The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.
– Chinese Proverb
It’s been said that the sound of our own name can be magical. It’s often true and particularly so for a child. I remember the principal saying “Hello Jenny.” to me in the school hallway. And I was in awe. “The principal knows my name?!”, I thought. When your children are entering a new classroom and grade level, there will likely be at least a few new faces they will encounter as the school year begins. We, as adults, sometimes skip or simply forget introductions between children. Teachers may introduce themselves and miss out on the chance to introduce students to one another. For teachers in classrooms, after-school program staff, coaches for sports teams, or Moms and Dads picking up their children on the playground, ensuring that there are full rounds of introductions on multiple occasions is an essential step toward building a sense of connectedness and community. Our name is an important part of our self-identity. Learning names can be a doorway to building relationships. As educator and author Roxann Kriete wrote: “Naming is often the beginning of knowing.”1
However, name recall can be a great challenge for adults as well as children. Researchers found that when introductory conversations take place, people typically remember jobs and hobbies before they will be able to remember names. Psychologist Jeremy Dean writes that it has everything to do with meaning.2 We are able to better understand people or define their personalities through job titles or activities. A name like Anna on its own provides no specific information about who she is. Although it’s comforting to know that it’s human nature to have difficulty recalling names, it does not lessen the importance of knowing and using names in our daily interactions.
You can certainly give your child an advantage when walking into new environments and trying to make friends by modeling and practicing introductions. This summer, I stood around with other parents dropping off my child at a new camp — with unfamiliar staff and children. After no introductions were made on day one, I started introducing my son to a few other children and myself to other parents. I witnessed a substantial difference in my son’s motivation and eagerness to engage with the other kids and participate in the camp after the introductions had been made.
In teaching any skill, the best educators break down what adults may consider “the basics” into smaller steps and teach children each of the component skills. Try out these next steps with your children and see if they feel more confident starting school in the next few weeks.
Explore why names are so important.
For young children, rthead Harry and the Bucketful of Dinosaurs to kick off a conversation about the importance of names.3 Or go through the pile of stuffed animals in your household with your child (if your house contains many like mine) and make sure that each has a meaningful name. For older tweens and teens, tell the story of how you came up with their name. Why was it a special name for you? If you do not know the meaning or origin of your child’s name, look it up together.
Find a chance to practice an introduction and reflect on it.
Make it silly if you like. Introduce Dad to your daughter at dinner. Or introduce your favorite teddy bear to the rubber duck bath team. “Ted Bear meet Duckie.” “It’s so nice to meet you. I’ve already heard so much about your adventures together.” Reflect on what you did during the introduction. What did your body look like? Eye contact, leaning in and shaking a hand are all ways you can show you are interested in greeting another. What specifically did you say? “Hello, my name is Anna. What’s your name?” is an easy way to begin.
When making introductions, find out one thing about the other person.
Assist yourself and your child with recall by associating a person’s name with something meaningful about who they are. “What do you like to play at home?” or “What’s your favorite game?” might be standby questions for your child to ask to begin to get to know a person.
If you are playing host, facilitate learning each other’s names.
Playdates or birthday parties are times in which friends and family are brought together through a variety of contexts and may not know one another. Help establish connections by providing name tags. And before pinning the tail on the donkey, facilitate a name game to help children learn each other’s names. For ideas on a variety of name games, check out The Ultimate Camp Resource on Name Games.
And what if you forget a name? Help your child know what to do.
Those moments can be awkward when your child wants to interact with another but just cannot remember his or her name. What can he say? “Excuse me. Can you tell me your name again?” Practice and model this with adults when you have the chance so that he can watch how it’s done and be ready when he’s feeling uncomfortable.
And for educators and others who work with groups of children, remember it takes multiple exposures to a name to remember it. Name games such as those described in The Morning Meeting Book can be an enjoyable way to practice introductions, recall names, and get to know each person in a classroom community. One of my favorites is the simple Adjective Greeting in which each individual picks an adjective that begins with the same letter of that person’s first name. You can call me “Joyous, Jovial, and Jumpy Jennifer.”
Children who are able to recall and use others’ names demonstrate confidence and assertiveness. Using names imbues the greeter with the power to build relationships. However, the ability to introduce oneself does not always begin naturally or comfortably. Equipping your child with the ability to introduce himself will prepare him for entrance into any social context. How do you practice introductions with your children?
Why not learn right along with the start of school about your child’s development and how you can be the best support?
NBC Parent Toolkit has produced a customizable back-to-school guide for parents and it’s super cool! You can select the ages and stages of your children. You can select the developmental areas you care most about like social and emotional development, academics, or health and wellness. And you can select high-interest or concern areas like mental health, bullying, or homework. Then, you get a specific set of tools, videos, tips and more according to your interests. Great idea, @ParentToolkit! Check it out!
It’s the morning after our summer vacation at the lake. E awoke and said he had had a nightmare. “My school became a haunted village. A ghost dragged me around the grounds. And all of my school friends were at my house playing with my favorite toys.” Though there were still a few weeks until the start of school, he was anticipating, not only the beginning but also the end of his freedom. And he worries about the unknown, faceless teacher who will rule over his days to come. Starting back to school can be an exciting time but as with any transition, it can also be fraught with worry, fear, and a sense of loss as the freedoms of summer disappear. How can you best support your children as they go through this annual rite of passage?
Say goodbye to summer.
Summer days are so sweet and fleeting. Perhaps you spend precious family time laughing and enjoying one another in ways that may not occur as often during the hustle of the school year. As a family, find a way to say goodbye to summer. It could be as simple as an ice cream sundae indulgence or a campfire in the backyard. Pitch a tent or simply throw your beach blankets on the grass and stargaze. My husband proposed sharing a slideshow of seasonal photos with the grandparents. While you are savoring those last summer moments, take a moment to reflect on some of your happiest times over the last few months. When did you laugh the most? What were your favorite moments on your travels or local adventures? What animals or plants did you encounter? What activities do you want to repeat next summer? If your school year has already begun, the extended Labor Day weekend offers a natural opportunity to create a way to have one final appreciation of summer.
Create rituals for the ending and beginning.
After finding a way to reflect and enjoy summer’s end together, how will you anticipate all that is positive about starting the school year? In addition to new tools including the fresh smell of a new box of crayons and razor-sharp Ticonderoga twos, there are friends with whom to reconnect or perhaps new friends to be made. Haul out a few projects from last year and display them once again to remind your child of the success she has already experienced in school. Make a ritual out of getting school supplies by buying them together and then enjoying a special meal together or engaging in your child’s favorite activity as a family.
Create or recreate your routine.
Part of the annual preparations in our house for the school year is the creation of the morning routine poster. This doesn’t need to occur before school begins but in those first few weeks starting back, it’s an ideal time to go over it so that the opportunities and challenges are fresh in the minds of all family members. Going over your morning routine can offer great comfort to a child who has not gotten up at the crack of dawn or needed to get dressed and move quickly for months. Don’t expect that they will snap back into the routine easily. Pave the way by discussing how your morning will progress together. Find out what your children’s expectations and hopes are. Writing down your child’s routine formalizes it and helps provide a reminder to return to if there are struggles in those early days of school. For more on simple ways to plan for better mornings with kids, check out the video short, “A Smooth Morning Routine”.
