I know, I’m bossy.
If I was a preschooler in 2017, I would surely be labeled with “leadership skills.” As it was, in the mid-70s I was said to have “taken charge” of the dramatic play area. So, there you have it. I guess I need those skills because I picked a tough business: giving parenting advice. What was I thinking? No parent wants to be told what to do! Like ever. But, I really care how you raise your kids because I want the world to be a more peaceful place and I believe that’s possible with a different kind of parenting.
Human beings are freaking complex, man. I tell parents all the time: “You know your child best.” And it’s true. BUT, there’s also 100+ years of research on child development, and we know some other new stuff too! Doctors, scientists, researchers, and all kinds of smart people have been studying the human condition AND actual brains with an fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine for the past 25 years. They can watch people’s brains IN REAL TIME and see what goes on in there. No joke. Here are some things that I have discovered in my work that I’m pretty sure will help you in raising your kids. Bossy, yes. But mining through all the research is a pain in the butt not everyone want to take on. Let me help.
First of all: stop scaring your kids!
Everything we know about humans indicates that using fear as a motivator is a majorly bad idea. Whether you are hitting them (no euphemisms here—sorrynotsorry), threatening to hit them, punishing them in some other way, or yelling—babies and children are sensitive, they can’t handle that sh*t.
You are freaking them out and frankly, their trust in you is eroding.
Whether you believe you “turned out OK” or think the jury is still out, if you are over 25 you likely received some kind of fear-based parenting. This does not make your parents bad people, they just didn’t have the benefit of brain research that now tells us how vital the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is and how loving, responsive relationships between children and their caregivers HELP WIRE THAT THING (the PFC, that is).
Secondly, let’s talk about that brain-wiring.
What created (or would have created, let’s be real) the ideal conditions for your development is probably not the same as what your kids need. If you have siblings, compare notes. Your beefs with your parents are probably not the same as theirs. Every person is different and I have never met a parent of two or more children who has said, “Oh yes, they are so much alike! All my parenting approaches worked consistently on all my kids.” Nope. Never happened. Children need us to see them as individuals. Not snowflakes, just their own selves. Yes, this makes parenting harder. I am sorry about that.
Thirdly, remember this cool thing about humans: WE ARE INTRINSICALLY MOTIVATED.
Really—this is amazing. Watch a 2-year-old exploring a new environment. Or listen to a preschooler asking questions. Motivation is not the issue. But what about when we want them to do something they AREN’T naturally inclined to do? It turns out that the traditional approaches to motivating people: punishment (sticks) and rewards (carrots) actually don’t work. And please don’t say that rewards are “how the real world works.” These methods may still be used, but even the London School of Economics said, “financial incentives can have a negative impact on overall performance.”
Finally, I want to banish the whole “not punishing is permissive” argument. Just no.
Children never need to be punished, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need discipline—which means “TO TEACH.” This super science-y research paper nails it: “Effective discipline does not instill shame, negative guilt, a sense of abandonment or a loss of trust. Instead, it instills a sense of greater trust between the child and the parent.” In other words: if shame, guilt, pain, fear, or abandonment are part of your discipline strategy, you’re doing it wrong.
How can we do it right? I will try to sum it up in one paragraph.
Learn to regulate yourself.
OK, that was one sentence. But this is kind of the crux of the issue. We are great at staying calm when we feel calm. And equally good at justifying our lack of calm when we are triggered. Self-regulation is a complex internal process. I have always defined it as, “The ability to stay in charge of yourself when you’re having a strong feeling.” But per Stuart Shanker, author of the book, Self-Reg, it’s “a powerful method for understanding stress and managing tension and energy.” This is NOT will-based self-control. Let me repeat that in bold all-caps:
WE ARE NOT TALKING ABOUT SELF-CONTROL.
That would involve increasing your effort and will, which DRAINS your energy and REDUCES your ability to self-regulate (that’s why I’m always saying, “You cant FAKE calm!”). Self-regulation is the thing that allows us to actually NOT freak out, not see their whining as a reflection of us, and finally stop scaring our kids with eruptions of rage. It helps us stay calm in the face of a panic-inducing toddler meltdown or an aggressive kindergartner. What allows us to hold space for a child’s upset feelings, support their motivation, and connect with them so we can have a secure relationship and guide their behavior?
So keep reading those parenting books if you want. But know that our abilities in responsive, attuned care, good boundaries, and deep, strong relationships with our children flow quite largely from “self-reg,” so you might want to hone your efforts.
This ability is crucial for kids to learn, and ironically, they need the adults around them to be able to demonstrate and enact it. Once we understand the 5 domains of self-reg: (biological, emotion, cognitive, social, and empathy & prosocial), we can build these skills ourselves and then pass them along. That might look like keeping tabs on our stresses and worries, minding our own hunger and fatigue levels (hard, I know), and practicing deep breaths and not taking things personally during meltdowns (theirs AND ours).
Because if we want a peaceful home (and community, nation, and planet), we need to learn and teach better self-regulation. Need support? Get in touch with me!
Sarah MacLaughlin is author of the award-winning book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children and has been featured in The Huffington Post. She brings over 25 years of experience working with children and families to her coaching practice. Sarah is also mom to an nine-year-old who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice. She works with families one on one, in groups, and online.