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When Kids Lie

We may treasure honesty, but the research is clear. Most classic strategies to promote truthfulness just encourage kids to be better liars. Po Bronson, Nurtureshock-2

Guest post by Marcilie Smith Boyle

The topic of lying came up in my parenting class last week. We were role-playing parents’ typical responses to a lying kid:

“Honey, did you just lie about that? Are you sure?” (When parent already knows the child is lying)

“Are you kidding me? You just lied straight to my face. How COULD you?”

“That’s it, no more (fill in the blank__________) for you!”

Everyone agreed that the typical responses above didn’t help the child learn to be honest, but they also wondered what the heck else to do!

Strangely, the very next night at bedtime, my own teen looked my husband straight in the eye and said he didn’t have his phone in his room (which is not allowed in our house.)

We scanned the downstairs charging area where the phones are supposed to “sleep” at night, and didn’t see the phone there. Or anywhere else. So I went back upstairs and knocked on my son’s door. He opened it and handed me his phone.

I had a really important conversation that I needed to finish and I knew that Dad would not let me finish it. I’m done now so here you go, he said.

I replied, You know, if you had explained that to Dad, maybe he would have let you finish your conversation.

No chance, my son replied.

Well, I said, you didn’t give him a chance. He might have. And even if he didn’t, was the lie worth the loss of trust and relationship?

Good night, Mom. Apparently, it was.

Good Night, C. We can talk more about this in the morning. I love you.

It’s an interesting question for parents to ponder: sometimes, to the child, the lie is worth the loss of trust and relationship. And sometimes, the lie is protecting trust and relationship (in their mind, anyway, because “If Mom found out that I actually did steal that candy bar, she would lose her trust in me and our relationship would suffer.”)

So what to do? How do we help our children to become honest, trustworthy, and develop integrity for doing the right thing?

“We may treasure honesty, but the research is clear.   Most classic strategies to promote truthfulness just encourage kids to be better liars.”   Po Bronson, Nurtureshock

Here are a few tips gathered from various experts on the subject.

  1. Just know that all kids lie. Home observation studies found that “four-year-olds will lie once every two hours, while a six-year-old will lie about once every hour . . . 96% of all kids offer up lies.” (Nurtureshock by Po Bronson) I used to feel completely betrayed when I discovered that my child lied to me. Now, I am less personally appalled, which means I can respond with less emotion, and increase the odds of productive learning in the aftermath.

  1. Avoid punishment. When children first begin lying, they do so to avoid punishment. The threat of punishment puts the child’s focus on self-preservation, rather than on the bigger issue of doing the right thing. “In studies, scholars find that kids who live in threat of consistent punishment don’t lie less. Instead, they become better liars, at an earlier age – learning to get caught less often.” (Nurturshock)

  1. Don’t trap your child in their lie. If you know your child has lied, don’t ask them if they have, which is an invitation to dig themselves even deeper into the lie. Instead of “Have you washed your hands?” when you know they haven’t, describe what you see: “I see dry hands,” and invite the next step: “would you like some help washing those germs away?” (Dr. Laura Markham,

  1. When your child has lied to you, be honest yourself. Jane Nelsen and Lynn Lott of Positive Discipline recommend you say, “That doesn’t sound like the truth to me. Most of us don’t tell the truth when we are feeling trapped, scared, or threatened in some way. I wonder how I might be making you feel that it isn’t safe to tell the truth? Why don’t we take some time off right now? Later I’ll be available if you would like to share with me what is going on for you.”

  1. Reward honesty with immunity and appreciation. This advice comes from Dr. Victoria Talwar, one of the world’s leading experts on children’s lying behavior. If you want the truth from your child, teach them the worth of honesty by telling the child, “If you are honest with me, I promise that I will not punish you and in fact, I will appreciate you even more for telling the truth.” Her research shows that offering immunity PLUS praise for honesty reduces lying by between 50-75%.

  1. Deal with the actual problem. Lying about having hit one’s brother is a problem, but the real problem is feeling the need to hit in the first place. So put the focus on the hitting and look for solutions to that problem, rather than on the lying. (Positive Discipline A-Z)

  1. Be aware of what you are modeling. Turns out, adults lie too, at a rate of about one per day, on average. (Nurtureshock) The vast majority of these are little white lies to avoid hurting feelings, protect ourselves from looking bad, or avoid engaging in something we’d rather not. When a telemarketer calls and asks if you are home, do you ever say, “I’m sorry, she’s not here right now”? Our kids are listening!

As for my own situation with my teen, the next day I told him, “Dad and I really value trust. And we also recognize that you feel might feel trapped – you both want our trust and you want to be connected to your friends as school, especially when there’s a lot going on around Homecoming and homework and the PSAT. We understand that. We try hard to be reasonable people and when you’re feeling pressure to conceal the truth from us, we hope that you will let us know so that we can look for a win/win.”

Will he lie less in the future? I don’t know. I can’t make him be honest. All I can do is my best to create an environment and a relationship that makes honesty easier. And model it myself, of course.

I’ve decided to notice how often I lie today. Already caught one! (I can’t believe it! Dang!) More results later. ( ;


Why Lazy Parenting Maybe the Ticket to Raising Smarter, More Responsible Kids

It just slipped out. I didn’t mean to say in front of the 25 parents who’d come to learn strategies to solve sibling conflict. There’s something about it that just didn’t sound right. Actually it sounded like the antithesis to everything out there selling like hotcakes in the world of public opinion parenting.

