When you imagined having children you probably saw some powerful pictures in your mind. You envisioned loving hugs and making cookies together on a Saturday. You envisioned deep conversations during a fishing trip. You envisioned watching them play together while you sipped a morning coffee. But most of all, you envisioned keeping your cool all day.
You probably didn’t envision debating with them about how certain foods are gross, where the hell you put their bunny that’s on the floor in front of them, or resorting to giving them candy to put their poop in the toilet instead of their pants.
I’ve been there. I taught elementary students for five years. In my first year of teaching I bribed, I punished, I shamed, I yelled a little bit. “How did this happen?” I thought. Everyone told me I would be a good teacher because I was so patient. That first year of teaching was the worst year of my life.
I found myself uttering the same phrases all the older teachers uttered.
“Kids aren’t the same these days.”
“Kids are just out of control. If they would just listen it would be fine.”
“It all starts at home. If these parents would just discipline their kids then my job would be a lot easier.”
These don’t sound like things a patient teacher would say, do they? The patient teachers, and I didn’t know very many, said things like, “How can I build on their strengths, how can I ignite their desire to learn, how can I connect with them better?”
I stopped focusing on changing the kids. I started focusing on developing myself. I’ve brought this practice out of the classroom and have built my family around it.
Now, I am that rock I always wanted to be. I do remain calm. I don’t manipulate them in order to get my way. As if that wasn’t enough, my kids have responded in kind. They are happy, independent, vocal, hard-working, curious, polite to each other, well-rested, and a little outdoorsy too. Having this relationship has completely changed the dynamic around rules. They listen to us when we talk about our rules about dinnertime, screen time, bed time, and me time.
It’s truly incredible.
I wanted to share my joy with you, the parent who is struggling to be the parent you wanted to be. You have the kids you have; you can’t change them and you probably wouldn’t. But you can control who you are. You can control three key things: 1. How you see kids 2. How you approach kids 3. The environment you create for them
If you truly want to become a parent who doesn’t rely on punishments, bribes, yelling, and nagging then it’s all going to start with knowing the difference between hard rules and soft rules. You’re not going to become a soft parent or a hard parent. You’re going to be soft when it matters and you’re going to be hard when it matters. Think of it as the difference between being a boss and a leader. Sometimes you’re going to set a rule and there is no discussion to be had. You’re the boss. Sometimes you’re going to set up some guidelines and give them space to explore. That’s the leader.
If you can learn to be patient with your young child, you can reduce your reliance on punishments, bribes, and yelling by probably half. Some parents have eliminated it entirely.
Our rules can be everywhere: The grocery store, the dinner table, the playground, the restaurant, the car, the airplane ride. All of these places can quickly become overwhelming. You end up asking yourself, “why did I ever think having children was a good idea?” You then start comparing yourselves to other parents. No one seems to be doing it any differently so this must just be life.
It’s not though. There are parents all over the globe who don’t use punishments or bribes or yelling. Their kids are respectful, independent, and happy.
“If I don’t punish or yell then my kids will just walk all over me.”
Nobody likes the feeling of being walked on.
The last thing I want you to feel is that your child is taking advantage of you. I’ve been practicing this philosophy for over five years now with my own three children and with the children I interact with in everyday life; Abandoning the old way has helped me enjoy the company of young people a lot more and therefore has made being a parent a really fulfilling role.
When we lose our patience with our kids, when we use sarcasm, or criticize and boss them they feel “walked on.” But it’s not like they can just leave and hang out somewhere else. So they do what they can. They tantrum and whine and scream and rebel. That doesn’t mean it’s all caused by us. Often the rebellion is caused by other feelings. But they often feel walked on. It’s a loss of freedom for them. We all love freedom.
Why Do We Lose Our Patience so Often?
We lose our patience because too often we treat parenting like a war. “Pick your battles.” Do you really want to think of your relationship with one of the most important people on earth as a war? It should be you and your child against the world, not against each other.
Abraham Lincoln is someone who knows a thing or two about battle.