Does your child walk to school? Do they take the bus? Offer a practice dry run opportunity to add a feeling of comfort and safety before the first day. Get up at school time. Get dressed and follow your route to school whether it’s walking or driving. If your children take the bus, go to their bus stop and then drive the route to school. Talk about where they might want to sit and how they could introduce themselves to other kids and the bus driver. When you arrive at the empty schoolyard, walk around and show your child where they will line up or meet their teacher. Then go to your favorite coffee shop or donut house and get a morning snack to add a sense of celebration. Though this practice may seem like an extra step, it will pay off when you witness your child entering the school year with more confidence.
Involve children in preparations.
Work on a calendar for your child’s room and place all of the major events in the school year on it including friends’ birthdays and days off. Engage your child in placing their name in notebooks, on pencil holders and other school tools. Prepare your child’s homework space. Talk about what tools they might need at home and get them organized and ready. Perhaps work together on making a pencil holder (using a well rinsed frozen juice can, paper, glue, stickers, and markers) or decorating book covers. Create a binder for papers sent home. Parents often fall into the flurry of preparations and may just check items off the list. Think about how you can involve your child knowing that this will pave the way for them in thinking about the tools and organization they need in order to be successful this school year.
Return to a school night bedtime.
Although summer nights can allow for late movie nights or catching fireflies, children will require a full night’s rest in order to function well as school begins. If they are not in the habit of a regular bedtime, it can become a power struggle and that challenge can widdle away at precious rest time. Certainly, a sleep-deprived child will not be able to function as well with the big first meetings – teachers and friends – and new expectations in those first days. Take a week prior to the first day and chat about your bedtime routine. What business needs to be accomplished (getting on pajamas, brushing teeth)? What enjoyable, connecting opportunities do we have too (reading books together, snuggling, saying prayers, etc.)? Try out your newly designed routine and get children to bed closer and closer to their regular school night time (practice like it’s a game and see if you can beat your own time) to help their body rhythms adjust along with their expectations. Learn how many hours of sleep your child’s body and brain require by age here.
Show that you are open and willing to listen during this time of transition. Children will be more likely to share their worries. Perhaps begin a conversation with him about his experience with his last teacher and how he got to know her and like her. Ask questions about rich memories from last school year and offer the space for your child to tell you about his school experiences. If worries emerge in conversation, you, in turn, can address those through practice, involvement, and reflection.
Show additional sensitivity.
Children will have heightened emotions during this transition from summer to the first months of the school year. They are adjusting to major changes in their life including new faces and new expectations. Be aware that greater upset about minor issues may indicate anxiety just below the surface. If children are unable to identify or articulate their feelings, offer feeling words and ask if they are accurate: “It sounds like you are worried. Are you worried about having a new teacher or being in a new building?”
Because worries may run at a fever pitch this time of year, tell stories of persistence from your child’s past. Find ways to show your confidence in your child’s ability to meet any challenge by digging in and working hard. Emphasize hard work as a family value, one that all members are engaged in with their work and schooling. Reinforce ways to introduce yourself and make new friends offering additional confidence when social anxiety strikes. Also, clue your child into becoming more socially aware. Discuss the fact that others around your child – peers and teachers alike – will show signs of nervousness too. When your child gets worried, coach her to invest her energy in empathizing with others and making others comfortable by enjoying the moment and she may just forget her worries altogether.
Introduce yourself or make brief contact with your child’s teacher.
These first few weeks of school offer an important opportunity for connection with your child’s teacher. Beginning that relationship as soon as possible in a positive way will contribute to further communications and ultimately, your child’s success in the classroom so it’s worth the effort. Stick around during drop off or pick up. Extend a handshake, a smile, and wishes for a great year ahead. These first interactions will pave the way for future partnership. For more on ways to initiate a partnership with your child’s teachers as a parent, check out “The Most Important Relationship To Build This School Year.”
Taking steps to prepare your children by creating rituals and celebrations, through initiating organization and reflection, and by showing of empathy for their situation and the accompanying mix of emotions can all contribute to a sense of safety and security in the midst of change. Not only will it help create smooth transitions during each day for your family, but it will also allow your children to enter the school year with an open mind and heart to experience the joy and possibility of learning.
How Can Parents Help Kids Get Back Into the Swing of School Days after the Freedom of Summer?
This week, the NBC Parent Toolkit team along with TODAY Show parent experts Michele Borba and Amy McCready and myself put together a brief practical guide divided by grade levels to prepare you with ideas for what we, as parents, can do now to pave the way for our children’s smooth transition into the school routine. It begins…
Welcome to August, otherwise known as the “Sunday of summer.” Every year, this month comes barreling in, knocking at our door, and we can’t help but greet it with a mix of surprise, sadness, and yes – even some relief. With the end of long days at the pool and handwritten letters from camp comes the beginning of back-to-school shopping and renewed hope that this will be the year our kids finally get to school on time.
As seasoned parents know, preparing our kids to go back to school goes beyond bringing out the backpacks and checking off a list of school supplies. The real challenge comes when we have to replace lazy afternoons in the sun with homework help and late-night bonfires with an earlier bedtime. But the new schedule doesn’t have to be a battle. Whether you have toddler starting school for the first time or a teen who’s entering their final year of high school, here’s how to restore routines (and hopefully, some peace)…READ THE FULL ARTICLE HERE.
“It is high time the ideal of success should be replaced by the ideal of service.”
– Albert Einstein
Parents, by the very nature of our roles, serve in a leadership position while we raise our children. A servant leader realizes that his or her ability to significantly influence others and achieve any vision comes from serving others. Understanding the qualities of a successful leader – that of a servant leader – can assist any parent in further refining his or her values and skills to better perform her role. Research on power demonstrates that the skills required to rise to a leadership position are empathy and social skills.1 However, interestingly, those are the very skills that become the most challenging to leaders once they have acquired power. So when we are parenting, we may have a greater challenge than in other roles with our ability to be empathetic and to demonstrate social intelligence.
Robert Greenleaf, author of “The Servant as Leader” and management researcher who consulted with major corporations like AT&T and lectured at MIT and Harvard, defined what it means to be a servant leader.2 He writes that leaders always have a larger goal in mind and can well articulate it. That goal may not be fully achievable in a lifetime but offers sufficient inspiration and vision to motivate all members to pursue it. For example, our family’s vision is to love one another unconditionally and we commit to supporting each other as we pursue learning and working toward our highest dreams and potentials. And we measure our major life decisions based on that vision. Parents as servant leaders prioritize and build trust as a critical foundation for their family’s interconnected relationships and individual successes. They are responsible decision makers, and they exercise sound judgment showing competence in what they do.
The concept of servant leadership can offer a frame of mind as parents consider their role and how they might focus their efforts on continuous improvement. I found, in reading about servant leadership, that it deepened my thinking about my dreams for myself as the Mom I strive to be and continually work to become. Here are some of the main points Robert Greenleaf shared when he outlined his concept of a servant leader that I’ve translated for our role as leaders of our families.
Parents as Servant Leaders…
Listen for Understanding
When a family member has a problem, Greenleaf would advise listening first for understanding. And though it may require some time and possibly awkward silence with children, taking the time to listen to truly make sense of what the child is both feeling and thinking can result in a much richer dialogue between parent and child. Instead of rushing to fix as we so often tend to do, we offer a significant show of respect by actively listening. It’s often said, the better you define a problem, the better the solution. And in this case, stopping to listen can help prompt a child’s thinking so that she crafts her own best solution helping her accept responsibility for her relationships and challenges. If you are interested in exercising your listening skills in family life, check out a number of ideas in the previous article on coaching or in the article, “Say What?”
