Archives for February 2009

Credit card parenting

No, I’m not about to start giving you financial advice. But there is a lot we can gain by looking at our parenting in terms of our culture’s need for immediate gratification. Think about your parenting in the same way you do with your finances. One of the first things we learn when managing our money is that we should never buy something that we can’t afford. Yet this is something the credit card industry has allowed us to do. Buy it now and you can pay it off at some distant point in the future…with interest.

The term credit card parenting refers to a parenting style that attempts to reap all the rewards of parenting now without putting in all the work to build character in our children. It means we strive for immediate gratification in our children without taking the time to teach them our moral values. It means we strive to be our child’s peer rather than his parent. It means our parenting has no clear direction or parental intent and we assume that our children will learn our values just by being around us.

When we abuse credit cards, our interest rate goes up, we are slapped with fines of all kinds and we could even end up filing for bankruptcy. We have seen this in the recent mortgage crisis with people buying homes they couldn’t afford. Foreclosures have become rampant

The same is true with our parenting. By not taking the time and effort to establish parental authority and teach our children to obey our authority now, we ultimately end up in moral bankruptcy. We may get immediate gratification, but boy do we pay for it later. High interest rates and penalty fees take the form of children who disrespect their parents and who are solely motivated by their own selfish desires.

Don’t minimize the importance of early parenting. Teach your child now and let him make mistakes now while the stakes are still low. Don’t wait until it’s too late to start teaching your child. And don’t let him stumble his way through life learning only by losing friends, getting fired and getting into huge debt. Your job as a parent is to teach him appropriate behaviors and moral values so he has a firm foundation upon which to build the rest of his life. Give him this benefit and richness will follow.

Intentional parenting

Intentional parenting is of the most important ideas behind the Ezzo parenting philosophies. It requires that we think about where we want to go with our children and what we want them to be like in two, 12 or even 20 years. We spend the time now to think about what moral values we want to instill in our children and how we might do so. We think about what behaviors or attitudes we don’t want to see in our children and be mindful of them in our daily parenting.

“Some parents simply exist. They have no direction, no goals, no plan other than what is pressing at the moment… Not only do they not know where they are going in their parenting, they’re usually not aware that they need to be headed someplace,” (On Becoming Toddlerwise, p. 89).

Set your goals
Start by sitting down with your spouse with a pen and paper in hand. Talk it over and write down your goals. They could be moral values like respecting adults or more mundane ideas like staying in bed in the morning until you allow him to get up. I have a big white board in our kitchen where I have listed our house rules and the moral lessons I want my kids to learn. (I also have a few reminder notes for myself, like “don’t repeat yourself”.) I can erase and rearrange these goals as I see fit.

Decide how you will achieve your goals
Once you have your goals in mind, you can figure out how to get there. Say for example that you want your child to sit quietly in restaurants when you go out to eat. That is your goal. Then you think through what it takes for a child to be able to do so. You practice good manners at home and when visiting friends. You decide that they will need to stay in the highchair the entire time. You teach them to speak quietly, not throw their food, not be crawling all over the restaurant, etc. Ultimately, in order to achieve your goals, your child will need to learn to obey you and submit to your authority. (See “Yes, mommy” and Eye contact.)

Be aware of any actions that lead you away from your important goals. Even taking the child out of the highchair just once could lead you down the wrong path, away from your goal. There is a quote from Secrets of the Baby Whisperer (a wonderful complement to Babywise) that says, “Start as you mean to go on.” If you decide that you want your child to sleep in his or her own bed, you wouldn’t start by co-sleeping. You may choose to have a bassinet near your bed for those early weeks, but you will still be mindful of your goal and move him to the crib as soon as you both are ready.

Teach submission
To achieve your goals, you must establish your parental authority and teach your child to submit and obey you.

“Let us assure you: Parental authority is not a bad thing. Quite the contrary. It is absolutely necessary in order to maintain the balance between personal freedom, responsibility and obligation. Parental authority represents the right of parents to insist upon conformity and compliance, especially in these three vital areas of life: morality, health and safety, and life skills,” (On Becoming Childwise, p. 48).

It is only by teaching submission that we can achieve our goals. If you want to teach your child to share and ask him to give a toy to his sibling, it is only if he is submissive to you that he will do this. Otherwise, his me-ism (selfishness) takes over and he has no reason to hand over the toy. Submission is needed everywhere we go in life.

Avoid the opposite viewpoint: reactive parenting
When you don’t set goals for your children or for yourself as a parent, you find yourself in reactive parenting mode. Your existence as a parent is reacting to what your child says and does rather than guiding and proactively directing his behavior. This idea is also discussed in Secrets of the Baby Whisperer with the term “accidental parenting”. By not starting as you mean to go on, you end up parenting from the hip and find yourself with kids who you cannot control and who you don’t enjoy.

