One parenting moment can become a defining incident, never to be forgotten. Especially for Jamie Primark Sullivan, who recently posted how she threw her children’s’ fresh ice cream cones in the trash to teach them a lesson about saying thank you to those who serve us. Her casual Facebook post unexpectedly became viral wildfire -and with great controversy. Many commend this mother's bold follow through hoping it will help alleviate the entitled, disrespectful trend among youth today. Other back-seat parents judge Jaime harshly for over punishing a common misstep for children, deeming the incident traumatizing with no disciplinary value.
We all love to weigh in when it comes to critiquing others' parenting moves and styles, but ask most moms and dads in the thick of raising young people today, and even the brightest, most confident among us will admit (at least privately) that it's the hardest job on the planet. Parenting is not a black and white business, and is certainly not for sissies.
Only after many years of raising our two now-adult children, with plenty of memorable parenting mistakes and dark corners not sure where to turn, can I share with certainty what I have learned as best practices for helping children grow into empowered adults who feel good and about themselves and are conscious of how they treat others.
Disciplining is one of the most crucial, and often unclear, aspects of parenthood. Not only are we faced with relentless teaching moments all day, every day, but we are also vulnerable to responding reactively based on how we were raised and/or from our own fears, selfish desires, limitations, and insecurities. We have incredible power as parents to build up or break down the already perfect essence within each child. This pressure can feel overwhelming but what is most important is to appreciate that we are the right ones for the job—we must trust our soul to soul connection—and that we don't have to be perfect to do our best.
That being said, here are some balanced practices and guiding principles I have learned - as a parent, a counselor to parents, and a counselor to the "inner child" of many adults.
- Remember Our Child's Inherent Good; Keep it Positive. We are born with an essence of goodness, and yet, we here to make mistakes, to grow—and with great and essential effort—shape ourselves into the tremendous potential we have within. Even when we need to set hard boundaries with our children—for making a bad choice, for hurting us or someone else, for taking an irresponsible risk, or simply getting on our last nerve—it's important to keep the good in them in front of our eyes—always. We want to empower the positive in them, not repress it. Focusing on the negative makes it harder for our children to believe in themselves, making the game against negative thinking even harder. They will feel the difference, and absorb the lesson better, when we discipline with this positive and loving view of them. So for example, Instead of, “Don’t be mean to your sister.” Try, “We love you and want you with us, which you can do as long as you are not bothering your sister.”
- Separate the Behavior From the Child. Do not shame him or her as being a bad person. Make it clear that it’s their behavior, not they who are bad. They simply made a bad or negative choice. That's what we do in life- it's a game and we want to teach our children one of the most essential rules of the game - cause and effect- while keeping their inherent value intact (more about cause and effect below).
- Be Proactive and Identify the Lesson. Take time to gain clarity about your purpose for disciplining. Ask yourself, “What do I want to teach them right now, or maybe later?” This could range from teaching them the importance of treating others with human dignity, to not take their blessings for granted, to respect your parents, to learn the importance of grit and effort to really enjoy what you have. Each interaction has great potential to reveal the goodness within your child. Identify the seed of what you want your words and actions to teach them.
- Pause and Pick the Best Time to Teach/Respond. When we are reactive, this is definitely not the best time to give a consequence. Though parenting decisions often need to be made in a split second, many times we actually can give ourselves the liberty to pause and calm down, and get back to our child when we are ready to respond. If you co-parent with a spouse or partner, this also allows you to come together as a team. One option is to let our child know that we are sorry they will have to experience some kind of consequence (delivered with empathy), not now … but later. We can even say, “I make better decisions when I am not angry, and right now I need some time to calm down and/or talk with your (mother or father). Our children can also use this delay to generate some ideas of what consequences they feel would be best. Ironically, our kids tended to pick a more severe consequence than we ever would have. Because they determined the response, they seemed at peace.
- Set Consistent and Balanced Boundaries. Consistent boundaries mean following through, making the rules you live by and the ones you want your children to live by easy to follow. Not a hit or miss type of arrangement. Children will naturally test limits and boundaries. When you notice them out of control or trying to take advantage, check first to see how much have I recently given in, been wishy-washy and not followed through on consequences. Sometimes we need to make exceptions, but firm and consistent boundaries pay off. Balanced boundaries, for one, means delivering the consequence or lesson with love in your heart even if you need to be firm and show anger to teach a lesson. Balanced also means to not be too extreme. For instance, if your teenager doesn't clean her room or do household chores like you agreed, don't ban her from her phone for 6 months. Rather give her extra chores or require her home early for a week so she can make it up. Explain that this is because you love her and know she must need some extra help to not forget, and how important it is that she learn to take care of what she has been given. Maybe she needs some help with time management and you can discuss together ways that work for you. It's important that the consequence sting- yes. And often it stings us worse. But we don't want to be on the side of cruelty. Setting boundaries is not the same as reactive behavior on our part. The former plants positive seeds and the latter only yields bitter fruits. Balance also means learning what boundaries are age appropriate. The older our children become the more it becomes adult to adult conversations helping them and giving them more freedom to make the hard choices in life.
- Teach Cause and Effect. Like gravity, everything we think, do and say has an equal impact on us. Also known as the boomerang effect - what goes around comes around. For example, when we don't take care of what we have or lose appreciation, then we lose our blessings. And we want our children to learn how to increase blessings in their lives, with us as the “effect,” a buffered version of the real world out on their own. We want to logically and lovingly connect the dots for behaviors and attitudes we want to shape and teach. We do this best through actions which show (not just tell) how to make choices that lead to a better life.
- Beware of Our Own Ego. Without realizing it, we can often respond to our children with some kind of hidden selfish agenda, even the most loving and devoted parents among us. For example, we might become too permissive because we fear our children won't love us or want to be close. Trust me, they will love and respect you more (in the long run), when you show them you have enough self respect to stop their disrespectful behavior; or teach them a value that means a great deal to you even if it's unpopular. Another way we must be careful to not make our parenting too much about our own ego is when we try and make them do what WE will feel proud of, even if it's not something that it true to them. For example picking for them a particular sport because it's been in your family for years. As painful as it may be, it's important to set our needs aside for some of these essential choices in our children's lives. Now if we feel strongly about matters such as church or confirmation or the type of education or the type of food your family eats, this is a different matter. Again it comes back to balance. Finally, don't worry about what other people think. It’s natural, but pure ego. Seek guidance for tough parenting calls, but stay on the look out for decisions which are driven by external approval, and redirect to internal. Listen to and follow your true voice.
- Be a Role Model. Show them more, tell them less. Be the person you want your children to model after. If we want our children to be compassionate human beings, we can show them compassion when they struggle with something that bothers us. Another way is to show compassion for people outside of your family. Because we have a deep connection with our children, I have found an amazing quantum effect. That is, if our kids are not being respectful, a good place to look is inside ourselves. Look for areas where we are not treating someone in our lives, including our self, with enough acknowledgment and respect. Even if it's not to the same degree that we might perceive in our children, we can utilize them as our mirror. ~Remember to be kind to yourself as a parent.