A Taste

Our ecourse, Parenting on the Same Team, is coming up! Just a couple weeks left to register for this life-changing course. To give you a taste of the topics, and to show you how carefully and lovingly we handle each of your questions during the course, I am sharing this post from a few years back.

The course starts Oct. 24th and runs six weeks. Click here to register.


I am getting stuck on a particular knee-jerk habit that comes from my childhood: punishment. I have a feisty 2.5 yr old son. We have a special dynamic because I have a serious temper. The scene you described with yanking your daughters out of the stroller is very familiar to me. It happens every other day or so. I am seeing a therapist about it, because I know it is abusive, and I am trying my hardest to learn different skills for responding when I feel provoked. i.e. things feel out of control for me. The type of punishment that I want to ask about isn't this rageful reaction, it's the: you were throwing a hard toy and I explained why you shouldn't so I am going to take it away from you. Punishment disguised as natural consequences. But they're not, because they are choices I make about him, his toys, etc. With my son, it seems pretty clear that he has learned to do exactly what I've made clear I don't want him to do. Somehow, I trained him to get my attention through aggravating actions: screaming at the table, throwing hard toys, absolutely refusing to let me put clothes on him, etc. I've created an adversarial relationship with him already! And in the moment it happens, I have the urge to do something, to take the toy, to leave the table, to say, "OK, then we're not going out", which I HATE, because I know that I'm keeping the dynamic going somehow. I guess my problem is not really with punishment, it's how to get back to the sense that he and I are a team, to change the dynamic such that he isn't trying to piss me off all the time. I know it's something I'm doing, I just don't know what it is. OK: it's obvious that this doesn't fall under any neat topic. I know the magic word is empathy, but how do you have empathy with their desire to provoke? "I can see that you really want to make me mad??" Can't be.. "I can tell that you really want my attention." This doesn't at all work with the refusal to get dressed. Which may not actually have anything to do with provoking me, but may just be a frustration with being handled. Well, if any of this brings anything up in you, I'd love a response.

This question is actually a HUGE one that touches on so, so, much.  Here goes.

I hear you saying that:

  • you love your boy.
  • things aren't working.
  • you suspect you have responsibility for the current dynamic.
  • you want certain behaviors to shift.
  • you want connection, a sense that you are on the same team.

So let's look at each one.

You love your boy. This is a fantastic place to start. The love that you feel will carry you through a million interactions, it will inspire you to seek help when things aren't going as well as you'd like, to dig deeper than you ever have before with anyone else in your life. This love means that your son is lucky and that there is fertile ground for a healthy relationship between the two of you.

Things aren't working. No, they aren't. And it sounds so frustrating, tiring, and infuriating. This is not how you want your relationship to proceed. This is not how you want your environment to feel.

You suspect you have responsibility for the current dynamic. And you are right! Although children come with unique and complex personalities, parents are in charge of the emotional and logistical atmosphere in the home. We always have to be the "bigger person" and we can count on our children to provide a reflection of how our actions and thoughts are either working or not working.

You want certain behaviors to shift. Screaming at the table, throwing hard toys, and refusing to get dressed are not working for you. This brings us to the issue of obedience. It is clear from your comment that you do not like your current method of "natural consequences", mostly because there is nothing natural about them, as they are not from naturally occurring phenomenon in his environment, but from his mother. And I agree with you, a natural consequence is feeling cold because you chose not to wear your coat. Yanking a hard toy away because it was thrown is not a natural consequence, it is the consequence of breaking a rule, one not made by mother nature, but by an authority figure.

That being said I can understand wanting a rule about throwing hard toys, or rules about anything for that matter. Children bring so much chaos (so much!) into a parent's life that it is understandable to want to guide things along, making certain actions unacceptable and placing a premium on doing what mom (or dad) says. The problem is that it doesn't work, not to mention that it wreaks havoc on your connection (the next item on your wish list).

When you want him to do, (or not do), something and he is resisting, consider the following:

- It seems counter-intuitive but to have more control you must let go of control. With fewer rules to resist, children resist less. Many of us have created numerous and senseless regulations that are needless. If your boy is resisting the "rules", one option is to rethink your list of "don'ts" and see which can be loosened, and which can be tossed completely.

- Use NO sparingly. This word is most potent when used only in critical moments, such as immediate safety situations. Watering it down by automatically using it at every turn renders it useless. And even if your answer is negative there are ways to frame it so that  there is less friction to brace against.

Yes, I will be able to read you a story, but I want to brush my teeth first. (Instead of: No, not right now.)

That's a possibility. Let me think about what our next steps might be and I'll let you know how we can fit a trip to the park into our day. (Instead of: Well, we have a lot to do today, probably not.)

Yes, I hear that you want to go to the library very badly. I'm not sure we have time today but I know it's important to you and I will work to make that happen as soon as possible. (Instead of: No, not today.)

- Use empathy as a way to teach empathy. "Good" behavior or obedience, can be achieved by encouraging empathic behavior. A child that can recognize feelings as they occur for others automatically considers how their choices are contributing to those feelings. This often results in actions that we have come to consider "polite" or "proper". A child that recognizes another's pain and feels bad for bumping into them will naturally apologize. An enforced Say your sorry! isn't necessary. When given the information that Aunt Flo feels sad when kids chase her cat, an empathic child will, more likely than not, stop chasing the cat. A rule that declares NO CAT CHASING! isn't required. The most effective way to develop empathy in children is to treat them with empathy. 