I said it. “Positive Discipline (PD) is lazy parenting.”

While that’s not exactly accurate, it can feel effortless when you’re in the PD Zone compared to the prevailing helicopter/effortful parenting mode.

Here’s what I see with parents I work with and what I’ve experienced firsthand…

You’re working so hard to parent your child in a way that will encourage them to grow into loving, responsible, contributing members of society. Let’s add a cherry or two on top and throw in hard working, honest, happy, conscious of the world around them, yada yada the list goes on.

Looking at it straight on, it’s freaking intimidating.

No wonder you’re stressed about the hitting, lying, excluding, whining, complaining, isolating, arguing and bad attituding that’s happening today.

Who has the luxury to be lazy when vigilance is required to produce the qualities you know are so important for your child’s success?

What’s clear is that while control might feel necessary, and to some degree satisfying, in the moment, control, as a parenting style doesn’t invite the long term character traits you desire.

In short, control creates hollow results. When you do it all for your child (decide it all, manage it all, enforce it all), you inadvertently rob your kids of the opportunity to practice valuable life skills that they can only learn by doing.

With ‘good character’ as the destination, your child must travel through mistake-ville which inevitably leads to growth-town. They need to learn how to solve problems and think critically about the world around them in order to become who you want them to be. And that takes practice.


I stand behind what I said.

Here are three real life examples, featuring a variety of ages, followed by the how-to tips for effective lazy parenting.

Example #1 from Kelly:

Lazy ParentingWhile enrolled in my spring sibling series, Kelly sent me this email after our first session.

These pictures were taken on Father’s Day right after I used “put in same boat” technique & validation. The boys were fighting over the chair (we only had one) and I said, “hmm, one chair and two boys?”... Then Emmett had a solution. Xo

“hmm, one chair and two boys?”… elegant indeed. No refereeing or setting a timer to make sure it was fair, just a simple, observing, genuinely curious question.

It's often not what happensKelly’s story reminds me that w
hen you don’t take sides, fix, solve, control — children have the space to use their own intelligence to figure things out and come up with their own, often elegant solutions.

That said, if your children are accustomed to you fixing, solving, refereeing, it will take training, practice, and time for them to reach for their own intelligence when faced with a problem.

Kelly’s tool of choice in this example was to ask a curiosity question (being genuinely curious about what solution they would come up with!) while treating kids the same (in PD lingo we call this putting them in the same boat… or in this case chair!)

Example #2 from Rochelle:

I have long been critical of parents who swoop in to solve their kids’ social problems, whether they be in school or on the athletic field. But when it comes to homework, I was clearly piloting this ‘chopper.’ Despite the fact that my son was just two years away from going off to college, I was still checking the online homework program for assignments and grades on a daily basis and harping at him about the status and quality of his work.

Both of us were miserable: my son blamed me if he missed an assignment and I felt angry because he wasn’t taking responsibility for his own work. But why should he? How could he, when I was always looking over his shoulder?

This year my husband and I decided we would take a different approach, we’d let our son be the master of his own destiny, free to make his own mistakes.

It was scary; he’s a junior in high school and there’s a lot of pressure on him to do well in school. While we worried that our messy, disorganized son, would lose important papers and forget about tests or quizes, we have been more than pleasantly surprised. He has risen to the occasion.

When he forgot to do an AP assignment, he took responsibility for his inaction, contacted the teacher and asked for an extension. It was the first time I could genuinely say I hoped she would be supportive and honor his request. He’s learning to take responsibility, we’re learning to let go and let him succeed (or fail) on his own, and our relationship is so much stronger for it.

Rochelle’s tool: having faith in her son period and showing faith in him by giving him the opportunity to make mistakes and then learn from his mistakes. Rochelle is taking the long range view, knowing the lessons he will learn outweigh the in-the-moment forgotten assignments, etc.

Example # 3 from Eric:

Eric emailed me this success story during our 7-week Parenting with Positive Discipline series.

Last week on my way home from work, my wife Stephanie sent me a text that our daughter Grace (5) was being a handful, was in a horrible mood, and that Stephanie had had it with her.

When I got home, I walked into the house and went straight to Grace and asked her for a hug. At first she turned her back and crossed her arms, and said no. I then decided to ask her one more time and after a 5 second pause, she turned and gave me a big hug.

Steph said it was like someone flipped a switch on Grace. Grace went from being in the worst mood to acting as if she was having the best day ever.

It’s amazing to see the kind of impact and dynamics that something as simple as asking for a hug can have on a 5 year old. Honestly, before taking your class, I probably would have come home and punished Grace for misbehaving and the entire afternoon would have been ruined for the entire family.

Eric’s tool: Asking for a hug (note this does NOT mean asking your child, “do YOU need a hug?” You spark your child’s sense of significance when you ASK them for a hug signalling that your child makes a difference to you — they’re giving you a hug has an impact.) Pretty easy.

Warning:  Don’t try letting go of control once and give up when the results don’t look exactly as you’d hoped. Children need to adjust to your new behavior — they’ll test and maybe test some more until they can trust your change is enduring.

What does lazy parenting require from us?

