3 Behaviors That Have Helped Me Be a Better Parent

It is understandable why “5 Phrases That Will INSTANTLY Make Your Kids Stop Begging” was trending on Facebook. Catchy title. What parent has not had to struggle with whiny kids? The article describes how to use five phrases to take charge and be the parent in control. I felt increasingly uncomfortable as I read. There is something wrong with this parent’s approach and I knew it was more than just her smugness but I couldn’t put a finger on it. I shared it with my husband.

“It’s all about the mom,” he said simply. “Where is the child in all this?”

And he was right. Take the first phrase writer Heather Steiger recommends to use when your child asks you for something: “Ask and answered.” It sounds very much like lawyer-speak, which when used, often makes people feel small and disparaged. The other four phrases are equally dismissive: “I’m done discussing this.” “This conversation is over.” “Don’t bring it up again.” “The decision has been made. If you bring it up again, there will be a consequence.” They are essentially just saying one thing: I do not care about what you think or feel. Or more rudely, “Shut up.”

Steiger says that after years of using these phrases with her 4-year old, she is “reaping the benefits everyday with no tears or fighting back.” I have absolutely no doubt that these phrases work as Steiger intended and that they keep her 4-year old quiet. What I am not so sure about is the kind of relationship Steiger has with her child. If children feel that their parents do not listen to their wants and that their needs are not valid, what will make them think differently about approaching their parents about other more important things later on in life? None of those five phrases Steiger recommends say “Talk to me. I’m listening.” By the time Steiger wants her child to talk, it may be too late. Solid, safe, secure relationships are built early in life.

I know very well the attraction for quick fixes like the phrases Steiger recommends. The ironic thing though is, that talking and listening to your child does not take up much more time and additionally leaves both parties feeling better about themselves. Recently, our family took a trip to an island off Okinawa for a wedding. We were hungry when we landed and decided to grab a quick bite at a restaurant in the airport before catching the shuttle to the hotel. After eating, my husband cleaned up our table. I grabbed the plastic cups and tossed them into the trash. My 3- year old son who was busy chatting with his sister up until then suddenly looked at the empty table and got upset. “Where’s my cup? I want to throw my cup by myself!”I explained that I threw it away already and that we were in a hurry to catch the shuttle. He was not hearing any of it. He wanted his cup back and would not budge. I weighed my options. I could:

a.) Stick my hand into the trash and pull out his cup. Yuck.

b.) Get him a new plastic cup just so he could throw it into the trash. A waste.

c.) Put my foot down in the same fashion Steiger recommends and say “Enough of this nonsense.” We could carry him kicking and screaming and hope his fit ends before we board the shuttle.

I have done similar in the past and I know any of those options would make me feel resentful and angry.

I tried a completely different tactic. I knelt down so we were face to face. I said, “You’re really really upset because Mama took your cup, is that right?” He nodded solemnly. “You wanted to throw your own cup, huh?” He nodded again, suppressed a sob, and wiped away his tears. “I’m really sorry, Honey. Mama didn’t know you wanted to throw your own cup. Maybe next time, I should ask you first before throwing anything. But right now, we have to catch the shuttle to the hotel. Is that okay?” He nodded again and we walked hand in hand. It made a world of difference — I felt connected and closer to my son.

Dr. John Gottman, who has behind him more than 40 years of solid, scientific research on relationships, families and parenting styles, says that if there is one thing parents could do for their child that would make a difference both now and in the future and help them be successful in life, it is this: To build the child’s emotional intelligence, the ability to understand and manage their feelings in a positive way so that they can eventually regulate their own behavior. Parents nurture emotional intelligence through what Dr. Gottman calls Emotion Coaching (vs. emotion dismissing or emotion disapproving). I have learned three wonderful behaviors from Dr. Gottman that have dramatically changed the way I parent.

