Watch your tone

We may often tell our kids to watch their tone, but this is something we need to do as parents as well. It may seem obvious, but barking orders at our kids never works as well as speaking nicely and using a positive voice to get our kids to do what we need them to do.

Use positive words
It is always best to tell your child what you want him to do rather than what you want him not to do. When you tell him what not to do, he may honestly not know what the better alternative is. So rather than telling your child not to run in the mall, tell him he needs to walk next to you while holding your hand or putting one hand on the stroller. Read more about this in my post on non-conflict training.

In addition to using positive words, explain with a few words why you are asking him to do something. Explaining to your child why he needs to wash his hands is far better than simply barking an order at him to do so. Consider the difference between the following:

Bad: Put your shoes on.
Good: William, we’re going for a walk. Now go put your shoes on.

Bad: Get in bed.
Good: William, it’s time for bed. Go hop in so I can read to you.

Bad: Eat your broccoli.
Good: It may not smell or look great, but broccoli is really good for your body. It will make you healthy and strong. At the very least, you must have one “no thank you bite”.

My one caution with this is that you don’t want to be explaining so much to your child that he thinks he has the power to negotiate with you. It’s fine to tell him you are going for a walk and that he needs to put his shoes on. It’s not okay for him to say he doesn’t want to go for a walk so he doesn’t need to put his shoes on, and thus defying your command.

Use praise and encouragement
While you should always praise your child for a job well done, you should also use praise and encouragement when telling him to do something. For example:

Bad: Put your cup on the counter.
Good: You are always so good at remembering to put your dishes on the counter. Don’t forget your cup.

Bad: Go get a diaper for your brother.
Good: You are such a good helper for mommy. Please run upstairs and grab a diaper for your brother.

Bad: What does this letter say?
Good: You do such a great job sounding out your letters. Let’s see what sound this letter says.

Always make sure your praise is valid. If he consistently fights with you to brush his teeth, you don’t want to tell him that he is good at it. And don’t praise him 3,000 times a day. You want your praise to be valid and given in small doses so it doesn’t become inflated and meaningless.

Be specific
Find a way to be specific in your instructions to your child. If you want him to clean up his toys, tell him to put the cars in the car bin. Once he’s done that, have him put his books on the shelf. Telling him to clean up is too vague and too big of a job for him to compartmentalize on his own. Break it down for him and he will comply much more willingly.

Also figure out whether he truly understands what you’re saying. Getting William to pre-school can be a stressful time for us. It’s not uncommon for us to be running a little behind. I’ll tell him to hurry and that we’re running late. Recently, it occurred to me that he didn’t equate running late with moving faster. So I told him, “William, we’re running late. That means move faster!” And he did. That’s all it took. I stopped stressing. And we got to school on time.

Use your imagination
Starting around age 3, your child’s imagination will begin to flourish. Rather than lining his cars up in a row, he will drive them through a makeshift tunnel (made of a paper towel tube). Rather than squeezing his toy duck in the bath, he will have it “swim” in the water. As your child enters this phase, you will want to follow his lead and let your own imagination grow, too. This is important so that you can play with him, but also so you can use it to your advantage. Use his imagination (and yours) to get him to do what you want him to do.

The one caveat to this is that you still want your child to obey your word simply because you are his parent and you are his authority figure. To use your imagination to get him to do what you want might seem like coaxing or cajoling him when you simply want him to obey. This is certainly important, but you should always consider alternatives. If you find yourself barking orders at him constantly, try finding a fun and creative way to explain to him what you want him to do. You’ll find that he is much more likely to obey and everyone will be happier for it.

Have fun
While we should always fulfill our role as our child’s teacher, we should also consider the importance of having fun with our kids. Whether that means sitting down with your child to play Candyland or racing to the top of the stairs, always allow for a dose of fun in your daily interactions with your child. Starting around age 3-4, your child is beginning to form memories he will hold for the rest of his life. Make those memories positive ones.

The ebb and flow of parenting

As you get accustomed to implementing the Ezzo principles in your daily life with your child, you will notice your child’s behaviors improve. This is wonderful and what we all want to see. But one negative effect of this is that you will start to slack off on your consistency. This is the natural ebb and flow of parenting.

