February Parenting Thought of the Month: The Consequence Trap

On Feb. 28, Sarah will host a webinar on “The Truth About Consequences.” Sign up today!

Today, many parents have a meh relationship with consequences—they know punishments should be doled out when a child misbehaves, but they don’t like having to carry out the sentence. The trouble lies in the fact that most parents view consequences as only punitive—that is, to punish a child for doing wrong.

That way of thinking makes it hard for moms and dads to be consistent with punishments and to actually levy strong enough consequences to make a difference in their child’s behavior. What they often forget or fail to recognize is that consequences have a purpose beyond a “sentence” for wrongdoing.

Consequences have two main objectives:

  1. To make a child feel bad about the misbehavior AND
  2. To make a child think twice about misbehaving in the future.

Most of the time, children don’t feel bad about doing the wrong thing on their own. It’s something we must teach our children. Not to shame them, but to help them recognize that there are right things to do and there are wrong things to do. Kids who don’t learn the difference usually have a more difficult time navigating life’s rough waters.

Images Copyright: Kat and Steve Smith | ks-photography.com.au

 

To achieve the first objective, parents must be willing to allow their child to feel temporary (emotional mostly) pain or discomfort when correcting the misbehavior. A child who cries when caught with a hand in the cookie jar is feeling emotional pain, but mostly because he or she was caught. Levying a consequence will reinforce that wasn’t the right thing to do—and help the child remember not to reach into the cookie jar again without permission. Consequences should also deter a child from misbehavior in the future.

Sometimes, though, moms and dads don’t carry out a sentence that will impact a child’s future. In other words, we sometimes will levy minor punishments in the hopes that will curb future “crimes.” And when it doesn’t—as will happen at times—we pile on more minor consequences in the vain hope that those “slaps on the wrist” will change a child’s wrong direction.

We also misstep by telling a child exactly what will happen when he or she does something wrong, i.e., “You leave your bike out one more time, and I’m putting it away for a week.” On occasion, this will work as a determent or an incentive to correct behavior, but more often, a child simply decides he or she can “handle” the punishment, so does the crime.

What is more effective is a parent who simply does something when a child misbehaves, but the child has no idea what that will be. We follow this practice in our home, in that, we rarely tell our kids what will happen if they misbehave. What they do know is that we are very creative in our punishments, and that we “hit them where it hurts,” i.e., we tailor consequences to have the most impact on that particular child. Not a one-size-fits-all approach.

When a child doesn’t know what will happen—but does know it will be something that impacts his/her way of life negatively—the child will be more apt to think before doing the misdeed. That’s why you don’t always tell exactly what will happen, and you make sure your punishments are designed to maximize discomfort for the child. This is to help the child’s conscious to develop and to provide an external check to misbehavior.

Here’s one example from my household. When my oldest daughter, Naomi, was 10 years old, one of her daily chores was to refill the cats’ water dish before school each morning, which was in the downstairs bathroom. She started to get sloppy about it, and I would go downstairs after they were on the bus to find the water dish empty or nearly so. Nagging her didn’t help, and neither did a week of early-to-bed nights.

Then I realized she didn’t care enough to “remember” her chore—it was up to me to make her an offer she couldn’t refuse. The next day, I put up a 30 block chart on the fridge with Naomi’s name at the top. When she noticed it after school, I told her what it meant: She was to fill the cats’ water dish every day for 30 days, telling her dad or me so we could check it. If she missed a day, the 30 days started all over from day 1. Once she had gone 30 consecutive days without reminders or misses, she would get her books back.

Silence from Naomi. Then, “What do you mean I’ll get my books back?” I had noticed that she was reading in the mornings before school Now I love it that all of my kids love to read, but in Naomi’s case, it was interfering with her morning chores. So I took them away. For a month. No reading at all at home. She threw a fit (of course), but do you think she missed filling the cats’ water dish once in the next 30 days? Nope. Suddenly, her “memory” problem was fixed! Have I had to bring out the big guns like that again with her? Nope, that’s a memory that sticks! Have I had to remind her younger sister (2 years younger) to do her chores? Nope, she’s prompt because she doesn’t want something similar to happen to her.

Consequences should be memorable, cause a child discomfort, temporary (they don’t last forever in most cases), and provide a lasting lesson to deter future infractions.

Parenting Advice That Makes You Go Hmmmm: Giving Homework to Parents?

In the fall, Fairfax County Public Schools included this little gem in its weekly email under the headline: “Tips for Parents: Let Your Elementary-Age Child Give You Homework.”

