It all began when I knit my 14 year old daughter a sweater. She’d accompanied me to the store to choose a soft, washable yarn in a neutral color she’d actually wear. During Covid I’ve picked up knitting again and found a healthy distraction in searching for patterns and scrumptious yarns. Because my grandmother taught me to knit when I was young, knitting sent a gentle signal to my brain, “Everything’s okay.”
A couple of weeks ago when I completed the sweater, I laid it on her bed so she’d see it when she got home. I imagined she’d try it on and show me how it fit. Over the past month I’d measured the length of her arms, inquired about how cropped she’d like it as that’s the current fashion and worked to tailor it just for her.
Because she never mentioned the sweater, I checked in with her in the afternoon, “Did you see the sweater? Please try it on — I’d love to see how it fits.”
She answered, “Not right now.”
Later I asked her again and she explained that she’d already changed into her pj’s but that she’d do it the next time she got dressed. The next day I decided to mention it one last time. My heart felt heavy. I didn’t want to get entangled in a power struggle with her over the sweater I’d made for her because I adore her. Needless to say, I never saw it on her.
Part II – The Pile
My daughter had recently cleaned out her room, placing all outgrown and unwanted items into a huge bag in the hall. Beside the bag was a loose pile of papers with a blue glue gun resting on top.
After a few days of watching the pile collect dust, I took a closer look and saw under the glue gun a photo storybook I’d created and given to her for her birthday some years ago.
This project, with a closeup of her soft two year old face on the cover looked to have seen better days. I picked it up and brought it into her room asking, “What’s happened to this?” She confirmed that she’d found it spoiled, likely because last fall she’d placed a little pumpkin from our garden on top of it, in a drawer. The pumpkin decomposed over the course of months.
I felt an anger rise in me and said, ‘You clearly don’t care about it.”
She answered, “I do care.”
I said, “If you cared you’d have come to me when you found it and asked what we could do.” I swore, “Just f***ing get rid of it then, but don’t leave it on the floor for me to take care of.”
Heart pounding, I retreated to my bedroom across the hall where I stood motionless, a little shocked that I’d spoken to her so harshly. Being the youngest child she was adept at avoiding conflict.
For a split second I thought, I’m going to ignore her, give her the cold shoulder. A memory flashed from the recesses of my mind of my dad ignoring me for two weeks after his feelings had been hurt because I’d been spending weekends at my friend Sharon’s house. I can remember him scolding me as we stood inside our front door, “You care more about her family than you do your own!” I was in 5th grade at the time and it was two weeks before he looked at or spoke to me again.
I decided I wasn’t going to ignore her, even though to hurt her back felt like the “natural” response.
Returning to her room, disintegrating storybook in hand I said, “I realize the reason I’m so upset is that my feelings are hurt. It’s becoming clear to me that you don’t care about things I’ve made for you.”
I was of course thinking about the unadorned sweater.
I repeated myself, “It’s becoming clear to me, and I’m speaking to myself now, that I need to focus less on you and more on myself.”
I felt my voice catch and tears well in my eyes.
Unlike 8 years ago, this time she said nothing. Through the uncared for storybook and forgotten sweater I was getting a message loud and clear, “Mom, get a life. While I need you to be there for me, I don’t need you the same way I used to and I’m not going to act in ways to please you. You haven’t trained me to take care of you and I’m not going to start now. My main concern right now is my friends and all the changes I’m going through. You can’t use me to feel good about yourself.”
I felt grounded when I turned to leave her room, closing the door quietly behind me.
I haven’t figured it all out yet.
It felt valuable to write about and share with you because it’s not spit spat all settled in me and tied up with a bow and maybe you’re having your own messy parenting moments. I’m sitting with a real life collision between my daughter’s age appropriate growth and what I’m gently naming my age appropriate stuckness, a slice of difficult wisdom.
It’s not only children who grow. Parents do too. As much as we watch to see what our children do with their lives, they are watching us to see what we do with ours. I can’t tell my children to reach for the sun. All I can do is reach for it, myself.
It’s summer and my daughter and her friend want to go to the pool to play. I fantasize that the girls will occupy each other and I’ll be able to read or at the very least get some knitting done.
Turns out, they want me to join in their amusement. They plead, watch us, watch us as they scheme to perform synchronized, dramatic water jumps and dances.
Quickly it’s apparent that I’ve got three options in how to respond to their pleas:
Go old school and brush them off saying “No girls, I’m reading.”
