Good enough parenting

SECTION FOUR

THE CORE EMOTIONAL NEED FOR REASONABLE LIMITS

Chapter Fifteen

STAYING OUT OF THE VORTEX

A big part of avoiding “The Vortex” is related to laying a good foundation; therefore, the first seven of these ten steps are about what parents can do to set things up well. Once the foundation is in place, parents will usually find that conflict escalates much less often.

1. Give Clear Instructions (with Strategies in Place)

It is imperative that clear instructions are given to children as to what the limits are. Infants can understand the word “No”; toddlers can learn to pick up their toys. As children get older, it may be helpful to have regular family meetings to discuss household chores, limits, discipline, and responsibilities.

Having strategies in place during known and predictable times of stress can be very helpful in avoiding the vortex of conflict escalation. Roughly 150 families in California allowed researchers to place audio recording devices in their house for a sixteen-month period in hopes of discovering the most frequent times for conflict. No surprises on their findings—most arguments took place during the rush to get out of the house for school/work, right before bed, and at the end of the month when finances were getting tight!1 Therefore, it makes sense to think about clear instructions and strategies to prevent meltdowns before they happen.

We can surmise that the “hot spots” picked up by that study are the times when the pressure of parents’ expectations and children’s core needs are most likely to be in conflict. For example, the parent expects the child to be mindful of the need for everyone to get out of the house quickly in the morning, but the child may need time to get ready quietly and methodically, or to feel connected before beginning the day. The parents’ rushing triggers the child’s anxieties and prevents emotional needs from being met.

Different children have different issues and needs—not all children need limits for all things, only those that pertain to them personally. For example, the subject of how much time to spend playing computer games did not come up in conversations with our daughter, and budget concerns seldom came up with our son. Other issues are age-sensitive. Here are some issues you may want to discuss with your children, depending on your values and their ages (feel free to add your own!):

Issues

Expectations

Tidying toys away

How tidy?

Having friends over

How often and expected behavior?

TV on school nights

Allowed? How much? Which shows?

Bedtime

During weekdays vs. weekends?

Pocket money

Allowance?

Phone bills/Texts/Chats

Limits?

Morning

Waking up, leaving house on time?

Computer games

Which and how often?

Chores

Which and how often?

Family dinners

Regularity? (We recommend five times a week)

Curfews

Weeknights vs. weekends?

Movies/TV/Online content

Age-appropriate?

Music lyrics

Acceptable?

Internet access

What kind and how much?

Teenagers rooms

How tidy?

Moodiness and temper tantrums

Tolerance level? (Feelings are acceptable but not necessarily behavior—see Chapter Seven, section on accepting behavior vs. accepting feelings)

The big NOs

Decide what they will be for your family.

When children disobey because parents were not clear about limits, frustration sets in, and the vortex might be right around the corner. With some children, it may help for both parties to write out an agreement and keep a copy each, as a point of reference. (This is not meant to be legally binding!) When something is written down, it is amazing how it shuts down potential ambiguities. With the proliferation of smartphones, tablets and other gadgets, there is no reason why agreements about instructions and limits cannot be easily recorded.

2. Be United

When trying to prevent a vortex, it is important to make sure that mom and dad are on the same page. Since most of us seem to marry our opposite, this will take planning ahead and lots of discussion. At times, getting united on training and disciplining our children will feel a strategic battle discussion. Do not be discouraged. Persevere—it is worth it. Children are very smart; they know which parent is weak in a particular area and some kids will milk that weakness for all it’s worth, so be united!

3. Be Optimistic and Encouraging

Be optimistic when setting limits and encouraging when limits are followed. It is important to convey confidence in your child’s ability to follow limits and to recognize success at every opportunity. Sincere praise is more reinforcing than criticism. Shinichi Suzuki, founder of the world-famous music school, said, “Notice everything, focus on a few, mention one.”2

Here are some examples of the way we can encourage our children as they show signs of improvement in accepting limits:

You’re doing such a great job with your household chores—it really shows how much you care about our home.

The way you handled that conflict was brilliant—you showed empathy and humility but you also spoke the truth.

Your Mom and I noticed how much effort you have been putting in to get up on time when your alarm goes off and we are so proud of you.

The focus is not on the actual achievement, but on the effort and what it shows about their character and level of responsibility.

4. Role Play during Family Time

Another idea for pre-empting mistakes and teaching limits in a pro-active way is to role-play during family time or game nights. We particularly recommend this for children between ages two and ten.

Experts have proven that role-play helps children explore imagination, think in the abstract, acquire language skills, build social skills, problem solve, understand someone else’s perspective, learn essential life skills from adults, discover leadership skills, safely explore the world beyond, and acquire confidence and a sense of self.3

Children love to role-play mommy, daddy, teacher, fire fighters, and so forth. When role-play is based on principles such as honesty and obedience, the role-play becomes “the spoon full of sugar that helps the medicine go down”. If your children are below ten, do not let the opportunity slip away—using a myriad of different scenarios, you can role-play topics such as obedience, learning to say “no” properly, being polite, being respectful, not hitting but requesting politely, ignoring troublemakers instead of fighting, working together to get chores done, being hospitable with guests, and a host of other topics for your family.

