8 Common Parenting Phrases That Backfire

If you’re a parent, chances are you’ve used some or all of these phrases at some point or another.

If you’re a parent, chances are you’ve used some or all of these phrases at some point or another. Here are some research-backed reasons why these eight common parenting phrases often backfire in ways we wouldn’t expect.

1 | “Don’t cry”

It can be so tempting to tell children not to cry because we deal with crying all the time, but telling children not to cry invalidates their feelings and teaches them not to openly share their emotions with you. Instead, try naming their feeling by saying, “You are so sad/scared/upset right now.”

By giving them words to describe their emotion, you validate it while also giving them the language they need to describe that feeling the next time they have it.

2 | “Stop _____”

Stop running. Stop yelling. Stop throwing things. Any time a parent uses this kind of directive, research shows that children are actually less likely to stop their behavior. Children’s brains are programmed to do what they hear. So if you say, “Stop running,” the last thing they hear is “run.” By saying, “Remember to use your walking feet,” you are telling them exactly how they should be moving. It also frames the directive in a more positive light.

3 | “Say sorry”

Young children are being taught to say “sorry” long before they’re actually developmentally capable of feeling sorry for their actions. The act of saying sorry appeases adults because it’s the polite thing to do, but research shows that saying sorry isn’t what causes children to become empathetic adults.

Instead, it’s much more productive to teach children to take action to help the person they’ve offended. For the child that breaks down another child’s block tower, have her help fix the tower. For the child that bites, have him get the other child some ice. By teaching our children that their actions have real consequences and require more than an un-empathetic “sorry,” they’ll become less likely to do these things again and become more empathetic in the process.

4 | “We don’t hit”

Or “we don’t throw,” “we don’t bite,” etc. This one is tricky because the purpose of this phrase is to show the child that they’re a part of a group that has rules to keep us safe. Unfortunately, for many children that are “repeat offenders” in terms or hitting or biting or any other negative behavior, this phrase can make them feel like an outsider of the group.

A much more productive approach is to say, “It is not okay to hit,” and to express how it made you or the other child feel. Follow up by having the child take action to help repair any damage that was done. 

5 | “See?”

This is the classic “I told you so.” You tell the child to stop jumping on the couch; she doesn’t listen, and ends up falling off the couch and hurting herself. You respond with “See, I told you not to jump on the couch.”

This response shames the child and doesn’t provide her the opportunity for problem solving or reflection. It’s best to wait until the child is calm, and then have a conversation about what happened and ask her how she will make a better choice the next time.

6 | “No whining”

Whining is a challenge. It’s so annoying that you just want it to stop – and quick! But telling kids not to whine doesn’t stop their whining. Instead, try saying, “Use your strong voice,” or ask, “How can we solve this problem?” By tapping into the child’s problem-solving capabilities, you empower him to have some control over the situation.

You can also try parenting expert Lynn Lott’s “Asked and Answered” strategy. When your child has asked a question and you have responded with “No,” and yet he keeps whining, you can say, “Asked and Answered.” Once the child understands this phrase and it’s used consistently in the home, the child will be less likely to whine, nag, or negotiate.

7 | “How many times do I have to tell you?”

This phrase backfires because it sends a message that you’re willing to tell your child something more than once. If the child hasn’t responded the first time, it’s likely that she either 1) didn’t hear you or understand the direction the first time, or 2) is avoiding the direction. How we deal with this situation varies based on which category it falls into, but saying “How many times do I have to tell you,” sends the wrong message and doesn’t get our children to do what we’ve asked.

8 | “Wait until your father gets home”

This classic phrase does two things: it builds fear for the reaction of the parent that’s not present, and it sends the message that you aren’t going to take action in the moment. Consequences for young children must happen in the moment in order for them to be effective – waiting for Dad or Mom to get home makes the consequence ineffective in the long run. Additionally, when children build up a fear of their parents’ reaction, it makes the child less likely to come to the parent when he’s done something wrong for fear of punishment.

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Be a Guide, Not a Guard and Raise a Happy, Responsible Kid

As guides, we help children develop internal motivation to do what is right because it’s right, rather than to do what is right to avoid being punished.

“Be a guide, not a guard” perfectly describes the kinds of parenting behaviors that create happy and responsible children. It’s a term I learned at a recent training session focused on reducing controlling parenting behaviors.
When I ask parents “what have you tried to help change your child’s behavior?” little breaks my heart more than hearing a long list of punishments. The story will go something like “the rule is that he is to clean up his room but he never does it so we took away his tablet, then banned watching TV, we smacked him, we put him in time out all day, cancelled his play dates with his friends and then grounded him for a month. It doesn’t matter what we do, he doesn’t care.”
This is parenting like a guard. It is inflexible, rules-based parenting that requires punishment when a child doesn’t behave. The punishments often escalate and may be harsh, cruel even. In the worst case scenario, a child raised in a controlling environment will comply due to a fear of being beaten but will not do anything other adults say if there is no risk of being hurt. The most anti-social children are often parented in this way. They don’t care about the meaning of the rules set; instead they decide whether to comply based on whether they will get hurt. Controlling parenting practices are also correlated to poor mental health in children and youth.
When we parent like a guard we are trying to stop behavior through control and dominance. In an attempt to get rid of the behaviors we don’t like, we use consequences. A guard expects trouble and treats people as such. A guard does not care whether you feel sad, confused or don’t feel like you belong. A guard only cares if you comply. As a guard we can’t be flexible and this means if a child doesn’t comply, regardless of the reason, our only option is to escalate the consequences until they do. Even if this means excluding them from the very systems we want them to belong to.
When we parent as a guide we work to encourage behaviors we want to see in our children. We help children belong in our world and all the systems that come with that. We use care and compassion in our parenting practices. When we see unwanted behavior that cannot work or is unacceptable in our systems, we look at what steps we can take to help that child learn to fit better in our world. We don’t use harsh consequences that will exclude the child from the system; instead we see their difficulty as a skill deficit. We don’t use escalating consequences; instead we look for ways for children to want to be part of the system and to want to please us.
As guides, we help children develop internal motivation to do what is right because it’s right, rather than to do what is right to avoid being punished. We want our children to comply because they want to be part of our community, they want to help us and because they understand the value of their chosen behavior.

