You broke your own rule mama! You used the car as a closet! Said my daughter beyond excited to have noticed my forgotten coat, wrinkled and abandoned in the freezing cold car.You are right. And I am so glad you noticed and told me. I offered with a smile. I will be sure to take it inside next time. I said to her.
Mom! It’s a no biggie! Can I have a piggyback ride when we arrive? Oh and I bet you will do better next time. She added with a silly, silly smile.
As my daughter had playfully explained that my forgotten coat was not a big deal, I could hear my words coming through.The very words I strive to use when small mistakes happen and just a hint of guidance will do the trick.
But what about when Children break the rules and don’t listen?
Children sometimes break rules or don’t listen. Sometimes we realize it’s just a mistake, like my daughter’s playful imitation of a “no biggie”. Other times, we are certain the rule breaking or not listening is misbehavior, or even defiance in need of discipline.
A common response in these cases is to search for the best discipline – but what is best isn’t always clear. Just that something should be done… because children “should not get away with breaking the rules!” and “Children need to learn the consequences of their actions.” as parents recently shared with me in a workshop.
Whatever the response, helping children learn, to accept responsiblity or the value of listening to our guidance is usually the goal. And for that reason, not choosing a punitive approach is important. So that the child will NOT end up feeling worried, confused and misunderstood. Disconnected from the very person that is supposed to offer safety and guidance.
Guidance Instead Of Punishment
Punishments for breaking rules can lead to a child retaliating or withdrawing (Jane Nelsen, Positive Discipline Series). What does that look like? It might be a child refusing to eat, delaying bedtime, talking back or otherwise behaving in ways that invite negative attention. Mistakenly we sometimes perpetuate the “not listening/ not cooperating” behaviors precisely because of how we are trying to stop them in the first place. But two negatives when it comes to children and listening is not likely to equal a positive outcome.
There is magic, and sound reasoning, in taking a calm, kind, inquisitive and understanding approach to helping children when they break rules or don’t listen.
Because a guidance approach opens the door for working together. It creates trust and invites cooperation. It offers children a chance to understand themselves and others. To reflect on their choices and decisions. It gives you an opportunity to be seen as a safe and trusted source of meaningful information.
My daughter’s playful copycat moment was a powerful reminder of just how much words really imprint and impact our children. If we choose to encourage and help when the stakes are low, we have a better chance of getting through when the stakes are high.
These Rules Were Made For Breaking (not quite…)
Having rules is important. Particularly rules that keep children safe. Adjusting rules to reflect your family values and needs is wise. Knowing your child will test, push and probably break some of these rules is also wise.
Testing limits is a way of testing independence, and that’s a good thing, even if it makes us want to stick a fork in our heads. It’s exhausting, yes, but it’s a necessary part of creating independent kids. – Jessica Lahey, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed
Striving to help and guide your child (instead of punishing) when the rules are broken is even wiser. Because it gives children a blue print for solving problems, learning responsibility and it flexes their failure and resiliency muscles.
Focusing on understanding mistakes and misbehavior, instead controlling or punishing preserves trust and encourages capability. It also cultivates a cooperative “working with” dynamic that you can use from the toddler years and beyond.
Discipline really is more effective when it focuses on teaching, understanding and guiding the child, instead of trying to make the child feel bad.
What To Do When Your Child Breaks the Rules & Doesn’t Listen To You
- No Biggies: If your child breaks a rule that is small, and it’s really just a mistake or oversight, calmly let them know it’s a “no biggie” moment. Follow up with any missing information they may need to not do it again.
- Involve and Listen : Ask if your child has ideas how to fix her own mistake. With time, your child may start doing this on her own. (Read an example of a child learning to take responsibility for a big mistake here.)
- Do Over: Notice an unhelpful behavior? Let your child start over or have a second chance. It might sound like “Can you show me a way to pet the dog that is gentle and kind?”
- Stop The Behavior & Listen To the Feelings: When you notice your child is behaving in a way that is unhelpful and unnecessary calmly step in to stop the behavior. Then follow up with an opportunity for the child to connect with you and express himself. It might sound like “I will not let you hit your brother!” Step between the two children. “I’m here for you. Can you tell me what is going on?” When we listen to the feelings, we help children learn to self-regulate and make better choices as they grow.