The short piece read like this: “For many parents, it’s been a long time since they had to do homework. So when their children complain about it, they aren’t always sympathetic. Parents can better understand what their children are going through if they go through it too. Once every week or so, let your child give you an assignment. Even if it’s easy for you, don’t show it. Instead, ask your child to help you. One of the best ways for children to learn something is by teaching it to someone else. It will make your child feel important and a little smarter. It’s a great ego booster.”

To which I scratched my head at the convoluted thought process: I can’t understand my child not wanting to do homework because I don’t have any homework of my own? However, I did go to school, and at that time, I did have homework. But those distant memories aren’t enough for me to emphasize or sympathize with my fourth or fifth grader today.

Furthermore, life is full of things we don’t want to do, like dishes, laundry, grocery shopping, housecleaning, bill paying, taxes, etc. All of us, no matter if we “work” outside the home or not, have busy work (aka, homework) that needs to be done that we don’t particularly like doing. Learning how to summon the internal will to do such work is part of growing up—and the more our youngsters have to deal with unpleasant but necessary tasks, the more used to them they’ll become and the more able to overcome their natural resistance to get ‘er done.

I originally posted a brief comment on Facebook after receiving the email, and I quickly found out I wasn’t the only parent wondering why this was put forth as a good idea. One local reader—who has kids in Fairfax County Public School too—said, “What cracks me up about that argument is that we have experienced it…because we went to school. And we had homework! And my parents just asked if I did it. They didn’t sit over my shoulder to make sure I did it and they certainly didn’t offer to do any assignments with me!”

Another pointed out, “The great thing about being human is that I can imagine what it’s like to have a mouthful of thumbtacks without experiencing it!!!” One poster had a good thought: “If kids can give parent’s homework, then can parents give teachers homework?”

The bottom line is that parents can empathize with our kids without resorting to dumb ideas like allowing them to assign us homework that we pretend to have trouble doing. When I read this out loud to my kids at dinner one night, my high schooler, middle schooler, fifth grader and fourth grader thought it was a pretty funny—and very strange—idea. As my fifth grader said, “Why would I want to give you homework?”

It’s ideas like this that make kids sometimes view adults as, well, not the brightest bulb in the socket.

January Parenting Thought of the Month: Kids Do Weird Things

As we start a fresh year with no mistakes (yet!), it’s good for parents to remember that their children are perfectly capable on any given day to do something totally off the wall, mean or downright illegal. Parents can do everything right and their kids can still choose to do the wrong thing.

For example, one of our kids used to walk down the hallway with tongue out, licking the wall. Another child spit at a classmate in anger during lunch (the classmate then stabbed my child in the hand with a plastic fork—yikes, good thing they were both first graders at the time, so no harm done). This is just a sampling of how strange our kids can be…and how unpredictable their behavior, even when said kids “know” the right thing to do or not to do.

Many times, a child acting in an unpredictable way can trigger a corresponding paralysis in the parent, especially the mother. The parent tries to decipher why the child did what he or she did, often wondering if the behavior was the result of some parenting misstep. More time and energy is spent on trying to figure out the why behind the behavior than addressing the behavior, and confusion often reigns in the wake of such incidents.

Since every parent will encounter something strange, weird, despicable or downright bad behavior in their child at some point along their parenting journey, what should a parent do in these situations? Here’s what I keep in mind when my kids go off the rails—or simply act according to their kid-nature.

  • Ignore the kid stuff. From licking a wall to drawing with spit on a window, we should learn to let go of the weird things kids do without overreacting. Sure, tell them to stop if it’s really annoying you, but if it’s simply that you find it strange that they want to do that (like jumping in mud puddles after a rain or only wanting to wear a princess crown instead of hair bows), you should probably let them enjoy being a kid. After all, there’s enough time for them to adhere to adult conventions.
  • Remind the child that you still love her despite her actions, but that there are consequences for what she did. Be prepared to level appropriate punishments so that there’s hopefully not a repeat of the behavior. In other words, love the child but still punish her if appropriate (or follow through if a school suggests consequences at home in addition to school).
  • Help the child take responsibility. This means the parent doesn’t step in and shield the child from his actions, but step alongside the child and, depending on the age of the kid, show him what he needs to do to make it right. This should include sincere apologies, preferably both written and verbal, and an offer of restitution.
  • Make the child assume full restitution for any damage. For a teenager, this could mean you front the money to pay for the broken window or defaced property, then he works odd jobs or a part-time job until the debt is paid. For a younger child who has little earning potential, this could mean that he pays on a sliding scale and perhaps does extra work for the person or place (such as weeding a garden at school or helping to clean up after an event) until the debt has been paid. In both cases, be clear what it will take to wipe the slate clean, such as a specific dollar amount for older kids or a certain number of extra chores that specifically benefit the person or place that was harmed (such as a school that the child defaced with graffiti, for example).