How to be a guide

See your child’s perspective

Being able to hold your child’s perspective is essential to being a guide. It helps parents understand how best to help their child. It helps us identify that difficult behaviors are often related to emotions or skills deficits. This doesn’t mean we accept all behaviors as ok, it means that we understand that there is a meaning to whatever behavior we are seeing.

Encourage behavior through praise and noticing

Children love receiving genuine praise and being noticed. If they feel you genuinely care about them rather than that you are trying to control their behavior, they are more motivated to work for you. Children are less receptive to praise that functions to control behavior such as “aren’t you a good boy for sitting up straight today?” A genuine “I can really see you are listening, and that makes me feel good” is more effective.

Promote values-based living

Show your child what matters through the way you live. If you want to raise a kind and responsible child, lead by modeling kind and responsible behavior. Notice when your child is kind and responsible and praise the behavior.

Be flexible where possible

Give your child opportunities to choose. Avoid controlling choices unless there is a good reason not to offer a choice such as safety or legality. Guides raise kids who choose to be responsible. Guards raise kids who conform to avoid a consequence.

Promote intrinsic goals over extrinsic goals

Encourage your child to do things for personal growth, for health, to create meaningful relationships and contribute to their community as opposed to doing things to achieve financial success, popularity, power or for their image. People with intrinsic goals are happier and engage in more pro-social behavior.
Next time you see your child doing something that you don’t like, whisper to yourself: “Be a guide, not a guard.”
Acknowledgement: Thanks and gratitude to Darin Cairns for introducing me to the helpful term “Be a guide, not a guard.”

There’s No Crying in Parenting

At no point in my 34 years of life had I ever been so…I want to say humbled, but the more accurate word here is humiliated.

From about 18 months to four years old, Briggs kept his meltdowns private. His behavior started small at first – random hitting for no reason, throwing temper tantrums, and what seemed like normal “terrible two” behavior, but on some sort of cocktail of Adderall and Mountain Dew.
As he has gotten older, his behavior has grown with him. We’ve gone through the spitting phase, the name calling phase, the tantrum on the floor as if his bones were made of limp noodles phase, and the screaming at the top of his lungs phase.
When he turned four (two years ago now), he escalated to directly hitting us…on purpose. The first time he punched me, I may have audibly started talking to the Lord as an intercessor for my husband, lest he be overtaken by the Spirit and hand Briggs’ own behind to him on a silver platter. I am almost certain Madea overtook my mouth as I cried out to the “Lort” on Briggs’ behalf.
Fast forward a year, and he has graduated to public displays of crazy. The first time was epic. I will literally never forget it. At no point in my 34 years of life had I ever been so…I want to say humbled, but the more accurate word here is humiliated.
Not the time I split my super sweet maroon-colored Guess jeans in gym class in sixth grade. Not the time I got busted in middle school Sharpie-ing a Nike swoosh on my Payless high-tops because I couldn’t afford the real ones. Not even the time they posted our mile run times above the water fountain in gym, and I was dead last with a light speed time of 18:18.
No, nothing thus far had ever made me feel so small as that moment in the Florida diner.
We were on our way back from a work trip to Orlando and everyone was hungry. We don’t get to travel much, so we love to check out little mom and pop types of places when we’re out of town. We stopped in this little diner called Eddie’s in Nowheresville, Florida for what the Yelp reviewers said were, “Florida’s best chicken and waffles.”
We held hands and ran through the rain to get inside the restaurant. I held Sparrow, our then six-month-old daughter, on my lap and helped Briggs manage the coloring sheet the hostess had given him as Spence made his way to the men’s room all the way in the back of the diner.
Forks clanged and men laughed from the bar. As I helped Briggs sound out the words on his children’s menu and he colored in a Spiderman, I noticed there were two women sitting in the booth directly beside our table.
They were both well-dressed and appeared to be in their late 60s. One had on an oversized necklace that reminded me of the costume jewelry my aunt used to wear, and the other had that kind of hairdo women have who would rather donate their arms to science than get wet at the pool. I imagined they both had large, flamboyant broaches for every holiday neatly displayed in some sort of well-lit case in their bedrooms.
They hadn’t noticed me…yet.
When Briggs finished coloring, he wanted to tear the paper because, naturally, Spiderman wouldn’t live in the same realm as a children’s menu. He began tearing the page and I watched it happen as if it were unfolding in slow motion. The paper’s tear went from the center of the page and, like an earthquake’s line in the dry desert clay, separated Spiderman’s foot from the rest of his body.
“Noooooooooooooooo!!” Briggs’ scream rang out across the small diner. Once filled with the loud bangs of forks and knives, the chatter of old friends catching up, and that guy who’d had one too many at the bar, it fell silent. Deafeningly silent. My son’s eyes filled with tears of rage and he crumpled up the amputated Spiderman and threw him under another family’s table.
“Pick that up, please.” I said, attempting to keep calm as everyone watched the dinner show they hadn’t paid for.
“No! I will NEVER pick it up!” he screamed back.
With everyone watching, Briggs stood up as though he’d had a change of heart and decided to pick up the balled-up menu after all. Instead, he grabbed a chair from the table beside ours, where a man sat eating by himself, and threw it.
He. Threw. A. Chair.
By this time, all eyes were on us. The entire diner was paralyzed. I looked up to see Spence tearing through the crowd to get to me. He’d heard Briggs yell all the way in the bathroom.
Without a word, I handed Sparrow over to him, took Briggs by the arm, and walked him outside into the rain. We walked passed stunned faces, horrified looks, and the hostess who looked like she might have her finger on the last “1” in 9-1-1. I smiled, walked Briggs out in the pouring rain and across the street and under an awning, where he proceeded to hit me, kick, scream, cry, and flail backwards so hard that I had to position myself between his head and the abandoned store’s brick wall behind me.
I took deep breaths and talked to him until he calmed himself. “Listen to me breathing, buddy. Deep breaths. Match my breathing,” I said as I fought to hold back tears.
Once he had it together, we walked back into the restaurant. I thought the original walk of shame was the worst thing I’d have to face that day, but I was wrong. Try going through that meltdown and then staring back at the faces of those who just spent the better part of the last 20 minutes talking about what your kid just did while making guesses at how you handled it.
I smiled again and walked Briggs back to the table by ours where he picked up his crumpled menu from the floor and uprighted the tossed chair. He apologized to the man who had been eating alone when he lost his mind as if he were tagging in Rick Flair in an early 90s wrestling match.
“I’m sorry I threw your chair, sir,” he said with his head hung in shame. The man smiled back his forgiveness.
I sat back down in my seat just as the two well-dressed ladies were getting up to leave. I desperately wanted to avoid eye contact because I felt certain they had judged me. I was convinced they’d finished their salads and lemon waters over conversations about “kids these days” and what terrible parents Spence and I must be.
Instead, the lady with the necklace stopped just behind our table on her way out. She turned to me so I had to meet her eyes with my own – and smiled. Then she mouthed the words, “You did a great job.”
I mustered a faint smile in return and lowered my head, hot tears streaking down both sides of my face.
I had never felt so completely alone as I did during that meltdown and the moments after. I may always remember that feeling, but I know I will never forget that woman’s smile. Her muted approval reminded me that no matter how many people stare or point fingers, no matter how many people disagree with the parenting decisions we make, I am doing the best I can, and that is good enough.

