Shortly after my son was born 11 years ago, a friend of mine -- the father of three much older kids -- asked me how I was doing. At that point, I think we'd moved safely into that phase where I was no longer feeding my son every three seconds, he'd begun smiling at us, and my husband and I had more or less adjusted to this massive change in our lives.
"It's such a great age," I commented.
"They all are," he replied.
It's true, they are all great ages and I'm continually mystified by how exciting and interesting each phase of parenting is (even when I'm going through them for the second time with my daughter.)
But it's also an ongoing challenge to parent and one always feels a bit behind the eight ball as you try desperately to figure out how best to react (or, indeed, whether to react at all) to our children's behavior and emerging personalities.
To that end, this week I thought I'd share some new (but really) old parenting strategies that seem to prove their value again and again:
1. Incentives are better than punishments. When your kids misbehave -- and particularly when they do the same annoying thing repeatedly -- there's a temptation to take something away from them: no television for a week, no play dates, no dessert. But rewards for good behavior are also much more effective than punishments for bad behavior, especially for younger children. In my own case, my daughter takes an inordinate amount of time to get dressed in the morning, producing frequent (and repetitive) conflicts. While my first instinct was to take away her computer time, I opted this week to try something new: if she can get dressed, brush hair and brush teeth each morning (and the reverse each evening) in under 10 minutes, I'll give her 50 pence a day. At the end of two weeks, if she does this consistently, she can buy a present for herself. (Bear in mind that she doesn't have allowance right now.) I explained to her that we wouldn't carry on buying gifts on a regular basis, but I'm hoping that by heaping praise on her in the next two weeks while we do this trial period, she'll internalize the positive reinforcement and want to get dressed/undressed quickly, rather than only working for the extrinsic reward. So far, so good.
2. Hitting doesn't work. If you think that doesn't bear repeating, think again. Here in the UK where I live, a Labor politician -- who was, I kid you not, the former Education minister -- recently declared that if working class parents had more freedom to hit their children, we wouldn't have had the riots that broke out here last summer. No sh$!. In a poll taken not so long ago, nearly one half of British parents surveyed said that they thought that teachers should be allowed to hit children to keep them in line. This, despite mounds of evidence showing that while spanking is very effective in the short run for altering a child's behavior, in the long run it is completely counter-productive.
3. Understand where your kids are at, developmentally. Like many parents, I was absolutely fascinated by a recent article by Alison Gopnik in the Wall Street Journal about the teenage mind. The upshot of the article is that teenagers are hitting puberty -- and all the attendant hormonal, risk-taking changes in attitude this phase of life produces -- much earlier than ever before, while becoming "adults" (in the sense of assuming responsibility for their own lives) ever later. The result is that their emotional development is out of sync with their ability to exert judgment and self-control in a way that it wasn't even 20 years ago. Once I read this, I thought, Eureka! So that's why my 11-year-old loves listening to rap music but can't be bothered to cut with a knife and fork properly.
4. Don't micro-manage. I attended my son's parent-teacher meetings earlier this week and was told by several of his teachers, independently, that they felt that while he had come into the school year a bit jumpy and unsettled, over the course of the year he had really calmed down. As a fellow manic, I can't really criticize him too much on this score -- the apple, as they say, doesn't fall far from the tree. But I couldn't help but wonder if my own New Year's resolution to chill out and try to control him less wasn't helping, in part, to chill him out in other parts of his life. Coincidence? Maybe. But I'm going to press on with this resolution -- despite temptations to "fall off the wagon" -- and see if I keep observing positive change.
5. Keep reading books by Faber and Mazlish. Believe it or not, I do think that you can over-train yourself in the art of parenting. Some of it has to be instinctual -- and based, crucially, on your particular child's nature -- or you'll drive yourself insane. But I will put in a plug for two books by parenting experts Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish that I will stand by: How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, as well as their companion volume, Siblings Without Rivalry. I remember parenting blogger Lisa Belkin saying that for many years, she and her husband kept dog-eared copies of these books by their respective bedsides. Ditto.
What tried and true parenting strategies work for you?