There were times when I wanted to run away when I was a kid. Once I tied a bindle to a stick and headed for the woods just a few blocks from my house. I had had enough. I was done being a kid, and running away seemed like the best fix. But what happens when parents have had enough? It’s not like we can pack a bindle and hop a train whenever our kids wake up on the wrong side of the bed.
Even the most agreeable kids in the world will be difficult at times, and walking away, counting to 10 or deep breaths might help to mitigate runaway emotions in the moment (all good), but those techniques do not address larger lessons that parents wish to impart, such as effective communication, respect for others and taking responsibility for our own actions.
We want our kids to be able to identify their emotions and to understand how to communicate appropriately and effectively. In other words, when your little prodigy demands a drink, or whines at the grocery store, or calls you a jerk and kicks you when it’s time to leave the playground, you can’t just walk away without addressing the issue at hand.
Though time and space for a parent to calm down is often useful, following up quickly in handling negative behavior and encouraging positive behavior is a gift our kids deserve. Creating a plan of action beforehand allows everyone to be able to better address the behavior when it happens. We know kids respond well to swift, fair and appropriate response. A parent can’t leave it to luck or the golden laws of goodness to magically discipline when it comes to whining, talking back or acting out.
Don’t believe a child is going to empathetically realize at the end of a whole weekend of whines and demands precisely why you turned without a word and left him in his room to read some books. He won’t. Don’t trust for an instant that because you walked away like a stoic after days of backtalking from your child that she will suddenly empathize with your hurt feelings because you “were done” and left without a word.
Rest assured, parenting is thankless, messy work. Anyone who’s spent an hour with a child gets this.
I can attest. All four of our kids gave us a run for our money at one time or another. But when our kids forgot the family modus operandi and demanded a want or need, a gentle (sometimes firm and often repetitive) reminder that they should ask politely first was a protocol already in place.
And because we discussed the rules beforehand, when heads were cool, it was much easier to encourage and implement. And it didn’t take long before those lessons were learned and became second nature. Our kids knew the deal, and even when they slipped, it was much easier to reel them back in because we had already set clear and reasonable boundaries. After all, kids are designed to test the bounds. It’s how we respond when we are tested.
Parents have to be dedicated, like a relentless researcher or a disciplined athlete, if we want to help our kids build the skills that will assist them not only within the family but also in their social and academic circles as well.
Young children will whine when they haven’t acquired the language yet, or when they’re tired and need attention. Either way, try a gentle and clear approach, reminding them simply to talk clearly and calmly. Treat whining early and often with calm, interest and respect, and kids will eventually learn that speaking, rather than whining, gets a respectful, reasonable and more rapid response from people.
Remember, a child is continually absorbing information and putting that information to the test. Learning is an ongoing process, and when parents treat it as such, they can more clearly look at behaviors with a plan that embodies a course of action related to a clear set of family values already in place to provide lots of teaching moments for that child. It’s crucial for kids to understand early on that pushing back with harsh, hurtful language and actions is not acceptable and hold reasonable consequences, such as losing a privilege for a brief time with the understanding that the child reflect on what she might do differently next time.
None of this is easy for parents -- or children, for that matter. But when the family acts as a thoughtful unit and operates from a set of concrete expectations to uphold virtues that promote love, learning, respect and responsibility, the day-to-day process of growing and functioning becomes less overwhelming because everyone knows what’s expected.
Kids are going to test our patience. They are going to break rules. They are going to assert their independence. Doing so is natural and part of the growing up experience. It’s how we, as parents, respond to our children that really counts, especially in the early years.
When parents and kids have a working plan in place, life is not only a teensy bit easier, it’s way more rewarding.
Try a family meeting to discuss feelings and goals when everyone is calm. Talk about ideas over dinner, on walks together or even while driving in the car. The point is to keep the discussion going about behavior and how to communicate our feelings respectfully. Sitting down with a child before the going gets tough saves confusion and headache. Doing so teaches kids how to plan ahead and how to take responsibility for their own actions.
Be willing to make changes if a part of the plan’s not working. As parents, we all know what it’s like when our child embarrasses us by incessantly whining, talking back or physically acting out in public. It’s the moment when our parent identity and authority is called into question. Experiencing disrespect is hurtful and therefore can bring up all kinds of emotions. And we all know that when emotions get the best of us, and sometimes they will, it’s going to be extremely difficult to think or act rationally when there’s no map to help us find a happy medium through those challenges every parent faces each and every day.
Hang in there. Plans work.
Bonnie J. Toomey teaches at Plymouth State University, and writes about writing, learning and life in the 21st century. You can follow Parent Forward on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bonniejtoomey . Learn more at www.parentforward.blogspot.com or visit bonniejtoomey.com ,