5 Sensory Experiences That Can Enhance Learning and Benefit Any Kid

Sensory experiences can help increase focus and concentration and calm anxiety and hyperactivity in all kids- not just those with special needs.

Sensory experiences can help calm kid’s anxiety, increase focus and concentration, and reduce misbehavior. Although focusing on sensory experiences is highly beneficial for kids, kids will not all react to these experiences in the same way. While sensory experiences have often been associated with children with special needs, they can help increase focus and concentration and calm anxiety and hyperactivity in all kids.
The available research suggests that incorporating sensory experiences to children’s everyday experiences can make it easier to meet the needs of even the most challenging among them. Below are five practical tips to help you incorporate sensory experiences to help your child find calm.

1 | Create a “sensory space”

A “sensory space” is a space filled with varied sensory resources where your kid can find calm. Creating a specific space has been found to help kids struggling with anxiety and anger. In one study, researchers created a “sensory room” filled with a variety of resources such as a mood lamp, a projector, aromatherapy, music, and bubble tubes. The researchers observed and recorded how often each child visited the sensory room. The results showed that the kids who visited the sensory room most had greater self-esteem and also improved emotional well-being.
A “sensory space” does not necessarily have to be a “physical space.” An alternative can be a “sensory box” where you put a variety of sensory items that your child can pick and use whenever he feels the need to. Varying the objects – smooth surfaces, rough surfaces, different smells – makes the sensory experience more fulfilling.

2 | Turn to aromatherapy

The sense of smell is a powerful sense connected to the brain. This explains why essential oils impact behavior. Research suggests that aromatherapy can have a healing and calming effect. There are different ways that aromatherapy can be used to make the sensory experience even more powerful. For instance, combining smell and touch by using essential oils to massage your child’s feet or toes can have an immediate calming effect.
The possibilities are endless when it comes to using aromatherapy but not all essential oils are appropriate to use with children. Before using essential oils with your child, inform yourself about the precautions to take and the oils best adapted to calm kids’ anxiety and hyperactivity.

3 | Provide multisensory experiences

In one study that sought to determine whether multisensory experiences helped children learn better, researchers associated different colors with music, scents, art, poetry, literature, and colored lights. They found that children who were taught colors using multisensory experiences were better able to learn different colors.
Multisensory experiences are those that enable kids to use their different senses. For example, aromatherapy play dough helps kids engage their sense of smell and touch. Remember, however, that all essential oils used with kids should be safe for them and should be diluted first if they are to come into contact with your child’s skin. Another multisensory experience could be playing soft music as your child is playing with her blocks or with sand.

4 | Incorporate sensory experiences throughout the day

Any activity that encourages children to use their senses is a sensory activity. Playing with water or grains, smelling the roses, jogging, running, playing with sand, listening to music, and dancing are all sensory activities.
Different activities respond to different sensory needs. Activities such as swinging, jumping on the trampoline, and doing aerobic exercises release endorphins that help decrease anxiety. Chewing chewy foods, sucking or blowing are different sensory experiences that may also have a calming impact on your child. Finger painting is a great sensory activity. Incorporating different activities throughout the day is a great way to help your kid find focus and calm.