“For some theorists, parenting is a matter of facilitating a child’s natural and impulsive way, rather than actively directing the child’s ability to make right decisions benefiting others. Reactive in nature, this nondirective approach seeks to manipulate a child’s environment in hopes of making parental supervision non-adversarial. Yet, leadership by nature requires that you make decisions based on what is best and right, not what is perceived as most pleasing in the moment,” (On Becoming Toddlerwise, p. 92).

Our parenting objective should be to teach our children our values and appropriate behaviors whether that makes them happy in the moment or not. (See holiness vs. happiness.) We should teach our children how to operate in this world as it exists rather than change the world to suit their needs. For example, we teach our children how to behave in the grocery store rather than avoiding taking them to the store. We teach our children how to behave with babysitters rather than not going on dates with our spouse. We teach our children to respond to the call of their name rather than allowing them to ignore us.

If you are an accidental or reactive parent, start with the simple step of thinking through your goals. Even a list of your top five goals is enough to start. Then be mindful of these goals in your daily parenting. If five goals is too much to focus on, start with just one. Write it down in a conspicuous place and consistently follow through on it for a week or until your child seems to get it. Then move on to your other goals.

Parenting with intent might require a big shift in your mindset, but again, with practice it will become easier. Do this work now, before your child has already established bad habits, and you will soon enjoy the benefits.

Only you can establish parental authority

In recent posts, I have discussed several Ezzo techniques that can help you establish authority over your child. While these techniques will work if you apply them consistently, it’s important to realize that each parent has a unique relationship with the child. How you interact with your child is up to you. When establishing parental authority in particular, both parents (and other authority figures in a child’s life) must use these techniques to build their own credibility in the eyes of the child. While one parent may spend more time with the child, it is still important for your spouse (or grandma or auntie) to establish his or her own authority over the child.

Not long ago, I operated under the assumption that if I worked on applying the Ezzo principles in my parenting, I would prepare my kids for every situation they encountered in life. I figured that if I taught them to respect my authority, they would naturally respect all other authority figures. Not true.

Soon after he started preschool this year, William began displaying a “wise in his own eyes” attitude problem. It was immediately obvious to me that his tone was disrespectful and that he was challenging my authority. I quickly spotted the problem and nipped it in the bud, telling him that he could not speak to me the way he did. The second I noticed his attitude shift, I stopped him in his tracks and told him to rephrase his words and speak to me nicely. It worked well, so problem solved, right?

Well, it occurred to William that while he may not be able to talk to me disrespectfully, maybe it would work on daddy. When I heard William speak disrespectfully to my husband, I jumped in and used my technique to get him to change his tone. I stopped him and told him to speak to daddy nicely. But it didn’t work this time. The disrespect continued. What William needed was for my husband to exert his own authority and tell William himself that he wouldn’t accept his disrespectful tone. I couldn’t change their relationship. My husband alone had to establish his authority over William.

We each have our own unique relationships with our children. Mom may be the disciplinarian. Dad may be fun and games. Mom may prefer to quietly read to the child. Dad may prefer to hold nightly wrestling matches. However you define your parenting roles, you must realize that your relationship with your child is unique and that your child is well aware of the differences.

You may remember as a child knowing which parent to go to with a specific request. You knew dad would say no, so you asked mom instead. Our children do the same with us. They have figured us out. They know us better than we know ourselves.

Examine your individual relationship with your child. If you feel confident that your child respects your authority, then well done. Sit back and let your spouse do the work to build his own parental authority. Don’t feel like you need to do it for him. You can’t.

If you feel your parental authority could use some work, then the responsibility is on you alone. Your spouse cannot fix this for you. The same goes for grandparents, teachers and other authority figures in the child’s life. Every one of us must do our own work to establish our authority over the child.

Growing Kids God’s Way has a chapter titled “The Father’s Mandate”. I will go into the specifics later, but it’s interesting that the authors felt the need to call attention to dad. They thought it was so important they devoted an entire chapter to it. Typically, as moms, we spend more time with our kids. I stay home with our boys and devote about 90% of my day to them. My husband, on the other hand, is consumed with work and only thinks about the kids maybe 10-20% of his day. This is as it should be.