In role-play you can demonstrate what to do and not to do. Sometimes you can have your children act out both parts; kids especially love to give feedback when mom and dad play the “bad-guy” roles! You will have lots of fun and the kids will get the picture about limits.

5. Engage Cooperation

This is another helpful tip from Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s book, How To Talk So Your Kids Will Listen and Listen So They Will Talk.4 As long as parents are already consistently practicing our first four steps mentioned above, they will find that “engaging cooperation” helps parents to avoid exasperation interactions and stay out of the vortex. Read the second chapter of their book to get the picture fully.

6. Maintain an Excellent Connection

We return to the first core emotional need again. When the connection is high, children want to please their parents, because, in the words of Elkind, the parents have fulfilled their part of a “loyal-commitment contract” and the children want to reciprocate.6 When parents expect children to comply with limits but do little to enhance their emotional connection, they are inadvertently saying that this contract applies to the children, but not to them. In essence, the parents do not need to follow the rules, but the children must. This becomes a problem for two reasons, the first: when children feel the “contract” is broken, they will feel exasperated and this may result in rebellion and retaliation. This often shows up in their refusal to accept limits they are given, especially later on in their adolescent years, which inevitably leads to the vortex. When a father, for example, hardly spends time with his children, yet stays on top of them about their schoolwork, their computer usage or their bed times, the children will rebel (either inwardly or outwardly). Often when asked, they will not even know where their rebellion comes from. Maintaining a deep connection will inhibit this kind of rebellion from taking root in their hearts. As long as we are meeting the core emotional need for connection and acceptance, then mild disapproval and mild anger will already be a form of discipline because they care about their relationship with their parents.5

Secondly, this kind of role modeling will become a breeding ground for the development of the entitlement lifetrap, in which mutual reciprocity is not respected. This lack of reciprocity may come out in their relationship with their teachers and even with peers. Be in touch with their highs and lows, have dinners regularly, play with them and spend time with them, including regular one-on-one times with each child. Passing down limits is so much easier when the connection is healthy. (Remember, this is about “good enough” parenting, and mistakes of the past can usually be healed by careful attention to the need for connection and acceptance as children develop.)

7. Revise the Rules Periodically

While children must learn to abide by rules and limits, parents need to be aware that some rules will need to be amended as time goes by as children grow older and demonstrate good behavior. Children need to know that they are able to earn their parents’ trust and that with greater trust they will enjoy greater privileges and more freedom. This is also related to meeting the core emotional need for healthy autonomy and performance. Examples may include extending curfews, bedtimes, and giving more pocket money, to name a few.

Sometimes rules need to be revisited because parents may have been too rigid with both limits and consequences. Other times, this may not be the case—the child may simply be chafing against the consequences of reasonable expectations and limits, which is all part of the learning experience.

8. Give Options and a Second Chance

When children misbehave, it is sometimes helpful for parents to give them awareness by alerting them to the undesirable act and saying, “Would you like to try that again?” This gives children a chance to pause and take stock of what they have done, and make a decision to correct themselves. It is like Round Two of engaging cooperation. If the children still choose not to, consequences should come into play. However, before they even get there, give them a chance. (Exceptions would be if they were caught stealing, lying, or doing something in your “Absolute No” list—or doing something dangerous). See vignette below:

Eight-year-old Sheila comes through the door and drops her bag on the living room floor. Daydreaming about trying out her new colored pencil set, she hurriedly heads for the stairs.

Mother (smiling): Hello, sweetheart, how was your day?

Sheila (quickly): Not now, Mom, I’m in a hurry.

Mother (politely): Rushing for the bathroom?

Sheila (impatiently): I wanna try out my new pencils!

Mother (kindly): Did you forget something, dear?

Sheila looks confused. The mother stares directly at the bag, and then smiles back at her daughter.

Sheila (rolling her eyes just a bit): Mom, I’ll get it later.

Mother (still kind and smiling): Would you like to try that again?

Sheila (surrenders): Yes, Mommy . . .

Sheila got the point, picked up her bag and took it to her room—she actually knew she wasn’t supposed to leave her things lying around in the common areas of the house. Two minutes later she was in her room, at her desk, doodling away, and humming a song. If she does it again soon, her mom could mete out consequences or it could be the subject of a role-play during a family meeting.

Constant repetition of this simple, yet powerful principle makes a big difference. Children forget all the time. If consequences are imposed immediately, it causes tension in the house and strains the relationship between parent and child. Parents who tend to exasperate their children—especially by belittling, being punitive, being perfectionistic, or being controlling—should take note. Give them at least one other chance. Learn to be patient. Do not resort to consequences straight away, unless they are older and the misbehavior is something very serious.

