Whether you wake up each day to a household inhabited by teens or toddlers, you already know, or you’ll soon learn, that adapting to each new developmental stage your children go through fosters more understanding and cooperation between you. To raise healthy, well-adjusted individuals capable of good judgment, we, as parents, need to provide an age appropriate safety net that gradually allows and encourages children to make more and more decisions for themselves. In that sense, parenting resembles a consulting contract designed to give clients the tools and know-how to eventually take over the helm. It’s pretty easy to provide toddlers with age appropriate choices while maintaining the safety net: “Would you like to ride in the stroller or on Daddy’s shoulders?” You may need to expand your repertoire when you find yourself looking up at your teenager masquerading in a full-grown body as he or she asks to borrow the car keys. Ideally, if we’ve done our job well, our children will be capable of making sound decisions without anyone looking over their shoulder. Whatever stage of parenting you find yourself in, learning to navigate the seemingly endless variety of demands and decisions that crop up in your household every day, with diplomacy and aplomb, may be the best investment you can make for yourself, your family and your sanity.
It turns out, the best way to teach children how to make good decisions and do the right thing is, no surprise, role modeling. Research confirms that children learn most from how we, the adults, handle our challenges, our emotions and our relationships. So, the better we are at managing difficult emotions, resolving conflict and expressing empathy and compassion the more our children benefit from our skills. That’s why I suggest creating a collaborative alliance with your children so that you can start passing on good relationship, decision making, and problem solving skills early on. You might actually enjoy your twenty-year, extendable, consulting contract together that much more!
Creating a collaborative alliance with your children allows you to maintain a positive nurturing relationship while bringing all of your combined wisdom, strengths, and abilities to bear on the daily happenings that you navigate together. I can offer countless suggestions, based on research and experience, for creating more ease, joy, satisfaction and cooperation with your children without ever needing to resort to threats, bribes, or punishment. Many of us slip into automatic, unwanted habits without much thought. Fortunately, recent neuroscience findings verify that we’re wired for change. We just have to intentionally initiate the changes we’d like to see. Paying conscious attention to our habitual reactive patterns allows us to catch ourselves in the act and try something different. New skills require more attention at first. With practice, we can achieve the results we want with less effort. Becoming a more loving, engaged, calm, consistent, and collaborative parent pays off in so many ways. We feel better about ourselves and our positive transformation radiates into all of our relationships. Our children thrive under our affirmative gaze and reflect back the positive qualities we nurture in ourselves. Rising to our full potential exemplifies role modeling at it’s finest!
Being listened to is so close to being loved, that most people don’t know the difference. David Augsburger
LISTEN TO CONNECT… Setting aside our preoccupations to give someone our full attention is one of the most valuable gifts we can offer. Tuning in to someone else sends the message, “You matter.” We can seize opportunities to listen, any time, any where. Practice saying back what you hear without delivering a dose of your opinions or solutions: “You’re pretty disappointed you didn’t make the team, huh?” Many concerns dissolve or shift more easily when met with loving presence. When you cannot give your full attention be honest and schedule a rain check. With teens you can try, “I’d love to hear about your day after I finish this important phone call.” With toddlers how about, “I’d love to see what you built after I’m finished in the bathroom.” Making yourself available in loving and generous ways gives your children the sense of security they need to be less stressed and more resilient when you are not available.
BECOME A NEEDS DETECTIVE… Understanding what drives our children’s behavior permits us to respond more effectively. Maybe some new books from the library will quench a thirsty teen mind or some modeling clay or bubble making will delight a kinesthetic toddler. Your extroverted tween will probably crave a play date after a trip to visit relatives. A well-rested and well-fed toddler may display better attitude and endurance while you accomplish some errands. (Note: This strategy works well for adults too!) Anticipating our children’s needs enables us to put their urgent requests into perspective, respond appropriately, and prevent meltdowns and mishaps by preparing ahead of time.