5 | Use deep pressure and movement sensory activities

The pressure exerted by weights has been found to help calm kids’ anxiety and hyperactivity. For instance, weighted blankets have been found to create a natural calming effect.
Although they are frequently used with children with special needs (for example autism), they are also effective with high-energy kids. Many parents have reported benefits with their children, including better sleep, waking up more rested, and happier and more focused kids.
By exerting pressure on the body, weighted blankets release neurotransmitters that have been proven to have a calming effect on the body. Wrists and ankle weights may also have the same effect.
Activities that involve heavy work – raking leaves, pushing against a wall, pushing a heavy cart – have also been found to be effective in focusing kids’ attention and reducing anxiety.
While the information provided here can help calm anxiety and hyperactivity in all kids, it is provided for informational purposes only. If your child has a sensory processing disorder, please contact your therapist before trying the activities proposed above.

Lessons From Dyeing My Hair Blue

As a mother who sometimes screams, who is unsure of herself, I’m still practicing how to accept my own imperfections. My own failings.

This is a submission in our monthly contest. October’s theme was Determination. Enter your own here!
It’s the end of middle school when my best friend, Janine, and I show up to a sleepover with freshly dyed hair. It is so fresh that we haven’t yet washed it because we didn’t read the box, or maybe we wanted to make sure it really stuck.
Janine is tall and lanky and more gorgeous than she realizes. She’s half-Chinese and her jet black hair barely shows glints of the red Manic Panic she chose to put in it. My long dirty blonde locks are fully blue. Our spunkiness is (in our own eyes, at least) the talk of the sleepover party.
At some point, we realize that we are going to start staining pillows and sleeping bags if we don’t wash the dye from our now burning scalps. I hop into my friend’s shower, and a few minutes later I hear screaming. Her mother has gotten wind of the fact that there is blue hair dye running down the drain of her brand new shower in her brand new bathroom.
A moment later she bursts in and jerks back the curtain. She screams at the top of her lungs, like I’ve only ever heard my own mother scream, when she sees the deep blue circling down the drain as I cover my body with my hands. She slams the bathroom door and moments later, I can still hear her raging inside her bedroom.
I jump out of the shower and pat myself dry. Quickly, I throw my clothes back on and race downstairs where the rest of the girls are cowering, wide-eyed. Janine’s hair is still covered in red dye. We exchange a look that says “let’s get the fuck out of here” and in an instant, run out the back door. We roam the neighborhood a while, then head to my house which is only a few blocks over. We tell my mom the party was a bust and Janine sleeps there instead. We both decide our friend’s mother is a horrible bitch and to never see her again.
The next day, I’m in my room when I hear a knock at my front door. I’ve hardly been upset about what happened. It’s just good preteen gossip. I’m sure Janine and I laughed about it, or said horrible things about the woman who reamed us out and ruined the party. But my hair looked awesome so what else was there to worry about? When I hear the knock, I run downstairs to get the door. My mother works from home, so I’m guessing it’s just one of her customers who doesn’t know that they are allowed to let themselves in.
I bound down the steps and when I get to the bottom, notice who’s standing on the porch. I freeze, wondering if I have time to hide. It’s my friend’s mother. I have no idea why she is here – I had plans never to see her again, and now she’s standing on my front porch. I imagine she’s looking for my mother. I’m afraid she might scream at me again. Slowly, I open the door and step onto the porch, head down.
She takes off her thick, black sunglasses and reveals her red-rimmed eyes. They are swollen and puffy in a way mine have only looked when I cried all night over a boy. I’m used to her looking so sophisticated, I realize. Her hair in a short pixie cut and her all black clothing. But right now, she looks broken. I look at her sad eyes and before I can say anything, she starts to speak.
“Sarah, I am so sorry about what happened last night. I am so, so sorry. You have no idea how sorry I am. I’m so embarrassed for how I acted.” Tears start streaming down her face. I can’t believe it. I’m shocked that she is apologizing to me when clearly, I was the asshole who showed up at a sleepover without washing the dye out of my hair. But before I can say anything, she wraps me in a hug.
“No – it’s okay,” I manage to get out. “It’s really my fault.” But she won’t let me own it.
“All the dye came out. It washed right down the drain. I ruined the party. I’m so sorry. I had no right to yell at you.” She was so sincere, so devastated, and I’d just been going on with my self-absorbed preeteen life, barely hanging onto the night before.
I’m sure I called Janine to tell her what happened the second I went back to my room. I’m sure I played it off like she was insane for showing up at my house – like, who does that? But a part of me was jolted. This woman, this 40-something, responsible mother, was badly hurting. And partly, it was because of me. But it was also partly because she made a mistake. A mistake she couldn’t take back. And for a second, I saw her as a human instead of my friend’s mother.
Until that point in my life, I hadn’t seen mothers as real people. Certainly not my own. It would be years before I really learned this truth completely. Until my own anger or selfishness caught me off guard as I struggled to parent my own children. But seeing her intense vulnerability, splayed out on my front porch like that, caused a delicate shift. I felt connected to this person in a way I couldn’t really deny. I didn’t hate her, even if I might pretend to to my friends. I understood her.
Years later, I saw her at a birthday party for my best friend’s mother. And she brought up the blue hair dye incident. “Oh! I was so awful to you girls that night … I’m so sorry!” she said. All these years and she was still carrying guilt from screaming about what she thought was the death of her new bathroom. Instinctively, I put my hand on her shoulder. I had a six- and two-year-old at home, and I wanted to bawl my eyes out right there.
“Please,” I told her. “We were brats. Are you kidding me?” I felt her relief. I, as a grown woman with my own children, understood. Parents are still human beings. Parents need things for themselves. A new bathroom. A vacation. A fucking moment of silence. Parents have deep, horrible emotions that they can’t control, the same as teenagers, the same as four-year-olds. I didn’t judge her then and I certainly didn’t judge her now.
As a mother who sometimes screams, who is unsure of herself, I’m still practicing how to accept my own imperfections. My own failings. I had once believed that motherhood itself would morph me, if by magic, into a much better human. In some ways it has, but my faults have not evaporated either. I haven’t found myself overflowing with endless love and compassion always.
On my worst days, when I’ve let my children down, when I’ve yelled, or been impatient, a thought lingers in the back of my mind – I am not the mother I imagined being. I keep a pair of dark sunglasses in my purse, even in the winter.

