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How to Respond if Your Child Messes Up

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How we react to mistakes may dictate whether our kids come to us with a problem.

Suppose you discover your child deliberately kept you in the dark about a bad test grade or a concerning note from the teacher.  Before concluding that your child is untrustworthy, here’s an important question to consider:  How are mistakes handled in your home? In other words, what reaction has your child come to expect if he had shared that grade or note?

For example, did your child anticipate (correctly) that he’d get a speech laced with disappointment, exasperation, and irritation, followed by some kind of punishment? If so, maybe your child’ reaction was more about self-preservation that dishonesty.

Ironically, we may be concerned about our child’s trustworthiness because he no longer trusts us to respond in a way that’s helpful when he’s messed up.  So here’s how we may avoid that from happening.

1. Reassure your child that everyone makes mistakes.

Tell your child that you’re glad he makes mistakes—otherwise, that would mean he’s not human . . . and then that would mean he’s an alien from another planet!

2. Tell your child that you’ll stay calm whenever he approaches you with a problem.

Since that may not have always been the case, establish that if you do not stay composed, your child gets something that he likes.  That helps ensure you don’t revert to old reactions. And if you do, then your child figures at least he’s still going to get something good by coming to you.

3. Ask questions that prompt reflection and positive action for the future.

In lieu of giving a speech, ask questions such as: Why do you think you reacted that way? What other options could you have explored? What will you do differently to avoid this from happening again?

If there was another person involved, you might ask: How would (name of that person) describe what happened? That open-ended question then becomes a non-threatening way to hear a different perspective of what happened without anyone confirming that the other person’s account is correct.

4. Avoid “prosecutor-type” questions.

You’ll get immediate feedback if you start doing this because your child will become defensive, rather than reflective. Note that our tone often dictates whether we’re coming across as a prosecutor drilling a witness or a concerned parent who wants to prompt some insightful thinking.

5. Ask your child how he’ll accept responsibility for whatever happened.

With a generic knee-jerk reaction (“You’re grounded for a week!), there’s little chance that our child reflects and learns from any particular mistake. So it’s important that we also ask our kids what they think might be a good “natural cause and effect” for whatever transpired.  For example, a child may conclude, all on his own, that he’s spending too much time playing video games instead of studying. If so, it’s going to carry a lot more weight if he decides to limit video games to the weekends until his grades improve.

So yes, we all mess up.  That in itself is not newsworthy.  But how we deal with our mistakes may actually define us.

Tips for Emailing Your Child’s Teacher

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tips for emailing teacher

We want to avoid writing emails that escalate, rather than improve, a situation.

Sure, firing off an email now makes it possible to communicate with our kids’ teachers—at all hours—without ever setting foot on campus.  But if we don’t exercise some care with this instant form of communication, we may end up doing more harm than good whenever we push “send.”

To start, it’s helpful to remember that the classroom teacher is doing one of the following whenever she receives our email: She’s teaching (if she gets an email during school hours), preparing for that or the next day’s lessons (if she gets an email right before or after school), or living her “other” life (if she receives an email in the evening or weekend).

It’s also good to recall that we’re just one of 20-30 families in the class. That means our email may be the third, fourth or fifth one that the teacher has received that day.

So here are some guidelines to ensure that our emails are well-received.

1.  We keep it short.

We do this by limiting ourselves to no more than three or four lines, thereby eliminating any possibility of writing a long tirade (about what’s upsetting us).  Also, with a minimum line requirement, we have to get right to the point.

2.  We’re specific.

What do we want from the teacher?  In other words, what would we like to happen after our email is read?

3.  We ask instead of tell.

We put our concerns in the form of questions, rather than statements that could be interpreted as telling the teacher how to run her class.  For example, instead of writing there’s too much nightly homework, we might ask if the teacher is willing to explore ways to reduce our child’s assignments.

4. We make sure we haven’t already received the information we’re seeking.

Suppose we can’t find the paper listing what our kids need to bring for an upcoming class project. In such case, we’d email another parent in the class—not the teacher—to get that information (again).

5.  We sit on an email for at least 24 hours.

We establish a waiting period so that we then have a chance to re-read and edit our email with a different mindset.  And who knows? Maybe a day later, we no longer even feel the need to send the email.

6.  We also email when we’re pleased about something.

Was our child talking nonstop about the great field trip? Were we impressed with the teacher’s thorough, insightful comments on our child’s report?  If so, we share that kind of upbeat feedback in a quick email.

And so, what happens when we put the above ideas in place? Emailing becomes a way to ensure, rather than jeopardize, positive communication with our child’s teacher.

Five Ways to Quit Arguing with Our Kids

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It’s possible to end arguments in the home.

It’s possible to end arguments in the home.

How much time do we waste arguing with our kids?  And more importantly, how many of those arguments are just rehashed versions of what we argued about yesterday, last week, and last month?

