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When Eavesdropping is Good

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It’s sometimes easier to “hear” a
message when eavesdropping.

If you want your child to hear a particular message, then say it to someone else—but while he’s in earshot.

Yes, there’s nothing like a little eavesdropping—especially when we overhear our own name—to make the ears perk up. As parents, we can take advantage of this fact and deliberately create opportunities for our child to eavesdrop.

How does this work? Well, suppose we want to remind our child that he’s not playing video games after dinner if his room isn’t clean. However, if we tell him that directly, he may hear that reminder as nagging or as a confrontational challenge (if he thinks it’s not a fair policy).

Yet, it’s an entirely different ballgame if we casually comment to someone else, “I know that Ryan wants to play video games this evening, and I’m positive that’s only going to happen if his room is clean.”

As the eavesdropper, Ryan still gets the intended message, but now it’s going into the brain in “third” person. He’s merely an outsider hearing a comment that happens to involve him.

And since most eavesdroppers don’t like to announce they’re listening to someone else’s conversation, they probably won’t respond to what they’ve just heard. If so, then we’ve sent the message and avoided a potential squabble. Seems like a pretty easy way to ensure more harmony in the home.

For teens, all we have to do is lower our voice a tad when they’re in the next room, and suddenly they’re tuned in to every word we’re saying. Who knew getting their attention could be that easy?

So eavesdropping probably won’t ever make the list of good manners, but it can expedite communicating a message to our kids without much ado. And that can be really enticing in many households.

Adopting a Calm, Take-Charge Presence

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Kids sense there’s no wiggle-room when adults have a calm, take-charge demeanor.

Sure, most agree that a calm, take-charge kind of presence is ideal, but how do we do that?

1. We own the space in our home.
Our body language says we’re in charge—from the minute anyone enters our castle—and for every moment thereafter. We already know how that feels, and it’s powerful. Think how we’ve wandered into a store or restaurant and just instantly knew who the owner was—without any introduction. That’s the same kind of demeanor and assurance we can adopt in our own home.

2. We believe we need to be in charge.
We understand that if we don’t lead, then someone else will grab that role. Often, that’s a young child who takes over by thwarting everyone else’s sense of calm.

3. We ignore a child’s words and shift our focus to the bigger picture of what he’s needing.
We don’t hear. “I hate you (or whatever other ramped up, angry words are being yelled),” so there’s no temptation to react. Instead, we see an out-of-control child as someone who desperately wants to feel safe—and how can he if he’s learned that creating chaos puts him in charge?

4. We change our mindset so that our body language reflects our thinking.
If we’re feeling helpless (I’ve tried everything—my child just won’t listen), then that’s what our body language says to our child. In contrast, if we believe we’re letting our children down when we don’t take control or that we’re actually hurting them by giving them a false sense of power, our body language automatically shifts to a take-charge demeanor.

5. We use distractions to avoid reverting to prior ways of responding.
If we start to panic (He’s screaming! He’s throwing things! He’s spitting), we don’t go there. Instead, we pick a song to sing to ourselves (or aloud). By the time we’re mooing like cows in Old MacDonald Had a Farm, our body language has already shifted from panic to composed.

6. We acknowledge that we, too, prefer calm, take-charge leaders.
Isn’t that how we want our police officers and fire fighters to respond when called to action? Isn’t that how we want our world leaders to act when making monumental decisions? So why would it be any different for our children?

7. We practice this kind of presence until it feels automatic.
Elizabeth Hasselbeck from “The View” recently shared a story where she put her oldest daughter in charge of the younger siblings while she was in another room. Upon hearing her daughter yelling, she re-entered the room, and asked, “What are you doing? Why are you screaming!?” Her 6-year-old looked up at her and said, “Mommy, that’s what you do when you’re in charge.”

The bottom line: Adopting a calm, take-charge presences makes kids feel secure and protected—and what parents don’t want that for their children?

How to End Screaming: Part 2

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Kids can learn that screaming
is an undesirable way to respond.

To clarify: We’re talking about learned screaming.  We’re not talking about a child who’s screaming because he’s hurt and in true physical pain.

To end screaming, we need to first acknowledge the following:

  • Our child screams because he’s learned that this response has been beneficial to him.
  • Each time we allow our child to scream, he creates an even bigger brain map that encourages and reinforces future screaming.
  • If our child is a screamer, we haven’t taught him different, more positive ways to respond.
  • We can end screaming if we change how we respond to it, and if we hold our child accountable for more appropriate reactions (that we’ve modeled and taught).

If our child already has a big brain map that says SCREAM, we may initially need to do some groundwork to get back on track. Here are some ideas for different situations.

Public Outbursts

Yes, it’s hard to ignore our child’s screaming when we’re in our local grocery store, since people do stare.  So that’s why we drive to a grocery store in another county—where we’ll never see those people again—and let our child wail away. Once in the car, we tell our child that screaming no longer gets our attention or prompts us to exit quickly.

Screaming at Home

We tell our child that he can scream for as long as he likes because we now enjoy screaming. So when he starts to scream, we encourage him to be even louder. We smile and clap our hands.  We dance around him.  We get the whole family to join in.

Why?  Well, the brain becomes totally confused by this completely unexpected response. In fact, some kids just stop screaming—cold—while they’re trying to process it all.  But the point is . . . if our child’s brain now perceives screaming as something fun for others (and he’s not part of that), then it no longer retains its old power.

Pre-emption

If we know our child is more vulnerable to screaming when he’s tired or over-stimulated, we leave (wherever) before he gets to that point during this “re-educating” stage.