But this does not let dad off the hook. He must still cultivate a relationship with the child and develop his own parental authority. You can guide him and show him by example how you would treat a particular situation, but be careful not to step in and take over. And don’t critique his parenting in front of the kids. This will only undermine his parental authority. Support every decision your spouse makes, even if you disagree with it. Find a time later when the kids are out of earshot to discuss it. You might even develop a signal (a tug on the ear or a “look”) that says, I disagree with what you just did; please change your tactic.

Do your work to establish your own authority with your child and offer your spouse (and grandparents and others) the tools they need to build their own authority. Offer your support and guidance and then sit back. Give your spouse the freedom he needs to establish his own authority over the child.

“Okay?”

It’s a simple word. It’s universal and is used in many different languages. It’s casual and comfortable. But I recommend you remove it from your and your child’s vocabulary. Here’s why.

Don’t use “okay” when giving an instruction
There are two problems with a parent using the word “okay”. First, it is often used at the end of an instruction, which turns the instruction into a request.

Instruction: Evan, clean up your room.
Request: Evan, clean up your room, okay?

Instruction: Sophia, mommy needs you to wash your hands before dinner.
Request: Sophia, wash your hands for mommy, okay?

If you really want your child to respect your authority and obey your instructions, you must not phrase them in the form of a question. When a child hears your inflection go up or hears that “okay” at the end of an instruction, he truly thinks you are asking him whether he agrees or not. He thinks he has the option to say no. Don’t give him that option.

You will also want to be cautious when saying “please” when you give an instruction. It is certainly polite and you want to model polite speech for your child, but you need to be sure you use an authoritative tone when you use the word.

Good: Evan, please put your toys away.
Bad: Evan, put your toys away, please?

Good: Sophia, please share your ice cream with your brother.
Bad: Sophia, share your ice cream with your brother, please?

If you’re not sure whether you sound authoritative when using “please,” don’t use it when giving an instruction. Model polite speech for him at other times of the day. Save it for later when you ask a simple request like pass the salt. Or if you do honestly have a request (not an instruction) for your child, say “please” then.

Don’t use “okay” when answering your child
Here is another time when you will not want to use the word “okay.” Whether your child asks you for a glass of milk or wants to watch TV, you are far better off saying “yes” or “yes, you may” than “okay.” In these cases, the word “okay” can have an ambiguous tone. Your “okay” could sound like, “alright, I don’t really want to agree, but you’ve convinced me.” You never want your child to believe he has the power to convince you to do something you don’t want to do.

You also want to avoid using “okay” in this instance because you want to model polite speech for your child. You want your child to respond to you with a “yes, mommy” or “yes, daddy” so give him the same courtesy. Here’s how it works in my house:

William: “Mommy?”
Me: “Yes, William?”
William: “Can I watch TV now?”
Me: “Yes, you may. Go find the remote and I will turn it on for you.”

It does not sound like this:

William: “Mommy?”
Me: “Huh?”
William: “Can I watch TV now?”
Me: “Okay.”

Do you see how the first example is more polite? It is also more authoritative and respectful.

Don’t allow your child to use “okay”
As I’ve discussed in previous posts, you will want your child to respond to you with a “yes, mommy.” He will do so in two instances: 1) when you first call his name, and 2) after you give an instruction to show he will comply. You should not allow an “okay” in either case.

You should also discourage the use of “okay” when you are having a general conversation. If you ask him how school went or how he feels about a particular situation, he shouldn’t reply with “okay.” You should require him to think it over and reply with a complete answer. When we answer someone with an “okay” we are telling them we don’t value the question and don’t want to put any effort or thought into our answer. Now, if your child says he doesn’t feel like talking about a particular subject right then and tells you why, you may allow that. But don’t allow him to brush you off by answering your questions with an “okay.”

It might take constant effort on your part to remove the word “okay” from your vocabulary, but it will be well worth the effort. After a week or two, it will become second nature.

Say what you mean. Mean what you say.

Trite as they may be, these eight simple words have great power to change your relationship with your child. They are particularly effective for parents who lack consistency. But they are words that every parent should remember. The underlying principle is that you clearly communicate to your child what you expect of him and follow through on every word you say. If you live by these simple words, your child will respect your parental authority.

“Never give a command unless you intend for it to be obeyed. Therefore, when giving instructions, be sure to say exactly what you mean and mean precisely what you say,” (p. 126, Growing Kids God’s Way, 5th edition).

Say what you mean
Applying these first four words to your parenting will be an exercise in self-control. You will say what you mean and nothing more. Many parents fall into one of two categories: yes parents and no parents. The yes parents allow their children to do what they want, frequently responding with a “yes” to their requests. The no parents prefer to restrict their children’s freedoms and will often impulsively answer with a “no”. With either group, we see that it’s easy to spout out an answer without truly thinking through the child’s request or our own response.

