All too often in our parent roles, we feel like an ogre or the mean old witch, when we would much rather play the good fairy or the benevolent king. We have so many responsibilities, and want so much for our children, that we may feel under great pressure. How will we get our kids to behave properly if we don’t play the heavy?
Sometimes parents can’t help being cross, but there are tricks that can help turn horrible, tense situations into warm and happy ones. Learning such tricks is not easy, but just as a magician can learn a new trick or skill, so can we. And these skills can have a magical effect on our families.
These skills may sound as ordinary as a magic trick does after it is explained. Still, when you first try them, you may feel awkward and want to give up. But if you keep working with these skills, the magic will appear.
Trick 1: Noticing the Positive
When our oldest two sons were five and three years old, they went through a period that felt like forever but might have been less than a month, when it seemed they were constantly bickering, arguing, fighting. I began to get upset. I scolded, and lectured, and separated, and punished (especially the older boy), and rescued (especially the younger one), and asked, “Must you always fight?”
After the situation had gotten terrible, and everything I did seemed only to make it worse, I became desperate. In my desperation, I formed a desperate plan. I would start ignoring the horrible things my boys were doing and would try to notice something — anything — good that either one did.
At first I was limited to saying things like: “How nice, you walked through the door together” (without knocking each other into the door jamb), or “It was thoughtful of you to leave a cracker for your brother” (after one had eaten merely 12 of the 13 crackers in the box). Suddenly, though, both boys seemed to be doing lots of good things together. Their fighting subsided to an appropriate level, and I again thought they were wonderful kids.
What had happened? At the time I was so startled that I couldn’t figure it out. Today, I have three ideas.
- When I started looking for good points, I saw behavior I hadn’t noticed before.
- When I stopped getting in the middle of fights, fighting and arguing became less interesting to the boys.
- The boys, who were pretty smart, as are most 3- and 5-year-olds, realized that the game had changed. Now the way to get Mother’s attention was to do something good.
Whatever the reasons, focusing my attention on positive behaviors had brought about a wonderful change.
How is this possible? Can parents get children to behave better by spending more thought and energy encouraging good behavior and less energy on punishing bad? The way to find out is to try it yourself, but I myself am now convinced. Since my first trial, I have had many other experiences that have strengthened my belief in the power of focusing on desired behavior. I will mention just two examples.
The first example is an exercise used at a recent staff meeting to demonstrate the power of positive reinforcement. One person was asked to leave the room while the rest of us would plan a task for her. We decided she should walk into the room, turn right, go to the blackboard, pick up two erasers, stack them together, and put them on top of the director’s head. We could instruct her to perform this unlikely sequence of behaviors only by clapping whenever she made a correct move.
As she walked in the door we clapped, but when she began to go left we stopped. As she turned right, our clapping became enthusiastic until she passed the blackboard. When she moved back toward the blackboard, our clapping started again. So it went until by trial and error, informed only by our applause for each correct move, she finally, with great hesitation, put the two erasers on the director’s head. She then stood there, awed by what she had done. We joined in her amazement, surprised that we had directed her so easily.
My second example is from my counseling practice. A young couple whom I’ll call Nan and Keith Bock came to see me because they were much concerned about their children’s behavior and the serious unhappiness in their family.
As I talked with them, it became clear that everyone in this family was quick to criticize and complain, but no one praised or thanked the others. This is true in many families, probably to a lesser extent. It is easy to take for granted the helpful things one expects of spouse, children, or parents, but one is quick to express displeasure about shortcomings. In the Bock family, the amount of complaining was taking a serious toll.
I gave all the family members the task of starting a Collection of Appreciations. The Bocks taped a huge piece of newsprint on their kitchen door and tied a felt-tipped pen to the doorknob. I asked both parents and all three children to make a note of at least one thing they appreciated each day; the youngest child either drew a picture or dictated her words.
Each week the family brought in their latest collection to share with me. The first week there were few entries, but slowly new patterns began to emerge. After three weeks, one of mother’s notes said, “I appreciate it when you let me know what you appreciate!!!” and she certainly did. Indeed, within a month or two the simple practice of letting each other know what they liked seemed to change the whole tone of life in the Bock family.
Notice the positive. Notice, collect, and comment on all the good things you can about every family member. Treasure this collection and share it with your kids.
Trick 2: Listening
Suppose that Trick 1 turns things around in your house — and it may. Suppose your children begin to behave the way you always hoped they would. Would your family then “live happily ever after” as in the fairy tales?
This is highly unlikely, for two major reasons. First, your children, and you too, will continue to grow and change. New issues will arise. Confusions and surprises are part of growth.
Second, pressures from the outside world will intrude. No one grows up without some problems. Whether from their personal growth or from conflicts with friends, with school or with you, your children will continue to experience difficulties. What can you do? This is where the second trick comes into play.
Trick 2 is listening. Listening is the basis for all counseling and therefore is part of the training for therapists. For parents, it is the single most useful skill for handling tough situations. Parents also deserve training in listening.
People often say, “What do you mean by ‘learn to listen’? I listen all the time. With the racket in my house you’d have to be deaf not to hear the kids.” But Trick 2 is not just hearing our children’s noise, but actively listening to their spoken and unspoken comments in ways that are helpful.
To listen actively, the first step is to show with your eyes and your body that you are listening. Look at your child, and focus your attention on him or her.
As your child talks, respond just enough to let her know you really hear her, but do not interrupt what she wants to tell you. Usually a word or two, a syllable or even just a nod, is better than a whole sentence, and far better than a lecture.
Then, to check your impressions and to let your child know you understand, reflect back what you think he has said and what you think he feels.
For example, your son John furiously stomps into the room saying, “We just got a good game going, and then Bobby rode off to the park!” One good reflection might be, “It sounds like you’re really angry at Bobby for leaving.” While trying to summarize John’s words and the underlying feeling of his message, make your statement tentative. He will then feel able to tell you if you heard what he meant to say. He might say, “Yeah, we were right in the middle of a game and Bobby quit.” Or, “No, I’m not mad at Bobby. I’m mad because he’s going to the park, and you won’t let me go there.”
Listening attentively and reflecting back the essence of what you heard is difficult. We tend to half-listen while doing other things. Or, if we do get fully engaged, we may get so heavily involved that we ask lots of questions, give advice, and treat our child’s problem as our own. If we take over and tell our children what to do, we rob them of opportunities to develop their own problem-solving skills. With our support, and without our interference, kids can make their own surprisingly good decisions.
The following two thoughts serve as guides for good listening:
- I want to hear what you want to tell me. (I don’t need to ask questions that satisfy my own curiosity but may distract you from your main message.)
- I have faith in your ability to cope with your problem. (I can listen while you think through the best way to act, knowing that if I hold back on giving advice you are likely to come up with your own good solution.)
If your actions and words follow these two guidelines, your listening will send a powerful message to your child.
We all have heard the saying, “Don’t just stand there, do something.” Recognizing parents’ natural tendencies to try to fix things, a more helpful motto might be, “Don’t just do something, stand there.”
The skill of just being there and listening actively is indeed a “trick that makes parenting a treat.” It lightens the burden of feeling totally responsible for every part of your child’s existence. Sharing that responsibility with your children helps them develop their own problem solving skills, which in turn helps you feel more confident about their ability to handle things.
Children who expect to be heard rather than interrogated or lectured are willing to come to parents with important issues. Being involved in your child’s life as a caring and trusted parent is the best treat of all.