Middle of the road it – “Okay girls – show me what you’ve got” but meanwhile I knit or attempt to read in between requests.
Go all in with the kids – book closed on the ground, knitting tucked away in its bag – I sit up actually looking directly at them.
The thought of going Old School on them is familiar and slightly guilt inducing. I grew up with parents and children pretty much doing their own thing, all the time. Sometimes we’d watch football, 6o Minutes or Murder She Wrote on TV together on Sunday evenings (I loved this) but my brother, sister, and I wouldn’t dare to ask directly for attention from grown ups.
It just wasn’t part of the program 40+ years ago. It wasn’t the way our family operated.
There is a time and a place for old school. It’s not only okay, but it’s downright healthy for children to have time when they’re not getting direct attention from an adult.
I want to be reading, but my knee jerk parenting shoulding voice says you should be paying attention to the kids Lisa… at all times humanly possible. (Wonder if this is related to the old school way I grew up??? 🙂 )
Then, another part of me says Lisa you’re at the pool, for 3@!$ sake, read your book!
These competing voices are crazy making — nothing is done well with divided attention.
By not making a decision and by default, choosing the middle of the road, you literally split your attention and feel like you’re in No Man’s Land. There’s no upside for yourself or your kid. I see this as the unconscious back drop for many parents these days, particularly with the constant distraction created by our smartphones.
Going All In
Finally, the somewhat novel thought of going all in actually feels like a relief to me when it flashes across my mind as an option.
The me time to do’s (like writing, reading and even knitting) fall away and I feel light, even floaty.
[tweetthis display_mode=”box”]News flash! I can let go and simply focus my full attention in one place.[/tweetthis]
The girls are asking for me and I decide to let go of the fantasy of me time and watch them like they are qualifying for the Olympics: with my entire being.
As I do this, my body unwinds into the moment and I feel a tremendous, relaxing sigh throughout my entire being. I only have one task at hand and I can do this and actually do it well.
(I use Headspace to support my on-going meditation practice – I recommend it!)
Having two, much older sons, I know the days of “watch me, mom!” will soon end.
During the next hour I had a singular, beautiful focus. Even now, a year later, it’s a rich memory for me. I can still see the girls’ lit faces, their determination, their playfulness.
Other days I’ve chosen to say “no” and that’s positive, too. It’s healthy for children to see you pursue your interests and to know that they can occupy themselves without your attention.
It’s not an either/or dilemma. We have time in our lives for both.
How often do you find yourself in the middle of the road with your parenting?
The next time you’re in this situation, take a moment to consider where you really want to be and BE THERE instead of staying in the middle.
Shortly after Eric finished up my 7- week parenting series, he sent me this story which beautifully illustrates the power of asking for a hug.
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 she 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. She 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 whole family.
Asking for a hug sounds almost too easy, right? Too simple to be true?
However, while it’s simple… there’s a subtle tweak that’s key to the effectiveness of this parenting strategy.
“I could use a hug” vs. “Can I give YOU a hug?”
The first taps into your child’s deep need for significance and belonging. When you ask for a hug fromyour child, you acknowledge that they make a difference to you and in fact have a positive influence on your life.
In the later, you are reinforcing what your child hears and perhaps feels frequently: That children need help from grownups to feel better.
The parenting tool of asking for a hug (for YOU) is simple, easy, and effective if done from the perspective of genuine connection, genuine desire for your child to assist you! (Plus, who doesn’t love hugs? I love it!)
Try it out.
Ask a friend to be your parent and say these two phrases to you:
Could you give me a hug?
You look like you could use a hug.
Do you notice a difference in how you feel after each?
This week look for an opportunity to ask your child for a hug.
I’d love to hear how it goes in the comments below!
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.”
[tweetthis]Even if a child is scared, negative engagement with you is better than the alternative, no connection[/tweetthis]
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:
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
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:
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 [tweetthis]you don’t stop teaching your kids just because you don’t get involved in the moment of conflict.[/tweetthis]
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:
DISTRACTION — “I’ll give you something else to do now.”
SEPARATION — “Let’s move you over here for now.”
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.
During a parent education evening last week, I rattled on about the importance of encouragement in parenting and shared my favorite slogan, “Children Do Better When They FEEL Better.” Then an arm shot up.
One of the parents, Sarah, looked sincerely puzzled and asked a simple question that got every head in the room nodding:
“Encouragement and Positive Discipline are great when it’s a low stakes situation, but what about when safety is involved? How should I respond to a threat of physical harm from one of my children to the other in a positive way?”