Five Parenting Hacks

I’m often asked what are some easy ways to make raising kids more enjoyable and less stressful. Here are my top five in no particular order. If you adopt even one of these in the coming year, I think you’ll find yourself more calm and confident as a parent.

  1. Develop a parental vision. How would you describe your child at age 30? How you answer that question tells about your parenting vision for your children. Think about the vision you have for your children, then think about how you are parenting. Do your decisions as a parent reflect the vision you have for your kids? Do the things you encourage your children to accomplish build toward the vision you have for them as adults?
  2. Parent with open hands by encouraging independence. Let the child solve his own problems first before stepping in immediately. Refrain from doing things the child is capable of doing for himself. Recently, I saw a parent take off his second or third grader’s shoes for no other reason than because she demanded it. That parent needed to stop doing for his daughter what she was perfectly able to do for herself. Stop being your child’s social director—let him initiate playdates, especially as the child inches into upper elementary school age. Finally, develop interests of your own apart from your kids, as it gives you perspective and, well, a life of your own.
  3. Disconnect to reconnect. The ability to be “in touch” with others 24/7 has created an environment totally different from that of a mere 20 years ago. An unintentional side effect of being so connected is that parents—and children—have become worn out. We’re warned about what we—and our children—are looking at on our screens, but rarely are we cautioned about what the mere fact that what we’re so linked is doing to our relationships. Have technology free zones (like at dinner, overnight, etc.). Get out and do things as a family without technology.
  4. Stop playing Parent Detective. Don’t spend so much effort worrying about trying to understand why your child does the things she does. It doesn’t make you a better parent if you understand everything about your child—it makes you an ineffective parent because you’re constantly assessing the why and forgetting about the what. The what is what’s most important. We should be more concerned with the what of our children’s behavior than the why. Sure, we need to point out the heart issues, but that doesn’t mean we give them a pass on the misbehaviors because we know the reasons. So many times, parents are so laser-focused on finding out the why that they forget to address the what.
  5. Use Alpha Speech. Moms especially use way too many words when communicating with our children, and this opens up the door for arguments and pushback. Instead of saying, “Mrs. Smith is coming over today and the living room is a mess. I need you to pick up your toys so Mrs. Smith doesn’t step on them, okay?” Alpha Moms say, “Pick up the toys in the living room.” This cuts down on arguments tremendously and it also allows the child to more clearly hear the directive.

What are some of your favorite child-rearing hacks?

More Tips on Staying Sane During December

I asked for advice on Facebook about how to not be overwhelmed during the holidays. Here’s what friends had to say:

Teresa Danner Kander says, “I try to do most of the stressful stuff, like the shopping, before Thanksgiving, so that the time from Thanksgiving to New Years is filled with fun stuff, family time, and occasional me time. And I don’t let myself build up unreachable expectations for get-togethers.”

Trinity Jensen cuts back on her expectations in regards to things like shopping, baking and decorating. Dianna Francis suggests treating Christmas as just another day to value.

Laura Ferratt echoes that thought by encouraging us to “stop in the middle of the craziness and ask yourself if today was my last day on earth, what would be important? Keep your focus on those few things and let the rest go, at least in your mind, if not in your schedule. I’ve been forced to think this way throughout my husband, Brion’s, illness, and it has been freeing and a blessing amidst pain and suffering.”

Carol Miller Huttar recommends doing ahead as much as possible. “I get everything done early, before Thanksgiving. Then I enjoy lots of fires in the fireplace, cups of hot cider, and carols.” Erin Unger is also a fan of shopping early. She even wraps all the presents by December 10. “That takes a huge weight off my shoulders during the holidays.”

April Six Wise says “no” to more things than she says “yes” to this time of year. “For example, if I’m stressed, I buy store bought cookies for the party instead of making them myself (this one is hard for me to be okay with!) and make easy meals for dinner the whole holiday season. I have to say ‘no’ to events if it messes with kiddo bedtime—or my bedtime. I’m also limiting the kids’ Christmas lists this year to one thing they want, one thing they need, something to wear, and something to read. And I’m going minimalist for decor and kid crafts. Clutter makes me super, super stressed!