“In a speech Abraham Lincoln delivered at the height of the Civil War,Robert Green, The 48 Laws of Power
he referred to the Southerners as fellow human beings who were in
error. An elderly lady chastised him for not calling them irreconcilable
enemies who must be destroyed. “Why, madam,” Lincoln replied,
“do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
How would the Civil War have been different if he would’ve held the perspective this elderly woman was asking him to hold? He was constantly looking for ways to create common ground, not just looking for ways to crush them.
We make ourselves the enemy when we use punishments, bribes, nagging, yelling, and shame. That’s not good. Practicing patience will mean you’ll start to take on challenges together.
Homework sucks? Fight it together.
Getting bullied? Tackle it together.
Chores take too long? Solve the problem together.
Not getting along with each other? Talk about it together.
Doesn’t that feel better already? I know you might be a little skeptical. I was too! When I was a teacher I was leading the charge for more rewards and punishments in classrooms. We needed to do all that was necessary to make these children learn.
Teaching was overwhelming. I turned into all the teachers I disliked in school. I punished, I bribed, I yelled, and I rarely smiled.I was treating my students the same way I was treated in school. That didn’t work out well for me. I disengaged from adults and barely graduated on time. I knew it was not a recipe for success for me or my students. Every family knows who the mean teachers are and who the nice ones are.
I started looking for solutions. There has got to be a way to relate to young children without feeling like a prison guard all the time. The first book I found was a small book by Bob Sullo called Activating the Desire to Learn. That “desire to learn” really caught my attention. “Yes! That’s what these kids need!” This book led me to discover profound writing from William Glasser, Magda Gerber, Maria Montessori, and Alfie Kohn. These resources powerfully impacted my practice. My wife and I were starting our own family at the time and our entire view of education and parenting was changing. I hope I can capture a little of what these authors have taught me in a short time. I’m in the middle of writing a longer book that will have even more examples and resources in it, but this will give you things you can start doing today.
Here’s a quick summary:
Kids are not pets that we simply train, although it feels that way sometimes. Kids are people.
Keep the relationship in mind at all times. When in doubt ask yourself, “How would I feel if I saw my child treating another child this way?”
Create a sustainable environment. It’s not sustainable to manage every activity all the time. It’s not sustainable to manage no activities. Keep working for the balance of the two.
How We See Kids
Kids Are People
How we see kids matters. When emotions start to run hot this can be a calming mantra: “She is a person.” You may not like being around her right now but she is a person.
Every action or thought that could help an adult relationship flourish will also help a relationship with a child flourish. Every action or thought that would put strain on an adult relationship will put strain on a relationship with a child.
I’ve gotten parenting advice from all kinds of places where managing people is involved. I’ve read books about employee engagement, improving manufacturing efficiency, gaming, teaching, and economics. All of these have valuable lessons about parenting because they all deal with people.
“But my children are SO difficult! I’ve tried everything!
I know we aren’t supposed to be “friends” with our kids but have you tried being likable? I’m not talking about doing everything your child says so they “like you.” I’m talking about, would you like the person you’re being around your kids? Would you like someone that’s sarcastic or yells at you? Would you like someone to threaten spanking you or is bribing you to do things you don’t want to do?
You are trying to teach your child how to be an adult in this world. Rita Pierson said it well during her TED Talk. She was working with another teacher that was complaining about her students. The teacher complained that her students weren’t learning from her. Pierson replied, “don’t you know kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”
That doesn’t mean kids who like you are going to do everything you say, but they’re going to do a lot more of what you say when they like you.
Let’s look at it from another angle.
Do you punish your friends when they do something wrong?
Do you bribe your friends to do mundane things like take your garbage out for you?
Do you nag your coworkers or redirect them when they get unfocused?
Not normally. You have a relationship with them. If it was a stranger you probably wouldn’t even talk to them, let alone ask them to do things.
Try this: The next time you have a challenging situation come up at home search for this online – “How do I develop a strong relationship with my kids?” I can guarantee nothing in the top results will say things like, “punish more, yell, bribe them for good behavior, etc.”
