12 powerful parenting phrases that make talking to kids easier
by Amanda Morgan
Are you the perfect parent? Chances are probably not. But possibly, secretly, do you really want to be the perfect parent? I know I do.
Most adults (my children included) can tell you all the things their parents did wrong. Some parents definitely qualified as Toxic Parents (a term coined by therapist and author Susan Forward). Other parents, well, they were somewhere on the scale between tolerable and pretty good—all things considered.
No matter where our own parents fell on that scale, many of us want to do better than them. That’s a good thing. But in wanting to do better some of us fall into the perils of perfectionism:
- We have unrealistic expectations for ourselves and others.
- We focus on what we did wrong—not on what we did right.
- We self-criticize and may be highly critical of others.
- Criticism from others (or even helpful suggestions) may increase our feelings of inadequacy. We may respond with defensiveness and hostility. We may be unwilling to admit being wrong.
Full disclosure: I’m a recovering perfectionist. But I’m also an educator. I believe in improvement. I believe people can learn new skills and change their behavior.
As an educator, I also know that learning takes having access to accurate information and getting encouragement from others. It takes time and practice. It takes making mistakes and then learning from those mistakes. For some reason, when it comes to parenting we think we ought to know how to do it just because we want to. After all, we can identify all those things our parents did wrong.
Here are some ideas that have helped me focus on improvement and step back from perfectionism:
Asking myself: is the issue one of health and safety?
Are the goals my goals or those that others think are important? One study found that parents with “self-oriented parenting perfectionism” had higher parenting satisfaction, whereas those with “societal-oriented parenting perfectionism” were more stressed. Parenting Perfection and Parental Adjustment
Noticing what is working well and what got done. Being specific. Praising myself and others.
Admitting to messing up, apologizing, making amends if possible, thinking about how to do it better next time.
Asking myself, what do I need to do this—information, encouragement, practice?
Perhaps what is most helpful is accurate and honest information about how other people have succeeded in doing what I would like to do. No one is exactly like me, of course, but parents share many things in common. Realizing that others struggle with challenges and hearing how others dealt with similar situations can spur me in problem-solving, even if their solutions are not the same as mine.
Several years ago researchers Alison Gropnik, Andrew Meltzoff, and Patricia Kuhl wrote The Scientist in the Crib: What early learning tells us about the mind. In it, they examine and explain how children develop their understanding of the world from birth through the preschool years. Babies, they explain, act like scientists: they observe, investigate, form hypothesis, and test them. And, like good scientists, they try to replicate the results of their tests. Simply put: babies learn from everything that happens and from everything they make happen. Baby throws food on the floor and learns about gravity (and, in some cases, that dogs like to eat some kinds of people food). Baby also learns whether Dad finds this behavior amusing or annoying or doesn’t notice it. Baby repeats the experiment—are the results the same? What if I try it tomorrow? What if I try it with Mom? The experiments and the learning go on and on and on.
The experimentation doesn’t end in preschool, it continues—potentially throughout our lives. The drive to learn and figure out how the world works is powerful. And when we figure something out for ourselves—what a rush!
The other day I reflected on a child’s innate need to learn while watching a seven-year old riding his bike. He was with his younger brother, a friend and some neighbors. He was meeting lots of needs: exercise, fun, socialization. He was experimenting with what he could do with his body while riding a bike and learning about physics. He also conducted another experiment by riding off briefly with one of the neighbors without checking with his mother (or his friend) first. An experiment in social relationships and impulsive actions.
When he returned, his mother reminded him of the ground rules for bike riding, redirected him to some other activities for a while, and explained that he would not be able to ride his bike if he didn’t follow the rules. She also pointed out that riding off with the neighbor was rude to his friend.
She didn’t over-react to the incident (he is a sensitive, conscientious child, and lives in a safe neighborhood).
She didn’t embarrass him.
But she didn’t ignore it, either—she gave him information that would help him to learn.
That’s another great thing about babies (and all of us)–we can learn from other people. We don’t need to experience everything ourselves.
Many parenting advisers talk about kids testing the limits of parental rules. Unfortunately, this is often phrased in terms of “parents vs kids” or “you have to show them who’s boss.” But, most of the time, kids are not challenging parental power or out to annoy their parents—they are experimenting with how things work. They are trying to learn.