Make a commitment to think through every single word you say to your child. Stop before you speak. Silently count to three if it helps. It won’t hurt him if you cannot answer right away. You may even want to tell him you will think about it and get back to him later. Take the time, make a rational decision, and say what you mean. This act alone will fill you with resolve. You will be able to follow through much more consistently when you know you have given thought to what you have said to your child.

If you don’t say what you mean, your child will know it. While you need to consider context in every situation, 98% of the time, you should not change your mind after giving an instruction. Your opportunity to change your mind is before you say anything to the child. If you change your mind constantly or allow your spouse (or the child) to talk you out of a command already given, he will learn that your words are meaningless.

By not allowing yourself to change your mind, you will take those four little words (“say what you mean”) very seriously. If you commit to following through on every word you say, you will quickly realize that there is nothing worse than having to follow through on an instruction you regret giving in the first place.

Mean what you say
This is the second component of consistent parenting. By meaning what you say, you follow through. You take your own words seriously. You discourage your spouse from allowing a freedom you previously said no to. Or if you previously decided to allow your child an unexpected freedom, you don’t take it away just because common sense suddenly got the better of you.

“There is no better way to teach a child not to obey than to give him instructions that you have no intention of enforcing. A child quickly learns the habit of disregarding his parents’ instruction. This habit may become so strong and contempt for instruction so confirmed, that all threats will go unheeded,” (p. 126, Growing Kids God’s Way, 5th edition).

Not meaning what you say could look like this:

  • You let your child ride his bike in the street after you told him to stay on the sidewalk. You think, what’s the harm just this one time?
  • It’s 20 minutes past your child’s bedtime and you ask him if he wants to go to bed.
  • You don’t buy your child a cupcake after you previously agreed to the idea. Earlier you thought, why not? Now you think, no way.
  • You allow your toddler to climb the stairs by himself after your spouse has told him not to.
  • You tell your school-age child he is responsible for remembering his lunch and then bring it to him when he forgets.

When we don’t follow through, we cause confusion in the mind of the child. This confusion leads to pleading, negotiating and other verbal freedoms that your child will exhibit because he thinks he can change your mind. What’s worse, your child will begin to disrespect you for your lack of resolve.

Our children simply want to know what we expect of them. They want to know what the rules of the game are so they can play fairly. Lay out those rules for them clearly and consistently and they will comply.

The good news is that your child will have no problem with this principle. The onus with this one lies squarely on the parents’ shoulders. The bad news is that it is difficult to apply with 100% consistency. “Usually it is only mom and dad who struggle with it, because it calls parents to consistency. Children will rise to whatever level of parental resolve is present,” (p. 120-121, On Becoming Childwise).

Continually remind yourself of the importance of this principle. The more practice you get, the easier it will be. If your child tends to ignore you or whines and negotiates when you give an answer or instruction, start applying just this principle. This alone will change the way your child views your parental authority. Give it your all, and you will see results in a few short days.

Holiness vs. happiness in action

Last weekend, we had two scenarios with my kids that illustrate the holiness vs. happiness principle. My mom came to visit to help me out since my husband was working. I appreciate her help and grant the idea that grandparents have an innate, perhaps undeniable impulse to spoil their grandchildren. So I allow my mom to do this with my kids to an extent (especially when she is visiting to help me). However, the following scenarios will show you what happens when you think only of the child’s immediate happiness.

Scenario #1: William (4.5 years)
Saturday night, we went to the mall for some shopping and dinner. We were out late and got home about an hour past William’s bedtime. I put him to bed and expected him to go right to sleep since it was late. He struggled because Grandma was here and she was going to be sleeping in his room. He wanted her to come to bed right then. She agreed because she wanted to please him, but it was maybe 15 minutes before she was ready. Next thing I know, another 15-20 minutes had passed, and they came downstairs for a snack. It was almost 11:00pm by this point, way too late for a 4-year-old to be awake. My mom thought he might be hungry. (He NEVER eats after dinner.) I didn’t want to fight it. They got their snack, and it was probably close to 11:30 before he fell asleep. He probably had a little smile on his face as he dozed off.

You can predict what happened the next day. He still woke up at his normal time, which meant he got 8.5-9 hours of sleep instead of his usual 11-12. He was whiny and argumentative the entire day. And he had a MAJOR meltdown at the grocery store. Only once or twice in his life have I seen him act the way he did in the store. I didn’t know what to do with him it was that bad. It happened in the late afternoon, and the lack of sleep had just caught up to him.