- Help WITH vs. doing for: You can offer your child help fixing, cleaning up or mending when needed. A doing “with” instead of “fixing for” attitude helps transform misbehavior into a teachable moment. Your child can walk away with a sense that not only is she expected to fix her mistakes, that she is capable of doing so as well.
- Say NO & Yes when you mean it: Set and keep limits that are clear so your child understands what you really expect.
- Respect & Encourage: Speak to your child with the same respect and consideration that you hope to hear when she speaks to you, her family, friends and teachers.
- Teach then Trust: Strive not to lecture or dwell on the broken rules ( You may need to vent to a friend or write it down to let it go). Aim to teach and then move forward, trusting that your child is learning to follow your guidance.
What if a child keeps breaking the same rules over and over again?
- Jane Nelsen, author of the Positive Discipline Series suggests “Take time for training” meaning, be sure your child has had enough time with you to practice and learn what is expected.
- Reflect and reduce the number of rules. Too many rules becomes controlling and constricting. And most children will become quite creative (i.e. lying, breaking more rules) just to not get caught.
- Reflect if there is a need to adjust expectations and surroundings (house proof, supervise, explain differently) to match your child’s age and development.
Focus on connection: Is your child getting plenty of unconditional and positive attention from you?
Do you make time to be with your child, to play games, listen to dreams, thoughts and wishes? Do you create special moments together? Do you look at your child with love, kindness and care? Do you forgive and even expect imperfections?
Because loving a person means seeing him, really seeing him, above the distractions, the chaos, the mess, and the imperfections. -Rachel Macy Stafford, Hands Free Mama
The more your child feels welcomed, understood and encouraged the more she is likely to follow your guidance. You don’t have to be perfect, and you don’t have to come up with complicated behavior charts or schemes either. Simply having a willingness to invest in your relationship, in these early years really makes a huge difference.
You haven’t failed if your child has been testing limits and pushing boundaries. As you help your child grow, you will have many opportunities to say no, explain rules again (and again), listen to tears, frustrations and fears. Offer hugs, look for the “doing with moments” allow second chances. Pause, involve, remember your child is capable and willing to learn from you.
How to help a child who is acting out by setting clear, kind limits and offering positive guidance.
Walking out of school, I noticed my son had an envelope in his hand. As he handed it to me with a shy but determined smile he said: “Mom, this is for you. I wrote you an an apology letter. I was so angry and I am really, really sorry for what I said this morning.”
Just a few hours earlier we had had an unusually challenging morning. Where normally everyone follows a routine, we chat over breakfast and get ready for school and work without much fuss, this morning was so different. It was tense and so very trying. There was eye rolling, frowns and demands. It all culminated in an ugly, disconnected argument.
Emotions ran high.
Anger showed up big time for my son.
Words rattled many feelings.
Growing up and parenting principles clashed.
Staying calm and accepting the emotional storm was tough.
Acting Out Can Be Seen as Request for Guidance
When children act out it can be hard to recognize it as a request for connection and guidance. But underneath the tears, the defiance, the pulling away is a child that needs love, validation and guidance. What helps a child stop acting out and choose different behaviors is a sense of safety, understanding and our connection with them.
Children are more likely to act out when they are feeling:
It is our kindness and faith in the child’s ability to do better that can draw them out of the powerlessness, worry or frustrations that is fueling the acting out behavior.
The process is not always easy, I recognize that. On that morning, to be honest, I struggled. I even imagined myself shouting “HOW DARE YOU!!!” I remember feeling so much frustration burning in my hands and throat. It took everything I had to breathe deeply, and to search for all the calm I could ever possibly offer my son. He was acting out and It would be pointless to join him.
I searched for anything that would help me stay present. Words from Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids popped up in my mind:
“It’s not an emergency….Let’s all stay calm here.”
And then words from Jane Nelsen, D.Ed. author of the Positive Discipline did as well:
“Have faith in your child so they can have faith in themselves.”
So as hard as it was, I stayed calm. I kept my limits clear. I chose to have faith in my child. To trust that this would pass and that everything we had experienced together on up to this moment from making amends, to learning responsibility, to understanding emotions and repairing relationships would show up when the time was right.
