Would pioneer parents be baffled by how some modern-day parents “protect” their kids?
After all, doing more of our child’s nightly homework than the child, calling meetings with a teacher or coach or dance instructor the minute our child voices something didn’t make him feel good, or even going further by insisting our child switches to a different class or team . . . is a far cry from the perils that pioneer parents faced to keep their kids safe.
Do today’s parents believe they’re helping their child when they dive in to thwart feeling distressed? Yes.
But in the world I know, not everything is always easy or a perfect fit. So if we teach kids to flee at the first sign of discomfort, we keep reinforcing a brain map that says: Hey, feeling a little uneasy? Then bail!
And with that kind of brain map in place, why would we be surprised, for example, to learn such kids become adults who quit jobs the minute they don’t like their boss’s feedback or end personal relationships as soon as they becomes a little tense?
So, instead of modeling how to flee, we can use such times to teach our kids how to deal with a little distress or discomfort. For example, a child (not the parent) could talk to the teacher to explore whether homework could be modified so that he could do it independently. Similarly, a child could talk to the coach to discover how he might improve in order to get more playing time.
In other words, we teach our kids to first engage in a dialogue to express their concerns and give the other (involved) person a chance to respond. We teach them that they can actually “survive” a little discomfort, which in itself, creates a useful brain map.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that we always stay in whatever situation, no matter what. That’s not what we want our kids to learn, either. But there’s a big difference between bailing at the first sign of discomfort and making a decision based on knowledge that various options were truly explored.
Turns out, we’re really no different than pioneer parents. It’s instinctive to want to protect our kids. However, the difference today is in recognizing whether our kids are experiencing a little uneasiness or are truly in danger. It’s that kind of awareness that then helps us know how to best respond.
We often become upset because we think our kids didn’t follow our directions. But did we ensure they processed them in the first place?
Here are some simple ways to help kids follow directions.
1. Give directions only after our kids’ brain registered that we’re about to speak.
Some kids really can’t “hear” if their back is to the person talking, or they’re unable to immediately transition from what they’re presently doing to tune into what someone is now saying. So this means we may first need to kneel down (for small kids) to make eye contact, and/or give tactile stimuli (e.g. put our hands on their shoulder)—something that ensures we’ve stepped into “their world,” front and center.
2. Have kids spin or jump or rock before (or while) giving directions.
Such movement wakes up the brain, increasing the chances that the information is processed.
3. If directions include materials, distribute those only after telling or modeling what to do with them.
This ensures that kids are less distracted and are not tempted to touch or play with the materials while we’re giving the directions.
4. Demonstrate what we do and do not want to happen.
Suppose we’re giving directions for an art project that requires kids to dip part of a piece of paper into a cup of water. If we don’t also model soaking the paper (as an example of what we don’t want), we can’t be sure that the kids fully comprehended what we meant by “dipping.” This applies to general directions, too. For example, if we want our child to walk directly to (wherever), we also demonstrate straying elsewhere to illustrate what we don’t expect to see.
5. Break up directions (as needed) to ensure kids can comprehend the entire message.
Instead of telling a child to wash his hands, get his shoes, and come to the kitchen, we may need to start with simply: Wash your hands.
6. If including more than one direction, motivate the brain to pay better attention by adding an element of fun.
In such case, we might tell our child to start jumping as soon as the directions start to get silly: “Take off your shoes, put them in the cubby, and then fly to the moon. No? Okay, take off your shoes, put them in the cubby, and then come stand on this line.”
7. Verify that the direction was indeed processed by asking a “choice” question.
Perhaps we just told our child to brush his teeth. But before sending him off to do so, we check for understanding: “Are you going to brush your teeth . . . or your nose?” Note that if we make the second choice something silly, it further increases the probability of the brain paying attention.
8. Select the fewest words possible to convey the message.
Fewer words mean there’s less for the brain to process. Compare: “Tiffany, I’m really needing you to bring your backpack to the front door so that you won’t forget it when it’s time to go to school tomorrow” with “Bring your backpack to the front door.”