So you can see that by feeding his happiness (quite literally) rather than his holiness (the fundamental need for a good night’s sleep), he was far worse off. If he had just gone to sleep when I put him down, the day would have been much more pleasant for all of us and he would have been much happier in the long run.

Scenario #2: Lucas (16 months)
The same Saturday night, we had dinner at a fairly nice restaurant. Our reservation was for 6:45, and Lucas’ internal dinner bell chimes at 6:30, so I gave him a small snack before we were seated. Apparently, the small snack wasn’t enough, and he started to fuss. My goal was to ask our server for a small bowl of rice that she could bring immediately so we could get some food in his belly.

My mom, the grandparent that she is, thought he might like to be held while we waited. My first issue is that being held wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted to eat and it wouldn’t make a difference if he were held. My second issue is that we eat out regularly and I did not want to start the habit of getting him out of the highchair at a restaurant. I teach him that the only place he can be while we are eating out is in the highchair.

Well, my mom’s attempts to hold him made things worse. It taught him that all he had to do was fuss and he could get out of the highchair. He did this the entire meal and his fussing escalated. I was embarrassed and finally had to take him away from the table to calm him down. (I hated that I even had to do this.) Once he was calm, I told him we were going to go back to the table, which made him fuss again. I immediately said “unh unh” to indicate that the fussing wasn’t acceptable. We did this two or three times, and then he initiated a game of peek-a-boo with me. It was a huge shift in his attitude. He clearly wanted someone to tell him that his fussing wasn’t okay.

The meal was a little touch and go after that (more getting out of the highchair), so we just had to finish and go home. I never really got a chance to enjoy my meal. It was a little cold by the time I sat down, and I was holding him for a good portion of it.

So again, by catering to his happiness (taking him out of the highchair) rather than his holiness (teaching him that he must stay in his highchair at a restaurant), Lucas was much more unhappy than if we had just left him there to begin with.

I still struggle with finding a balance between tending to my kids’ needs while allowing my mom to spoil her grandchildren. I want her to enjoy her grandchildren in the way that she wants to, but it’s difficult when I know that what she wants to do will lead to disaster.

Holiness vs. happiness

One fundamental philosophy behind the Ezzos’ parenting principles is that of holiness vs. happiness. Many parents, especially in today’s society, put their child’s happiness above all else. They figure that if their child is happy, their job is done. The Ezzos believe that helping a child achieve holiness, or moral contentment, should be a parent’s true goal.

Growing Kids God’s Way teaches that a child’s holiness is more important than his or her happiness…. Get the holiness and you give your children something far greater than happiness; they learn a lifestyle of moral contentment.” (p. 90, Growing Kids God’s Way, 5th edition)

When we strive to make our children happy, we feed into their inherent selfishness. Their happiness is fleeting and momentary, yet we attend to their every desire and whim. We curb all actions that produce tears or other discontent. We build our world around our children rather than teaching them how to behave in the world as it truly is.

On the other hand, when we strive for holiness, we help our children build a moral sensibility. We teach them how to behave in this big world we live in so they are comfortable in it and not fearful of it. This moral holiness takes the form of “honesty, empathy, compassion, kindness, gentleness, respect, honor and self-control.” (p. 64, On Becoming Childwise) Read this sentence again slowly and take the time to consider each and every word.

While those of us who strive for holiness do want our children to be happy, we find a different route to get there. I believe that by teaching our children to treat others with honesty, empathy, compassion, kindness, gentleness, respect, honor and self-control, we give them much greater happiness over their lifetimes than if we were to not teach these character traits at all. If we focus on their happiness at the expense of their holiness, we do them a great disservice.

And while happiness is great, contentment is even better. Our culture perpetuates a romantic ideal of happiness that is difficult to truly achieve. I would prefer that my children strive for contentment. I certainly wouldn’t want them to settle for less than what they are capable of achieving, but I wouldn’t want them to be in constant pursuit of a romantic ideal of happiness that just doesn’t exist. By pursuing this romantic ideal of happiness, they may never be happy.

The pursuit of contentment–achieved through a holy moral foundation–will serve them well for decades to come.

Non-conflict training

Have you ever disciplined your child for the same offense over and over? You ask yourself, “Why is this child not getting it?” He has been disciplined for the same issue so many times he should understand by now, right? Well, if you rely on discipline as your only method of teaching, then no.

“Moral truth is best communicated in periods of non-conflict. That doesn’t mean we will not teach at times of correction, but it does mean a healthy dose of moral enlightenment should take place throughout the day and in moments of non-conflict, when the child is not in a position to have to defend his or her actions.” (p. 22, Growing Kids God’s Way, 5th edition)

As this quote says, our children learn best in times of non-conflict. If you only teach your child in the process of correcting him, he is less likely to learn the lesson. When he knows he has done something wrong, he wants to receive the correction and move on as quickly as possible. By contrast, when you sit down with your child at a time of non-conflict, he welcomes the conversation and is much more likely to receive and remember your lesson.