Communicate for Connection
The wider vision and long-term goals a parent might have cannot be readily accessible to a child without a focus on communicating for connection. In the busyness of our lives, at times, we forget to take time out to explain why we are so busy in our pursuits. And it helps to relate our rationale to a child’s life such as their learning goals in school or a saving goal for a coveted toy. For example, my partner is in graduate school and working full-time which takes him away from our family frequently. It would be easy to focus on his lack of presence as E and I eat dinner or participate in free-time activities without Dad. But we have to remember to take time to explain Dad’s goal in his contributions to his work and contributions to our family. This helps us all stay focused and endure temporary separations while working toward a bigger vision.
Use the Art of Withdrawal
The art of withdrawal is the ability to step back, to step out of the throes of current circumstances, and to reflect. This withdrawal could involve taking a walk in the park during an intense time. It could mean removing yourself from the room to another place to cool down. Or it could be as simple as employing “Strange Calm,” sitting down in the midst of chaos to regain your focus. This is such a critical point for our roles as parents and servant leaders. Not only does it give us permission to “leave the building,” it’s encouragement to do so. Yes, we need to make family members aware in advance that we will be withdrawing at times. Yes, we need to ensure that our children are safe before we withdraw. But we can use this technique to fuel our own sense of well-being as we treat our feelings and thoughts with the care they deserve in leading our family. We return from our withdrawal with a sense of renewed purpose and clearer thinking to retain their trust and make sound decisions. This is what living a mindful life as a parent can look like.
Practice Acceptance and Empathy
Family members need to feel accepted in the group at all times. Their membership needs to be treated and viewed as essential. Nothing could cause them to be cast out. E said to me last night at bedtime as we were saying goodnight, “Will you love me no matter what?” with a teasing tone. But I know that he needs to hear it “Yes, come what may, no matter what, I will love you.” All kids do. And not just once but often, especially in the times when they are failing, making poor choices, and generally feeling unsuccessful. Greenleaf writes, “Parents who try to raise perfect children are certain to raise neurotics.” Getting comfortable with and expecting mistakes as a part of our children’s learning process is a core part of our own acceptance in our parenting. That acceptance demonstrates our empathy for our children who hold us and how we regard them in their highest esteem. And we can further work on cultivating our empathy and understanding for our children by regularly learning about their school experiences and learning about their development so we can relate better to their particular kinds of challenges.
Foresight is the ability to make responsible decisions combining factual information with our intuition. But in addition, we have to consider the consequences down the road for the choices we are making today. And helping our children become responsible requires us to model that skill. Talking aloud about the ethics of a choice and how others might be impacted in future days or years can help children become aware that they need to consider theirs and others futures in their own decision-making. It’s rare when all of the pieces of information required are fully at hand when we need to make a choice. Usually, there is a bit of a leap of faith involved particularly when it’s a larger decision. Children will learn to better trust themselves as you show faith in your own inner wisdom to guide you.
Work on Self-Awareness
We cannot lead a family toward a vision without self-awareness. And that self-knowledge is not a one-time event but a process of introspection, looking within to understand what patterns we might be repeating that we want to change and what values are core to who we are and how we want to show up in the world. The art of withdrawal can assist with our awareness as we take time out to reflect on what our deepest self is telling us. In addition, we need to cultivate an awareness of our family members’ feelings which can be strengthened over time with practice. “What’s Dad feeling tonight? Can you tell by his facial expression how his day went?” Taking small opportunities to notice other family members’ feelings can strengthen this skill in yourself and your children.
Taking a step back and evaluating your role as a parent as a servant leader can be nothing short of revolutionary. Since change always begins at the individual level, we can start improving our world at home. If we desire leaders – whether they serve in our communities, our workplaces or our governments – who are caring, socially responsible and compassionate, we plant those seeds daily by modeling it as servant leaders with our own children.
Don’t Miss the Developmentally-Appropriate Responsibility Chart!
It’s a Sunday afternoon. Mom and Dad have decided that at ten years of age their daughter, Molly, could be taking more responsibility for her contributions to the household. They attempt to set the stage. Mom puts out a snack for family members. She grabs a clipboard, paper, and marker to create a list together. And all family members sit down for a reasonable discussion. And it begins well. Mom says, “I’ve noticed you consistently making your bed in the morning now after we talked about it a few weeks back and that’s great. That’s exactly the kind of contribution we want to encourage. We thought, since you are getting older and more capable, we’d look at all the ways you can contribute to our household.” Dad agrees, “Yes, we’d like to help you be successful in taking care of your belongings.”
And then, it happens. She leans back in her chair – as she often does while eating meals – and her snack dribbles down onto the floor. Dad, witnessing this, says in a frustrated tone “Lean! You’ve got to lean!” which is a refrain he utters frequently at dinnertime as the dining room carpet becomes dotted with food crumbs. Mom and Dad watch Molly’s face as the red hue seems to advance from her chin to forehead. And that’s it – conversation over. She springs out of her chair and off – up to her room.
Perhaps this is a familiar scene to you. Though Mom and Dad attempt to communicate as a team, your child may feel outnumbered. Though you may approach the conversation with the best, most constructive intentions, defensiveness may creep up and when it does, your chances of influencing your child’s behaviors are slim to none. It may end in a power struggle. It may end with scolding or yelling, crying or silence, and certainly with frustrations on all sides.
Yet the importance of these discussions throughout your child’s development remains. Yes, they’ll grow more and more capable of taking on responsibilities that they could not attempt in previous years. And not only do you want to make sure that the tasks get accomplished (and you don’t turn into the family nag) but also, you want your child to internalize the desire and skills associated with taking responsibility. So the question becomes, how do you help a child learn to take increasing responsibility for contributing to your household?
There are numerous ways. And I’ll share those tips and helpful tools too. But first, I’ll share the second, far more successful attempt this family took with the responsibility conversation later that day. After Molly stormed to her room, Mom and Dad refilled their coffee (yes, this was a necessary next step!) and sat down to talk with one another about what worked, what didn’t and formulate a game plan.
They framed some aspects of the conversation really well. The snack and sitting together was nice. The clipboard ready for their plan was helpful. Recognizing the ways in which Molly already contributed was key. And Molly seemed pleased and responsive to that recognition. They weren’t scolding nor were they acting like they were starting from scratch. She had a history of positively contributing and her parents were noticing those contributions. But the minute Dad shifted to scolding, the power dynamic changed. Before the comment on leaning, there was shared power. But after, there were sides – the parents versus the child. So the team approach they were trying for failed. As Mom and Dad reflected on this, they talked about how to sustain shared power throughout the conversation. How can we approach Molly so that we invite her feedback and ensure that she’s heard, understood and given a voice and a choice to take ownership of her contributions?
When ready, Mom and Dad went to her room. After ample cooldown time, they asked if they might talk with her again. Mom and Dad sat down lower than Molly to visually show that they were not attempting to dominate her in this conversation. Dad apologized for the nagging and said this was precisely why they were talking about this – so they wouldn’t be tempted to nag her about anything. “How can you decide on the ways you can contribute and we agree as a family?” they asked. “And how can you find ways to remember so that we don’t have to nag?”
Molly was eager to find a way not to be nagged so she helped with creating a list of ways she could take more responsibility. They went through each idea and discussed how she would remember in the moment. The ideas all came from Molly. For leaning over her food at the table during meals, Molly wanted to make a little reminder sign that read, “Please lean” with a smiley face. (Clearly, she wanted a friendly reminder!) And she put a pillow behind her to push her forward in her chair. For screen time limits, she was going to set a timer and shut down the iPad when the timer buzzed. For each responsibility, Molly figured out a way that she could remember either with a sign or an alarm. Mom, Dad, and Molly ended their family conversation with the agreement to work together to make signs and set alarms to get her prepared to be successful.