  1. Flexibility – if you’re not dictating and controlling the outcome, you need to be open to a different outcome.
  2. Patience – when children are figuring it out they’re bound to make mistakes, a mess, etc. Beam out to remember the bigger picture — long term character building and ahhhh lazy parenting!
  3. Humility – finding that place inside that accepts your limits – you might not have the answer, and what a relief that you don’t have to solve every problem.
  4. Faith in your kids — messy faith. Their solution may not look good and the neighbors could see or hear a mess. Your belief in them, regardless of what their solution looks like, will go a long way to build their problem-solving muscles.

What Kelly, Rochelle and Eric demonstrated seemed pretty easy and parenting can be— AT TIMES — when we’ve established a relationship of trust. Lazy, or if it makes you feel better, call it ‘conscious effortless parenting’ is possible, feels awesome, and can be yours!.

I want that for you!

Share your experience of lazy parenting in the comments below. Don’t be shy.
And if you’re ready to take your parenting to the next level, join my class beginning next week. As of right now, there are still a few spots. Join me! 

Want to read more about this topic? Here’re some good posts:

Being “In Control” – The Possible and Impossible In Parenting from Hand in Hand

Control Freak vs. Pushover Parenting: Why Niether Works


The Surprising Way Autopilot Can Make You a Better Parent

aircraft-465723_1280Being on autopilot has gotten a bad rap. Mindless, unconscious, not thinking, a cognitive state in which you act without self-awareness.

Here’s why, as a parent, I love it. (Maybe you’ll relate, too?)

Autopilot can help you live with a focus on what really matters to you — without all the effort.

When you get into parent mode and forget to do the things you love (and even the things you don’t but simply need to do — like go to the doctor!), autopilot comes in handy. If you’re one of those who goes weeks or even months before you remember to do something for yourself, or who’s just plain forgotten what it is you love (besides your kids) you need more autopilot.

Autopilot – a navigational device that automatically keeps ships or planes or spacecraft on a steady course.

Think of yourself as a whole person (the entire spacecraft if you will!) – parent, spouse, leader, singer, creator, lover, grower, cooker, collaborator, teacher, hugger….

As a whole person, you have many different courses that need to be followed on a daily basis — not the least of which are courses that help you take care of you.

Here’s how I’ve consciously used autopilot to experience more joy in my life… on a consistent basis.

When my first son was born, none of my friends had children. I was the first. In some ways it was wonderful because initially, friends offered to sit for him while my husband and I grabbed a bite to eat or took a walk. Our baby boy was a novelty who delighted and surprised.

However, after a few months, I noticed I wasn’t seeing friends. I was exhausted and it took too much energy to organize socializing. While I felt fried by the physical demands of parenting, I deeply missed my connection with my friends.

I decided to form what came to be known as “dinner group.” With 3 other couples that I knew from social work school, we’d gather every Thursday evening at one of our homes for a meal. We had a rule that host duties rotated and to keep it simple the host did all the work — no stepping in to help clean up, and it was okay if you to arrive late.

Dinner group endured for 15 years. Autopilot worked like magic. We attended each other’s weddings and births and even put together a cookbook of our favorite recipes. That deep, continuous connection that I craved was achieved without the daily nagging feeling, “I should invite friends over.”


I also love live theatre, but feel completely overwhelmed by the Pink Section  (the San Francisco Chronicle’s arts section). I find it stressful to make future plans and, frankly, to commit. I weigh the cost of a show and wonder if it’s really worth it. And then I end up not doing anything.

However, a fews years back my husband surprised me with season tickets to the Berkeley Rep for my birthday. The gift of theater and not having to decide and follow through has been huge. I’ve renewed the tickets every year since… why? Autopilot.

Just yesterday I put dates for six shows in my calendar from September through June. I look forward to and plan around these dates. I invite a friend or my husband and we make an evening of it with dinner and lots of time to chat and connect.

It’s an absolute luxury. A treat. What makes it doubly delicious is that I don’t have to go to the effort of researching, weighing, purchasing and planning. Sure, some shows are better than others but the surprise and ease is a large part of the fun.


Reconnect with JoyWhat do you love that you’re not doing because you’ve got kids and it feels like too much effort to set plans in motion? What doesn’t feel worth the hassle right now, but you know at the end of the year (or the end of your life!) you’ll feel a deep pang because you didn’t ________?

Your list might include going to the theatre, having dinner with friends on a regular basis, Monday dog walks with your BFF or keeping up with your Positive Discipline practice.

If it’s the latter, and you’ve already taken at least 12 hours of PD instruction, get yourself on autopilot by signing up for the on-going Roots series.

It’s once a month (September – May) — don’t torture yourself by having to consider it every month. Just sign up and be done with it. If you make it, great, if not, chalk it up to making an intention that you really care about.

Once you’ve got the Roots meeting on your calendar in ink you’ll be more likely to attend — the first step in making a change is bringing your mental focus to what you want to change.


I just learned that Frances McDormand is playing Lady Macbeth in a production in the upcoming season at the Berkeley Rep. Don’t ask me where my seats are, what they cost, or even what month I’m going. It’s on the calendar and I’m thrilled!

When I’m engaged in my life, doing things I love (outside of parenting), I’m lighter, happier and more consistently grounded and present with the kids and everything else in my life.

Ask yourself: What do I want more of? What am I craving that I just don’t make time for anymore? What will help me stay steady and on course with more joy?

Next, consider how you can put this activity on autopilot; and finally, set the wheels in motion by calling your BFF to see about that Monday morning walk (scheduled on auto repeat in your calendar).