All of us learn best when we respect and trust the people who teach us. We learn best when our teachers have confidence in our ability to learn—when they don’t over-react to our mistakes or embarrass us. We learn best when our teachers have patience and treat us with respect.
Children need parents for guidance and protection and limits and supervision–and yes, they annoy us a lot and we often do over-react. We’re experimenting, too. And learning, and learning, and learning.
This can be really hard on families with children and teens. Not to mention every other person.
Here are a few strategies that have helped me as an adult and a few ideas I’ve found online. Please share your own strategies.
Start now by moving bedtime a little bit earlier each night—if you have a lead time of five nights (Monday-Saturday) then 12 minutes earlier each night gets you to an hour.
Some people recommend simultaneously waking up earlier as well. I’d suggest NOT doing that or at least not doing that until closer to Sunday. My rationale is that it’s better to get as much sleep as you can in advance of the change. Many of us are already short on sleep. See waking up strategies below.
Practice healthy sleep habits:
Fresh air and exercise during the day
De-stressing/relaxing times during the day and/or evening
Shift meal schedule gradually as well (if possible) It isn’t just bedtime and morning that gets thrown out of whack by the time change. If you can’t move meals try to incorporate more snacks (healthy ones and maybe some high tryptophan foods for dinner and bedtime snacks). See https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/food-and-sleep
One hour before you want to get to sleep: No screens. No full spectrum, LED or fluorescent lights. Use a yellow, amber or red bulb for reading (see https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-topics/how-blue-light-affects-kids-sleep). Red Christmas lights work well as nightlights. Googling “blue light blocking products” will get you to many sources of bulbs. Candlelight probably works as well, but please be careful!
Change your clock during the day on Saturday (if at all possible). I got this idea from crossing the Atlantic Ocean by ship. Going east, they changed the time at noon (since they had total control over the schedule, this was possible). I don’t know if part of it was psychological but it really helped. The change made dinner earlier so that also contributed.
Waking up. Just as light interferes with going to sleep, it helps us wake up. Gradually increasing the light in the morning will help you (and the kids) wake up. There are products “dawn simulators” that provide this (sorry to keep you Googling and spending money but it can be a good investment-some are less expensive than others so research options). Or you can do this manually for your children.
Make morning a pleasant time: snuggling, talking, reading with your child can make for a happier transition. Breakfast in bed anyone? Allow enough time for morning routines.
The real key to happy waking up is getting enough sleep the night before. Most of us don’t get enough sleep so this is a good time to focus on more sleep. Here are some more guidelines and resources.
Sleepless in America by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. She also has a website with a free download of sleep suggestions http://www.parentchildhelp.com/Resources.cfm
Also on ParentingSuccessNetwork
A friend commented on my post about being friends with your children (“Why Can’t We Be Friends?” ). She was concerned that friendship might undermine the “ability to be authoritative and a disciplinarian within the parent-child relationship.“
Her comment got me thinking about authority. Like most words, authority can mean several things: having power, being in charge, being an expert, and/or being a reliable source of information. Our own experiences with authority have a big effect on how we use—or don’t use authority in parenting our children. We may have experienced authority that was used in an appropriate, fair, beneficial way. Or we may have experienced authority that was used in an unjust, arbitrary, or abusive way.
What does beneficial authority look like? Beneficial authority is reasonable, respectful, and responsible.
Reasonable: Reasonable authority is based on rules and there are clear reasons for the rules. Most of us have an internal set of rules based on safety, social customs, and family values. Often we aren’t consciously aware of what those rules are or why they exist. So it’s useful to examine our internal rules and decide if we want to keep them, add new ones, or discard some. Examining the rules on a regular basis, with your partner, and as a family, will help to keep the rules reasonable and make them easier to enforce.
It’s easier to enforce rules when you yourself believe them to be important and fair. When children have agreed to and even helped come up with the rules, it is even easier. Easier—but still not easy. Remember that no matter how fair and reasonable rules are, sometimes it is extremely difficult to follow them.
Respectful: Respectful authority enforces the rules in a way that preserves the child’s dignity and physical and emotional safety. Parent educator Jody McVittie describes this as being kind and firm at the same time. Kind and firm means that parents can empathize with the child’s distress while still enforcing the rule: “It’s hard to stop playing when you are having so much fun. Now it’s time to say goodbye to the slide and go home for lunch.”