When I asked her to explain her situation, Sarah told the following story (which may be very familiar to anyone with children close in age and remembers, or is going through, the baby/toddler sibling combination):
It was the end of the day, about an hour before my husband got home… typically my roughest time. Gus (3) was zipping around the house on his tricycle when he headed straight for his little brother (6 months), stopping just a hair from Fisher’s little fingers. I told him not to do that, that he could hurt Fisher and it didn’t feel safe to me. A minute later, he did the exact same thing and I basically flipped my lid. I yelled, “STOP,” stormed over to Gus, pried him from the tricycle, and let him cry on the ground as I put the trike outside. I felt really protective of Fisher and that I needed to stop Gus. I felt awful for yelling and reacting in a physical way because he was so sad afterwards. But how else could I show him that I was in charge?
Sarah’s story highlights the primal nature of being a parent. We’re hard-wired to protect our children from a perceived threat, even if that threat is their sibling. Keeping your children safe is your first priority as a parent and if a quick intervention — sometimes ungraceful or inflated — is urgently needed to protect a baby or younger sibling from harm, you need to do that, and quickly.
But I encouraged Sarah (as I would any parent) to turn from the immediate danger to look for connection and encouragement with the older child instead of punishment. I know this sounds crazy and counter intuitive but here’s what Positive Discipline teaches us:
The most fundamental encouragement you can give your child is letting him or her know they’re significant even when things are not going well.
(Significance here means has value, has meaning, matters to you and to the broader community, etc.)
What does encouragement look like in this situation? How can Sarah communicate that Gus has significance?
Sarah could physically block the trike from Fisher’s path (as it does not appear that Gus intended to stop on his own) and take a deep breath (essential in such a case).
Rather than lifting him off the trike right away, she could gently and firmly lift just Gus’ hands off the handlebars, look into his eyes and say:
Gus, wow, my heart is beating really fast because you really scared me by coming that close to Fisher’s hands. (Pause and breathe.) I could use a hug right now – could you give me a hug? Let’s bring your brother in, I bet we could all use a hug to feel better.
If this feels impossibly warm and fuzzy in such a potentially dangerous situation, consider this story from Gus’ point of view.
Rather than feel punished and sad (as he clearly did when the trike was chucked outside and he was left crying), Gus might think, “I did something wrong that really scared my mommy. What I do has an impact. I’m important to mommy and I can even help her feel better.”
The most fundamental encouragement you can give your child is letting them know that they have significance, even when they’re misbehaving.
In this scenario, asking for a hug is encouraging – very different than offering a hug because you’re engaging your child in being part of the resolution in an active way.
CHILDREN DO BETTER WHEN THEY FEEL BETTER! (we all do!)
Even when our children misbehave – if we can take steps to help them feel better, rather than making them feel worse, we are much more likely to encourage the kind of behavior we want to see from them in the future.
4 Steps for changing our response from punishment to encouragement:
Shift your assumptions: Work on moving from my child will learn to behave by being punished to my child will learn to behave by getting the message that he or she matters.
For an example Sarah also shared a story of how she “felt a shift from the tricycle incident” just the day after my presentation. She wrote:
Gus was standing on his stool near the stove where I was getting ready to cook an egg. He tossed the hot pad that was on the counter onto the hot pan. I exclaimed surprise and got the pad out. I told him that was really scary and we absolutely do not throw things on the pan. He didn’t seem to be doing it out of defiance, which probably helped my reaction just be scared and then clear. But it was like we were scared together, learned something, and then moved on. No tears, no drama…so much better. It just gave me a taste of what you were talking about.
Plan ahead: We’ve all yelled at and lost it with our kids, but by thinking through possible responses to common challenges ahead of time, we have a greater chance of pausing and consciously responding rather than giving our knee jerk reaction.
For example, I have a son who leaves what I call anonymous messes quite regularly around the house. This is a common challenge that I’ve planned ahead for by deciding on a few ways to respond when I’m next faced with his mess. Just yesterday, I found what looked like spilled detergent on the floor near the washing machine, covered with pillow cases. I suspected he left this mess and rather than simply accuse him and rant AT him for not taking the time to clean up, when I saw him I’d calmly asked a few clarifying questions, had he been doing laundry (yes), did he know about a spill, (why yes he did — this fessing up is progress), what could he do about it now? (This is a challenge for me but staying calm and building cooperation — progress, not perfection — is a huge victory for me and the only way I can do it is by planning for it).