And so far, Mom and Dad report it has been highly successful (true story!). Molly is keeping up with her chores. And Mom and Dad are making sure to notice and share their appreciation for her actions when they see those helpful behaviors.
Engage intrinsic motivation.
Children and adults alike are intrinsically motivated by feeling a sense of autonomy, belonging and competence. Contributing to the care of your family’s home can meet all three of those needs. As you formulate ways to discuss, consider engaging these forms of motivation to help internalize a sense of responsibility.
Understand developmental appropriateness.
At each age and stage, there are tendencies or themes that if align with can serve as helpful motivation for contributing to the care of your home and family. For examples, four-year-olds love jobs they can do. It makes them feel big and competent. But they may struggle with clumsiness and will have short attention spans. Remember that each time they contribute, they are in training for a lifetime of contribution. Give them short, quick tasks for which they can be successful. For young children, allot more time and make it an enjoyable part of their play. Here are some wonderful cleanup songs that you can use to send the signal that it’s clean up time. Making a daily routine of clean up can help ensure success. The following is a printable chart that lists various developmental milestones at particular ages that can support your efforts to involve your child in household responsibilities along with some ideas for task readiness.Household Responsibilities by Age/Stage Printable Chart
Collaborate as a family team.
Do you notice you gain energy for the work ahead when others are digging in alongside of you? It’s true for kids too. Don’t assign and then, kick back and watch. When it’s time to clean up, when it’s time to do laundry, or whatever the chore, family members who work together will get chores accomplished together. Children will feel a greater sense of motivation to contribute if you are working right alongside them.
Be sure you allow your child to take responsibility for a task and complete it themselves. Don’t go behind and fix it if you feel it’s not up to your standards. This does not offer a child the sense of satisfaction of completing a task. And if there are a number of tasks, make a checklist so that your child can check off each when completed.
Be sure your child is adequately prepared to load the dishwasher or set the table. When introducing a new responsibility, try interactive modeling as a way to teach your child how to contribute. We, as parents, often forget that children are still learning many ways of doing things that we take for granted. Interactive modeling can be a way to ensure you are doing what you can to help your child learn the actions necessary to meet your expectations.
From author Margaret Berry Wilson’s book, Interactive Modeling; A Powerful Technique for Teaching Children, we can learn from this simple seven-step process that teachers use in schools. 1
1. Say what you will model and why.
2. Model the behavior.
3. Ask your child what he noticed.
4. Invite your child to model.
5. Ask what he noticed with his own modeling.
6. Practice together.
7. Provide specific feedback starting with strengths using “I notice…”
The following is an example of how this might look between a parent and child. Be certain and pick a time to do this when you do not have time pressures.
1. You might say, “Watch how I play waiter. You can try it after me!” You could wear an apron like a waiter might or put on a name tag.
2. Now set the table as you would like it and as your child watches and you go through the motions, be sure to notice any areas that may pose difficulties for your child such as getting out and placing knives at each place setting. Address those directly. “Since the knives can be dangerous, I’ll do that part of the process each night and you can do the rest.”
3. Ask, “What did you notice when I was acting like a waiter?”
4. You might say, “Okay, your turn to pretend to be the waiter.” Dress him up in the apron and name tag to maintain the fun.
5. After he plays his role ask, “What did you notice when you did it?”
6. Now practice it together. Don’t skip this! It’s important that your child gets the chance to work alongside you while cooperatively going through the process.
7. In providing feedback, be specific and start with strengths. “I noticed you handled the silverware carefully. Terrific! When you put the napkins down, be sure to count so that each person gets one.” If you share too many issues, your child might tune out so pick your top few areas for improvement only.
Recognize and celebrate but don’t bait.
It’s critical to notice and point out when your children are contributing. This may seem insignificant but your words can have a reinforcing effect so that they are much more apt to continue the positive behavior. “I notice you put away your dishes without my asking!” is all you need say. If your family team accomplishes a larger project, going out for ice cream, watching an enjoyable movie, and simply doing a family team cheer can further celebrate your hard work.
Many parents and teachers use reward stickers or charts to guide home contributions trying to incentivize work. Others pay for chores through an allowance or a pay-per-task. Though it may seem an easy solution, it does not help children internalize their role as a caring family member and contributor. It does not send the message, “we contribute to the care of our home because we are part of this family.” Instead, it serves as bait and sometimes may not be enticing enough to keep the motivation high. I tested this with my own son on three different occasions. We brainstormed a list of regular responsibilities and additional ones that could be done for payment. Consistently the ones that were on his regular responsibilities’ list were accomplished and he didn’t touch the other ones. Why? Play was far more important on his agenda. “At any age, rewards are less effective than intrinsic motivation for promoting effective learning” states Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards; The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes.2 Why not engage their intrinsic motivation for feelings of autonomy, belonging and competence and work with them on the skills and processes necessary to internalize that sense of responsibility?
You will be teaching your kids how to be a substantial contributor in a family. And that will serve them on school projects, collaborative teams at work and in their own roles as parents someday. It will take patience. But rest assured, practicing responsibility at home is practice for a lifetime of caring contributions.
Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.
– Roger Lewin
Coaching can be a powerful way to help our children become more self-aware while understanding their thoughts and feelings and how they impact their behavior choices. It can also give them valuable practice in problem-solving and responsible decision making. Similar to a sports coach, the parent coach expresses confidence that his child will succeed in his efforts. But in contrast to a sports coach, parent coaching is not focused on the technique (HOW our child solves the problem) nor attached to the outcome. It is about helping a child think through their own solutions to a problem.
Our kids come to us with problems regularly. And so often, in the busyness of the day, we respond with a solution. And though our hurried response may help them clean up the mess of the moment, it does not prompt them to think for themselves about their problems, how they are feeling and their options for moving forward. There are two conversations below in which the same issue is addressed. The first is a possible hurried response. The second takes a coaching approach.
The hurried conversation:
“Mom, Morgan’s being mean.” says Adam.
“Yep, this happens a lot. What’s he doing?” asks Mom.
“He keeps poking me with a stick.” replies Adam.
“You tell him to cut it out or I’ll need to talk to him.” responds Mom.
And off Adam goes to implement Mom’s solution with the possibility of her needing to intervene. Next is an example of a parent using a coaching approach in that same conversation.
The coaching conversation:
“Mom, Morgan’s being mean.” says Adam.
“What’s he doing?” says Mom.
“He keeps poking me with a stick.” replies Adam.
“It sounds like you are annoyed. Is that true?” says Mom.
“Yeah, what do I do to get him to stop?” – Adam.
“Why do you think he’s poking you?” – Mom.
“To get my attention.” – Adam.
“And how are you responding?” – Mom.
“I keep telling him to stop but he won’t!” – Adam.
“Telling him to stop doesn’t seem to be working. What could you do differently to stop his poking?” – Mom.
“I could stop giving him attention, leave and then only come back when he agrees to stop poking.” – Adam.
“Sounds good. Go for it.” – Mom.
In the hurried example, Mom accepts full responsibility for the problem. Not only does she solve the problem for him, but also expresses that she’ll likely need to intervene when his attempts do not work. And you can bet, he’ll be coming right back to her. She has inadvertently promoted his dependence on her to solve his problems. And certainly, Adam has not been required to think much further about the situation. However, in the coaching conversation, Mom probes to find out a bit more about the problem, how Adam is feeling about it and how he is responding. She points out what’s not working and asks openly what he feels could work. Adam could have responded with any number of solutions and she was ready to support any that seemed safe alternatives. She leaves him, expressing confidence in his ability to handle the situation. And I know (since this is based on a true story) that he will be successful. As a result, Adam feels a sense of competence and autonomy in being able to handle his own relationship issues.