Lastly, send me an email or share in the comments about your autopilot activity. I’d love more ideas for pressing autopilot.


How to parent in the midst of catastrophic health issues

baby-37519_150This summer’s been a doozy. What once felt like a series of mini health crises has come to feel like the norm with appendicitis, stress fractures, depression, drug addiction, cancer and even death becoming a more common part of life.

Last summer, I started writing a post about how to parent when you feel distracted or distraught by a loved one’s suffering.

It’s a hard topic. So hard, that I never completed the post. I couldn’t bring myself to put a bow on it and send it to you. My thoughts never felt right or complete or enough.

Now, it’s back around as I’m dealing with my own health struggles. This week I had two areas of infiltrating basal cell carcinoma surgically removed from my face. With the surgery behind me and plenty of ice packs, I feel a sense of deep gratitude. My doctor described the tumors as nasty and aggressive and I’m lucky that they could be removed.

So I ask for myself and maybe you too – how do you parent when you’re struggling with your own or a dear one’s illness?

This is what I’ve gleaned talking with some of you and pondering the question these last 12 months:

  • Keep it simple. When your child’s needs feel draining of the little resources you have  serve macaroni and cheese or Cheerios and let them watch TV. It’s okay.
  • Prioritize. Allow what’s most important to rise to the top. Family, food, sleep, and exercise (if possible) make up my essential list.
  • Say no mostly and yes only if that YES will enhance your life. Time and energy are limited. Use yours wisely.
  • Reach out intentionallyAsk for help — as my friend Liz says, “you may need to get over yourself” to do this. Remember that close friends want to lend a hand, particularly when a bigger situation leaves them feeling helpless.

I “got over myself” this past week when my friend Carolyn came bearing flowers the day before my surgery. Having had a similar experience, Carolyn warned me that the hardest part for her had been after the procedure, when she had to remove and replace the bandages. I immediately asked if she would be willing to come over and help me do that. She said yes, and little did I know just how important it was to have her for moral and physical support. With 22 stitches across my hairline — and as the doctor put it, “too many to count” in my nose — I was weak and close to fainting. It took us an hour and a half to remove and replace all of the dressings that first time. I can’t imagine what it would have felt like to do this alone.

  • Stick with the facts. Depending on the age of your child, share relevant factual information, but only the surface story. They don’t need to know the details and certainly not your “what if” fears. While your fears may be in the realm of possibility, they’re not the facts.
  • Be childlike. As much as you can, allow your child’s aliveness and awe of life to touch you and lift you into the present.
  • Dare greatly by saying no to guilt. Instead, accept that you may be more foggy and distracted than you’d like to be with your kids. It’s okay. Don’t add parent guilt to the list of your full bucket of worries. In Daring Greatly Brené Brown writes, “To set down those lists of what we’re supposed to be is brave. To love ourselves and support each other in the process of becoming real is perhaps the greatest single act of daring greatly” (Page 110).
  • Lower your expectations. Finally, be realistic about how much your kids, depending on age, will be able to empathize with you or the situation. In my experience that’s NOT MUCH. They don’t get it, nor should they.

photo 1A few years ago, my brother’s best friend and brother in-law, Steve, died unexpectedly during a surgery. Because Steve was beloved by his community as a volunteer firefighter during the Easter Long Island pine barren wildfires, acting as Chief of the fire department at the time of his death, founder of the junior volunteer firefighter training program and a village civil servant, the community put on a huge uniformed procession for the funeral. Being family and a close friend, my brother delivered the eulogy. In the midst of the long funeral procession through town, his 8 year-old son Aidan turned to him and asked in a tired voice, “when is this going to be over?” My brother was both heart-broken and relieved by the question. How could Aidan, who’d loved Uncle Steve deeply, be ready to move on? Be so oblivious to the gravity of the situation? Be so cold as to be DONE with Steve? At the same time – in Aidan’s question my brother heard hope and the possibility that life could go on – that tomorrow would eventually arrive and maybe it was sooner than my brother thought possible. In his son’s words were the innocence and gravity of the truth that we do go on, even when we lose the unloseable friend, even when we suffer unimaginable pain.

I’ve decided that it’s okay that I don’t have a bow on this one. Its a question that doesn’t have a neat answer.

Please chime in with your thoughts and questions in the comment section. How do you parent when you feel overwhelmed by your own or a loved ones health challenges or a death?

What advice would you add?


Part Three: What You Say Either Helps or Hurts Sibling Relationships

Practice Scripts for Parents: So you can stop unwittingly contributing to your children's fighting

Practice Scripts for Parents: So you can stop unwittingly contributing to your children’s fighting

In Part One we looked at the tremendous learning that results from sibling relationships.

In Part Two we looked at the importance of staying out of your kids’ fights after establishing — and repeatedly reminding kids of — family rules and expectations. (Here’s the index with all of the resources.)

Here in Part Three we’ll explore what you do, unintentionally, to increase sibling acrimony and what you can specifically, say or do instead.

Imagine …

Scenario 1:  You’re at a work meeting with your colleague (Joe) and your boss (Big Cheese). You and Joe present what you’ve been working on for the last month at which time Big Cheese looks Joe in the eye and says, “Joe what you’ve done here is outstanding work— you’re exceptional, you really are.”

Be with that. What runs through your mind, your heart?