Setting calm, clear, helpful limits with kindness on this morning went something like this:
“You are not liking what I am saying to you at all, I get that. Speaking to me like this doesn’t help you. I love you and I am willing to hear you out after school to discuss this calmly. Now, It’s time to get ready for school.”
“Yes mom, I really don’t like what you are saying. It makes no sense to me. Ok, let’s talk later.” was his answer and soon he was ready for school.
Children really need a model for self-regulation to learn how to confront life’s frustrations and disappointments without blowing up. When emotions get jumbled, children need someone to help them. To guide them into a space where it’s OKAY to be angry, without being hurtful. A space where whatever they feel is accepted, and how they behave is met with not only limits and corrections, but also with empathy.
When children are acting out, it also helps to remember that resisting limits and testing boundaries is part of growing up: The instinct to resist and oppose is in all of us and has important work to do in making sure we stay close to those we are attached to. – Deborah MacNamara, PhD author of Rest Play Grow.
When children act out, are defiant, annoying, hurtful they are in need of connection and guidance. While they may ask for what they need in mistaken or negative ways, the need is legitimate and we can help.
When a child acts out, reach out:
Listen to the feelings: Children act out when they have pent up emotions, being willing to stay present and listen to them can help them calm again.It’s not always straight forward, sometimes children will have a big tantrum, a meltdown or become angry before calming down. Listening does not spoil the child or reward bad behavior. Instead, it helps them feel understood, valued and cared for. As we model self-regulation the child will learn to do this as they grow.
Limit the behavior: State your limits clearly and kindly. Aim to stop behaviors and create a safe space for the child. “I will not let you hit” or “I will not let you throw things.” “I am keeping you safe by keeping you here, close to me.” or “Please find a way to be mad without being mean.” “You asked, I answered. We are not going to keep going in circles.”
Offer guidance: Depending on the circumstances you will need to adjust the kind of guidance you offer your child. Some children like to calm down on their own in a calming corner. Toddlers and preschoolers tend to do well with a Time in. Older children may like to know that you are available to talk when they are calmer “We can discuss after we all take a 5 minute break.” If the acting out is about lack of cooperation, try to find ways to break the task into smaller, more actionable requests, offer limited choices or a way to work together.
Make time to reconnect: Sometimes acting out can pass quickly with attentive limits and guidance. Other times the child will need time to settle, reflect and only then be ready to choose better behavior. Regardless of how the situation plays out, making time to check in with each other and reconnect and reflect is always helpful. This might sound like: “This was tough for you, but you got through it. I appreciate your apology” or “You were really upset, I’m glad we could talk about it.”
Sticking to this positive approach has an initial time investment, but it means that over time, children can learn to recognize their emotions and needs and can express them more clearly. It also means that you remain in a position to offer trusted guidance and safety, even when things are not going so well.
Back to the school exit, as I took the envelope, I felt a sense of gratitude. Because I had trusted my son and I had set clear limits without taking away his right to feel angry. This emotional space combined with sending him off to school without a punitive consequence for his words allowed him to process and regulate his own choices. He calmed down. He realized his mistake. He chose to move on with the morning routine. Later, he wrote a letter of apology, completely unprompted. With kind, sweet, respectful, sincere words. We had an honest conversation that afternoon that helped us understand each other’s point of view better.
There is incredible power in choosing to parent with the intent to connect and guide. Children make mistakes, loads of them. We do as well. The aim of parenting doesn’t have to be to control behaviors (it doesn’t work anyways.) We do hold tremendous potential to influence our children, to pave the way for them to understand themselves and their choices better.
Strive to teach and guide when the moments present themselves.
Help your child feel better even when they are at their very worst.
If your child is acting out, reach out: Listen, Love. Guide.
As parents, we love our kids so much we want to protect them, help them, and cultivate them into perfect, happy humans. Unfortunately, this overparenting has the opposite effect, leaving our kids unready for the world and life as adults.
“We parents, we’re doing too much,” says Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen at Stanford University and author of “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success.” “We have the very best of intentions, but when we over-help, we deprive them of the chance to learn these really important things that it turns out they need to learn to be prepared to be out in the world of work, to get an apartment, to make their way through an unfamiliar town, to interact with adults who aren’t motivated by love.”
Now the mom of two high schoolers, Lythcott-Haims’ a-ha moment came in 2009 after telling parents at Stanford’s freshman orientation to let their kids go and then coming home for dinner and cutting her then 10-year-old son’s meat.