Here’s how it typically plays out:

  • You are consistent in requiring a “yes mommy” and getting eye contact from your child.
  • He meets your level of expectation by doing as you ask. It doesn’t happen immediately, but he gets there eventually.
  • You are pleased with your progress and notice how compliant he has become.
  • Fully unaware that you are doing so, you begin to slack off on requiring a “yes mommy” and eye contact. It takes work to remember to do these things and if you are not reminded every day of your child’s misbehaviors (which are not as apparent as they used to be), it is easy to forget.
  • Because you have slacked off, he does too. You may have been at 90% first-time obedience, but it quickly slips to 50% without you even noticing.
  • At some point, you start getting frustrated with him and find yourself getting more and more angry in your daily interactions. Then it finally dawns on you that you haven’t been very consistent. No wonder he hasn’t been listening. You haven’t been asking for a “yes mommy”, requiring eye contact, training him in times of non-conflict, etc. You apologize to him for your previous anger and explain to him what happened and that you are going to bump up your consistency.
  • Again, he meets your level of expectation.
  • And the cycle repeats itself.

So if you begin to notice that your child’s behaviors have gotten worse, look to yourself first. Our children will rise to whatever level of expectation we set for them. (See “Say what you mean. Mean what you say.”) Have you started slacking off? Do you have something going on in your life that is requiring all of your attention (a new baby, a family crisis, etc.)? Have you and your spouse slacked off on couch time? Look closely at yourself and your behaviors, and you will easily find the answer to your child’s problems.

Then get back into the groove of requiring a higher standard from your child. Pick up your copy of Childwise and start rereading a chapter or two. Start rereading some of my previous posts. Start listening to the Mom’s Notes if you have them. All of these resources will help remind you how to apply the principles and will inspire you to get back to work with it.

Above all, don’t beat yourself up over this. This ebb and flow in our parenting is a natural fact of life. If you are human, it will happen. Just get used to it and be mindful of it so your child’s behaviors don’t get so out of control that they are doubly hard to correct. In fact, you will likely notice that your child’s behaviors might slip a bit, but he will never go back to where you were before you started implementing these principles. Your child will have become used to them so it won’t take him long to rise to your new higher standard. And the more you apply them the more natural they become, so it will be easy to jump right back in after you have slacked off for a little while.

Dialogue questioning

Dialogue questioning is another technique you can use to train your child in times of non-conflict.

“Parents can also accomplish pre-activity encouragement through dialogue questions. With verbal reminders, you tell the child what is required. With the dialogue method, the child tells you what is expected…. Your children are more apt to take ownership of their behavior when they hear themselves verbalize the rules of conduct and receive praise for the right answers,” (p. 139, Growing Kids God’s Way, 5th edition).

Before you practice dialogue questioning, it is important that your child first understand the basic rules of any situation you may encounter. You cannot question him about it until you have first taught him. The dialogue questioning serves as a reminder before you face a particular situation.

I use dialogue questioning before we head out in public and into situations that could potentially cause trouble. I be sure to get a “yes, mommy” before I start talking. Here’s how it works:

Situation #1: We pull into a parking spot at the grocery store. Rather than getting out of the car, I stop and turn around to look at William. He is strapped in and I have his full attention.

Me: William?
William: Yes, mommy?
Me: We are going to get some food for dinner tonight. Where does your hand belong when we’re in the store?
William: On the cart.
Me: Good. Now is it okay for you to pull the cart while I try to push it?
William: No.
Me: What happens if you take your hand off the cart or pull it around?
William: You put me in the cart?
Me: Right. Is that what you want?
William: No.
Me: Good. Now show me how you can be on your best behavior in the store.

Situation #2: We are going to a restaurant for dinner. Again, I stop in the car and talk to him before we enter the restaurant.

Me: William?
William: Yes, mommy?
Me: We are eating dinner at a restaurant tonight. How do we behave at restaurants?
William: Good.
Me: What does that mean? Do we use our inside voice or outside voice?
William: Inside voice.
Me: How do you sit?
William: On my booty. No bouncing.
Me: Do you get out of your chair while we’re at the restaurant? (This is usually not even an issue, but I will ask him anyway.)
William: No.
Me: Why do we act nicely at a restaurant?
William: To be nice to people.
Me: Right, we want to consider other people. We don’t want to ruin their dinner by distracting them with loud noises or bouncing in our seats.

Situation #3: The park we go to frequently has a play structure surrounded by wood chips. Outside that area is a large forest and a wide grassy area. William is often tempted to follow other kids into the forest. As we pull up to the park, usually on foot, I will stop and ask a few questions.

Me: William?
William: Yes, mommy?
Me: Where do you need to stay when we’re at the park?
William: In the wood chips.
Me: Right. Is it okay to go in the forest?
William: No.
Me: What happens when you go into the forest?
William: We go home.
Me: Right. Why do you need to stay in the wood chips?
William: Because I could get dirty and get lost.
Me: Right. I have to stay here with Lucas, and I can’t see you when you’re in the forest. I don’t want to lose you.