Scenario 2:  You come home after what’s been a bad day and share with your spouse what happened at work, “I just finished this huge project. Joe and I presented it to the Big Cheese, and well, you had to be there, but I felt really unappreciated. It made me feel like crap actually. I put so much of myself into that project, but he didn’t recognize me at all.”

Then your spouse replies,You know you make a difference — the work couldn’t have been done without you. You need to remember you’re good enough whether someone tells you or not.”

Be with that. What runs through your mind, your heart?

While these are adult scenarios, what they illustrate are common mistakes we make with our children. Sometimes, daily.

The first scenario highlights the perils of praise — the non-specific superlative — and how the use of praise is particularly detrimental to the sibling bond.

How did you feel when you imagined yourself in the scenario?

In parenting class we role-play a parent praising one child but not the other. The volunteer playing the sibling not receiving praise — without exception — feels badly about themselves and usually resentful of their praise worthy sibling.

The un-praised sibling goes on to assume that the accolades lavished on sister or brother mean they’re destined to fall short… big time. Right or wrong this is a predictable human response.

In scenario 2, I’ve put the spotlight on how the denial of feelings, while well intentioned (like praise), is in fact discouraging because it communicates that we’re wrong when what we crave is to feel understood.

Below are four parent behaviors that hurt sibling relationships, followed specific examples of what they sound like and what you could say instead.


  • Wow — you’re the fastest swimmer out there! ➜ I love to watch you swim!
  • You’re such a good boy! ➜ I appreciate your help, you made my day easier.
  • With more work, you’ll get it right. ➜ Look how far you’ve come, you can do it.


  • Just get along — she’s your sister!  ➜  It sounds like you’re feeling really sad and hurt.
  • Don’t say you hate your brother — that’s not nice.  ➜  It looks like you guys aren’t getting along right now and could use some time away from each other.

COMPARISON  ➜  DESCRIBE BEHAVIOR (put kids in the same boat)

  • Why can’t you just be nice like your sister!?  ➜  I can see you’re really cranky right now… come find me when you decide you’re ready to talk.
  • Why do you always make things so difficult?  ➜  Kids, I have faith that the two of you can work this out together. Come find me if you need help.


  • You’re the family artist.  ➜  You really love to create!
  • Why are you always such a bully?  ➜  I see that the blocks are all over the floor, what can you do to help the situation?
  • I can’t take it — you’re such a slob!  ➜  Milk is all over the floor — what do you need to clean it up? 

When spelled out like this, it’s crystal clear to me that

So it’s time to practice!

I know how hard it is so I created this Script to make it a bit easier.

Download it — print the pages you find helpful and PRACTICE.

If you live in the Bay Area, join me and Marcilie Smith Boyle for our Mini Series on how to manage Sibling Conflict in June.

Share your insights, questions and feedback below or write to me privately. I’d love to hear from you.


Your Surprising Role in Sibling Fights (& How to Change it) don't stop teaching just because you don't get involved during the moment of conflict.

…you don’t stop teaching just because you don’t get involved during the moment of conflict.

Here’s Part Two of the 3 part Sibling Series: More Good, Less Ugly: Everything you Need to Know to Foster Healthy Sibling RelationshipsIn case you missed it, you can check out Part One here.

A month ago, after a parent education talk (ironically, NOT about sibling issues), parents came up to me afterwards wanting to ask specific what do I do when questions.

This night each parent had a sibling challenge that deeply distressed them — and they wanted advice on how to work them out — how to FIX them.

After each told me their story of fists, tears, tussles and injustices, I asked, sincerely, so you want this to stop because ________?

It sounds like a joke but I was serious.

Here’s a snippet of their answers (and my thoughts):

  • I don’t want my kids to fight. Period. (We get confused thinking peace equals the absence of conflict — not true)
  • I’m afraid my children will seriously hurt each other — (it won’t happen if your kids have some skills — it makes sense to focus on teaching these skills).
  • I was mistreated and abused by my siblings and my parents did nothing (if you’re reading this post, or trying to understand the issues, you’re not doing nothing. You’re learning how to respond rather than react).

It’s important for you to get to the bottom of your frantic need to end sibling fights.

When you feel desperate, your children tune into your urgency and — baBOOM! — their fights gain greater importance and power.

No matter what age they are, you can see the wheels turning in their mind… “Hey, I’m onto something here — mom’s lost her mind over this bickering — it’s energizing to have her so plugged in so I’m going to persist and/or do it again soon.”

Your children are wired to get your attention (think survival) and this sibling stuff is just the ticket.

So what if you don’t react when the fight breaks out, and instead acknowledge them by:

  1. Letting them know you notice what’s going on and you’re here if they need your help (hint: think of yourself as a consultant rather than a cop) or
  2. Saying, “I can see you’re struggling with each other and I have faith that you’ll be able to work it out together.”

What’ll happen next? They’ll be flabbergasted that you haven’t jumped in to fix or solve.

Jane Nelsen says surprise leads to confusion. When a child is confused because she doesn’t get the reaction she’s used to, she’s ready to consider a new behavior.

  • If the surprise results from a respectful interaction, her confusion will include a feeling of belonging and encouragement, so her new behavior is likely to be positive.
  • If the surprise is a result of disrespect, then her previous misbehavior is likely to intensify.

After a recent sibling talk I got this email from a mom who’d bravely tried what I’d suggested, the very next morning:

Hi Lisa,

I wanted to tell you my success story from this morning. I feel like one of the examples from the book (Siblings without Rivalry), I was so surprised at its effectiveness!