“That’s when I got the connection,” she says. “When do you stop cutting their meat? When do you stop looking both ways for them as they cross the street? These are all things that we’re doing to be helpful, protective and so on, but if you’ve sheltered your 18-year-old all the way up to 18 by doing all of those things, then they end up bewildered out in the world. I realized this was why the Stanford freshman I was working with, however accomplished in the G.P.A. and childhood resume sense, were reliant upon mom or dad to kind of do the ‘work’ of life.”
Are you ready to stop helicopter parenting and prepare your kid for life as a young adult? Lythcott-Haims shares 12 basic life skills every kid should know by high school:
1. Make a meal
“By the time your kid is in high school, they really ought to be able to do everything related to their own care, if they had to,” Lythcott-Haims says. “I’m not saying stop making dinner for your kids, but I am saying you ought to have confidence that they could make a breakfast for themselves, that they could make a lunch.”
While most days you are going to be preparing their meals, you want them to be able to feed themselves if necessary. “When something happens, grandma gets sick and one parent’s got to rush across town to look after her and the other parent’s off at work, you want to know your freshman in high school has what it takes to pack their own lunch, make his own dinner, you know? The more they age, the more they should feel that, ‘Yeah, I’ve got this.’ There’s a competence, and there’s a confidence that comes when we build competence.”
2. Wake themselves up on time
“By the time your kid is entering high school, you ought to have confidence they can wake themselves up and get themselves washed and dressed in clothing that’s clean,” Lythcott-Haims says. “I underscore this because too many of us are letting kids off. We’re their alarm clock and then what happens? They’re late for breakfast; they’re late to school; and we drive them. All that teaches them is, ‘I’ll always be there to wake you up and drive you,’ which is not true.”
Lythcott-Haims recently heard from a colleague at a major university that a parent had installed a webcam in the dorm room of a freshman to wake the kid up. “That’s a parenting fail,” she says. “We’ve gotten ourselves worked up into a frothy frenzy about grades and scores in high school, and further into college, and we sort of treat our kids’ childhood as if every day, every quiz, every afternoon is a make or break moment for their future,” she continues. “We feel the stakes are high, and therefore we must help, but the stakes are low in childhood compared to what they will be in college, and what they’ll really be in the world beyond.”
3. Do laundry
When teaching teens basic chores like laundry, we have to be careful not to be snippy and make them feel bad about not knowing how to do it yet. “If they haven’t learned, it’s because we haven’t taught them,” she says, “so parents need to acknowledge [to their kids] that they’ve been over-helping.” Instead, show them the ropes, watch them do it themselves once to make sure they’ve got it, and then let them handle it on their own.
4. Pump gas
“When they learn to drive, they better know how to pump gas, okay?” Lythcott-Haims says. “I know of college students who have always had their parents fill their tank, whether at home in high school or even in college. The parents just top off the tank whenever they come visit her. Well, one day a 20-year-old student is out driving around, and her tank is near empty. And she says, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve got to get gas. I’ve never done that. But I’m smart, I can figure it out.'” Long story short: She accidentally puts diesel in the car because no one ever taught her what to do. That’s an expensive and unnecessary lesson.
5. Pitch in
“Employers these days are saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute, what is it with these 20-somethings, they just want to be told exactly what to do, kind of step-by-step, and they want to be applauded for doing it,'” Lythcott-Haims says. “If we’ve just served them, if parents have just said their academics and activities are all that matter and we’ll take care of everything else, no chores and no helping out around the house, then they get out into the workplace and they don’t have that pitch-in mindset.”
“Kids need to learn how to contribute for the betterment of the whole,” she says. “Maybe they have siblings and one is stressed out about something, and the other says, ‘I’ll do your chore for you. Because I see you’re stressed out and you need some help.’ That’s building a sense of it’s not just about me. I can do for others.”
6. Advocate for themselves
Most of us have heard the stories of the parents who are calling college professors to complain about their kids’ grades, right? News flash: This needs to stop in high school, too. “If you’re the one throughout high school who’s always got to be emailing the teacher, you basically are teaching your kid, ‘You’re not competent, and I’m going to have to do it for you,’ which is terribly harming,” Lythcott-Haims says.