1. I try to be aware of my children’s emotions and recognize this as an opportunity to connect with them.

Dr. Gottman says:“Emotion Coaching Parents recognize a child’s expressions of emotion as an opportunity for connection. “

At the beginning of the year, my daughter’s class was learning how to spin a top with a rope, a traditional Japanese New Year’s activity. She got pretty good at it. Her class was going to have a top spinning contest. As we were walking to school the morning of the contest, she said to me: “I’m going to win the contest today.” I cautioned her that yes, she might but then she also might not.  She brushed my comment aside and said firmly that she was going to win. Later that day when I picked her up from school, she had the saddest face I had ever seen. I could have used this as an “I told you so” moment and lecture her on managing expectations. Instead I held my tongue. Over dinner, we asked her about the contest. She moved to my side of the table, sat on my lap and cried her disappointment. As I rocked her shaking body that suddenly felt smaller, I remembered my own failures and losses and I wept along with her. How precious to be given this gift of letting me hold her raw emotions. Listening to her feelings was the one important step to connecting with her.

Sometimes, awareness of children’s feelings is enough. My husband caught my son playing with a sharp pair of fabric scissors even though we have explicitly told him not to. My son dropped the scissors, turned red in the face, and started sobbing hard. My husband simply picked him up and hugged him. There was no need for scolding; my son was already remorseful and that was punishment enough.

2. I  remind myself that kids also need to save face.

“They’re just kids.” I’ve heard people say, in one form or another, as if children have a lesser sense of dignity or desire to be treated with respect. The opposite is true. Children often want to make decisions in their own terms, not because someone told them to. This explains why my son will not share a toy with his sister when I tell him to share, but five minutes later, he will say “Here you go” and give the toy to her.

One morning when my daughter was moping in a corner. My husband and I called out to her to join us for breakfast at the table. She did not budge. We called her a couple more times and she intentionally turned away from us so we decided to let her be. Later, she stormed into the room where we were eating, mad that we started without her. We reminded her that we called her several times. She said, “I didn’t hear you call me.” We took what she said at face value. Later my husband and I discussed this incident. Should we have pointed out her “lie” and insist that she tell the truth? Clearly, her version of reality was not malicious but helps her save her face. Because she claimed not to have heard us, she can justify her anger. We decided that we made the right decision affirming the reality that she needed in order to save face.

These days, my 3-year old has a charming way to own his decisions. When he makes a choice that is unacceptable (for example, go out in the cold without a jacket), he says “Moyika (Japanese for “It can’t be helped”), I change my mind. I want to wear my jacket now.” He sometimes follows this up with, “I can change my mind right?” Yes, you can son.

3. I grant in fantasy what I cannot grant in reality. 

My kids are not exempt from the begging that Steiger talks about in her article. I do not believe in giving children everything they ask for. I do want them to learn how to wait and that there are limits to resources ,but sometimes, it is hard for young children (like mine) to understand that. Instead of a quick “No,” a more loving approach that, according to Dr. Gottman, works especially well with children under 8, is engaging their imagination. When my children want something I cannot or do not want to buy for them, I acknowledge their want and say, “That is a very cool toy. We can’t buy it today but tell me, what do you like it about it? What would you do if we had this at home? Would you play it together with the Legos you already have? Do you think it would float in the bath?” etc. We have fun just talking about what we would do and before I know it, my children say, “Maybe next time, we can get it no, Mommy?” and move on. “Maybe we’ll buy it when it’s cheaper!,” chirped my daughter on one occasion. And this is how we can walk into a toy store and walk out without buying a single thing and still have a grand time together.

Storytelling is another a way to engage in fantasy play. My kids love to hear stories about two kids I made up  named Giggles and Chuckles who seem to live lives parallel to theirs, except they get to do what my kids would love to do. The stories are silly and the plot lines will not pass literary standards but my kids ask me to tell these stories again and again. The interesting thing is my daughter has managed to use this fantasy play her own way — she has made up imaginary friends who get to do the fun and crazy stuff she does not do. If she wants to eat chocolate before dinner and I say she can have chocolate after dinner, she says, “Oh but in Yuki-chan’s house, they eat lots of chocolate before dinner!”

I find these three things require a little more effort than remembering catchphrases but they help me to nurture a more loving relationship with my children.

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One response to “3 Behaviors That Have Helped Me Be a Better Parent

  1. Great post! Our approach is similar. I have noticed some parenting advice that aims at shutting kids down and controlling them, which may get the short-term results people want, but it seems like an unpleasant way to go about it.

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