It’s upsetting when a child cries or says, “I hate you!” Like many parents, I often gave in, tried to placate, or got angry with my children. It was (and sometimes still is) difficult to accept their emotional reactions without trying to suppress or dismiss them. But acknowledging an emotion is actually more respectful, both to the child and to the adult, and often makes it easier to enforce the rule.
Being respectful to our children, even when we are angry or disappointed with them, also shows them how to be respectful to us and to others.
Responsible: Parental authority is valuable because it helps parents to protect and guide their children. Children need protection and guidance, and parents are responsible for providing it. But children also need opportunities to do things for themselves and to learn from the consequences of their actions—both positive and negative. Sometimes the responsible parent stands back.
Determining exactly how much protection and guidance is needed in a given situation can be tricky. Different cultures and families (and individuals within those families) have different standards. Children have unique temperaments requiring more or less use of authority. Responsible use of authority requires frequent assessments of a child’s needs and abilities and of the environment surrounding the child and the family.
Staying reasonable and respectful helps parents to determine whether standing back or stepping in is more responsible when challenges occur.
Authority that is reasonable, respectful, and responsible is effective. It helps children grow and parents stay sane. It’s authority we can both respect.
In many parenting books and articles, I’ve come across the statement “you are not your child’s friend.” It always makes me wonder what the author’s definition of “friend” is. Because I do consider—and have almost from the moment they were born—my children as my friends. Why? Here is how I define friendship:
A friend is someone who I know and who knows me
A friend is someone I’ve experienced events or activities with
A friend is someone I can have fun with
A friend is someone I have common interests with
A friend is someone who I help and who helps me
A friend is someone I can share joys and sorrows with
A friend is someone I can trust
Here are some of the definitions of “friend” in the dictionary:
- a person attached to another by feelings of affection or personal regard.
- a person who gives assistance; supporter
- a person who is on good terms with another; a person who is not hostile:
- a member of the same nation, party, etc.
So why would some parenting experts advise against friendship? I assume it is because some friendships are unhealthy; and because friends often play a role (such as a confidant) that would be inappropriate in a parent-child relationship.
Examples of unhealthy “friendships” include:
- “Friendships” in which the fear of losing affection overrides concern for the safety or well-being of the other person or for yourself.
- Inappropriately exclusive and/or controlling “friendships.”
- “Friendships” where the needs of one person dominate, to the detriment of the other person.
These “Friendships” are familiar; most of us have been involved in one or more of them, particularly as we were growing up and experimenting with how to be in a relationship with another person. These mistakes helped us learn what not to do as a friend. Sometimes relationships survived these mistakes and became healthy friendships, other times we were able to form healthy friendships with new people.
What helped us to learn what to do as a friend? It’s not enough to learn what not to do. Parents who have healthy friendships with other adults provide a model for their children. I believe that having a healthy friendship with your child also helps him or her to learn about friendship.
So what is a healthy parent-child friendship?
- There are appropriate boundaries—the parent is still the parent and provides protection and guidance.
- The child is allowed to be a child, not forced into an adult role.
- The parent has adult friends and healthy relationships with them.
- The parent encourages and facilitates the child’s contact with and friendship with other children (and with other adults when appropriate).
My friendship with my children evolved as they grew into adults. There are still boundaries I’ve set, and additional boundaries they have set. I still have the urge to provide protection and guidance to them— they usually tolerate this, sometimes gently reprimand me about it, and occasionally request it. Our friendship will evolve still further as I age. I have good memories of times of fun and friendship with my own parents before their deaths. I hope one day my children will have similar memories of our friendship.
Originally published 3/3/15 on Parenting Success Network
Ask, Don’t Tell
Asking questions can help parents establish good communication with their children. Questions can help children develop life skills. But some questions may make a child reluctant to answer—or to answer truthfully. Here are some pointers for using questions effectively.
Questions can help a child to:
Think: “Why do you think the sky is blue?”
Be creative: “What would you make for dinner?”
Consider consequences: “What do you think will happen if you leave your ice cream on the floor?”
Problem solve: “You both want to mop the floor, but there is only one mop. How can you solve this problem?” (No kidding, my grandsons were fighting about this yesterday and solved it peacefully. Unfortunately, they later came to blows over the only tennis racquet before I asked a useful question.)