It’s only when we’ve done all of the above—and the child still does not comply—that we can conclude that he’s choosing not to listen to us. But, more times that not, our kids just need a chance to process the directions—and that requires us to do our part.
Mia is autistic. Jon is bipolar. Tyler is ADD. Carley is manipulative. Tom is lazy. Jenny is shy.
If we look at how we often describe kids, it seems we may think they’ve become the diagnosis or description that follows the word “is.”
Interestingly, we don’t do this for every diagnosis. For example, I’ve never heard anyone say, “She is cancer.” Or, “She is canceristic.”
But that’s because there is a huge difference between “she is cancer” and “she has cancer.” The latter does not define the condition as being the whole person. Moreover, it implies a temporary condition that comes with hope for improvement.
When we slap an adjective after the word “is,” we also seem to infer a static view of the child. It’s as though we’re saying whatever the child “is” (as defined by the adjective) is as inherent as skin color. Yet, there are no “genes” for the adjectives often used to describe kids.
So then why do we often frame them this way? Maybe, it’s a quick, subconscious way to tell others to back off—that nothing they’re going to say or do is ever going to change how the child (or we) respond, since we view the child’s behavior as already etched in stone. Yet, how can that kind of thinking be ultimately helpful?
For example, if we think our child runs out into the street because he is impulsive or because he is autistic—does that then reduce his probability of being hit by a car? No, in other words, the drivers in the passing cars have no idea which child “is” what. So we can’t be resigned to certain behaviors—if we want every child to be safe.
After decades of working with kids who’ve been given all kinds of diagnoses and who’ve been thought of as a string of not-so-attractive adjectives, I’ve learned a simple truth: Kids become how we view them.
So if we believe their behavior is unmanageable, they’ll give us out of control. If we believe they are rude, they’ll give us sass. If we believe they are helpless, they’ll give us resigned.
I’ve also learned that kids usually feel judged whenever we view them negatively. When they feel judged, they get defensive. When they get defensive, they get combative. And so, is it any surprise that negative behavior escalates when negative perceptions prevail?
But then, what do we do if our child, for example, rolls his eyes at us when we ask him to do something? While definitely a leap from framing our child as rude, we could respond with the following:
”Tony, I’m worried your brain is registering eye rolling as an okay and helpful response. Yet, I can’t think of a single place in the world where anyone applauds eye rolling or where doing that then improves the current situation. So what might be a different way to communicate that you don’t like what you’re hearing or being asked to do?”
With that response, we’ve shifted our perspective from thinking Tony is rude to viewing him as someone who has not yet learned a constructive way to express his dislike, and we’re moving forward with that mindset.
And guess what? Kids start to adopt positive behaviors when we shift our view of them in kind. For example, at the Brain Highways Center we believe every child is a champion. That’s the only word we use after “is”—and that’s the behavior they show us.
So here’s a challenge: Put $10 in a “perception” kitty every time this week you think of or describe your child with a diagnosis or adjective after the word “is” (unless that word is champion). You may be amazed at the changes if that kitty stays empty.
I’ve met a lot of kids whose body language changes the minute they think someone is going to talk to them about their behavior. They either look resigned and defeated or combative and hostile. Sometimes they’ll throw in, “I know. I’m a bad kid” or, “I’m always being called out.”
Couple that with a parent, teacher or coach who already views the child’s action as negative, and it’s no wonder that the exchange does not go well.
But what if we wipe out a perception that the child was “bad” or did something “wrong” when we approach her about a concerning behavior?
What if, instead, we first assure the child that we want to help, rather than punish, her?
What if we then communicate in a way that helps her understand why the behavior is worrisome—and therefore helps her conclude on her own that such behavior is not in her best interest?
So how do we do that?