The purpose of coaching is to help a person find his own solutions to his problem. Inherent in the coaching model is the belief and trust that an individual has that ability to solve his own issues. The coach through questions, active listening, and focused reflections creates the conditions necessary for a person to have his own realizations about his feelings and thoughts and how they are informing his behaviors. This deepens his self-awareness.
So often we are in a telling or directing role as parents. The essential challenge of using coaching is that we have to suspend our own judgment about the problem at hand in order to effectively play the role. Attachment to a particular outcome lessens our power. When our child may be coming to us about a friendship challenge, it is an ideal opportunity to offer coaching support. For obvious reasons, problems that pose a high safety risk are likely not appropriate for a coaching conversation since you will desire a particular outcome.
The field of coaching has so much to offer in understanding how we can be better communicators and help others resolve their own problems bringing out their best selves. My husband is a certified coach preparing future hospital presidents for their roles with these techniques. He has shared his course texts with me and the following are my interpretation of recommendations from Coaching Skills; A Handbook by Jenny Rogers with my own child developmental spin.
Use open-ended questions without an agenda. Use these questions to further define the problem so that your child can better solve it. Jenny Rogers writes about the “magical questions” that fit any context or problem which, in essence, are: “What”” (What’s the problem?), “So what?” (What are the consequences?) and “What’s next?” (How will you move forward?) Avoid questions that are simply answered with a “yes” or “no” since they will not prompt thinking. Also avoid “leading” questions – ones that offer advice. For example, “Shouldn’t you…,” “Wouldn’t it be better to…,” or “Why don’t you try…”
Name an emotion and ask if your observation is accurate. In addition to learning about the problem, your child can benefit from identifying how she is feeling about it. Help your child better understand what she’s feeling by listening for the feeling, articulating it as specifically as possible and then asking if you are accurate. For example, “It sounds like you are hurt and embarrassed. Is that right?” Your child will certainly tell you if you have not hit the mark with your feelings assessment. And they will be given the chance to further define their emotions in the process. Jenny Rogers writes, “As coaches, our role is often to help others articulate feelings that are there but go unrecognized, or to help them say out loud what they have kept inside.”
Challenge to initiate new thinking. In most situations, there are a number of possible solutions. I never want my son to feel trapped in a problem. So I know that offering him practice in brainstorming many solutions will prepare him for life’s biggest challenges. If a child’s response to the situation is not working, ask her to come up with a new solution. For more on practicing brainstorming many options to a problem, check out Elements of a Confident Kid… Brainstormer.
Summarize. After you’ve talked about the problem and your child’s solution, summarize it succinctly for him without embellishing or adding your own opinions. “Your problem was Morgan trying to get your attention by poking you. Asking him to stop wasn’t working. Now you are going to leave until he can agree not to poke anymore.” This will help your child solidify his own thinking and reaffirm that you’ve heard him and his own solution.
Eliminate judgment. Though you may be well aware of Morgan’s proclivity to poke and poke, leave your judgment about the individuals and the problem out of your conversation. Though it may be a valid frustration on your part, it could also sabotage the effectiveness of your coaching to imply or share the judgment. Using your own self-discipline as you guide your child through their thought process will pay off as you also watch them competently solve their own problem.
Express genuine confidence. No, we cannot possibly know how another person will react in any given situation so we cannot be sure of how things will turn out. However, we can be certain that our child can handle problems in their relationships. That certainty will give them confidence as they try out their own solutions. Jenny Rogers uses the helpful comparison of the placebo effect in medicine. If a person senses the doctor’s full confidence in the drug’s ability to heal, they are much more likely to be healed. If we say, “You could try that and see if it works,” we sound hesitant and unsure. But a simple, “Good. Go for it!” expresses that we know our kid can work it out.
The process of coaching with a child can be an authentic vehicle for promoting social and emotional skills. By giving them a chance to address their problems, they can feel a sense of control over their own lives and relationships. They are given the chance to think through their feelings and reactions. That time for reflection can create the space and opportunity for consequential thinking which is an essential ingredient of responsible decision-making. Parent coaching is a key component of confident parents raising confident kids.
“Hello, everybody! So glad to see you. Hello, everybody. We’re so glad to see you!” sang Miss Leigh, our Music Together instructor who engaged both parents and toddlers in song, dance, and music making once a week in my son’s early years. And from that singular experience emerged life-long friendships and a next-generation family connection to music that continues to influence our quiet times at home, our social lives, and our choices for entertainment and extracurricular activities.
Numerous studies on children’s exposure to music through instrument lessons or music education in school have shown that it can have a significant impact on a child’s brain development. In fact, children with musical training have been found to score higher on reading and math assessments, have greater spatial and fine motor skills, and enhanced social and emotional skills. (1) In addition, one study that examined 232 brain scans of healthy children found that those who played a musical instrument had a stronger ability to focus their attention, manage anxiety and exercise self-control. (2)
I personally witnessed evidence of children learning self-control through music on a recent school visit. Teachers directed thirty second-grade students to sing a phrase a- cappella (without instruments) and then, stop suddenly and rest during a set of beats counted out by both the teacher and the students. These children beamed with pride, as I watched, while they were right on time with their singing and with their absolute silence. They practiced and demonstrated their ability to control their impulses while collaborating with their classmates.
In our home lives, music can play a significant role. It can offer a pre-teen a sense of independence as she discovers her own taste in music and seeks out her favorites. Music can also feed a child’s intrinsic desires for autonomy (as he learns to play an instrument on his own), belonging (as she shares musical interests with her peers), and competence (as he hones his skills and abilities in music making).
Families can take advantage of multiple ways music can promote children’s social and emotional development by improving skills, creating a psychologically safe and joyful home environment, and building trust and connection among members. Here are some specific ideas.
Collaborative Music Making – Get out any instruments you might have laying around your house. Toys instruments work (Have you seen the Jimmy Fallon jam sessions with them?)! Create music together. We have a tradition of making music with friends when they come for dinner because after trying it once, the kids now request it.
Family Theme Song – Have you noticed each professional Baseball player has a “get psyched up” theme song that is played as he is positioning himself at bat? What might be your family theme song for times when you want to generate energy, cohesion, and enthusiasm? Maybe you are about to go on a summer road trip or vacation? Decide on your theme song together and relish in playing it.
You Write the Songs – Pick out a family favorite song – one that everyone knows. Now select a favorite animal (your pet?), place (your school?) or person (your best friend?). Change the words of the song to describe or tell the story of that creature or place. Make sure all family members have the chance to contribute. Practice and sing it with gusto!
PROMOTE SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL SKILLS.
Listening skills – Play a game with your children while listening to music. See how many instruments they can accurately name. Careful listening is often required when figuring out the layers of instrumentation.
Self-control – The spaces and silences in music can be just as defining and impactful as the sounds. Exercise your children’s self-control, an essential life skill, by taking turns singing or using instruments working on timing, beats, when to join in and when to become silent. You can do the same with dance. Move your body to the music and then, freeze when there are rests or the music is stopped.
ASSIST WITH EMOTIONS.
Deal with anger – Listening to calming music can assist a child who is angry or inconsolable. Time alone with soothing music can do wonders to calm an upset child. Be aware, however, that angry music will only increase anger. So help select music that offers a way to calm down. (YouTube has a large selection of “relaxing music for children.”)