ENGAGE THE FANTASY… Many parents dread the moment when the inevitable request, “Can we buy one of those?” strikes their ears during a shopping excursion. If possible, why not invite your child to embellish the story: “What would you do with one of those? What do you like about it? Which color would you choose?” Allowing children to explore their desires engages their curiosity and opens a window into what captivates their interest. You can employ other communication and decision making skills to decide what to buy and when, “Maybe you can buy one of those when you’ve saved up enough money.” Simply acknowledging children’s desires with genuine interest nourishes a cooperative atmosphere and signals mutual respect and compassion.
WHAT CAN YOU SAY YES TO? When your child wants something or is starting an activity that doesn’t feel good to you, try starting the conversation by sharing what would be okay with you. “If you want to spit the watermelon seeds, why don’t we eat outside?” Remember, there is no such thing as normal. Some people let the family dog sleep in their bed while others keep dogs in a kennel or outside. You and your family get to choose what works best for you within your range of acceptable values and principles. Open your imagination to the possibilities as you relax into the give-and-take rhythm of your relationships.
KEEP TRACK OF YOURSELF… Sometimes we spend so much time focused on our children and getting them to behave in certain ways that we forget to put our attention on what we have the most control over: ourselves! As our children’s first and foremost role model, it is important to respond consciously instead of reacting blindly or automatically as a result of stress, overwhelm, or our own unresolved past. When we find ourselves digging in our heels on a particular issue, we can investigate our own resistance with curiosity and compassion to reach an honest assessment of our concerns instead of unconsciously projecting our fears or unfinished business onto our children.
BE THE PEACE… Prevent conflicts from escalating by practicing strategies to calm yourself down: focus on your breath, count to ten, recall what you appreciate, take time outs if you need to. Neurologically, the cooler head—or nervous system–prevails. How you navigate stormy emotions demonstrates those skills for your children. Get familiar with your triggers and what relieves your tension. Garner support from other caring adults in your children’s lives. Admit your stress without overloading your children. “I’m sorry I barked at you, I’m just tired from a long day. I’d like us to get these dinner dishes done so I can relax.” Make time to nurture yourself: take a bath, get exercise, visit with friends… Everyone appreciates a happier, more relaxed version of you!
SUPERSIZE YOUR BRAIN POWER… Activate endless creativity by engaging the billions of neurons firing in your children’s brains. Children feel valued and respected when solicited for their opinions. You’ll likely discover acceptable solutions within your window of tolerance that you would never have thought of on your own. Sleuthing potential solutions together puts you on the same, rather than opposing sides of an issue. I’ll bet if you asked your children, right now, for suggestions on how to get along better, they’d surprise you and me every time!
WELCOME ALL VOICES… Inviting children to participate in family discussions let’s them know that their views matter. They have more investment in proposals when they have a hand in making them. Some families have regular meetings to address ongoing concerns in an open, honest way. For instance when discussing family outings, you can determine what’s affordable and acceptable to you while acknowledging your children’s preferences within those parameters. Age appropriate power sharing prepares children gradually to make good decisions and keep agreements.
SHOWER APPRECIATION… James Taylor hit the mark when he sang, “Shower the people you love with love, show them the way that you feel.” Research confirms and experience tells us that relationships thrive on hefty doses of appreciation. Bring attention to thoughtful, considerate and helpful gestures. Do so often and be specific. To the toddler, “I love how you put your toys away so neatly!” For the teen, “Thanks for putting gas in the car without me asking!” Model an appreciative relationship by showering your partner with kind words and gestures as well. “Thanks for cooking such a delicious and healthy meal for all of us,” or, “I really appreciate how you remembered our anniversary. That means so much to me.” Once you get started endless opportunities await!
Setting a daily intention to meet life and loved ones with a calm, patient, and appreciative embrace can improve your outlook and transform your relationships. The focus of our moment-to-moment awareness is what delivers real change over time. So, lighten up, relax, be yourself and have fun! Celebrate progress and don’t berate yourself for slip ups because life will bring you plenty of more opportunities to practice!