedience and compliance and no-arguing submission. It is a mutual relationship where we serve one another in love and teach by example how to love and honor and respect.
“Behind all these skills of caring communication is a deep respect for children” writes Ginott (Between Parent and Child, 57).
“The critical question is what kind of people we want our children to be—and that includes whether we want them to be the kind who accept things as they are or the kind who try to make things better,” writes Kohn (Unconditional Parenting, 8).
One author ends her article with this: “With a little luck, your kids can turn the tide and make their generation one known for its hope and promise.”
Maybe I’m an idealist, but I’d like to believe that my children’s generation is already known for its hope and promise.
Our children become what we say and who we are. Let us speak life into them and live truth in front of them. They are tomorrow’s hope and promise.
To learn more about emotionally intelligent parenting, check out these books:
Between Parent and Child, Haim Ginott
Unconditional Parenting, Alfie Kohn
The Heart of Parenting, John Gottman
How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk, Adele Faber
Parent Talk, Chick Moorman
Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, Laura Markham