Deal with sadness – In addition to calming, relaxing music, songs with a sad and expressive tone can help children feel the sadness they may be too embarrassed to show and pushing away. Give them a way to select and play music in a secluded spot so that they can experience the freedom of emotional expression without judgment.
Deal with anxiety – The moment I play calming baby music (“Beatles for Babies”) on a floor of the house, I notice all family members (adults too) buzzing along with what they are doing and calmer in the process. Children can benefit from the calming effects of instrumental music. Experiment with different kinds of music and watch how your family responds.
Express joy – Yes, music can help us express our greatest joys in ways that words just can’t. If we use music to communicate our emotions, our children will learn that music can become an additional voice for their own expression of feelings beyond words.
FACILITATE COOPERATION WITH ROUTINES.
Cleaning Up – Instead of nagging or inciting power struggles, why not have a clean-up song that you play when it’s that time of the day? A song can inspire cooperation as you work together with your children singing a merry tune and getting the job done.
Packing – Whether you are going away on a trip for a night or a week, packing can become quite a chore for parents. And certainly, children have varying abilities to contribute though they can help in some way from preschool age on up. Packing a full suitcase – with a parent checking in to make sure all items are covered – can be accomplished by an eight-year-old with a little guidance. Turn on some happy music and the process might just go more smoothly for all and take your own stress away.
Homework or Summer Enrichment (for some!) – Some children will require silence in order to focus their full attention on homework. But for some, music (instrumental) may actually assist them in their focus. Experiment and know your own child. See if playing an undercurrent of music during homework time might just help her stay on task.
INCREASE SOCIAL AWARENESS.
Diversify – You could use the holidays or times of year to inspire variation in your musical selections. For Cinco de Mayo, perhaps select a Mariachi Band station. Or for St. Patrick’s Day, choose Celtic music. Expose your children to a wide variety of music from multiple cultures and traditions and the whole family will learn and feel enriched by the experience.
CREATE A CALMING, SAFE SPACE.
Household Tone – When you walk into another person’s home, you immediately notice the feel of the new environment – how it smells, looks and sounds. Music or other sounds change the psychological space of a room. We may place have a constant dull drone of talking and news reporting as our typical backdrop from radio or television. Consider how that impacts the environment. And if messages from those sources are particularly fear-laden or negative, how does that impact our children? Turn off those talking sources and turn on an undercurrent of Jazz, Classical, Reggae or World Music and see how it alters the tone of your household. Notice your own mood and how it might be changed by the music. Find the soundtrack for your family’s life that makes all feel safe, calm and “at home.”
Music can act as a powerful force for change in a family’s life. When stress is all around, using music to soothe can offer a significant respite. But even more than that, it can connect us more deeply to who we are and how we connect with our loved ones. Music can be a source of joy as we go about the routines of our lives.
(2) Hudziak, J. J., et al. (2014). Cortical thickness maturation and duration of music training: Health-promoting activities shape brain development. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Vol. 53, 11, 1153-1161.
Music Together – A high-quality early childhood music education program with locations all over the United States.
“I had no idea it was so late!” my ten-year-old exclaimed lifting his head up after a few hours of finely-crafting origami Star Wars figures with his cousin, Grandma and myself who were equally entranced in our crafting projects. Clearly, we were experiencing flow – family flow. We lost track of time, deeply engaged in the creative work in front of us. The top researcher on this topic and author of the national bestseller Flow; The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, explains flow this way:
“that state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”1
Flow activities seem to have a few aspects in common. They are that:
there is a problem that needs solving;
there is a sense that we have the ability to work toward solving it;
we bring our creativity to the task;
the process of working on the problem is the focus (not the outcome or product);
the goal feels enjoyable, important or worthwhile.
There are also a few conditions that seem to work against the creation of flow. Flow cannot exist:
if the individual is feeling self-conscious (like others are watching and judging);
if the individual feels she did not choose the problem but it was forced upon her; or
if the person feels anxious about the outcome or product of her work.
Children are already well-equipped for engaging in flow since they enter that state each time they are playing. Imaginative play, social play, and physical play are all sources during which children experience flow. And you, as a parent, certainly have noticed. When you try and stop the play to move on to the next activity, you often get a disoriented and upset child. After all, they were in a reverie of focused attention. Their goal is to keep the enjoyment going. Your goal to move on is disrupting their flow.
Flow calms. That focused attention is the experience of mindfulness, being fully present. And because focused attention is required for success in school, these experiences of flow, if protected and encouraged, can offer children the chance to exercise their self-control, the executive function that is said to be a predictor of success. They block out noises around them. They do not get easily distracted by the movements of others in the room. They are completely centered on the task at hand. Isn’t that also the kind of attention that’s needed when taking a high stakes achievement test or performing anything with excellence? The flow state offers that chance to rehearse the vital skill of self-control in an enjoyable, highly desirable way.
Not only does Csikszentmihalyi argue that flow is important in family life, he writes that it’s an essential ingredient in order to sustain and grow families over the long run. Without it, he claims families will ultimately become frustrated at impasses with one another and bored and disengaged. That’s because when we engage in flow together, we are engaging in learning. And through that learning, we are individually developing while simultaneously connecting, deepening our trust and intimacy.
Csikszentmihalyi says that the formula for establishing family flow is trust and unconditional acceptance. When engaged in learning – and our children are consistently engaged in learning whether it is academic or social or emotional or physical – we show our children that we have confidence in their ability to learn anything or achieve any goal they set their mind to.
Activities can begin as flow-producing, like a new team sport or a new friendship, but can change if parents begin to focus their comments and energies on outcomes as in, “we need to work toward winning every game,” or judging the friend as in, “I don’t like the way she talks.” The intrinsic value of the activity goes away as the outside voices begin to produce self-doubt.
In the big picture, families can cultivate flow as a part of who they are and how they function. Though the positive goal we set for ourselves will differ from family to family, maximizing each member’s ability to learn and grow and maximizing how your family team learns and grows together can be a focusing force. Here are six ways a family might do this.
Practice Real, Humanly Flawed Unconditional Love.
Here’s what the wise philosopher and poet – a go-to source for my personal renewal – Mark Nepo writes:
Unconditional love is not so much about how we receive and endure each other, as it is about the deep vow to never, under any condition, stop bringing the flawed truth of who we are to each other.2
Yes and wow! How can we do this for our children who hang on to our attention and reflections on their identity?
Learn about our Children’s Development.
Learning about our children’s development extends our patience as we begin to understand why they challenge us as they do. Instead of irritation or upset, we can recognize the learning taking place. We put the frustration in its place recognizing – this challenge is a normal part of what they are going through at this age/stage. We can more easily grasp why they are faltering or even failing in some areas. In order to develop, they have to fall down or fall short. When we know that they are working on a new level of understanding, we can better support that development. This site often provides developmental guidance and check out the NBC Parent Toolkit for lots of resources on each age and stage. Make this the most important birthday gift you give to your child by reading about his or her developmental milestones each time a new age arrives.
Problem? Poor Choice? Begin with the Magic of Compassion.
When problems arise, if we stop, breathe (to calm down) and activate compassion in our minds, it will help us become responsive to our children and allow us to transform a challenging moment into a teachable moment. Compassion will push us to discover our child’s perspective.
We can ask three questions:
“What is motivating our child right now? What is his goal here?”
“How can I best help or support his learning?”
“What can I learn from this?”
Do Emotional Coaching.