So as you can see, he clearly knows the rules. He knows what I expect of him in every situation. If he ever forgets the answer, I will just answer for him. I also make sure I have his complete attention, with eye contact, throughout the conversation. Sometimes he’ll surprise me by giving an answer I hadn’t thought of before. Or he’ll give a totally off-the-wall answer that cracks me up. It can be entertaining for sure.

You can practice dialogue questioning with your non-verbal toddler as well. If he can nod or shake his head to say yes or no, ask him questions that have a yes or no answer. If he’s not quite there yet, you can still do this and just answer your questions yourself. You might feel a little silly doing so, but your child will pay more attention than if you simply give a lecture about the behaviors you expect from him.

With older children (maybe over 5) be careful when using this technique. Your child will reach an age where he is too old for this technique. To an older child, you will come across as condescending.

So add dialogue questioning to your list of techniques to use when teaching your child at a time of non-conflict. It’s a very useful tool and will prevent many sources of frustration for the whole family.

Wise parenting vs. power parenting

While it’s clear that we need to maintain authority over our children, some parents take this idea too far. These parents tend to be legalistic in their parenting. What they say goes, no matter what. Legalistic parenting is characterized by the power we exert over our children rather than the wisdom we bring to the relationship. Be sure to make the distinction between wise parenting and power parenting in your relationship with your child.

A common effect of power parenting is the power struggle.

“A power struggle results when parents fail to exercise their authority wisely. That is, they allow themselves to be forced into a ‘must-win’ situation over a seemingly minor conflict. There will be some early parent/child conflicts in which parental resolve must be victorious, but you should choose well which hill you’re willing to die on. Wise parenting is superior to power parenting,” (p. 228, On Becoming Childwise).

Say you are putting your 3-year-old down for a nap. You do your usual naptime transition and lie him down with a kiss on the forehead. All is sweet but as you walk out of the room you expect a fight. Before you leave the room, your child starts talking and flipping his legs around all over the bed. His mood is anything but sleepy. You turn back around and remind him sweetly that it’s naptime. Another kiss on the forehead. His behavior doesn’t change. Your tone gets tense and angry as you tell him over and over that he must go to sleep. Still no change. He is as hyper as ever. You then physically lift his legs and put them on the bed and under the covers. He quickly removes the covers and starts kicking his legs again. You pinch his lips closed and tell him to be quiet. Your child erupts into a nervous laughter. You continue to remind him to be quiet and physically put his legs back on the bed under the covers. This goes on for 30 minutes before you leave the room frustrated and in a sweat.

This is a power struggle. You are clearly fighting with your child to determine who has power over the situation. When it comes to children and sleep, they are the ones with ultimate power. We can do all we can to help them go to sleep, but whether they actually fall asleep is ultimately up to them.

In such a situation, a wise parent would recognize that a power struggle might erupt and would stop it in its tracks. A wise parent might realize that the child is close to dropping the nap altogether. He sleeps 12 hours at night, so he might not need the nap anymore or his night sleep might need to be adjusted. A wise parent might allow the child to read a book or two in bed before going to sleep. A wise parent might remove the covers altogether to prevent the child from playing with them. A wise parent would realize that giving the child sugar before naptime is a bad idea. A wise parent would be on the lookout for defiant behavior at other times of the day. A wise parent does not give in to the child and let naptime be over just because the child doesn’t want to sleep. Naptime is naptime whether the child sleeps or not.

Here are some signs that you might be engaging in power struggles with your child:

  • You attempt to physically force your child to comply with your instructions.
  • You attempt to exert supreme authority in situations where the child has ultimate control (sleeping, eating, potty training).
  • You say and do the same thing again and again despite the fact that it doesn’t change the child’s behavior.
  • You make a big deal over a minor conflict.
  • You attempt to teach the child when he’s in the throes of a tantrum.
  • The child continues the behavior (and struggles with you) for more than 10 minutes.
  • You end up frustrated and in a sweat.
  • Your threats and punishments increase quickly and the behavior still doesn’t change.
  • You feel like you have lost the battle.

How do you avoid power struggles while still maintaining authority over your child? Wise parenting looks like this:

  • You rely on non-conflict training to teach him what is expected. You teach him clearly and thoroughly before you are in the heat of the moment.
  • You ask your child to tell you what is expected of him. (This is called dialogue questioning.)
  • You consider the context of the situation.
  • You consider the characterization of the child.
  • You watch out for defiant behaviors at other times of the day and potentially reduce his freedoms.
  • You walk away and ignore the child when he attempts to engage you in a power struggle.
  • You remove any sources of contention, where possible.
  • You remove the child from the situation, where possible.
  • You pay attention to your own emotions and simply walk away if you feel yourself getting angry.

So are you a wise parent or a power parent? Be on the lookout for possible power struggles throughout your day and carefully consider how a wise parent might react to the situation.

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!