It doesn’t have to be that way. Here are some ideas on how to end the arguing.

1. We establish non-negotiable subjects.

For example, safety issues were never open for discussion in our house. From the get-go, we made it clear that our parental perception of safety trumped everyone else.

2. We make sure our kids know which topics are open for discussion.

Initially, my sister said no when her thirteen-year-old daughter approached her about going on Facebook. But she also said she might change her mind—if convinced otherwise.  And that’s what happened. My niece wove her mother’s concerns into an impressive Power Point presentation that explained how Facebook would not be a problem in their home.

3. We hold back on unsolicited advice.

We may not even realize how many times a day we’re throwing out suggestions and opinions. So while our initial reaction might be to tell our kids to redo a homework paper that is messy and ripped on the edges, we don’t start with that. Instead, we’d ask: Would you like some feedback on your homework?  And if our child says no, then we really need to honor that (unless we want to start an argument).

4. We post a chart of repeated argument lines with our responses to such statements.

Suppose our kids always say, “Everyone else gets to . . . .”  So we’d write that line on the chart with something such as the following below it: No one in this house is named Everyone Else.  :-)

Then we don’t ever say a word (we just point to the chart) whenever our child says one of those lines. With no dialogue, a potential argument never even has a chance to get started.

5.  We ask our kids for their input on ways to prevent recurring arguments.

When my daughters were pretty young, clean up time potentially triggered an argument. So I challenged them to come up with a way that I could ask them to do this without sounding like I was nagging. They thought about it for a few minutes, and then told me I just needed to say “please” at the beginning of the request. Worked for me!  And now (since they thought of the solution), they were locked into complying whenever I would say, “Please clean up your toys.”

Guess what? When arguments no longer dominate our parent-child interactions, we get to enjoy spending time with our kids.  That alone truly makes it worth trying new ideas.

Why We May Want to Stay Angry

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It’s sometimes easier to stay angry with someone else than to face our own frustration and fears.

When we think we’re treated unfairly, we typically become upset. Yet I wonder how often we’re really upset about another problem—but we don’t “go there” because a viable solution to that situation doesn’t seem within reach.

A recent letter to the editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune underscores this reflection.  The woman wrote about her negative experience with San Diego Hospice. Or so she thought.

When I read the letter, it seemed more about a woman who was beleaguered after caring for her bedridden mother, rather than a letter about the wrongdoings of San Diego Hospice.  Although the woman slams the organization for not giving her the support she wanted, the reader is left with a different impression.

Namely, the woman faults San Diego Hospice with examples that are actually beyond the scope of services that hospice provides. So instead eliciting support and compassion from me, I almost found myself becoming annoyed with her indignation—until I reminded myself that she was probably choosing to stay angry rather than deal with her grief and loss.

But that’s why as parents, I think it’s good to step back and reflect when we find ourselves upset with a person or organization that’s trying to help us.  We can ask ourselves: Have we created unrealistic expectations that are not in sync with established policies?  Are we remaining upset (e.g. we don’t ask for clarification or give the person a chance to respond to the concern) to avoid dealing with another (perhaps bigger) problem?

And if so, what are we modeling for our kids?  That instead of moving forward, it’s good to stay upset?

Somehow, I don’t think that message is in anyone’s best interest.

Getting Kids to Open Up and Engage in Conversation

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Critical and creative questions engage kids in conversation.

Critical and creative questions
engage kids in conversation.

Sometimes it seems like “I dunno” and “nothin’” are the only two phrases kids know. So how can we help children share more of their thoughts?

First, we gotta toss the prosecutor approach.  Sure, we’re asking questions because we’re interested in their lives, but they often hear us as interrogators or as testing them to say the “right” answer.

So to get kids to open up and talk more, first tell them that most of life’s questions don’t really have one right answer. Then start asking them questions where any answer is game.

Initially, some kids may shy away from even creative, open-ended questions. If so, they can first listen to conversations where everyone is giving a different answer to the same question—and all answers are treated with respect.

Also note that responding “Great answer!” is counterproductive. Kids may interpret that to mean, “Oh, that person got it right.”  In contrast, if we praise the thought process (i.e. “I’m impressed with your thinking”), then we encourage kids to share even more.

Open-ended questions can range from silly to serious. Here are some examples of a variety of critical and creative-thinking questions to get your kids talking:

  • How do you think socks got their name?
  • Since they don’t use pans to cook on the planet Zala Mala, what do they use them for?
  • Would Goldilocks want to be friends with Little Red Riding Hood? Why or why not?
  • What would a queen’s bathtub look like?
  • How do you think the idea of toothpaste began?
  • Do you think kids should have a bedtime? Why or why not?
  • Do you think schools should have a dress code? Why or why not?
  • What might frighten a parent?

What are some other open-ended questions to ask kids?

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