According to the Bowker Books in Print database (courtesy of the WSJ article “New Ways to Get Kids to Behave”), the number of parenting books published or distributed rose from 2,774 in 2007 to 3,520 in 2011. I’ll bet most folks reading these are not trying to learn to have more fun with their already delightful children. As the WSJ article’s title directly states, parents are frustrated in their wishes to get their sweetie pies to cooperate and obey, asking why is “no” not “no” until the parent has to scream, threaten, or even hit.
The WSJ suggests a couple creative approaches: have kids practice temper tantrums and whine right along with your kids. The other stuff you’ve heard countless times. If it worked, you wouldn’t need the remaining 3,519 books.
I’ve got something to add that initially frustrates some of my clients. Don’t tell your kids to do anything that you can’t make them do. My parent clients respond, indignantly, “But that’s the wrong lesson.” On the contrary, telling your kids to do something that they won’t do and you can’t make them do teaches them to disobey. Further, the child learns you have no power, but she does.
You can’t make children eat dinner, sit quietly while adults talk, stop crying, do homework, clean up their room, or go to sleep. You can’t chose their friends, keep them off the internet, or make them respect their teachers.
The corollary to this first principle is not to order the child to do something that is more important to you than it is to him. This rule means that the parent has to acknowledge a separation between herself and her child. I suggested to one angry mom that whether her 13-year-old son takes a shower was his problem and therefore a fight she didn’t need to continue having. “But he smells.” His problem. “He doesn’t throw his dirty clothes down the chute for me to wash.” He’ll have to wear them dirty.
Now I grant this makes the parent have to confront her sense of public embarrassment. Think of all the times we scold our children because of social pressure on us. Is that fair to our kids? To ourselves? Adopt my best 2-word sentence for instant relief: “Who cares?” As long as we shower and wash our clothes, that should be good enough.
So, what can you control? Where you take your children; what school you send them to; the plug-in cord for all electronics; how you spend money; where, when, and how often you drive the car; how you speak to them and to your spouse; how often you tell the truth; what clothes and food you pay for; what days you do the laundry; how much the adults (volunteer or paid) clean up after themselves and their kids. You can walk away from an argument you won’t win and refuse to re-enter it until the tone is respectful. You can delay driving your child somewhere or buying her something until the room is clean.
In fact, a lot is under your control, especially your own temper. Walk away, delay the punishment. This a an effective tool for allowing the child to realize what she has done wrong rather than allowing her to put the blame on you.
What I never recommend is punishing a child by taking away whatever is most important. If your teen lives and dies by texting, don’t take away the phone unless the teen has abused the texting (such as bullying or running up large bills). Ditto for the car. If your 16-year-old takes the car without permission, it’s appropriate to withhold the car–one time for one offense. Taking it away for a week or month (like grounding) breeds the kind of sullen resentment you don’t want to live with in your home. If you feel enraged, walk away until you’re calm. Let the kid stew in his own juices for a while.He may surprise you by coming up with his own amends or even an apology.
It’s amazing what letting go of control does. Start your list right now. Divide the page: My issue/My child’s issue. Now, ask yourself what you can do about the column that belongs to you. If the answer is nothing (or nothing but punishment), let that one go, too. Talk about lightening your load.
If you need some help with specifics, hire a parenting coach who understands the basic premise. You can even do this work on the phone or Zoom. Have fun. It’s a big relief.