Rewards Don’t Work – Here’s What Does

While a reward system may get kids into the habit of behaving in the desired manner, it’s not a long-term solution.

“Mom, can I have the vacuum?” asked my five-year-old daughter.
I was confused and also reluctant to turn over my beloved cordless Dyson.
“Why, sweetheart?”
Normally you cannot see my daughter’s floor through the forest of books, dolls, and clothes. She grinned while imploring me: “Come see.” She marched down the hall and into her room, leading me by the hand. When we got to her doorway I laughed in surprise. The floor was completely clear. I ceded control of the Dyson until my daughter got bored (about 47 seconds later). After I vacuumed neat rows back and forth over her pink, gray, and white chevron rug, I texted the preschool teacher photos of the immaculate room along with all the happy emojis.
Earlier that day, in frustration, I’d begged the teacher to help me find a way to quell the power struggles that had been erupting between my daughter and me for months. If I’m being honest, years. No sticker chart or time-out could tame her steadfast refusal to do what I asked, whether it was to do her chore (she literally has one chore), to get out of the bathtub, or get her shoes on.
Her teacher suggested a marble jar. Here’s how it works: I put a marble in a jar every time I “catch” my daughter being good. When the jar is full, she earns a treat. The teacher said to follow a rule of never removing marbles as a consequence for bad behavior. I added my own rule: Requesting a marble (e.g., “Will I get a marble if I do my chore?”) precludes you from receiving one.
My daughter’s response to the marble jar was a classic example of positive reinforcement at work. According to Ira Chasnoff, M.D., author of “The Mystery of Risk,” positive reinforcement is the only one of the four types of discipline that actually works. In light of that, the steep improvement I saw in my child’s behavior should not have been surprising.
Still, I had questions. Why had the sticker charts not worked? And why, even as I grew lazy about rewarding “marble-worthy” behavior, did the power struggles continue to decrease both in frequency and intensity? There had to be more to the equation than simply positive reinforcement.
I talked to Sarah MacLaughlin, parent educator and author of “What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children” to fill in the gap. She cautions parents to use positive reinforcement only “as training wheels” – and even then, only if they’ve already tried approaches emphasizing the relationship. In other words, while a reward system may get kids into the habit of behaving in the desired manner, it’s not a long-term solution.
MacLaughlin cites the work of education and parenting expert Alfie Kohn, who calls rewards and punishments “two sides of the same coin” in his book “Punished by Rewards.” As MacLaughlin explains, whether you’re rewarding good behavior or punishing bad behavior, “the goal is to influence/control/coerce a child and their behavior, [a strategy that has] a rapidly approaching expiration date.” She recalls offering her son candy as a reward for taking a necessary dose of bitter medicine when he was five years old. “He burst into tears and wailed, ‘Why are you threatening me?’ It took me a minute to work out how offering him M&M’s to take the stuff was a threat, but then I realized – the threat was that he wouldn’t get the chocolate unless he took the medicine.” MacLaughlin says she then realized she’d inadvertently attempted to coerce her child, something she’d never advise parents to do.
While MacLaughlin feels positive reinforcement may be effective, it should be used sparingly, if at all. She says children tend to respond well to positive reinforcement for the same reasons adults do. Most of us would be more motivated to meet performance goals for a manager who rewards our efforts than be subject to punishment for poor performance. However, MacLaughlin points out “I’m also not likely to care much about positive reinforcement or rewards from someone I don’t respect or feel connected to.” Both MacLaughlin and Chasnoff agree on one important point: When it comes to motivating our children, no system or method can (or should) take the place of a loving relationship.
One of the risks of using positive reinforcement, says MacLaughlin, is raising a child who becomes an extrinsically motivated adult. Extrinsic motivation is when a reward or recognition motivates a person to perform. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is what causes people to accomplish something simply because they want to. According to Daniel Pink, career analyst and author of “Drive,” when it comes to creative problem solving, the prospect of extrinsic rewards actually hurts performance.
But the main issue with positive reinforcement is that it ignores the greatest source of influence on your child – your relationship. Says MacLaughlin, “Behavior is always driven by either development (i.e., it’s normal and to be expected), an unmet physiological need, or emotion/stress (children don’t have a fully wired brain and their off-track behavior is often a result of a dysregulated brain state).” As parents, it is crucial to understand that it’s our connection with our kids – not any “sticker, star, gummy bear, [or] punishment” according to Dr. Becky Bailey – that can help get them back on track. Bailey is a developmental psychologist and early childhood expert whose TEDx talk “Wiring the Brain for Success” explains the neurology responsible for this phenomenon.
But if offering a marble isn’t the way to go when your kid is not cooperating, or worse, having a meltdown, what is? MacLaughlin advises parents to listen. And listen some more. If your child is having a fit, she says it is futile to attempt to give consequences or feedback when a child is an elevated emotional state (e.g., crying or screaming). That does not mean you should ignore bad behavior, however. If for example, your child becomes physically aggressive, MacLaughlin recommends you first help her calm down. Only when kids are calm do they have the capacity to listen and learn. At that point, she says,