John Chase agrees with April, adding “by ‘things,’ I mean anything that is contrary to the message of Christmas. Christmas to me is celebrating the advent of Emmanuel through all the music written over the centuries and the sacred events that occur in local churches and by spending time with family. All the rest can be chucked.”

Cheryl D. Hammond reminds us to slow down. “One of the biggest changes I made was to have Christmas Eve and Day sacred. We attend a candlelight service together as a family, then go home together and wake up the next morning to unwrap presents together. Christmas can be celebrated on any day, so extended family get-togethers are scheduled after Christmas Day. I used to wake up at my house, do Christmas there, then drive to my parents’ house to do it again with my side of the family. That was too crazy.”

Above all, keep in mind why you enjoy this season of the year: Family, friends and fellowship. Everything else isn’t as important as holding onto those things.

Making the Most of Holiday Gatherings

I love this time of year, with fall in full swing, the weather crisp and cooler, the anticipation of the coming family gatherings and holiday cheer. But that doesn’t mean the holidays are not without stress or concern or just plain tiredness from all the activities. Here’s how to get through the holiday season without being overwhelmed.

Decide now what you’ll do—and what you won’t do. Figure out how much will be too much for you and for your family. For those with small children, you might want to schedule only a few outings or events with family and friends. For those with older children, you might ask their input for what they’d like to do.

Focus on making memories over checking boxes. In other words, don’t feel you “have” to do something just because it’s expected. Think more about what your family enjoys doing as a family—that’s what this time of year is really about—and put those things on your calendar.

Think about giving, rather than receiving. How can you incorporate giving back to the community, to your family, to your neighborhood, to your friends, to strangers this season? For example, we have the opportunity to host international college and graduate students for a Thanksgiving dinner prior to the actual holiday, which all of us (including our four children) enjoy doing each November.

Don’t be afraid to come late or leave early. When the kids were young, we often arrived at holiday parties on the early side, then left well before ending time in order to accommodate their sleeping schedules. By doing that, we were able to enjoy the party and not have too cranky kids on our hands.

Take time to slow down. If you feel yourself becoming exhausted or overwhelmed with your to-do list or activities on the calendar, see what you can eliminate. There’s no sense running yourself ragged just because the list says you have to. Take ownership of your time and put the brakes on when it gets to be too much.

How do you keep from becoming overwhelmed during the holidays?

What’s Your ‘Mom’ Thing?

We all have at least one—that mom thing we like to do for our kids. That little gesture that we use on a regular basis to communicate without words that we love our kids. For example, one mom makes her kids’ lunches for school every day. Her mom did that for her, and she enjoys passing on the tradition to her three children.

I do hair. Each morning, I brush and braid my two teenager daughter’s hair. Once a month or so, I cut my two boys’ hair. Sure, the girls could do their own hair, but I enjoy it and they enjoy having me do that in the mornings before school.

It’s wonderful that we each have a regular way we connect with our kids. The trick is not to have so many “mom” things that your kids aren’t doing things on their own.

Please share your “mom” thing!

The Power of Preparation

When we’re expecting a baby, we spend a lot of time preparing for its arrival—decorating the nursery, buying the right equipment and clothes, etc. When the baby comes, we spend a lot of time preparing for outings—do we have a diaper bag? Check. Diapers? Check. Toys? Check. Change of clothes? Check. Something to feed the baby? Check.

When the infant grows up into a preschooler, our bag of tricks gets smaller. Upon entering elementary school, we’re rejoicing that we’re no longer a pack horse weighed down by mounds of child paraphernalia.

Somewhere along the way, we forget that we still need to always be prepared when taking our kids out to a restaurant, on a car ride, to the store, to a friend’s house, to visit grandmother, etc. This can put our kids at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to behaving—kids with nothing to do and no way to occupy their mind (and hands and feet) usually becomes kids misbehaving. Occasionally, even with preparation, kids go off the rails. But spending a little time preparing for a trip to the store or across the country will hedge against misbehavior.

Here are my top 5 tips for helping kids entertain themselves outside of the home.

