The other day we were at the playground enjoying the gorgeous weather we’ve been having lately. There was a little boy, probably about 4 years old, with his mom. They were hanging out on the sidewalk with a big pile of sidewalk chalk and a giant spread of chalk “work” on the sidewalk in front of them.
As I stood nearby watching my children play, I couldn’t help but overhear what was going on with the mom and her son. On the surface it was just a mom working with her almost kindergartener, trying to help him learn his letters and numbers. But what I noticed as I kept listening was that the mom was constantly talking, constantly directing, and repeatedly criticizing the boy. Her words were said in a kind tone and she was trying to make it fun; it was very clear that she was working really hard to lead and guide him in his learning. But from the outside looking in, it was easy for me to see that the poor boy was probably feeling discouraged, bored, annoyed, and disappointed.
The outsiders perspective is always so clear and easy to see isn’t it? I just couldn’t believe how obnoxious the mom was and why she wasn’t noticing what was so clear to me (and likely everyone else at the park). She was constantly giving orders and ideas to her child without even giving his young brain a chance to keep up with her requests. She was directing the entire activity instead of allowing him to use his creativity. She was doing all of the talking; I never heard him say a single word! And it was one of the first beautiful days after a long winter, instead of getting to run and play with the kids all around him, he was stuck on the sidewalk trying to keep up with this “lesson” his mom was trying to teach him.
As these thoughts hung with me over the following days, I started to be more aware of my own parenting skills and habits. I noticed when I barked continuous orders to my kids without giving them the chance to register my requests and respond. I noticed when I criticized their work and took over instead of helping them learn how to improve. I heard how often I did all of the talking and simply expected them to comply. I recognized the times when I forced my kids to do what I wanted instead of allowing them to pursue things they were interested in. I am that annoying mom at the park.
I truly believe that the mom at the park was doing the absolute best she knew how. Her intentions were great. She loves her child immensely and she’s doing all that she can to help him grow and learn and become a successful, kind, person. She is just like you and me. We’re doing the best we can.
But this new awareness has got me thinking and researching and trying some new things. I’ve realized that raising kids who are independent, creative, ambitious, compassionate, loving, and generous takes a whole lot of work. It will take awareness and intention, but importantly, it will not include overwhelming control.
If we want kids who can think for themselves, we have to give them the chance to think. If we want kids who can speak up for themselves, we have to let them have a voice. If we want kids who will stand up for what they believe in, we have to allow them to disagree with us. If we want our kids to passionately pursue things that interest them, we have to give them the freedom to do just that.
Here are a few parenting skills that will help us in using less control and more freedom, while still remaining the “parent in charge”.
Listen more than you talk.
I know, it’s hard to get kids to talk sometimes, but I think part of that problem might stem from the fact that they are “talked at” a lot but rarely given opportunity to speak freely themselves, especially when interacting with adults. We ask a few questions here and there to get the information we need, but once we’ve got our answer we move on to the next item on our to do list.
But what if we were to stop talking so much, stop focusing on ten things at once, and simply listen to our kids, and ask questions, and listen some more, and probe deeper, and keep listening? Not to offer great advice, not to solve problems, not to lead and guide, just to let them be heard. I think they might talk more and we might learn a lot from them.
Remember what it’s like to be a kid? What were the things that frustrated you the most as a kid? What experiences stick out the most in your memory? Think about your children’s lives and consider what might be frustrating to them. Put yourself in their shoes. Try to imagine yourself in your kid’s day to day life.
Sure, we are smarter and we do know more about the world than they do. We do want to lead and guide them along the right path. But when we stop to consider their perspective, it just might lead us to have a little more compassion, a little more flexibility, and a little more understanding, and that can go a long way in helping us work with our kids instead of just working on them.
Praise what you want to raise.
You may have heard this described as “what you focus on will expand”. If all you are doing is criticizing bad behavior, your kids will only think about the bad behavior, their frustrations that they can never doing anything right, their anger that they got caught, and their sadness that they disappointed you, again. It ends up creating a continuous cycle of more bad behavior because that’s all anyone ever thinks or talks about.
So stop talking about it, stop noticing it, stop focusing on it. Instead notice the good behavior, recognize the great choices, and encourage the things that you want your kids to do more often. If you focus on the good things you see, you will start to see more good things.
Help your child see the value of your requests, to them.
This is one of the first lessons in persuading other people. We often think about this in business. If we want to sell a new product to one of our customers we start by showing them the value. We make it clear to our customers how our product can improve their lives and then they buy, and it ends up being a win-win for everyone.
At home, we often forget this important piece of life and we simply order our children around expecting them to comply to our every demand without question. But we are raising small humans. And small humans are just like big humans, the most important question they ask themselves is “What’s in it for me?” Take the time to help your children recognize the value of your requests. Help them see the value in cleaning their rooms, eating their vegetables, and doing their homework.
It will take more work to teach your kids value. You may have to reconsider some of your requests until you can come up with a valuable reason, but by teaching kids the “why” behind our requests and helping them recognize the value in them, they will become intrinsically motivated (coming from inside of them) to keep doing the things we want them to keep doing. We won’t have to keep reminding them, threatening them, and harping on them everyday forever and ever (extrinsic motivation). That’s a win-win in my book.
Parenting is hard. We will all fail and have bad days. What started as me criticizing (to myself) another mother led to self-examination and awareness of my own faults. Mommas, we are all in this together. No one knows what they are doing in this parenting game. We are trying the best we can. Each day we learn, we grow, and we start again. Give yourself grace, allow yourself the opportunity to grow and learn from your mistakes, and keep trying. Our kids deserve the effort it takes.
Which one of these parenting skills do you think will be the most helpful with your kids?
I recently read How to Win Friends and Influence People (affiliate link, read our disclosure here) by Dale Carnegie, and was amazed at how many nuggets of wisdom were in the book that applied to my parenting. If you haven’t read it yet, I would highly recommend it.