“You can validate a child who is heated by saying, ‘You tried to kick me because I said NO to dessert. I understand you’re upset, and I won’t let you hurt me.’ Then listen more, say less, and offer no ‘consequences’ or feedback until they are calm (the Hand in Hand model calls this Staylistening). Once you gauge you’re past the point of triggering those big emotions, you can offer feedback and education. For example, ‘I know you know that hitting is not okay. As you grow and mature you’ll learn how to stay in charge of yourself and not hit when you’re upset.” I call this combo a Truth Bomb Pep Talk–information, a reminder, and encouragement all rolled into one.”

If your child is simply refusing to do what you’re requesting, MacLaughlin urges parents to remember that kids are doing the best they can, and to assume that they aren’t cooperating because they need help, whether emotionally or physically. She says there could be something bothering them on an emotional level, in which case she recommends the Staylistening approach. Or it could be that using humor – making your request in a funny voice or with an accent – will get them on board. If that doesn’t work, and before you lose your cool, MacLaughlin suggests stopping what you’re doing and set a limit by calmly, kindly, physically guiding the child to the chore or task. She says parents are often surprised at how well this works.
Whenever my daughter’s marble jar filled up, she chose a treat. We would either hit the bagel shop or the used bookstore, but no matter what, it was just us. Her love languages are apparently carbs, books, and quality time. In light of what I learned from MacLaughlin, it’s clear the positive reinforcement was just the “training wheels” she needed to start rolling in the right direction. I’m convinced that it was the “reward” of spending rare one on one time together that took care of the rest.

Tonight's Lights Out Struggle

The light flicked on again. I stop and stare at the shining coming through the bottom of the door. “How can he still be awake?” I ask my husband.

This is a submission in our monthly contest. October’s theme is Determination. Enter your own here!
The light flicked on again. I stop and stare at the shining coming through the bottom of the door.
“How can he still be awake?” I ask my husband.
“He’s going to be exhausted tomorrow,” he says while shaking his head. I take a deep breath.
“Okay. My turn to check this time.” Setting my laptop on the couch, I have a feeling that this won’t be the last moment getting up.
Padding across our dark wood floors, I lean on our three-year-old son’s door and gently push it open. His lamp is on. There are toys strewn across the floor. That’s when I notice him. Our son is sitting on his bed wearing a hard hat and boots with his superhero cape tied around his neck. He’s meticulously lining up his dinosaurs on his pillow. He looks at me. Based on his expression, I think I walked in at a very busy time.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Building.”
Hmmm, a one-word response. This usually means he has no intention of stopping and would like me to leave the room closing the door behind me.
“It’s time for bed. You have to get up for school tomorrow.” Carefully slipping the hard hat off his head and tugging the boots from each foot, my son stops to look at me.
“I don’t want to sleep,” he whimpers.
“How come?” I ask while gathering each brontosaurus and tossing them in the bucket.
“I’m scared. There are monsters in my room, and it gets too dark.” Yawning, he crawls into my lap.
After checking under the bed, in the closet and in his drawers, I confirmed the expected. There are no monsters in his room. Calling dad for backup reassurance, he does a quick sweep of the room and agrees there are no one-eyed furry creatures lurking in the dark.
With another kiss and hug, we flick the light.
“Now go to sleep.”
I find my cozy spot on the couch and park my tired body. What’s on Netflix? Flipping through the channels looking for a new binge series, I hear a car horn. Ignoring it, I keep searching.
WeeOoooWeeOooo
A police siren? I glance back at my son’s door. Sure enough, he’s awake again. This is the third time going into his room. Feelings of frustration are boiling.
Not bothering to knock I walk into his room.
“We just checked for monsters, and there is nothing in here. Lights out. Now.”
He looks at me. A slight smirk is forming on his face. For some reason, I’m starting to think I’m being tricked.
“I have to go to the bathroom.” He’s squirming around in his bed. I send him the Mama Bear stare.
“Hurry up and go. No more playing around.” Picking up his little body and walking to the bathroom he randomly starts sharing a friendship problem from school. This quick trip to the john has suddenly turned into a long drawn out affair of problem-solving.
“I’m sorry those boys were running away from you at the playground. Remember, you want to play with friends that make you feel good. If they always hurt your feelings, then it’s best to find a new friend.”
With a nod of his head and smile on his face, I’m feeling confident we solved the world’s problems for the day, and we can finally get some sleep.
Again, lights out. Eyeing the open spot on the couch, it begins calling my name. Lingering outside his door for another minute, I take a deep breath. Burying myself into the cushions of the couch I close my eyes. It’s late. There’s no time for an episode of anything.
“Looks like we forgot to take that Christmas book out of his room again.” Charlie Brown’s “O Tannenbaum” was playing from down the hall. Such a thoughtful gift from Auntie, but there should be a silent button on musical books.
This boy is determined tonight. Pointing my finger at my husband, he takes the cue and claims it’s his turn.
After he closes the door, it becomes silent again. Angels begin to sing, or maybe that’s in my mind. My eyes start to feel heavy. I drift off to sleep.
Unsure of how long I’d been out, I sit up and look around. Where is my husband? Maybe he went to bed. I clumsily make my way to our bedroom fumbling for the lamp. Click. Staring at a messy bed, with the cat sprawled out at the foot, it’s empty.
Poking my head in our son’s room, there curled up under his covers is my three-year-old. Wedged in next to him is my husband crammed into the toddler bed. I smile and for the last time, turn off the light.

