"But I just can't GET THEM ON!"
My eight-year-old son was throwing a fit at the ski condo during our recent vacation. He was getting increasingly frustrated by the amount of gear required to go skiing, and his boots were causing him the most trouble. He'd gotten to the end of his patience.
I could feel my anxiety increase as he got more frustrated and I eventually reacted negatively. I lost my patience. It was our first day of vacation, and we were all excited to go skiing. And we were so close. But as happens with parenting, you shouldn't presume that a day won't present you with a challenge of some sort.
Later that day, I apologized to my son for my behavior. He needed help and attention that morning, not impatient stares and goading to "just hurry up."
The point of my story is this: I talk to my clients about parenting all the time. Still, I'm just as much in need of a daily reminder that we must always be learning and implementing healthy parenting skills -- every day of our lives.
To that end, here are three practical ways for you (and me) to refocus our parenting in 2016. It's never too late to start a healthy habit, especially when it comes to parenting.
1. Speak to your children with respect.
Parenting models of the 20th century repeated the mantra, "Children should be seen and not heard." While we may not explicitly ascribe to that notion today, we still live by it when we treat our children as "less-than" by powering up or screaming at them. Our negative, emotionally based reactions are attempts at silencing them into submission.
This is dangerous because, as author Peggy O'Mara says, "The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice." So if you're a combative, authoritative, argumentative parent, imagine what your child's "inner voice" will sound like when they're grown?
I'm not advocating for becoming your child's best friend or avoiding discipline, but I am strongly encouraging you to treat your child like one who has intrinsic worth because he or she is human.
Show respect to earn respect.
2. Don't react. Respond.
When you react to a negative situation with an immediate emotional outburst (like I did in the opening anecdote), your reaction is hoping for an immediate change in the child. While we don't consciously consider it, such reactions are rooted in using fear, threats, or parental power as weapons of motivation.
Instead of reacting in a childlike manner, respond as a mature adult. Learn to motivate your children through love, proper consequences, and healthy boundaries. Instead of relying on verbal parenting -- "Because I said so!" -- rely on parenting that models the behavior you want to encourage. Be a person of presence, humility, honesty, and vulnerability.
James Baldwin says it well: "Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them."
The next time you're inclined to quickly and emotionally react to your child, do these two things before you do anything else:
Focus on your breathing. Take a deep breath if necessary.
Get clear on what you want to say and how you want to say it.
Above all, remember that you're the adult in the situation -- so act like it.
3. Be present with your kids.
Your most important and valuable resource is time, and the best presents you can give your children is your time and presence. Choose to give them your undivided attention. Focus on them alone. If they're young, play with them. If they're older, talk with them.
Children know when you're physically present but emotionally absent. They can sense it just as well as your partner can, if not more so. Put the phone away. Turn the TV off. Try to change the channel in your mind from tomorrow's worries to today's parenting. A singular focus while spending time with your children can do wonders for them and you.
One tip: when speaking to your child, look him or her in the eyes. Ensure that they know without a doubt that they can trust you when you speak to them. Let them know that you care about what they have to say. Persistent eye contact will help you maintain a focused presence too.
In his book Stones Into Schools, Greg Mortensen shares a great line to this point: "When you take the time to actually listen, with humility, to what people have to say, it's amazing what you can learn. Especially if the people who are doing the talking also happen to be children."
A year from now, may 2016 be the year you can look back upon and know that you grew as a parent. I'll try to do the same.
For more info on healthy marriages, pick up a copy my book The Stories We Tell Ourselves. To ask questions or make comments feel free to email Scott.
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