It’s easy to get wrapped up in the stress of hectic day-to-day activities with our families and children and fail to do our best parenting. We can all too easily react to our children’s testy (and testing!) behavior without even thinking. Most parents don’t realize that in our knee-jerk reactions, we are giving our children unhelpful messages that do not teach them how to become capable, happy adults.
Our reactions are often rooted in our short-term goals and our desire for instant gratification: stopping an annoying behavior, airing our frustration, making it to work on time, or getting out of the grocery store without buying candy or dealing with a tantrum.
Long-term goals, on the other hand, are based on our values and what’s most important to us. It takes time to identify these goals. Pointing a telescope into the future to see what we’d like for our children, such as happiness, healthy self-esteem, or self-control, helps us recognize what we need to do now to get that positive outcome in the future.
Visionary Parents Act on Values, Not Knee-Jerk Reactions
Compare These Parental Responses and Messages:
Snapping at your toddler “Stop whining!” may communicate your frustration and disapproval, but it doesn’t convey the message of love and tolerance that represents our true values as a parent.
However, calmly asking and requiring them to talk in their real voice trains them to talk calmly. Thus the child practices delayed gratification, self-calming, and emotional modulation, and they also gain awareness of their tone of voice. All of these skills need to be practiced hundreds of times to be fully loaded and integrated as character traits.
Yelling at a child to get in the car when they’re not listening may cause the child to fear reproach—and yet they don’t learn to pay attention or to honor you. You’ve also modeled that it’s okay to get angry and blame someone else for your feelings.
On the other hand, making it fun for your child to get in the car in a timely way (for instance, “I’ll race you to the car!”) builds enjoyment and closeness into the relationship. The message is also that it’s not just about what we want, it’s about the quality of our time together.
Barking orders to your teenager like “Stop giving me attitude! Can’t you just be polite like your brother?” doesn’t show respect, nor does it teach social etiquette. Comparisons are feeling-stoppers and often make a child feel inadequate and possibly resent their sibling. Again, we’re contradicting ourselves when we’re acting unkindly but expecting respect.
Responding calmly to your teen when they mouth off, while also setting firm boundaries with teens for their behavior, does teach respect. A thoughtful response helps them understand their impact on others, thus assisting them to be more aware and gracious in the future. Setting a limit and helping them shift to a more respectful manner lets them practice calming themselves and shifting emotions while also being considerate of us. If we react, teens can excuse their attitude by our behavior, which can sometimes hurt them. Also, if our anger is about correcting them rather than discovering what’s up, we miss an opportunity to support them.
One mother who attended one of my classes and learned how to respond more effectively to teens found out that her irritable daughter was being pressured to have sex earlier than she wanted and didn’t know how to handle the situation. Had the mother snapped back, the daughter most likely wouldn’t have felt safe to share what was bothering her.
Another mother whose elementary-age daughter left the house without her boots in the dead of winter discovered some vital information when she got curious instead of just ordering her daughter to get the boots (as she previously would have done). A bully at school had humiliated the daughter the day before in front of everyone in the cafeteria at lunch. Guess what about? Yep—the boots. The mom was able to listen and empathize, and they talked it through until the daughter felt better. After only a five-minute conversation, she ran into the house and grabbed her boots without being asked. The mom told me that previously this situation would have been a major power struggle and a long fight. And it isn’t just about saving time, as you can see, is it?
It matters how you respond to your child and what you model. Mindful parenting requires us to get in touch with our values. We can’t yell at our child and then expect them to learn respect. We can’t override their desires and their voice and willfully overpower them, and then expect them to learn to assert limits in interactions with peers. It is the collective responses and interactions with their parents that create the foundation of skills and how children and teens feel about themselves.
Here are some frequent comments I hear from parents:
- "I'd like my child (or teen) to have self-control."
- "I really want my teen to make good decisions, so they stay safe."
- "What we want most is for our children to be kind."
- "We really want our child to be responsible."
- "If our child could just learn to be respectful!"
The parents’ values are interlaced in all of the above comments. However, when asked how they’re teaching their children these values, parents often come up empty. And if these are our values, then we need to figure out ways to live and teach them in our daily life.
Visionary Parenting: Ways to Impart Our Values to Children in Real Time
- Don't tell, ask. Ask open-ended questions throughout the week to encourage conversation and dialogue with your child or teen.
Why? Because dialogue helps you know what’s on their mind, what they believe, what they are pondering or struggling with. And a two-way conversation allows for the natural unfoldment of opportune teaching moments that enable you to reinforce your values and goals. Dialogue also creates a safer and more connected relationship in which a child can explore their world in the calm presence of your love.
Telling (or barking or snapping or ordering or overpowering), on the other hand, is one-sided and blocks true connection and dialogue. This often happens when we are feeling stressed or hurried. Slow down, and before you open your mouth, remember what is important to you.
- Provide times when you are fully present to your child. Just as adults don't always feel like talking, kids don't always feel like talking either. Don't be offended if they don't want to open up or push you away—just keep asking and checking in. Cultivate opportunities for a conversation to unfold and develop naturally.
- Model self-calming and self-control. The best way for children to learn how to stay calm or to self-calm, or to understand the value of self-control, tolerance, and patience is by observing you.
For instance, you’re about ready to blow, and instead of getting upset you say out loud, “I’m feeling angry, so I’m going out on the porch for 10 minutes to calm down.” Then do it! Come back, and let them know you’re feeling better. “Wow, I really needed that break!”
The more you practice self-calming, the more you’ll be able to be present to your child and to respond instead of reacting. From this place of calm and awareness, you’ll be better able to model your values and your long term goals for your child.
- Talk about goals and how to achieve them. For instance, when your child has a science project, help them break it down into bite-size pieces within a specified timeframe. If they get overwhelmed, help them to approach their stress more mindfully. Or involve them in planning a vacation or ask them to be in charge of a meal. Every time children exercise their thinking, planning, and action muscles, they build healthy self-esteem, confidence, and skills!
The next time you feel like reacting, take a breath and call to mind your values and the character traits you’d like to cultivate in your children. Then respond with the intention of building them! And don’t forget to be kind to yourself, too!
For expert parenting advice tailored to you or for more positive parenting tips or parenting articles to develop mindful parenting, check out Heartmanity's parenting resources.