In your case, you are right, "I can see that you really want to make me mad??" and "I can tell that you really want my attention.", won't work. The first makes an assumption which is unfounded, the second seems a bit abstract for the circumstance of getting dressed. Empathy can be as simple as: 

You are mad, huh?

You don't want to get dressed. You want to keep doing what you are doing, and you'd rather I stop bothering you? 

You're screaming. Are you frustrated?

But more importantly, empathy from a parent is a stance, a frame through which to view your child. It is not something to say and then force the pants on anyway. It is not something to say and then continue ignoring their request for attention. It is not something to say while yanking a toy away. It is not a way to get them to do something they do not want to do. It is a way for you to show them that what they want is noticed, that what they feel is important to you, that their needs and interests are valued. 

What does this have to do with behaviors? Everything. If you give your boy genuine empathy for his emotional state then he will never get to the point where he has to do anything aggravating to get your attention, to be understood, or to have his needs considered.

Look for the underlying need behind the action. When a child is driven toward a particular action, and especially when they won't stop doing that action, even when you have asked them not to, there is a very good chance that a strong need is their motivation. Look and listen closely, open your mind to strange possibilities and you just might be able to offer information and an alternative solution that meets that need.

I see that you're banging that hammer on the wall... I am concerned about making marks. Are you wanting to fix something and be helpful? Hmmm. Can I set you up with the work bench outside? (Underlying need: purpose, effectiveness, or creativity)

Honey, I asked you to stay out of that tree. It isn't strong enough to hold you. Are you wanting a challenge? Shall we go to the park where you can climb that dragon's tower? ( Meeting the underlying need of: freedom or competence)

Please stop hitting your sister. She doesn't like it and is getting angry. Do you want her attention? Can I help you find a way to get that in a different way? (Meeting the underlying need of: love, to be seen, or companionship)

A complete list of needs can be found here.

- Offer as much information as possible. Disobedience is often due to a lack of understanding, something easily remedied when the parent is willing to take time to explain. We often have very good reasons for asking our children to do something, or to stop doing something, but don't share them. Providing information allows children to see the thought process behind our decisions.

Tommy that stroller was built for a baby doll so I'm pretty sure it can't hold you. Will you climb out of there?

Elizabeth, I notice that the cat is putting her ears back and swishing her tail. I think that means she doesn't like the way you are petting her. Will you try something else?

- Respect children as human beings and treat them accordingly. Children are not pets to be directed with barks and commands. They aren't even yours, they are theirs. They have their own opinions, thoughts and desires and recognizing this will go a long way in getting them to do anything

You want connection, a sense that you are on the same team. From my perspective the greatest hurdle to a connection with your son is your perspective. You do not see the two of you as a team,  you see him as an adversary, a person that is "trying to piss me off", that has a built-in "desire to provoke", and chooses "aggravating actions" in order to get your attention. You cannot have connection with someone standing on the opposing riverbank. You, the parent, have to cross over. 

- Empathy is one way to do this. Real empathy as mentioned above, the willingness to put yourself in his shoes.

He is screaming at you not because he wants to bother you, this is not an innate motivation in humans, but because he wants you. You are his end all, be all, and he wants to feel your gaze. This does not mean that you must drop everything you are doing and stare at him every minute of every day, but it does mean that when he indicates a need for your attention, you give him some. Attention seeking, by the way, has gotten a bad rap in recent "parenting theory". It is not, as some would describe it, manipulative. It is survival. Babies and children need their caretakers to fully notice them and their needs or else they will perish. Literally. So be careful about how you see attention seeking, give yourself freely and liberally, and he may not need to scream to get it.

My daughter would rather stay naked than anything else in the world. Getting clothes on that girl is a daily issue. I have to twist my head into her way of thinking time and time again to find empathy, and not become so frustrated that I shout ultimatums or shove her chubby legs into pant holes. 

- A simplified life is another. 

A time crunch is death to a mother/child relationship. When we are in a hurry we do things we wouldn't otherwise do, like shoving our children into car seats, making promises we can't keep, bribing, yelling, dismissing, name-calling. These actions do not create or maintain connection. If we can avoid hurrying we are doing a great service to our children. 

This means literally scheduling less. Days in which you do not leave the house. Days in which there is no need to get dressed. It also means doing less even when we are home. Fewer dishes, fewer loads of laundry, fewer baths, fewer phone calls, fewer t.v. shows. With a schedule like this it seems nothing will ever get done, and perhaps it all takes longer, but without tantrums, crying, and screaming matches, a whole lot more becomes possible. But that is beside the point, connection blossoms under these conditions. Shoving aside a pile of laundry in order to hold each other is worth it.

- Demoting obedience is another.

It's hard to nurture a connection with a raging dictator. Demanding strict, unquestioning obedience is a great way to drive a wedge between two people. When in doubt about any parenting choices, a good reality check is to ask yourself if the considered course of action strengthens your relationship with your child or weakens it. If you always err on the side of strengthening the relationship there will not only be less need to look for or demand obedience, there will also be a sturdy relationship in place to weather any of life's storms.

- Intentional time together is another. 

One hour each day in which you do nothing but focus on your child works wonders for connection. One hour simply tuning in to them and their world without answering the phone, or making lists, oranything else and there will be no way to remain on opposite banks of the river.

There are more ways to connect, specific to each child and each mother. More include:

- Being present...taking breaths in the moment, noticing what is happening for the child without saying anything, just keenly observing.

- Asking kid for help with cooking, raking, problem solving, etc.

- Sleeping together as a family.


We'd love to have you along.