9. Allow Consequences to Take Effect

In the context of teaching children discipline, consequences should be related to undesirable behavior or attitudes that can either cause harm to the children or to others. Learning from natural consequences helps children be responsible. Rudolf Dreikurs highlights both natural and logical consequences in his groundbreaking book entitled, Children: The Challenge.6

When parents do not allow their children to reap what they sow, either by jumping in to protect their children from consequences or by failing to provide consequences, they are doing untold harm to their children’s character. We believe, if used properly, consequences are an effective way of halting undesirable behavior, preventing a vortex of conflict escalation, improving children’s overall behavior, helping children take their parent’s words and instructions seriously, and helping children realize how serious their misbehavior is to themselves and others.

Consequences work with adults, too. Have you ever received a speeding ticket? How did that affect your driving thereafter? Have you ever paid a credit card bill late only to have a hefty penalty imposed? Have you ever been conned by a “get rich quick” scheme? Consequences work for people of all ages. We prefer that children learn the lessons when they are young, before the consequences become more serious.

Natural Consequences vs. Logical Consequences

Natural consequences are about children reaping what they have sown as a direct result of their behavior, not as a result of a penalty or consequence imposed by a parent later. Here are some scenarios to illustrate natural consequences:

• If children lose their mobile phones, they will not have one until they buy a new one.

• If children do not study for their exams, they will get poor grades.

• If children do not get up on time in the morning, they will be late to school.

• If children are mean to their friends, people will not enjoy playing with them.

• If children spend all their pocket money, they will have no money to spend until they receive their next allowance.

One caveat—do not use natural consequences when the outcome of an undesired behavior will harm the child, e.g., crossing the street without holding the parent’s hand or touching an electrical socket.

Logical consequences result in children having to face the music when they break a rule, in ways previously established by the parents and children, perhaps in a family meeting. Such consequences should be talked about and decided collectively with the children. This way, parents cannot be accused of being unfair later. With logical consequences, they do not follow automatically, but come when parents intervene and offer discipline, as seen in these real life examples.

Jim was an easy-going kid who had not gotten in much trouble over the years. However, around the age of 14, he became extremely fond of online games, at the expense of doing homework. Eventually, his teachers commented on his underachieving performance. His parents established rules for playing: only after his schoolwork was satisfactorily done and only for a limited time, failing which, his laptop would be taken away for two weeks. Jim’s parents caught him breaking the rules and followed through with the promised consequences. While it came as a shock to Jim that his parents meant what they said, subsequently his behavior greatly improved.

While Karla (10) was swimming with a group of friends, a girl from another group made catty remarks to Karla about how her bathing suit made her look fat. Karla felt humiliated, ashamed, and angry. She pulled the rude girl’s hair, got out of the pool, and threw the girl’s handbag into the water. The friend’s parents quickly intervened, and told Karla’s parents about it when they arrived. After hearing both sides of the story and empathizing with her humiliation, Karla’s parents told her they would decide on the consequences after thinking about it, but she would certainly pay to replace the handbag and the contents of the bag with her allowance, which would probably take four months. Later they barred her from parties and sleepovers for the next two months. This was a wake up call for Karla, who found it hard to control her temper; her self-control greatly improved after that time. (Effort was also made to help the girls reconcile but the other party wasn’t interested. Karla had to learn that even though the other girl “started it”, it did not give her the right to behave the way she did.)

When administering consequences:

• Watch your tone - A proper tone is not just a good idea—it is crucial in communication. It is okay to show disappointment when misbehavior is demonstrated, but the tone should not move from indignation to rage and contempt. Otherwise, the child will face the added components of shame and humiliation plus resentment and bitterness. Parents need to be mindful of the exasperation interactions they tend toward, such as Belittling, Punitiveness, or Pessimistic.

• Exercise the consequence immediately - This is especially important for younger children. If there was negative behavior, the agreed-upon consequences should be put into effect immediately—quickly and calmly.

• Persevere if change does not happen - Often parents give up when change does not happen, in which case they need to revise the consequences and perhaps even intensify them. Eventually, if administered correctly, consequences will have an effect.

• Ensure consequences fit the misbehavior – This is an important principle parents need to understand when deciding on possible consequences. If the level of seriousness is small, then the consequence should also be small. Parents who tend toward Punitive, Controlling or Belittling interactions often come up with consequences that are out of proportion to the level of misbehavior. Those who tend to exasperate by being Overly Permissive will have the opposite problem.

10. Reconcile with Meaning Attribution and Closure

After consequences have been administered, parent and child should take time to sit down and evaluate the entire scenario. Repair must be done satisfactorily—leading to forgiveness and reconciliation. Without proper closure emotionally, resentment and bitterness will set in and cause disconnection between the parent and child (see Chapter Twenty). As mentioned before, if repair is done well, conflicts between parent and child will have a benign effect on the mental and emotional health of children and parents.