Why Bad Behavior Is Not Synonymous With Bad Kids

Your kid’s behavior is neither driven by “badness” nor is it a sign of bad parenting. Rather, it’s a sign that you’re not speaking the same language.

Have you ever thought “my kid couldn’t possibly do that” just to find out that he can and he did? Sometimes kids do, well, bad things. Sometimes they’re difficult. But your kid’s behavior is neither driven by “badness” nor is it a sign of bad parenting. Rather, it’s a sign that you’re not speaking the same language. Here are a few tips to help you hit it off.

1 | Get on the same wavelength

You know how sometimes you’ll say something totally innocent and someone else will take your remarks as a personal attack? Well, sometimes it happens even with our own kids. Despite speaking a common language, family members may have different interpretations of family dynamics and behavior.
In other words, families in which members are not the same wavelength have higher levels of tension because of the different ways in which they interpret the same thing. What you perceive as concern, your kid may define as intrusiveness. Being on the same wavelength means making sure your kids understand why you do the things you do, but it also means being able to understand why they act like they do. It also means being clear about your expectations.
Being on the same wavelength means being receptive to your kid’s point of view even when it differs with your own, and being big enough to own even your smallest mistakes.

2 | Your child’s temperament matters

Researchers from the University of Washington found that tailoring parenting styles to kid’s personalities had a significant impact on behavior.
Over a period of three years, the researchers observed how 214 kids interacted with their mothers in the home environment. They observed issues such as everyday conversations, common problems, and conflict (for instance, resistance to homework or chores). They also analyzed parenting styles and focused on issues such as warmth, negativity, autonomy granting, and guidance. Kids’ anxiety and depression levels were also measured and their personality traits identified. The kids were nine years old when the study began.
The researchers came to the following conclusions:

  • The kids’ whose mothers were warm and encouraged them to be independent had less anxiety and depression, but only if these kids had good self-control
  • The kids who had good self-control but whose parents were over-controlling and provided them with few opportunities to cultivate independence had higher levels of depression and anxiety
  • The kids who had poor self-control were less anxious when their mothers provided more structured environments and less autonomy
  • If the mothers of kids with poor self-control skills provided little control, the kids’ anxiety doubled
  • Maternal negativity increased depression among kids low in fear

As the study shows, parenting styles are more likely to have an impact on kids’ behavior if they are tailored to their personalities.

3 | Parenting is a relationship

Relationships thrive when there’s mutual respect. They thrive when all concerned parties feel appreciated and heard. How we treat our kids speaks volumes about how we view our relationship with them.
Much evidence suggests that adopting a positive discipline approach improves kids’ well-being and behavior and also strengthens the parent-child bond. Positive and intentional parenting approaches can enable parents to use discipline techniques without negatively affecting kid’s development outcomes.

4 | Don’t forget that emotions are a big deal

It is now widely accepted that kids’ inability to manage their emotions explains much of their “misbehavior.” Indeed, much like adults, kids find it hard to communicate about complex issues. When you use age-appropriate strategies to help your kid identify his emotions, you help cultivate his emotional intelligence. You teach her that it is normal and okay to have emotions, but also that each and every one of us can learn to control our emotions. Evidence suggests that kids who have learned to regulate their emotions have lower levels of depression and anxiety.

5 | Need for professional help

In the study cited above, the researchers from the University of Washington found that kids’ temperament may render them vulnerable to certain behavioral problems, regardless of parenting. In other words, despite your best intentions, you might be unable to help your kid. When you lack the necessary skills and resources to help, turning to a skilled professional can help both you and your kid get over difficult moments. Remember that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

What Are We Apologizing for When We Apologize for Our Kids?

What am I really sorry for? I’m sorry for the times I have apologized for things they cannot help. Like being an energetic, wiggly kid.