This morning my 5.5yo son Eden left his favorite transformer toys on the floor, and his 1.5yo sister Lulu ran to them and started playing. He saw that, ran over, and pushed her backwards so her head banged the floor (she’s had worse bumps, but it was still rough and it hurt her).

I calmly went over and said, “Do you two need some help? Lulu doesn’t know why you pushed her. Use your words to tell her. I know you two can work this out. I’m going in the kitchen now so you can work it out.”

I walked away as Lulu whimpered a few times, just sitting next to her brother, probably unsure why I hadn’t defended her better.

Only 5 to 10 seconds after I walked away, Eden said, “Hey Louie, do you want another one?! I’ll get you one!” and jumped up to get her the one transformer he wasn’t playing with. He gave it to her, she happily accepted, and she scooted away a few inches to play with it in her own space.

I COULDN’T BELIEVE IT! It was exactly like the book and you said it would happen! Even though it worked so well, I admit I felt a bit guilty about seemingly abandoning Louie to her big brother in a moment of distress. But I get that their relationship benefitted from his problem-solving so much more than if I had stepped in.

Based on the book, if we can be consistent with this kind of conflict resolution, soon both kids will not feel this as abandonment, but as empowerment instead.


This story beautifully illustrates that

Rachel admits the guilt she felt in trying a new behavior — I think many of us don’t try new tools and responses, even though they may be more effective in the long run, because of the dreaded parent guilt – what’ll happen if it doesn’t work?.

There may be times when you want to step in — how do you do that without fixing?

Here are three Positive Discipline Tools to help in the moment with a dispute between young children:

  1.  DISTRACTION — “I’ll give you something else to do now.”
  2.  SEPARATION — “Let’s move you over here for now.”
  3.  PUTTING KIDS IN THE SAME BOAT and recognizing that CHILDREN DO BETTER WHEN THEY FEEL BETTER — “I’d like to read you both a story now – it will help put us in a good mood.  Then you can try to play together again… when you both feel better.”

So often when you plunge into a sibling fight, you think you know what’s going on.

This week, pretend you don’t and put the kids in the same boat.

Do your best to stay out of their business (or consult from the sidelines), and see what happens.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

If you’re not already on the list, sign up to receive Part 3 of the Sibling Series: From Squabbles to Sharing: Proven Strategies to Improve Sibling Relationships by email.


Sibling Series Index: How to Foster Good Relations

Siblings - SmeetaSibling strife is a hot button issue. When I started writing a post on the topic it quickly became clear that I was going to write a Sibling Series to scratch the surface of this multifaceted issue.

Part One:  Don’t Worry: There’s Hidden Treasure in Sibling Battles

Part Two:  Your Surprising Role in Sibling Fights (& How to Change it)

Part Three:  What You Say Either Helps or Hurts Sibling Relationships

Additional Resources

It’s my hope that these posts and resources inspire consideration, conversation and ultimately a deeper understanding of how we can encourage greater harmony between our children.

As always, please share your insights below in the comments. And if you’re not already receiving updates directly to your email, join me.


Part One: Don’t Worry: There’s Hidden Treasure in Sibling Battles

My oldest went off to college in the Fall, leaving his two younger siblings behind.

I wondered how his leaving would impact our family dynamic. And now, seven months in, I have an idea (hint: it’s not pretty).

What’s emerged is a fierceness between the remaining two. It’s like a cushion has been removed and now there’s the raw friction of two hard stones, one sharp (older one needing to be boss) and one holding firm (younger showing resolve to hold her own).

Side note: when I spoke to the kids about how I’d be depicting them for this article, they argued that they were each the one standing firm while the other was the nudger and antagonizer — confirming that there’s never “one true story” of what’s going on….

It reminds me of what Ken Kesey wrote in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, “It’s the truth even if it never happened.”

Because I’ve parented for a while now, I know this dynamic, whatever it is, will change. It always does. But sometimes a simple dinner with the two of them is akin to nails running down the chalkboard. I’d love to run screaming from room and it makes me wonder, HOW IN THE WORLD DID I CREATE THESE MONSTERS?!

The other night at dinner we talked about what we could do to help improve the situation. My daughter (the younger one) decided that she’d make signs reminding us all of important relationship behavior.



IMG_0978I love how her drawings show different perspectives.

Once she’d created them she didn’t care to hash it out any further….

This is often the case with kids — it’s the DOING that’s important — not the processing.

Since she made these reminders, I’ve actually noticed more harmony – crazy magic.

The good the bad and the ugly news is that sibling issues, while highly irritating and button pressing, are normal and to be expected.

If you had brothers and sisters, think back to your own childhood… what did you learn from them?

Here’s a list from parents in my Parenting with Positive Discipline series:

  • how to tease
  • how to manipulate
  • how to negotiate
  • how to take turns/share
  • how to stand up for someone
  • how to keep company
  • how to eat fast
  • how to hate intensely
  • how to love intensely
  • how to be loyal
  • how to fight
  • how to defend
  • how to ask for what you want or need

Sound familiar?

My sister recently shared Jeffery Kluger’s Ted talk, “The sibling bond,” with me and my brother. Mr. Kluger tells stories illustrating the powerful influence siblings have on each other.

Here’s what stood out for me:.