You can also use questions to help your child learn rules and routines:
“What is the rule about hitting?” “What do you do after you brush your teeth?”
Jean Illsley Clarke writes in Time In: When Time Out Doesn’t Work.
“First ask yourself, ‘What lesson does this child need to learn?’ Then ask yourself, ‘Is there a question that will help this child discover for herself what she needs to learn?’ ”
Other hints for using questions effectively:
Include some detail in your questions that will guide your child in answering:
“What was first thing that you did in school today?” rather than “What did you do in school today?”
Offer a few acceptable options: “I can play Legos or Uno—which would you prefer?” You may be open to other suggestions, but offering specific ideas can make it easier for your child to come up with suggestions.
Be patient—some children need more time to consider their responses. Be prepared to listen.
Thank and praise children for honesty and telling you important things. This doesn’t mean that there will not be consequences for misdeeds.
Asking permission if you aren’t going to accept No for an answer. Ending a statement with “Okay?” implies that you are asking for the child’s approval. A clearer wording might be “Do you understand?”
Questions that imply a choice when there really isn’t one: “Are you ready to go to bed now?” Instead you can use a question to draw attention to what you want the child to focus on: “Are you going to wear your blue PJs tonight or your red PJs?”
Asking questions that are really threats or warnings: “Do you want me to stop the car?” Try stating a consequence: “If the fighting doesn’t stop, I am going to pull over.”
Asking too many questions at once. Be patient.
Interrogating or asking questions when you already know the answer (or think you do). Instead you can state your assumption about the situation and move ahead to problem solving and/or listening: “I see the window is broken, did anyone get hurt? We need to clean this up carefully and then talk about how to fix it.” “I’m concerned because you seem upset, do you want to talk about it?” As author Mary Sheedy Kurcinka puts it, you want to “Listen for understanding, not for weakness.”
When you need to know more:
There will be times when you need to get information to help you figure out how handle a problem or find out there is a problem. Honesty about the seriousness of the situation, expressions of your love for your child, and respectful questions will help. Then be patient and ready to listen. What you hear may be painful—but thank your child answering.
Don’t always tell your child things. Ask questions that show your love, your interest in the child’s opinions, and your respect for his or her intelligence.
Esther Schiedel 7/17/14
Originally published on ParentingSuccessNetwork
What do you want to hear?
In a recent talk with a group of parents I asked the question, “What do you want to hear from your children?” Answers were: “Thank you.” “Whatever you say, Mom.” “I’d love to clean my room.”
We all laughed. Then I rephrased the question to “What do we want our children to be able to tell us?”
Their answers included: Their real opinions. When they are in trouble. Their angst. When we are wrong about something. What they are excited about and passionate about. Their anxieties. Their relationships with others. When they feel unsafe. What they admire about us. Their reactions to body changes; their body images. Who they are or aren’t.
Some of these things we love to hear about. But many are things that are difficult and painful to hear. There may be information that worries us or frightens us; that makes us angry or sad. Information that makes us feel powerless. Those feelings can be hard for us to deal with in everyday situations. When confronted with them as parent interacting with a child, the challenge is even greater.
I (and I suspect most parents) secretly believed that if I did my job right, my children weren’t going to have problems that I couldn’t fix. I wanted to make things better. I wanted to kiss the sore spot and make the pain go away. It was hard to accept the truth that I couldn’t fix everything. (My children are adults now and it is still hard!)
Unfortunately, that hard truth and that feeling of powerlessness interfered with my ability to listen to those things I wanted my children to be able to tell me. It wasn’t easy, and I messed up a lot, but here are some things that helped me to listen then (and still help me now).
- Giving myself empathy—acknowledging how painful and difficult it is to hear some things.
- Focusing my attention on listening and observing. Letting my child know I am listening—through touch, attentive silence, or short phrases like “I hear you” or “Oh.”
- Accepting disappointment, sadness, fear, grief and other emotions as real, natural and legitimate feelings that don’t need to be brushed aside or gotten over right away.
- Trusting that my child has many strengths, abilities, and resources to cope with challenges.
- Knowing that I have access to resources—people I trust that I can talk to and professional help if needed.
- My religious faith is also a resource.
- Trusting that really listening to someone is valuable.
I can’t fix everything—but I can listen.
Originally published March 5, 2014 on Parenting Success Network