There’s some really great advice out there for parents who are asking that question. It’s the question that guides so much of my interactions with my own kids. Now, the way we seem them is just one part because we don’t just see kids. We talk to them. We approach them. We interact with them.
How We Approach Kids
Do less; observe more.Magda Gerber
Do you often wish you understood your kids’ behavior better? Then you ask them why they did things and they never know? Thoughtful observation is THE missing piece in fully understanding our children and part of how we approach them. We don’t tend to lose our patience with people when we understand them.
I’m always spending time observing our children. I pay attention to the way they get themselves cleaned up, the way they eat, the way they play, and the way they problem solve. These observations give me a clear understanding of what they are capable of. When I know what they’re capable of I don’t have inappropriate expectations when they try something new. When they get upset I’m not surprised by it because I generally know what they’re capable of. This understanding helps me develop my patience and helps me create rules that are more responsive to their needs.
They still surprise me though, but it’s almost always because they’ve shown me they’re capable of much more than I thought, not less. I start beaming with pride when I observe those moments.
This will take some practice. Your children, depending on the age, will wonder what you’re doing. You may feel the need to explain, “I’d like to get to know you better and I think observing you will help me do that.”
Here are a few reminders about observation to consider:
- Keep interference at a minimum. You want to understand this person and you can’t do that if your presence is influencing their behavior.
- Keep your observation non-judgmental. You’re not there to judge the behaviors, to encourage or stop them (unless a safety issue arises); you’re there to understand your child, what they’re capable of, interested in, and motivated by.
- No questions or conversation starters. Watch their eyes, posture, and focus. Try to imagine what it’s like to look at their life through their eyes.
Make this a regular practice. It doesn’t matter if you spend all day with them or only get to see them on the weekends. It’s not how much time you spend observing, it’s what percentage of your time with them you spend observing. I think anywhere from 10-15% of the time should be spent just observing them. At the very least you’ll be giving them more freedom. They’ll be more free from criticism, being bossed around, and nagging. You’ll feel more free too!
*Note* If your children are older, observe during something they already like doing. Then start to extend that practice into activities they don’t like after you get the hang of it.
The foundation of all healthy relationships
Curiosity impacts your patience because instead of assuming you know why a child is doing something, “He’s just doing this to get attention,” you’re allowing your mind to reserve judgment and wonder why he’s doing it. “I wonder if he’s feeling frustrated at me, I wonder if he’s tired, I wonder why he’s wanted me to read this book every day for the last three weeks…” It gives you a little more empathy for them and that always helps to calm anxiety and anger.
Here are some questions I ask my kids quite often:
“What are you working on here?”
“Which book would you like to read?”
“Would you like to tell me about your day?”
I also like to tell them what I think about things:
“I really liked the characters in that book. They were pretty funny.”
“I like this park because there are a lot of slides here and plenty of shade too.”
“I like that building you made. You worked really hard on it.”
*Note* This does not mean to ask questions all the time; keep questions to a minimum. Children will start to tune us out when we ask a lot of questions and that will stir our anger even more!
We’ve talked about how we see our kids and how that impacts our relationship with them and we’ve gone through a few key principles on how the way we talk and approach them impacts them as well. The third principle is all about the environment we create for them.
The Environment We Create
Being patient means saying no to the things that are truly important to us. I’ve often told other parents that our rules aren’t always for just to protect our belongings from the kids and the kids from themselves; our rules protect our children from our humanity or our anger. We are people too. We get angry, frustrated, impatient, selfish, and lazy among so many other things. We need to accept that as part of our nature and build rules that protect our children from us. But, rules can’t do that if we don’t stick to them. (How do you stick to rules without bribes and punishments? Message me this question and I have another article I can send you that will help.)
How do you come up with the rules though? Most of your friends aren’t practicing parenting in this way. You can’t just ask them what all their rules are, plus they may have slightly different values. Some of them will give you very strict guidelines down to the minute of what their kids are supposed to be doing; some will tell you to just let them be. The reason a lot of parenting systems aren’t as effective or don’t feel that great is because they have accounted for half of the relationship, you!