As parents, it is very easy to fall into the trap of expecting our children to understand the rules of life even if we’ve never taught them. But if we have never taken the time to teach our children what we expect of them, how can we expect them to comply? For example, we may simply expect that our children know what good table manners look like. We eat together at the table three times a day every day. We model good manners for them. But have we ever sat down and explained what “good manners” really means? Have we taught them the mechanics of where your fork goes when you’re not using it, to use a napkin rather than your shirt, to not blow bubbles in your milk, etc.? Then when they display poor manners, we discipline and expect them to get the message through the discipline alone. This is no way for a child to learn.

Teach the good, not just the bad
Certainly, correcting the child’s bad behaviors is important, but when we do this in the absence of teaching them what good behaviors look like, we leave a giant gap in their learning process. Too often, we focus on what our children should not do rather than what they should do. We phrase our teachings in the negative (“don’t do this”) rather than in the positive (“do this”).

“Negative moral training leaves a void that may cause serious moral compromise in the future. When a greater emphasis is placed on teaching children what not to do, and too little on what to do, the path to virtuous deeds is left highly undefined for the child. As a result, children understand what is not the right thing to do, but they never completely grasp what is the right thing to do.” (p. 22, Growing Kids God’s Way, 5th edition)

With this in mind and going back to our example of table manners, they may know not to wave their fork around in the air while they chew, but do they really know where they should put it? Does it go on the plate, on the placemat, or stay in their hand? Why? We have told them not to eat with their hands, but there are some times when we actually allow it. Do they really know which foods are finger foods and which are not? We can eat sandwiches and pizza with our hands but we must eat meat and pasta with a fork? If we haven’t taught them, they genuinely may not know.

Teach them often–all day every day
Teaching in times of non-conflict requires the parent to be on active alert for times to teach the child. As I see it, there are three times to teach: before, during and after the behavior occurs. Consider our previous example. The first and best time to teach is well before you sit down to eat. Find a time when your child is playing and pull out some dishes. Set them on the table as if you were going to eat. Then go through the motions of eating a meal, teaching your child through each and every step. Get creative with it. Pretend to put your hands in your “spaghetti”. Pretend to blow bubbles in your “milk”. Pretend to fling food around by waving your fork in the air. Pretend to fall off your chair. Make it funny. Your child will get a kick out of it and remember it for sure. Then go through the mechanics of proper manners. Fork goes on the plate while chewing. Napkin goes on the lap. Sit completely on the chair. Break it down for him step by step.

The second teaching time takes place when the opportunity for bad behavior might present itself. In our example, this would be when you sit down for a meal, but before the bad manners actually happen. Remind him of your practice time earlier in the day.

The third teaching time is after the child has exhibited the bad behavior. This is when you would correct the child.  While teaching in times of non-conflict is best, you will still want to teach him after you have corrected him. Be sure to phrase your words in the positive, not the negative. You will want to say, “wipe your hands on your napkin,” rather than “don’t wipe your hands on your shirt”.

Real-world scenarios
I’ll give you two real-world scenarios of teaching in times of non-conflict, both good and bad. First the bad. Not long ago, my husband and I took both boys out shopping for new winter coats. We made an evening of it, first eating dinner at the food court. A band was playing live music and there were kids dancing everywhere. The energy level was high. Then after dinner, we headed over to the store. I’m not sure that at any point we actually told them what we were planning to do. This was a big mistake, especially since we needed their cooperation to try on the coats. The entire process was a disaster. They resisted trying the coats on. It was hot inside the store and it was late. We lost William once or twice among the clothes. There were soccer balls flying everywhere. (Can anyone tell me why they sell soccer balls inside a clothing store?! And why are they always near the kids’ section and the cash registers?) We were correcting, threatening and pleading the entire time. And we were there much longer than we should have been. All four of us were completely exhausted by the time we left. But had we actually taken the time to tell the boys what we were planning to do (in a time of non-conflict before we got to the store or before we even left the house) and that we needed them to cooperate by trying on the coats, the process would have been much less painful.

Contrast that with a time when I sat down with William to teach him how to behave when we go to Starbucks. We go there regularly and it had gotten to the point where he was so comfortable there, his behaviors were getting out of hand. He was three at the time, and his biggest offense was not sitting still (on his bum) in the chair. So before we even left the house, I sat down with him at the table and showed him how I expected him to sit. Then I explained why we sit nicely (in consideration of others) and that if he couldn’t sit properly we would leave immediately. He was very excited to be having the conversation with me, gave me full eye contact, and seemed very receptive to my teaching. And it worked. He sat really well. Simple as that.