Research supports that emotional coaching works. 3 When your child is upset, name the feeling and ask if your labeling is correct. The simple act of naming an emotion can help a child feel more understood. Reflect on feelings about problems. And show your confidence in your child’s ability to find a solution. Ask “What do you think you could do about this?” And follow your child’s lead. When children feel capable of solving their own problems, they are going to be more likely to dig in and work through challenges engaging in flow. To learn more about how to use emotional coaching in your parenting, check out: Coaching, A Tool for Raising Confident Kids.
5.Lean into your own Developmental Journey.
Our development is never-ending. We can recognize that the inner call to our next learning challenge – as toddlers have when they know it’s time to walk – does not end with adolescence. It continues though, as adults, we tend to mute that drive in service to other goals. Listening and leaning into your own adult developmental journey means following your own learning wherever it takes you. Often that can mean facing discomfort, even pain. It can require looking at aspects of ourselves we’d rather ignore. But if we lean in, we’ll have greater empathy for our children who are faced with daily developmental challenges. And we’ll actively participate in family flow as we focus on learning as individuals and as a family.
I love this phrase borrowed from Yoga and frequently, repeat it to myself as I am challenged. First, it means not comparing yourself to others. And not comparing your children to other children. It can also mean that your problems are yours and yours alone to solve. And your children’s problems are theirs and theirs alone to solve. We can support, encourage, coach and love but we can’t do it for them. If we do, we take away their power and their opportunity to learn and internalize the most valuable social and emotional skills that will help them become resilient during even greater challenges to come.
The small experiences of family life matter too. And there are a million different ways we can experience flow in our time together. Anytime we play together, we have the chance to experience flow. Anytime we participate in creating art together whether that means a dance party, a crafting corner, or a music-making jam session, we can experience flow. When we discover the wonder of nature in our backyard or at a park, when we cook or bake, when we participate in service to our community, and when we read together, these all can produce the experience of flow. Even when we gather as a family to solve a problem together, there is an opportunity to experience flow.
I asked my ten-year-old son when he experiences total engagement in an activity – when he loses track of time. He responded – “bowling, vacation, and school.” I asked “When or what are you doing when you experience flow in school?” and he responded, “Anytime! All the time!” Learning can be a joy in families. Particularly if we are aware of ways we can cultivate those times, they can become our most cherished memories!
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow, The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, Harper Collins Publishers.
Nepo, M. (2000). The Book of Awakening. Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have. San Francisco, CA: Canari Press.
Gottman, J. & Declaire, J. (1997). Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child. The Heart of Parenting. NY: Simon and Schuster.
Hudson, F. (1999). The Adult Years, Mastering the Art of Self-Renewal. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
* The author was fully experiencing flow when writing this article. 🙂
Don’t miss discussing and signing the pledge at the end of the article!
After some happy outdoor play, I heard my son E run straight up to his bedroom and slam the door. As I knocked and entered his room, his face was red and wet with tears. “What happened?” I asked. “Jonathan (E’s cousin) wouldn’t listen to me,” E sputtered between sobs. “I was mad and he put his fingers in his ears and sang so he couldn’t hear me.” It is infuriating when one person is trying to discuss a problem and the other is putting up a wall. Friends and family members will argue. But one of the keys to maintaining and growing intimate relationships is fighting fairly.
Throughout childhood, kids are beginning to understand how to disagree and struggle with another person’s perspectives. They may be more impulsive and lash out or run away or even dig in their “heels” deepening the power struggle. I’ve heard many Moms’ worries and disappointments over their siblings fighting repeatedly over the same issues at the same time of day when patience is low and kids are tired and hungry for dinner. So how can you deal with your children’s conflicts?
Take a look at your own arguments. Kids are learning directly from observing how we handle conflicts with our partners. Do you shout or name call or run away? Do you lash out with passive aggressive comments? Whether we like it or not, our kids are keen observers of how we work through our arguments. Their sense of security is shaken, whether they are a toddler or a teenager when they witness their parents fighting. So they are eager to see how and whether we are able to resolve our problems and move toward a closer relationship.
John Gottman, who has done extensive research on marriage, found that couples who stayed together versus those who divorced did not fight less. In fact, they fought just as often. But there were some keys to how they fought fairly. He writes, “A lasting marriage results from a couple’s ability to resolve the conflicts that are inevitable in any relationship.”1 In addition, they balanced their negativity with positivity. There was, in fact, a magical amount of five positive interactions to one negative interaction, called the Gottman Ratio, that allowed for long-term, sustainable relationships. And it’s true with our parent-child and sibling relationships as well. Consider at the end of a particularly difficult day with your kids, “Did they have five positive interactions with you to counteract the one challenging one?”
Studies have been conducted on how kids’ developing brains are impacted by parents’ conflicts. Kids who lived in households with regular fighting experienced a stress level others who lived in more peaceful households did not. Over time, that stress compromised their brain development leading to impairments in learning and memory. But kids who lived in households in which parents argued but genuinely resolved the arguments (Kids were aware if parents faked a resolution.) were actually happier than before they experienced the argument, claims E. Mark Cummings, senior researcher at Notre Dame University. He writes
It reassures kids that parents can work things through. We know this by the feelings they show, what they say, and their behavior—they run off and play. Constructive conflict is associated with better outcomes over time. 2
If the quality of the fighting and subsequent interactions is critical in sustaining a healthy marital relationship, then it’s conceivable that it is also critical for sustaining positive friend and family relationships. And since kids learn directly from the modeling of their parents’ arguments, it’s worth examining how you fight with one another.
There are ways of fighting that are unfair and those are important to discuss as a family. Using physical force, for example, of any kind has been found ineffective. In fact, a recent meta-analysis of five decades of research showed that spanking a child results in short-term negative outcomes like aggression and defiance and long-term outcomes like substance abuse. 3 Also, when a child goes to another child or adult to get them on “their side” of the conflict, that triangulation can create deeper problems for all involved. There are four other ways of fighting unfairly, in particular, that were identified by expert John Gottman, leading to the destructiveness of relationships. These forms of fighting were regularly found in the relationships that were headed for separation or divorce. In addition to creating an agreement between you and your partner not to use these forms of fighting, I’ve listed ways to teach your kids not to use them as well.
Agree with family members not to use:
Though it can be tempting to criticize another (and at times, it may seem harmless), those words constitute an attack on the person you love. Focus on the problem at hand, the struggle, not the quality or character of the person with whom you are fighting. Criticism of another can remain in the heart and mind of the recipient and whittle away at the trust in a relationship.
Teaching your kids.
When my child is mad at another, I typically say “We are all learning. Your friend is learning too.” Focus on the problem, not on the person. He may not be getting his needs met. We may not be able to understand why he is doing what is making us mad but we can understand that there’s a reason for it. Reframe how you discuss the problem. Say “What actions/choices didn’t you like?” versus “What did he do wrong?”
Contempt is another way of showing disdain for another person. It may involve name-calling, hostile humor or sarcasm, dismissive or baiting body language or mockery. None of these are fighting fair. Not only are these forms of character attacks but they also have the implicit intention to harm the other’s feelings.
Teaching your kids.
It’s never okay to name-call no matter how mad you are or think the other deserves it. You might ask, “If you held up a mirror and that body language or those words came back to address you, how would you feel?” One way we taught kids about hurting other’s feelings in schools was by the broken heart example. Draw a simple heart on a piece of paper. Now have the child call the paper disparaging names. Tear the paper each time he calls it a name. When finished, work together to tape the paper back together. Though you can reassemble the heart, it becomes permanently damaged. Children need to understand their words can have that same impact. Don’t allow contempt to pass between siblings. Tell them to go cool off first. Then, come back and you can help kids talk to one another in constructive ways.