Take some time to write down your rules and then just edit it from there. How will you know what to edit? My wife and I often say, “anger is a clue to an unwritten rule.” It’s quite true. Any time we become angry with our children it is because we hold on to a rule that they’ve broken and we have not clearly communicated it.
Here are some examples of what I mean when I say “anger is a clue to an unwritten rule.”
Your child is running around in the kitchen. You’ve never said no running but you’re getting angry. That doesn’t mean running is wrong. Just tell them the places it’s acceptable.
Your child won’t stop talking while you’re working. Talking is good! You want to listen. You probably need some kind of rule for while you’re working. It could be how to get your attention or what kinds of things they can do while you’re working.
I’m not saying that every time you get angry means you need to have a rule. But, it is something worth paying attention to.
We try to keep our rules simple and easy to understand and remember. Keep rules simple and easy to understand. Easy to understand means easy to remember. Easy to remember means easy to follow.
Here are a few rules along with things I’ve said when the rule was broken:
No hitting: I’ve been there when this has happened before and I simply blocked him from hitting and said, “I won’t let you hit.” It’s only happened a handful of times away from us. I told him, “You’re not allowed to hit your sister. If you’re angry at her you can tell her but you cannot hit her.”
No stealing: “Your brother was playing with that and you took it away. You can wait until he’s done with it and then you can play with it.”
No touching without permission: I think this rule has only been broken a handful of times. We don’t hug or kiss our children without permission so it seemed very reasonable to them. If it did happen I’d probably say, “You started tickling her but you didn’t ask her. She may not want to be tickled.”
All of these are what I consider “hard” rules. There is no room for negotiation. Here are some examples of what I would call soft rules.
- What to do during free time.
- How loud to be.
- What music to listen to.
- What apps to use.
- Who to play with.
- How long to stay up.
- How much effort to give in school.
These things are important but it shouldn’t be us deciding it for our kids. It should be us talking about it with them. Remember, it’s us and our kids against the world, not against each other.
Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.II Corinthians 3:17
When you do these things for yourself you’ll be giving your child a big dose of what every child is craving for: Freedom. Why would their freedom impact your patience? Children fight less when there’s less authority to fight. You’ll have made your rules clear but outside of those rules you’ll be giving them a lot of free time to discover what they’re capable of. Isn’t that what life is all about?!
This isn’t just about freedom to do what they want, but to feel free to engage in a world they belong in. You know why they’ll feel like they belong? Because they feel like they belong with you. You are their world when they’re growing up. When we show them how to be free while the world is much smaller, they’re ready for it when they grow older.
Think about all the freedom you’ll be affording them.
- Time spent observing
- Time spent investing in their interests instead of getting in the way of them
- Time spent by yourself, taking care of yourself
You’ll be saying with your words and your actions, “I may not like everything you do, but I’m not required to. Because I’ll always love you. I see you as a person and I treat you that way.”
Warning: Implementing these practices will likely make you an odd parent! You’ll actually enjoy more time with your kids and your relationship will become more collaborative.
Remember: I was an advocate for harsher punishments! I loved using rewards in the classroom and swore by them for a short time. I was fully ready to use punishments and rewards at home.
Applying these principles completely changed the way I live. I don’t feel rattled when one of my kids has a tantrum or two siblings are arguing with each other. I don’t take it personally if they disagree with me. We just talk and live life together. We do chores together, we play together, we read together, and we even encourage disagreement. It truly is a blessing.
You might feel like you can’t do this. If you can’t then who can? NO ONE is better equipped to love your children than you, the person that is taking care of them. It doesn’t matter if you’re the parent, grandparent, aunt, or foster parent.
I wish you luck. Please let me know how this has helped you. I’d love to hear your story.
Have questions? Need more support? Reach out! Text 317-919-8900 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Want to dig deeper? Here are the books that have really helped me implement these ideas:
- Practical Parenting Advice – Janet Lansbury – No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame
- Understanding Why These Methods Work – William Glasser – Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom
- Aren’t Rewards Better than Punishments? Alfie Kohn – Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Starts, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes
If you like what you read but feel you could use more support then message me at 317-919-8900 or book a session through my Facebook page: @mott.philip