Instead, teach your child how to have a conversation with an authority figure and advocate for themselves. “So I’d say, ‘Look honey, I know you’re frustrated about this grade or you’re upset about that happening on the soccer team, or you don’t understand this information. You need to be the one to go talk to your teacher respectfully and advocate for yourself.'” she says. “And if they look at you in horror, say, ‘You can do it; I know you can do it. Do you want to practice with me?’ The only way to teach them is to get out of their way and make them do it.”
Also, prepare them to listen well to what the other person is saying and understand it might not go their way. “Many times they won’t get the outcome they desire, and it’s ‘Well, ‘I tried.’ And they come home and they learn to cope with it, because not everything in life will go your way.”
“We’re always putting their stuff in their backpacks,” Lythcott-Haims says. “‘Oh, don’t want you to forget your homework!’ And then that backpack becomes a bag or a briefcase one day in the workplace, and they haven’t learned that skill of being responsible for remembering their own stuff, doing that inventory every morning, ‘What do I need? Wallet, keys, lunch, work, laptop.'”
8. Order at restaurants
While this skill should be taught sooner than high school, if that’s where parents find themselves, it’s not too late. If they’ve never ordered for themselves, say, “Hey, guys, it’s time you started ordering for yourselves. I realize it’s not for me to decide what you’re going to eat, or me to assume you’re going to have your usual order, or for me to order for the whole family,'” she says.
Remind them to look the server in the eye, be polite, communicate their request, and say, “thank you.” “One day before long, they’re going to be out with friends or out with a girlfriend or boyfriend, and they’re going to want to have that skill to not only order food, but to do so respectfully—and not look like a jerk who’s an entitled kid with a credit card, who can pay for it, but can’t really treat the server respectfully,” Lythcott-Haims says.
9. Talk to strangers
“Their life will be full of strangers, if we think about it, but we have this blanket rule, ‘Don’t talk to strangers,’ which isn’t the right rule,” Lythcott-Haims says. “The right rule would be, ‘Let me teach you how to discern the very few, creepy strangers from the vast, vast majority of normal strangers.’ That’s a skill.”
Then, send your children out in the world to talk to strangers—safe ones. Lythcott-Haims taught her own kids this skill by sending them to a store within walking distance of their suburban home to run a small errand and ask the sales clerk for help. She handed them a $20 bill and off they went. “They come back with a spring in their step,” she says.
10. Go grocery shopping
Has your child ever even noticed that the grocery store aisles are nicely labeled with signs hanging from the ceiling? They should know how to navigate a supermarket on their own, Lythcott-Haims says. “Send them off on their own with one of those little hand-held baskets to go get five or six things,” she says. “If you’ve got a 13-year-old, and you’ve never let him or her out of your sight in a grocery store, you’re going to be freaking out; but 13-year-olds don’t get abducted from grocery stores.”
11. Plan an outing
“Whenever the peer group is old enough and ready to plan an outing, let them do it,” Lythcott-Haims says. “I’m the parent who’s very comfortable with my 12-year-old girl going to a matinee movie with friends where she arranged it—you know, one parent’s going to do the drop-off, one’s doing the pickup, but the girls are getting the tickets, bringing money for snacks.”
While you should ask them to walk you through the plan so you know they are not setting off willy-nilly, don’t let your fears for them make them fearful of the world. “Making their way out into the world’ to go to the movie, or to go to a mall, or to go walk up and down the big street in town and then get some food somewhere, whatever it is—they want that,” Lythcott-Haims says. “This is them trying to spread their wings.”
12. Take public transportation
When I travel around the country, people say, ‘Oh, my gosh. I wouldn’t let my 17-year-old daughter ride the metro alone,'” Lythcott-Haims says. “And I’m like, ‘What’s your long-term plan here? Would you let your 25-year-old daughter? Is it even up to you when she’s 25?'”
“Of course, [17 is] old enough! People join the Marines and the Army and the Air Force and the Navy at 18,” Lythcott-Haims points out. “This is just a lovely example of how far we’ve strayed, because no one is yet saying at 18 they’re too young to sign up to go fight for our country. So, we’re fine when [kids choose the military], but the kids who choose a four-year college? Oh, no, no. They need their mom or dad there all the time. It’s a reminder of how absurd it is.”