Every day I meet parents in search of strategies to help them manage their child’s behaviours. When I ask some more questions, I find that most of them have read countless parenting books, have surfed the web for answers and even watched the “Nanny 911” type shows in an effort to find some advice, of any kind, on how to be a better parent. By the time I meet these parents, they are desperate and they all say the same thing: “I have tried everything, and nothing works.” They’ve tried time outs, taking privileges away, groundings, spankings, reinforcing good behaviours, allowance, contracts, bribes, and anything else they can think of. Many parents have even shared that, after awhile, their child began requesting punishments. You know things aren’t working when a child puts him or herself into time-out.
There are thousands of books on parenting and yet many parents feel unsuccessful. Parents come to me at their wits end, having tried everything and frequently disappointed in the results. What happened to the days gone by, when children did what they were told, and were punished swiftly when they strayed? The days, when the type of disrespectful behaviour that seems to be commonplace today would never have been tolerated. While the parents are right in thinking their strategies don’t work, they’re wrong about the reason why. It’s not that their parents were better at discipline; it’s that there was a strong foundation between parent and child with or without the discipline.
The secret is simple: If you focus on building a solid relationship with your child, everything else will fall into place. No parenting strategy, no matter how good, will work otherwise. Reinforcement is problematic because it causes parents to find “bigger and better” rewards (which quickly turn into bribes) which inevitably fail to be enough. Reinforcements are also contingent on good behaviours so we end up sending messages to our children like: “My parents only love me when I am good.” Since no one is perfect, it is impossible for your child to be “good” 100% of the time, thereby making it impossible to feel unconditionally loved.
Punishment is problematic because research and experience have demonstrated time and time again that it just doesn’t work. It might suppress behaviour in the moment, but over time it does not eliminate behaviours at all. Furthermore, punishment tends to increase the void between parent and child, which is impeding our ability to parent effectively in the first place. Unfortunately, punishment is the strategy we tend to revert to. Over time, the response we get: “I don’t care. Go ahead, take my cell phone away,” which typically make parents “lose their minds.”
Building a positive relationship with your child is crucial. Unfortunately, our lives cause us to inadvertently create a void between ourselves and our children. They are in daycare at younger ages, are at school all day, then have soccer/dance/piano/karate/swimming/gymnastics/football/hockey practice in the evenings and sleepovers on the weekend. Both parents are working and come home exhausted; dinner time is rushed, or nonexistent. Where do we ever have a chance to breathe, let alone spend the time that is needed to nurture our relationship with our child?
The Parenting 101 series will outline the basics you need to know to help nurture your relationship with your child and will provide a better understanding of how you can foster positive behaviours in your children. Be warned: it takes a conscious effort and commitment on your part as a parent, but the returns it will provide are immeasurable if you stick with it. To help you get started: greet your child warmly every time you have been away from them for any length of time. In the morning when they wake up, after work, whenever. Get down to their level, look them in their eyes, smile, give them a hug, and try to get the same response back from them. Baby steps like these will make momentous strides towards a fulfilling, positive relationship with your child.