There may be no relationship that affects us more profoundly than that of our siblings– none closer, harder, sweeter, happier, sadder, more filled with joy or fraught with woe than the relationship we have with our brothers and sisters. The sibling bond can be a thing of abiding love, our parents leave us too early, our spouses come along too late, our siblings are the only ones who are with us for the entire ride – over the arch of decades – there may be nothing that defines us and forms us more powerfully than our relationship with our brothers and sisters.

Siblings learn when to stand up for themselves, when to stand down – love, loyalty, honesty, sharing, caring, compromise, the disclosure of secrets and the keeping of confidences.

Siblings may be among the richest harvests of the time we have here.

And finally (I’ve paraphrased),

Will it impact how we respond to sibling fighting if view it through this lens? I think so. Relationships are messy — we’re all learning all of the time.

When nails scratch their way down the chalkboard, take heart. Know you’re in good company. Breath, remove yourself if you can, and remember that tremendous learning is happening.

This week view sibling battles as opportunities to learn life lessons. Notice what’s being learned in your house? Notice what lessons you’d like to see more and less of and share in the comments below.

Stay tuned for Part Two: Your Surprising Role in Sibling Fights (and How to Change it)

Here’s the index for the Sibling Series.

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? It’s easy to schedule a time here.


Q & A: Where Do You Draw the Line Between Empathy and Helicopter Parenting?

Empathy v. Enmeshment ImageQ: As the mother of a middle school girl, I struggle to be empathetic without jumping on the roller coaster of her ever-changing moods, emotions and dramas. And, as a woman in her late 40s, my emotions are often a 6 Flags of hormonally-induced thrills, so staying detached feels nearly impossible at times

Recently my seventh grader tried out for the school musical. After a series of micro disappointments this Fall (not making the “A” soccer team, getting put into an advisory group without any good friends, being just slightly outside of the ‘cool’ group, etc.), she was serious about getting a good part for the show. She practiced her song with a singing teacher several times and felt good about it.

Several days went by while she waited for the cast list to be posted. I worked on shifting her language away from ‘good’ and ‘bad’ parts in the show, to some limited success. I wanted to support her enthusiasm but it was draining to stay positive given my fear of the potential bad news ahead.  

This daughter can be fairly stoic, but when she saw the cast list, she ran up to her room and sobbed so loudly I was afraid she would choke.

After a few minutes of trying to let her release her disappointment on her own, I went in to check on her. With your thoughts of empathy fresh in my mind, I resisted the temptation to tell her the emotions would pass or it didn’t matter or that the part was probably better than she thought, blah, blah, blah.

Instead, I let her cry, supporting the wildly strong feelings raging through her. Unfortunately, it was just a matter of time before I was crying too, and then we were both sobbing at the injustice of the world (did I mention I am a pre-menopausal woman with raging emotions?)

I managed to get myself together and put her to sleep, but then I could not stop crying. I just felt so sad for her and could not put it away. It took all the strength I had not to email the drama teacher and ask her if there was any way to revisit the cast list. Which is just a simply INSANE thing to even think, let alone seriously consider!  

So here’s my question: how can we support our children with their dreams, projects, efforts and goals (especially our daughters) without getting enmeshed in the outcome? How can we let our older children navigate the disappointments and challenges of life without getting sucked into the emotional turmoil that goes along with the journey? Where do you draw the line between empathy and over involvement/attachment?

A: First, Michelle, congratulations on your success in avoiding many of the common barriers to empathy. What you did was no small feat — staying out of judgement, taking her perspective and touching a place in yourself (maybe a bit too deeply) that understood her feelings.

Simply defined as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another,” empathy is nuanced. While you were able share your daughter’s feelings, it proved difficult to pull yourself out.

To answer your question, here are my ideas to strengthen your empathetic response even more while simultaneously moving you out of the helicopter parenting zone altogether.

From Helicopter Parenting to Empathy

  • Validate her feelings. In your story Michelle, you give nice examples of how you did this — letting her cry and stay in her feelings, etc.
  • Resist the urge to fix. You write, I resisted the temptation Shift fromDisappointment =-3to tell her the emotions would pass or it didn’t matter or that the part was probably better than she thought, blah, blah, blah. This is cause for celebration! When you’re done partying let’s look at what you describe your fear of the potential bad news that she didn’t get a “good” part. Your feeling of fear fuels your underlying belief that something needs to be fixed. You can do one of two things here, keep your fear AND bite your tongue, which
    you did, or, with the help of a friend, coach or therapist, internally shift your perspective from disappointment = bad to disappointment = opportunity for growth. (I’ll go into this more in my next post). What I’m suggesting is more than a surface shift — that’s why it requires support.
  • Share your own story of disappointment. By sharing a simple one sentence story of a time you didn’t make the team or you weren’t invited to the party, you let your daughter know that she’s not alone and most importantly, that she belongs. (A sense of belonging in family is profoundly impactful to a child’s sense of well-being.) For example, I remember when I longed to be chosen to play the role of Mary in the church nativity, yet I wasn’t picked and I felt terribly sad. One sentence that’s it. I can hear parents ask “Isn’t there more to say than that?!” No — children are self focused, your goal here is to simply let them know you’ve been there — voila.
  • Be present. It’s not what you say that will make a difference, but simply your presence, your ability to be with your child. Ground yourself in what’s most important to you, tuck your phone and other distractions away and like the Beatles so beautifully sang, let it be.
  • Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness strengthens our ability to have boundaries which according to Brené Brown’s research is key to empathy. If we get stuck in the other’s emotion, we don’t actually support that person – boundaries are key to empathy.