Assemble your parenting toolkit: Know your game plan by having tools at the front of your mind (Such as, “I need a hug,” asking WHAT & HOW questions like “what’s your idea to solve this problem?”). Sort through the Positive Discipline Tool Cards and pick three you’d like to try.
Get support: Reach out for professional support. Even if it’s not with me, find someone who can help you weather the shift and put this new approach into action over time. It’s about progress — not perfection!
Regardless of the age of your child, encouragement through connection, in place of punishment is life changing — for both parent and child!
Please share in the comments below simple ways that you can remind your child of their significance (that they matter) today. In doing so, you’re giving us ideas that will encourage us to plan ahead – step 2 above! We’re all in this together 🙂
If you haven’t already done so, join me on this journey!
You know those times when you’ve just got to get your child to do something important (go to the doctor, to swim class, the dentist…) and she/he refuses to cooperate? Then you think, “Why can’t they just get with the program this one time? Why does everything have to be so hard?”
Well, let me introduce Susan, mother of 9 year-old Alex, and a recent graduate of my 7-week parenting class. In this story, Susan shares the remarkable shift that happens when she uses tools she learned in the series. Without giving too much away, here are the two conversations (with very different outcomes) between Susan and Alex:
BEFORE taking Positive Discipline Class
Susan: “Hey Alex, Dad and I forgot to tell you – Swim lessons start today, so you need to get ready to go.”
Alex: (Playing with Legos) “What? I don’t want swim lessons! You know I hate lessons!”
Susan: “Alex, learning how to swim is really important – it’s about safety.”(Susan begins to feel angry and thinks, “What’s so hard about going to swim class? Swimming is great. This should be fun. Why is it so difficult?”)
Alex: “I don’t want to.”(He starts to crush his elaborate Legocreations). “I’m not going.”(He sits defiantly on the couch.)
Susan: “Swim lessons are a privilege, young man. That’s enough of your whining. Stop it. Now!”
Alex: “You never ask me what I want – I HATE YOU!”
Susan: (Thinking… “I hate this. I hate how hard it is to motivate my son. Forget it, I give up.”) She stomps off to another room to grab the swim gear.
Susan: “We paid for this class. Now get up and get to the car!”
Susan and Alex are both miserable and swim lesson does not go well.
AFTER taking Positive Discipline Class
Susan: (Taking some time beforehand to prepare herself.) “Hey Alex, Dad and I forgot to tell you but you’ve got swim lessons today. I’m really sorry that we’re springing this on you, but we gotta go now. I’ve got your swim gear and a snack for the car.”
“Both of these Positive Discipline Tool Cards were key. I feel I learned the most about the power of validating feelings!“
Alex: “What? I don’t want swim lessons! You know I hate lessons!”
Susan: “Honey, you only have to go four times and we found a new place where there are fewer kids so you’ll be able to hear better.” (She shows remorse for not giving him any warning and feels empathy for him, knowing that while he hates lessons, he actually loves to swim.)
Alex: “I don’t want to!” (He starts to crush his Lego creations.) “I’m not going.” (Alex plops himself defiantly on the couch.)
Susan: “Alex, sweetie, I know this is upsetting, but destroying your Legos is not OK. You can hit a pillow if you’re angry.” (She allows him to express his feelings. She calmly and firmly tells Alex that swim lessons are something he just needs to do. Susan uses only one or to sentences instead of lecturing him.)
(Alex violently hits the pillow. Susan leaves the room. Then she remembers that staying with him might feel encouraging to him. She goes back and keeps him company but doesn’t try to fix or change his feelings.)
Susan: (After some time has passed, speaking gently…) “Honey, it’s time to go.” (Alex gets up and together, they walked to the car. During the drive Susan felt connected to her son through their easy conversation and a palpable sense of calm. Alex even seemed to enjoy the lesson!)
This story’s a beautiful example of how empathy and encouragement go a long way toward winning genuine cooperation. Through her use of grounded positive energy and empathy Susan not only accomplished her goal of getting Alex to his swim lesson, she laid the groundwork for a foundation of trust.
Later she she told me,
It was a tiny miracle that I didn’t lose it and Alex was able to get up to walk to the car. It worked mostly because I didn’t flip my lid. Being there while he hit the pillow actually calmed me down too! Now Alex is doing great with his lessons. He still complains, but there is an ease and matter-of-factness about our interactions.