Now that I have practiced non-conflict training for a while, I do so several times a day. Even if William hasn’t exhibited poor behaviors in a particular situation in the past, I will still tell him what I expect. It usually just takes a minute or two and I make sure to call his name (requiring a “yes, mommy”) and get eye contact before I start talking. Some of the things I regularly teach are that his hand goes on the stroller when we cross the street, we share toys with our friends on a playdate, we pick up after ourselves when visiting friends, he must stay in the playground area at the park, he must stay on the sidewalk and not far from me when riding his bike, he must be on his best behavior at school, and more.

So take a few minutes to think through your child’s most troublesome behaviors. Be honest with yourself about whether you have really taken the time to teach him what you expect. Get in the habit of talking to him regularly. Stop and talk to him before you go anywhere in public. You might even want to write reminder notes throughout the house. Then be on the lookout for opportunities to teach him and teach him often. Teach through positive words, get creative and make it fun!

Eye contact

I cannot stress enough how important it is to get eye contact from your child. Imagine how you feel when you are talking to your spouse and he doesn’t look at you. Sure, maybe he hears what you say, but is he truly listening? When my husband does this and I ask him if he’s really listening, he will repeat back the words I just said verbatim. It’s great that he can hear me while not looking at me, but is he truly listening and thinking about what I’m saying? Probably not. And perhaps more important, his lack of eye contact can make me feel like my words are meaningless and not worth listening to. (Fortunately, he doesn’t do this too often.)

The same is true of your interactions with your child. Do you really expect him to listen to you and obey your instruction if he isn’t looking at you while you give it? While an adult is potentially capable of listening without giving eye contact, a child is not. Children tend to focus on one thing at a time. If they are occupied with a toy and not looking at you, they are not listening to you.

Not requiring eye contact is one of the biggest mistakes of the threatening, repeating parent. It is very easy for your child to ignore you if he doesn’t look at you. It is then easy for you to escalate your demands and threats–not to mention your volume. Your child will then tune you out and you get absolutely nowhere. You may end up disciplining your child and you both end up stressed out and in tears. You could find yourself alternating between giving a consequence, repeating your instruction, his continuing to ignore you, more consequences, his lack of focus on the task, etc. You could keep at it for hours–if you haven’t given up by then–and still see little to no progress. Requiring eye contact is such an easy fix to this problem. It’s quick and it starts you off on the right track.

In addition, a lack of eye contact can often mean that a bigger issue of disrespect is at play. Above I mentioned how my husband not giving me eye contact can make me feel like my words are meaningless and not worth listening to. It could be that your child isn’t giving you eye contact because he doesn’t think you are worth listening to. If you are a threatening, repeating parent, your child likely has little to no motivation to look at you or engage in your conversation. If you spout out idle threats and never follow through with what you say, he won’t respect you or take you seriously. He has learned that what you say is not what you mean. He expects you to offer idle threats and start yelling. Who would want to listen to that?

By contrast, a child who offers eye contact regularly is more likely to be obedient. The eye contact shows a respect for your authority and a willingness to obey your instructions. In addition, the child who gives regular eye contact is a pleasure to be around. He is comfortable looking into anyone’s eyes and will even initiate a conversation with another adult.

If you are in the beginning phases of the training process, you may need to physically lift your child’s chin to make him look at you after you call his name and require a “yes, mommy”. If he resists you lifting his chin, you may need to get down on his level and hold his face while you speak to him. Be sure to keep your demeanor calm and don’t manhandle him. If he expects you to be contentious, he will resist you for sure. Don’t let it become a power struggle. If you feel yourself starting to get angry, walk away and work on your anger next time. And by all means, do not give your instruction until you have achieved eye contact.

Even now, after training William for a year and a half in these techniques, there are times when I have to remind him to give me eye contact. When I call his name, he will automatically say “yes, mommy” but sometimes it is so rote that he forgets to look at me, especially when he is engaged with some toy. All I need to do is simply say “eyes” and he will look at me. I don’t repeat his name. I don’t give my instruction. I don’t escalate into threats and anger. I will say just the one word until he looks at me. As soon as he looks at me, I know I have his attention and can move on to giving him my instruction.

If my instruction takes a minute or two to explain, I don’t let him take his eyes off of me until I have finished with my explanation. If the TV is on or for whatever reason he has a hard time maintaining eye contact, I will verbally remind him or gently hold his chin until I am done.