One of the many gifts in your story is how fully engaged you are in your daughter’s life.

Thank you Michelle for sharing your story and question, deepening our understanding of empathy. I appreciate and honor your willingness to be vulnerable — it can feel scary to divulge our struggles when we’re “supposed to be” the all-knowing parent!

Are you wanting someone to walk you through a parenting challenge like the one that Michelle shared? If so, visit my schedule to find a time for us to meet via phone or Skype.

I know that parenting is important to you — it’s worth taking time for yourself, so that you can be the parent you want to be, even in your most challenging circumstances.

Take a moment to share in the comment section below how you relate to Michelle’s story and what you want to remember from today’s post.

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!

Wanna talk? Schedule a time here.


How to Bite Your Tongue all the Way to True Empathy

In my last post, I shared how I missed an opportunity to practice empathy. Today’s story is the unexpected follow-up:

Songbird, my eight year old daughter, was at her cousin’s house.  I texted my mom who was in charge, “When’s a good time for pick up?”

Mom texted back, “one hour.”

Five minutes later I receive another text, “Make that 30 minutes.”  Then another message shot back “NOW.”

I head over to find Songbird curled up on the couch weeping – big sad boo hoo tears rolling down her cheeks.  Mom starts to explain that cousin doesn’t want to share her new modeling clay – I hear a well-known refrain from across the room –

“It’s too special.”

Meanwhile, steady crying from Songbird.

Now comes the tongue biting as I work to keep these thoughts from tumbling out my mouth:

  •      It’s okay, you can put that on your Christmas list.
  •      I’m sure she’ll let you play with it, once she’s had it for a while.
  •      You’re really tired – it’s not a big deal.  Now stop crying.
  •      Now don’t be that way Songbird, you know you can’t get everything you want.

Instead, having recently steeped myself in what empathy is and is not  I wait, refrain from the above garden variety of knee jerk reactions.

Screen Shot Animated Empathy1Then, consciously I say, you look sad.

Songbird:  Yes, I’m really sad!

Me:  It seems like your heart hurts.

Songbird:  Yes, (boo hooo) it hurts a lot.

Me:  I’m sorry sweetie.  Let’s say goodbye and go home.

Songbird:  (Weep weep)  Okay.

Wailing and sobbing continue as we head out to the car – they continue as we drive.

When we arrive home, 10 minutes later, Songbird gets out of the car, singing (makes sense), she skips her way to the door.

All of the usual responses we might use (those I listed above) diminish trust. When we use empathy — in this case, simply acknowledging and naming Songbird’s sadness — we build trust.

Expressing empathy in this situation was simple but not necessarily natural or easy – my bloody tongue is proof!  

Simple, how? – all I did was genuinely acknowledge her emotion – naming it and finding a soft place in myself that has known that feeling too.

Not easy, how?  I’ll put myself out there and say that although I’ve been teaching Positive Discipline classes for 10 years, empathy is a conscious practice, one that I only feel I’ve recently come to more fully understand.

So, today I’ve made a commitment to myself to practice deliberate empathy – and to expect I’ll make mistakes along the way. I’ll comeback around when I’ve missed the mark and attempt connection through empathy again and again.

According to the work of Theresa Wiseman and Kristin Neff, these five attributes of empathy are key.  (You can see the animated video depicting these attributes, narrated by Brené Brown, by clicking the photo above.)

In this list, I’ve included examples of:

1.  How I practiced this attribute in my story and

2.  Common responses that act as barriers to empathy.

  • Staying out of judgment:

    1. Keeping my mouth closed about any internal evaluation I’m making as opposed to saying,
    2. “I don’t know why your cousin hasn’t learned how to share yet – at least you’re a good girl.”
  •   Taking the other person’s perspective.  What’s that experience like for you?

    1.   “You look like your heart hurts.” instead of…
    2.    “Why are you making it such a big deal?  Buck up and move on!”
  •    Understanding the emotion you’re hearing.  How can I touch within myself something that feels like what my child may be feeling? Check in for clarity by asking questions.

    1.    “You seem really sad.” as opposed to…
    2.    “You really shouldn’t feel that way – you can put modeling clay on your Christmas list.”
  • Communicating our understanding about the emotion. (This seems like overkill for this example, but you might say…

    1. “Oh I know I feel sad when I don’t get to explore something I’m really curious about” as opposed to…
    2. Not understanding that emotion… “It’s really aggravating when people don’t share.”
  •    Practicing mindfulness.:  Rather than pushing away an emotion because it’s uncomfortable, feel it and move through it.  If we get stuck in the emotion we don’t actually support the other person– boundaries are key to empathy.

    1.    “Your heart really hurts.”
    2.    “It’s very upsetting that your cousin won’t share with you.  I’m pissed about it and will talk to her mom as soon as I can.”

Can you feel how the #2 responses edge out the space needed for empathy?  Kids need a safe space to have their feelings so they can move through them and eventually let them go.

Thank you for joining me in exploring the complex nature of empathy.

The two big takeaways:

  1. Empathy takes conscious awareness – it isn’t natural, especially with your loved one.

  2. Empathy is not about perfection but rather a practice that you can come back to again and again – it takes being open to being vulnerable to do it.

Take a moment to share your empathy hit or miss in the comments below.

Wanna dig deep into empathy and other powerful tools?  Contact me for one on one coaching!

If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!



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