Being on the defensive is a slippery slope that sinks further down into the argumentative mire. It does not help anyone work toward a resolution. It’s easy to become defensive when the other is placing blame. So make a rule in your household. Avoid words like “always” and “never” in conflicts. First of all, it can’t be true that someone is always one way or never another. And second, it leads to further escalation of the conflict and often to hurt feelings. The best way to avoid defensiveness is by owning your own role in the problem, not pointing the finger and blaming other (watch for starting statements with “You…”), and hoping (though there’s no forcing it) others will accept their roles.
Teaching your kids.
We agree not to use “always” and “never” in our household. If they are used, it’s time to cool down and see what other words could be used. Also, teach your kids to say how they played a role in the situation first. Use I statements such as, “I feel mad when you grab my toy because I was playing with it.” Owning your role in problem takes courage. So teach them how to take responsibility in the most challenging of circumstances by practicing simple words they can use.
This takes place when a person refuses to listen, shuts down the argument or gives the silent treatment such as Jonathan closing his ears and singing. Make no mistake about this technique. It is not peacemaking. Far from it, this method of fighting is aggressive and hurtful to the person on the receiving end.
Teaching your kids.
Don’t allow kids to confuse time to cool down with stonewalling. There is a significant emotional difference. In the first, a person leaves upset and returns calmer and ready for constructive dialogue. In the latter, a person leaves upset and the upset escalates with both conflict participants. Silent treatment or shutting down another person only leads to more problems, hurt and upset. When kids are calmer, encourage them to come back together to work it out. If they struggle with talking, have them write to one another. Communication between the two is critical to work through their problem. For more on facilitating problem-solving between kids in conflict, check out “Working It Out.”
Establishing some guidelines for fighting fair for all family members can ensure that you are ready when the inevitable problems arise.
Guidelines for Fighting Fair
Instead, your family can agree to…
Get proactive about how you are going to calm down. What do you do when you feel the heat rising in your face from anger and frustration? Develop your own plan for calming down in advance of troubles. And have the discussion with your family. Use the Family Emotional Safety Plan as a simple guide for that discussion. Also, are there times of the day when siblings tend to fight over and again? If so, proactively institute a quiet time or “brain break” as schools who use mindfulness practices call it. A brain break involves simply sitting down and focusing on breathing to regain your calm. It can become a powerful household tool if parents use and model it too.
Trust that the other person has good intentions. If we begin from a place of blaming and accusation, defensive walls go up on both sides. In order to keep those emotional walls from being erected, we need to trust that there is a good reason behind the other’s arguments.
Start with empathy. When a conflict arises, training yourself to think about the thoughts and feelings of the other involved helps us communicate with compassion and fairness. It can be difficult to focus on empathy when we are in our own heads reinforcing our perspectives and creating new arguments to support our main points. But after a focus on calming down, we are more capable of doing this. You might begin with, “I think you are feeling worried and frustrated and you want me to change my actions so that you don’t feel that way anymore. Is that correct?”
Take responsibility for your role only. Ask “What’s my role in this problem?” and “How can I articulate my role fairly?” You may say “I admit that I didn’t pick up your library book today but I am feeling frustrated because I had a good reason why I did not.” This also helps avoid the blame game. When you take responsibility for your own role in the situation, the other is more likely to take responsibility for his role as well.
Seek understanding. Often we cannot move on from our conflicts because we feel so sorely misunderstood. And at times, though it can be uncomfortable, we miss the chance to gain understanding by not sharing our feelings, thinking it will leave us vulnerable. In fact, it is in the sharing of our feelings that we begin to connect more deeply to the core problem and offer a chance to resolve it constructively. In order to resolve the issue, use “I” message language. “I feel frustrated and mad when you don’t tell me you are coming home late because I’ve worked hard on a family dinner.” And make sure you offer to turn the tables to gain an understanding of your partner’s perspectives.
Work together on an agreement. No agreement is going to work if needs – physical or emotional – are not met. So before finding solutions ask “What needs have to be met on both sides?” Then with those needs in mind, discuss ways you might move forward and resolve the problem.
End with love. This is typically not a possible way to close a conflict if the problem is still there, not truly resolved. But if you’ve heard each other’s feelings and thoughts, worked to understand one another and tried to resolve the problem fairly, then ending with an expression of your love and care is not only possible, it’s likely.
Conflicts are the most rigorous tests of our relationships. Reflect with your partner on your own methods of arguing so that you can ensure you are modeling the behaviors you want your kids to learn. And give your children ample practice with calming down and then communicating with each other in respectful and constructive ways so that when they are on their own in the world, they will carry those critical problem-solving skills with them. If you do, you will feel confident that your kids will be prepared to pursue healthy, sustainable relationships.
3. Elizabeth T. Gershoff, Andrew Grogan-Kaylor. Spanking and Child Outcomes: Old Controversies and New Meta-Analyses. Journal of Family Psychology, 2016; DOI: 10.1037/fam0000191
Confident Parents, Confident Kids Fighting Fair Family Pledge
Fighting is inevitable in families. It does not represent weakness but only reality. I know that the way we fight – what we say, how we say it and what we do – can either deepen our intimacy and strengthen our bonds or create divisions and break down trust. Here is our family commitment to one another.
We, the _______________________ (insert last name(s)) family, will…
We’ll develop a plan for dealing with heated emotions, expressing ourselves respectfully and calming down. Each will create their own individual response and share it with the others in the family. We will respect each person’s plan. See the Family Emotional Safety Plan for a simple template.
Take responsibility for our own feelings and role in the problem.
Instead of blaming others, we will voice our own feelings. We’ll ask “What am I feeling? What’s my role in this problem?” and “How can I articulate and take responsibility for my role fairly?” 3. Move to empathy and get curious about other’s perspectives.
We’ll assume that other family members have good intentions and that everyone can make mistakes. We’ll ask, “What are you feeling? What are you thinking?” Then, we’ll listen with an open mind and heart seeking understanding. 4. Work together to meet each other’s needs and forge an agreement.
No agreement is going to work if needs — physical or emotional — are not met. So before finding solutions ask “What needs have to be met on both sides?” Then with those needs in mind, we’ll discuss ways to move forward and work to resolve the problem. 5. End with love.
This is typically not a possible way to close a conflict if the problem is not truly resolved. But when we’ve heard each other’s feelings and thoughts, worked to understand one another and tried to resolve the problem fairly, then we’ll end with an expression of love and care.
We, the __________________________(insert last name(s)) family, pledge not to use the following types of fighting that we know are destructive to our loving relationships. They can whittle away at our trust of one another and rock our foundation.
We will not…
Use physical force.
Whether it’s between siblings or between a parent and child (including spanking), using physical force in a conflict signals that the individual has lost all control and only believes s/he can regain it with physical dominance. Five decades of research shows there are no positive and only negative outcomes when force is used. See the following article for numerous alternatives. Brainstorm alternatives so that children have other options at the ready. 2. Triangulate.
We will not talk with one person about another when they are not present. We will go directly to the person with whom we have the problem. 3. Criticize.
We will not judge or comment on the character of a person in the struggle but focus our energies and words on solving the problem at hand. 4. Show contempt.
We will not use hostile humor, sarcasm, name-calling, mockery or baiting body language. We recognize these all involve some kind of aggression and character attack with the implicit intention of causing harm. 5. Become defensive or blaming.
We will not point fingers and use “You…” language. Words like “always, never or forever” will not enter into our arguments since they cannot represent the truth. 6. Stonewall.
We will not refuse to listen, shut down the argument or give the silent treatment.
We know that our loving family relationships will continue to grow stronger through our commitment to this pledge.
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