“I’m sorry” I mutter when my three-year-old bumps into a stranger’s legs at the store.
“I’m sorry” when we cancel because she woke up at 3 a.m., was a terror all day, and finally went down for a nap.
“I’m sorry” that he can’t eat the treats because of food allergies.
“I’m sorry” when the two year old doesn’t share a favorite toy.
“I’m sorry” about the wiggles and squeals we try to suppress at church.
“I’m sorry” he acts hyper when he feels overwhelmed.
“I’m sorry” she wet her pants.
“I’m sorry” he’s eating your snacks.
“I’m sorry” she clings to the teacher in class.
“I’m sorry” someone pushed.
“I’m sorry” he’s standing too close to her.
“I’m sorry” they are loud.
“I’m sorry” they are in your way.
So many sorrys.
Recently we traveled to visit family. During the first part of our trip I spent a lot of time saying sorry – for spills, messes, misbehaviors, and early mornings. One afternoon, after struggling for several hours to get my kids to take naps, we showed up late at my grandma’s house for a playdate we had planned. When she answered the door I immediately began explaining myself, doing the “mommy sorry.” She cut me off, mid-apology. Looking me directly in my eyes as I fought off some tears of overwhelm, she said, “Please. You don’t ever need to apologize. We are in this together. We can be flexible.”
Her words melted me and all my mommy-insecurity into a big puddle of tears, right there on her porch. This was a veteran mom of six children talking. But more importantly it was my grandma, someone who loves and sees me and my kids for who we are, not how well we perform.
Her words lodged themselves in my heart, and they have caused me to think a lot about the superfluous “mommy sorry.” Why do so many of us do it? I hear you apologize for your kid not answering adults when asked a question, for your toddler not sharing, for countless other social infractions. I know I’ve said my share of sorrys too.
Why do we apologize for the growing process of our little people when it is not something we can control by verbally taking responsibility for it? Are we actually sorry? Their very existence hinges on inconveniencing others. When we say sorry for everything about our kids, it starts to sound like we are apologizing for the very fact they exist and for the people they are.
What am I really sorry for? I’m sorry for the times I have been more concerned about pleasing others than properly parenting my kids. I’m sorry for the times I have apologized for things they cannot help. Like being an energetic, wiggly kid. Or having food allergies. Or not sharing, although pediatricians say kids can’t understand sharing until age three. Why do I apologize for the social behaviors of these small people? For them not yet understanding personal space. For being attached to their mom. For struggling to master the art of whispering. For not noticing they are in the way because their eyes can’t even see over the shopping cart. Why do I apologize for their physical needs and the instincts they follow to meet them? Like wanting someone else’s snacks. Or taking a really long nap. Or having an accident in the middle of Target.
I’ve realized if there’s anyone’s forgiveness I should ask, it’s my kids. I hope they forgive me for the times I have apologized for their kid-ness. I want them to know I am not ashamed of them or embarrassed about the things that make them kids. Those sorrys were voiced by Mom’s insecurity, not her heart.
Parents of the world – can we stop apologizing to one another for our kids being kids? After all, we are all in this together. We can be flexible with each other as we all do our best to raise kind and responsible people. Let’s support more and judge less. Let’s be the village it takes to raise a child.

How to Find the Sweet Spot in Discipline: Parenting Advice From a High School Teacher

There is a way to be genuine with your kids, have a good relationship, and still be the parent. You aren’t losing your influence, it’s just changing.    

Imagine your least favorite teacher, the English teacher who thought everything you wrote was lame, the foreign language teacher who never let you say one word in English during class, or the chemistry teacher who wished the students weren’t there to get in the way of the science. Chances are, they ruled their classroom like a ship at sea. They were the captains and, if you wanted to get home alive, you did as they said.

They all had a look: the look that could freeze you to your chair, choke a whisper back down your throat, and make you want to duck and cover. It was a powerful piece of magic, that look.

As a teacher, I had a look of sorts, but because I preferred comradery to tyranny, it wasn’t quite as piercing. My look said, “I see you and I know what you’re doing. Things are going along swimmingly right now, so let’s not mess that up, yes?”

It usually worked. Without a word, they’d get back to the task at hand and the waters remained undisturbed. After a decade of this, I’d gotten my version of “the look” honed to perfection: respectful but assertive, friendly but uncompromising.

Then I had kids, and the second they became self-aware, “the look” got shot to bits. They didn’t care to keep the ship sailing. They’d rather torpedo our little outing to the park, our healthy dinner, or our calm bedtime routine. They were anarchists at heart. “The look,” I discovered, was too nuanced. Kids aren’t into subtlety.

However, I wasn’t ready to slap some corporal punishment on them or “lay down the law” – what would effectively be taking 10 paces back and turning for a duel. I wanted to discipline, but I also wanted to work on the respect thing together. Fear-mongering would get us nowhere.

I think modern parents fight this battle all the time, between what our parents and those before them considered necessary discipline and our own desires to be friends with our kids. Too many hard lines make you the enemy, and no lines make your authority as parent disappear.

There is a place in the middle, though, a way to be genuine with your kids, have a good relationship, and still be the parent. You aren’t losing your influence, it’s just changing.    

Make the family rules together

By discussing as a family what’s valued, allowed, and respected and what’s not, you’re giving your kids ownership over themselves and how they want life at home to look. Let them make suggestions. Let them see you write it down. Put it on the fridge like the House Doctrine it is. If they can feel invested in it, they are much more likely to abide by it.

Give do-overs

One thing the older generations rarely did was the do-over. There were no second chances. That’s a hard line to walk. Perfectionism is impossible and humanity is all about what you do after you fail. What does the rebound look like? Giving your kids do-overs teaches them that there is a right and a wrong way to behave, but nothing is irreparable. Life is about practice. The do-over lets them practice better behavior and gives you a chance to offer cheers at the end instead of punishment.

Be a creeper

Yes, I mean that. Parents are clairvoyant in many ways. We sense approaching trouble. When you get that feeling, that the crayons are about to go from paper to wall or the sharing of the favorite costume or toy or food is nearing an end, creep on over and hover in their vicinity. Let them see you in their line of sight. Sometimes that’s all it takes. Like seeing the traffic cop half a mile ahead, it hits the brakes on potential rebellion. And you don’t even have to say a word.

Don’t take it personally

It’s so easy to get our feelings hurt when our kids disrespect us or ignore the Family Rules, as sacred as we made them out to be. In the end, they’re just kids. Chances are it’s not malicious. We have to keep moving forward, giving the do-over, and finding ways to buoy up our self-worth separate from our kids. We can’t build our identity and our days around how they feel about us. In the end, our job is to raise responsible, honest, big-hearted people who will keep the world running as best they can.

Parenting like this isn’t about extremes. It’s not stirring up fear or sitting back like a pal. It’s about creating a safe environment with mutually agreed-upon rules that encourages self-awareness. The aim is to give everybody the chance to get better at being themselves.