Differentiated Touch

If our child is used to being embraced while screaming, we establish touching him in a way that differs from how we hold him while we’re (legitimately) comforting or being affectionate. For example, if we need to physically move our child while screaming, we now use a cold and impersonal touch.

Yuck and Yay

If we’re used to trying to calm our child down while screaming, we may need to adopt a simple one-word approach (especially if our child is very young).  At the very first scream, we merely put our thumb down and say with a lot of presence: Yuck.

But that‘s it. We only get one yuck. Multiple yucks while the child continues to scream only results in giving the same attention as engaging in a conversation—and we don’t want that.  Moreover, if our first yuck didn’t get the job done, it’s likely because we lacked a calm, but assertive, demeanor when saying it.  So changing our presence—not repeating yuck—moves things forward.  In contrast, we also need to reinforce when our child doesn’t scream by immediately saying: Yay!

New Responses

If we have a screamer, we probably know what sets him off.  So, we role play those situations, modeling different responses.  For example, we might pretend we’re out shopping and model saying, “Mom, I’m really tired, and there’s so much noise in this mall.  Do you think we could leave soon?”  (Note that saying, “Use your words!” is not effective in eliminating screaming.)

And just as some folks need to chew gum when they initially give up smoking, some kids may need to adopt a silent scream during this transition period.  To do so, they open their mouths as wide as possible and go through all the motions of a huge scream—but they just never use their vocal cords.

Short Goals

To help our child’s brain register that it is capable of being quiet, we may need to start with really short goals.  For example, if we want our child to be quiet while we’re talking to someone else, we may set it up so that our child knows he’s going to be quiet for just 20 seconds.  With that success, we build (at different times) to 30 seconds, 50 seconds, and so on.

The bottom line on screaming: Since no one in the world embraces this kind of response, there’s no time like the present to eliminate it.

Why Kids Scream: Part 1

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Our response to screaming dictates whether the behavior is nipped or encouraged.

Kids scream because they’ve learned that loud vocal cords give them power.  For example, if our child screams because he doesn’t want to (fill in the blank), do we try to reason with him (thereby giving him our attention)? Do we even hold/hug him while we’re trying to calm him down?

If so, our child’s brain is going to register screaming as great, something beneficial. Namely, the brain processes such interactions as follows: I scream—and I get mom or dad to focus on me (which is even better if siblings are competing for their parents’ attention).

And . . . since the average kid can scream for much longer than the average adult can endure, sometimes the child’s brain learns that shrieking, shrilling, and bawling can pay off if the parent ultimately caves.  From a child’s point of view, that just has to happen once in a blue moon for it to be enough incentive to revert to screaming all the time.

Often, parents will make excuses as to why a child is screaming: He’s tired. He’s frustrated. He has (fill in the label). He’s non-verbal.

Okay, all of those reasons can be true, but they’re not why the child opts to scream as his choice response.  Rather, he screams because he’s experienced that it’s the most powerful weapon in his arsenal—that’s what he’s learned from others’ interaction with him.

To be clear:  A diagnosis does not make a child scream.  However, believing that a child screams because he has a label will just about guarantee he becomes a screamer.

Also, a child doesn’t scream because he has yet to develop language.  When that same child is content (i.e. he’s getting what he wants), he’s not screaming, right?  In other words, he’s still non-verbal, yet he’s communicating in a different (positive) nonverbal way.

So we may be encouraging screaming without even realizing it. But that’s actually good news. If we change how we react to screaming, we can also eliminate it.

How to End Screaming: Part 2 appears in tomorrow’s post.

Are Chinese Mothers Really Superior?

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Parenting presents different challenges when the brain is not organized as intended.

Amy Chua is a professor of law at Yale. Yet, her case that Chinese mothers are superior to Western parents is weak.

In her article, Why Chinese Mothers are Superior, she claims that the solution to substandard performance is “always to excoriate, punish and shame the child. The Chinese parent believes that their child will be strong enough to take the shaming and to improve from it.”

Well, lucky for Ms. Chua that her kids must have developed their lower centers of the brain and inhibited their primitive reflexes.  Otherwise, I think she’d have a very different take on parenting.

That’s because it doesn’t matter how much a parent screams or threatens or takes away belongings (she gives several examples where she is proud to have done this) when such development is incomplete. The truth is, no parent—Chinese or Western— can “will” a brain to do something if it’s not wired to do so.

So I’d like to suggest different criteria for identifying superior parents. I think that title should go to moms and dads who know whether their child has completed their lower brain development—and who then learn how to help their child build those highways, if warranted.

That, Amy Chua, is the best way to guarantee our children become who they are supposed to be.

Is There a Double Standard in Our Home?

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Do kids lose some respect for their parents if they say one thing . . .but model another?

Kids have a great radar for fairness, so here are some questions to consider:

  • Do we like to unwind when we come home from work, but require our kids to go straight to homework after attending school all day?
  • Do we eat unhealthy food, but serve our kids something else?
  • Do we react and yell when we’re upset, but expect our kids to approach problems calmly and logically?
  • Do we have different levels of tolerance and another set of rules for our sons than our daughters?
  • Do we tell our kids about the dangers of alcohol, but allow them to see us as tipsy (or more) at social or family gatherings?
  • Do we require our kids to clean their rooms, but our own personal space is often messy?

But most importantly . . .  if we have double standards in our home, how do our kids view those mixed messages? How about initiating a family discussion to find out?

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.

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