Also, offer your child the same courtesy. If he engages you in conversation, look in his eyes to show him that you think his words are meaningful and that you understand what he is saying. Even if your toddler is speaking gibberish, look at him. You are teaching him the value of eye contact, respect for others and the simple mechanics of having a conversation.

“Yes, mommy”

Do you feel like your child just doesn’t hear you? Does your child ignore you? Do you feel like there are days when all you do is discipline your child? “Yes, mommy” can change all of that in a matter of days or weeks. You will find yourself disciplining less and your child will be much more compliant and responsive to your instructions. It’s so simple yet so powerful.

“When your child gives back to you a ‘Yes, mom’ an amazing thing happens. Your child hears himself commit to obey. He draws the line in the sand himself. There’s just something about hearing himself agree to something that elicits an internal compulsion for compliance.” (Childwise, p. 123)

Here’s how it works:

  • You stand within a few feet of your child and make sure he can hear you.
  • Call his name. Don’t say, “William, come to mommy.” Or “William, I’m calling your name.” Just say, “William.”
  • Then wait. Some days you might be waiting longer than you think you should, but just wait nonetheless. Don’t repeat his name.
  • His response is to say “yes, mommy” and look you in the eye. The eye contact is key.
  • Then while he is still looking in your eyes, give your instruction. Don’t let him look away until you have given your complete instruction.
  • Have him say “yes, mommy” again to indicate he heard your instruction and that he will comply.

Here’s how the dialog goes in my house:

Me: “William.” (I’ll do this even when we’re in the middle of a conversation, if I want him to pay particular attention to what I am saying.)
William: “Yes, mommy?” and looks me in the eye.
Me: “You need to pick up your toys.”
William: “Yes, mommy!” and he starts picking them up.

Here’s how it works if we forget to call his name:

Me: “William, you need to pick up your toys.”
William: No response.
Me: “William, I said you need to pick up your toys. Now stop playing and start cleaning up.”
William: “But, but mommy, I’m not done yet. I don’t want to pick up my toys.”
Me: “Do I need to take these toys away? If you don’t start putting your toys away right now, I will take them away.”
William: He starts to put them away half-heartedly and with an attitude. The entire process is painful.

If you have a child who consistently ignores you or is generally disobedient, you may be thinking, “Yeah, right. How am I going to get him to say ‘yes, mommy’ if I can’t even get him to wash his hands when I ask him to?” I have been there. Trust me, it works but it takes patience and resolve. Here’s how it works if you are just starting:

Me: “William” while standing right in front of him.
William: No response.
Me: Lift up his chin and look him in the eyes while saying “William, you need to say ‘yes, mommy’ when I call your name.”
William: “Yes, mommy”
Me: “Good job, William! You’re learning to obey mommy!”

You might end it right there without moving on to giving him an instruction he won’t want to obey. Give it a few days’ practice of just saying “yes, mommy” and then you can move on to giving your instructions. You want it to be a positive experience.

Also, in your first few weeks of this, you will want to give your child the benefit of the doubt and find a good time to call his name. Don’t call his name when he’s in the middle of his favorite TV show or completely engaged in an imaginative game. Start at a time when you are sitting down at a meal or reading a book together. Find the lull in your day and do it then.

And balance the negative with the positive. Call your child’s name when you are offering something he wants. Don’t get in the pattern where every time you call his name, he knows you will be asking him to do something he won’t want to do. He will stop responding. Call his name and require him to say “yes, mommy” before you say you are going to the park, offering him a cookie, or giving him a hug. Mix the positive with the negative.

Even if your child is not yet verbal, you can still work on this process. Do as I say above with lifting his chin. Have him look you in the eye and go through the motions. Or if he is walking or crawling and not yet verbal, have him come to you when you call. If he tends to run in the other direction when you call his name, don’t say anything. Just go get him and bring him back to where you were sitting or standing. Then reiterate that he needs to come when you call and look you in the eye.

If you are beginning this with an older child who is regularly out of your sight (maybe 5 and up), have him come to you when you call his name. That eye contact is so important. Although in your first few days and weeks, you will want to go to the room he is in so you know without a doubt that he heard you.

And of course, all of your child’s authority figures will want to do this. “Yes, daddy”, “yes, dad”, “yes, mom”, “yes, grandma” and “yes, grandpa” are appropriate responses.

Above all, be consistent. Your consistency is what will make it work. If you only call his name 5 out of 10 times, he will only respond half the time, if that. Call his name even when you think you shouldn’t have to. It will take practice on your part. Be consistent and give it time and it will make your lives so much more peaceful.