  1. Encourage reading. We shoved books in our kids’ hands from the time they were little—it was my go-to when a kid needed attention or I needed a few minutes to myself. This practice means my kids take books with them to read in the car, at the store, etc.
  2. Have a “go” or travel bag. When my kids were younger, we made sure they had a small bag filled with stuff they could do on their laps, such as magnetic boards or dolls, lace-ups, coloring books/crayons or colored pencils, small figurines or action figures, etc. We avoided electronics and noisy toys.
  3. Take the bag or book when going out. Our kids used to ask us when we told them to get ready to leave, “Will I need to bring something to do?” We usually erred on the side of “yes,” as there were many times a “quick” errand turned into a long wait at the register or rain meant staying inside without age-appropriate toys to play with. You’ll rarely be sorry you made them take their bag or book.
  4. Guide them in filling the time. For long car trips for the younger set, map out a loose schedule of when to color and when to listen to an audio book. Kids sometimes need our help to occupy themselves—not to entertain them, but to provide a bit of direction—as they have a hard time thinking outside the box when they’re bored or not in a familiar place.
  5. Mind the time. Everyone has their limits, so pushing for too much time in the car or trying to pack in too much time with extended family or not watching the clock while visiting friends can tip kids over into misbehavior land. Often, if we had heeded that inner voice that said it was time to stop or leave instead of lingering another half hour, things wouldn’t have gone south in a hurry.

As our kids have grown, they have continued the practice of being prepared to occupy themselves when not at home. It hasn’t always worked out well, but overall, it’s been a huge blessing for us, one that I hope you will work toward too.

Compassionate Outpourings

Kids are touched by news or images of natural disasters. Their hearts can be stirred by the site of a homeless person dragging their belongings around town. “Compassion, empathy, and the ability to collaborate with others are fast becoming the most important traits of social and emotional intelligence that contribute to kids’ well-being and their future career success,” said Katherine Ludwig, co-author of Humility Is the New Smart.

I recently wrote an article for the Washington Post on how kids can help after a natural disaster. Here’s some other ways kids can assist that didn’t make it into that piece.

Focus on the good. “It’s a balancing act to help kids understand suffering in the world without making them paranoid or obsessed with the risk that something could happen to them,” says Penny Hunter, mom to human rights activist Zach Hunter. Pointing out how others are helping—and encouraging your kids to do the same—can provide that sense of balance.

Pack meals. This can be done on a large scale with another group or individually, and even young kids can participate. Schools, faith-based organizations or clubs can pack meals or snacks for first responder, homeless shelters or other groups with a way to get the meals to those who need them.

Christina Moreland’s sons helped to sort donations at a church after Hurricane Harvey.

Donate goods. After natural disasters, clothing, toiletry items, blankets, pillows, and other household goods are needed. Go through your closets and let your kids decide which toys and clothes they could give away. “My kids helped us go through our house and make personal donations of our own,” said Christina Moreland, author of Secrets of the Super Mom and a Houston-area resident whose home was spared.

Serve those serving. Kids can bring cold drinks or snacks to first responders or others helping to clean up after a disaster. One Christmas, my kids decided to bake muffins and cookies to take to our local fire station to thank the firefighters for working on December 25.

Thinking of others is a lifelong journey, and the sooner we can put our children on that path, the more likely they will grow into adults with a compassionate heart.

A Parent’s Back To School

At the start of the school year, it’s not just the kids who face an adjustment—parents do too. From homework to teacher conference to after-school activities, this time of year can be overwhelming and chaotic.

But don’t despair—help is right around the corner! Join me, along with five other parent coaches, on Friday, Sept. 15, for A Parent’s Back to School Facebook Party, from 5:30 p.m. to 9:10 p.m. Eastern time. Here’s the lineup of topics each coach will discuss, along with giveaways and answering audience questions. Note: All times are Eastern time.

5:30 to 6 p.m. Coach introductions—the giveaways start.
6 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Parent Coach Laura Gray on Getting Your School Day Off to a Great Start
6:30 to 7 p.m. Parent Coach Susan Morley on Creating a Family Mission Statement
7 to 7:30 p.m. Parent Coach Trinity Jensen on Avoiding Homework Hassles
7:30 to 8 p.m. Parent Coach Sarah Hamaker on Scheduling Your School Year
8 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Parent Coach Liz Mallet on How to Avoid Micromanaging
8:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Parent Coach Wendy Faucett on How to Have a Great Parent-Teacher Relationship
9 to 9:10 p.m. Final thoughts.

On Friday, visit https://www.facebook.com/events/1892016571016178 to join the fun–you can ask questions, interact with the coaches or just enjoy the party. Hope to see you all soon!