We start by assuring kids that they are not in trouble . . . that we just want to talk to see if we might be able to help them. Upon hearing those words, it’s amazing how many resigned, slouching kids sit up straight or how many hostile kids automatically unfold their arms.
We then explain why the concerning behavior may not serve them well. To do that, I find it helpful to make a connection between what happens in the brain every time the child does the behavior and how that may then cause problems today, tomorrow, and far into the future.
Here are a few examples of how such a dialogue might start:
Behavior: Son hits his mother when he’s upset
Father’s starting dialogue: Every time you hit your mom, you’re reinforcing a brain map that says, “Hitting a female is okay if you’re angry.” The only problem is . . . there is nowhere on this entire planet where anyone thinks it’s okay to hit a female—at any time. So it worries me that your brain is learning something that it thinks is fine—when it’s definitely going to mess you up.
Behavior: Child doesn’t wait before being given the signal or permission to do something
Mother’s starting dialogue: Every time you don’t wait, you’re reinforcing a brain map that says, “If I’m feeling impatient, it’s okay to go ahead and do whatever.” The only problem is . . .there are lots of times when it’s in our best interest to wait—and how is your brain ever going to learn that?
For example, what if your ball rolls out into the street and you run to get it without waiting to see if any cars are coming? What if when you’re older and driving, you don’t feel like waiting at a red light—so you just punch it?
Note how the above dialogue is focused on helping the child reflect, not defend, his concerning behavior.
For those who are saying: What? The kid gets off scot-free with this approach?
Guess it depends on the parent’s goal. I’m thinking if the child has already been previously scolded and punished for the behavior—and she still continues to do it—the punitive approach probably isn’t working all that well.
Maybe that’s a sign to try something different.
But when looking at the bigger picture, such behavior suggests something different. Namely, the child does not trust her parent.
What? How can that be when the child is crying because she doesn’t want the parent to leave or because she wants her parent to comfort her when frightened?
Well, if the child trusted the parent, she would know—with 100% certainty—that the parent would never leave her somewhere or have her venture somewhere that wasn’t safe. All the parent would have to say is, “You can trust me”—and the child’s angst would be soothed.
Without that trust, it doesn’t matter how much reassurance the parent offers. Plus, the child learns that by crying or resisting, she not only avoids whatever distorted fear she’s facing, but she also gets a lot of attention. Such concerning behavior then registers in the brain as helpful—even though such response is viewed quite differently by others.
So how do we change all that? We start by believing such kids are yearning to trust their parents 24/7 so that they can feel safe. With that perception in place, we then do the following:
• We use a simple phrase, “You can trust me” for such situations. We say this with a strong presence and conviction as that (initially) will give more assurance than the actual words.
• We establish that no one on this entire planet loves our kids more than us, so we would never leave them with someone we didn’t trust.
• We tell them that we never ask them to do something we didn’t know was safe.
• We believe and tell our child that they’re losing a huge piece of their childhood if they can’t trust when we say something or somewhere is safe. The best part of childhood is that we get to trust others to make those decisions for us.
• We now view comforting our kids when demonstrating separation anxiety or a distorted fear as hurting them—as actually not meeting their emotional need since such response reinforces there really is something to fear, and we (as their parents) can’t be trusted.
• We set up really, really short experiences to allow the brain to register it can trust us. For example, if our child is afraid to be near dogs, we create an opportunity where we stand next to our child while across the street from a dog on a leash—for 60 seconds. That’s it. The next time, we may do this for 90 seconds. From there, we may get closer to the dog—but, again, for only a very short time. In other words, we don’t just “throw our kids into the swimming pool.” We teach them to trust us by showing (not telling) they can.
• We thank our kids for trusting us when they were hesitant, pointing out that such faith also gives them new confidence that makes them feel safe and assured for future situations.
Best of all, when kids trust their parents, the brain registers that the distorted projected fear did not happen—just like the parents said. And that—rather than reassuring speeches, lots of hugging, or finding ways for the child to avoid the distorted fear–is what truly comforts them.