Before I was a parent, I worked with hundreds of kids as a camp counselor and then as a camp director. As an idealistic youth development professional, I was very opinionated about parenting techniques, and I was critical of what I saw parents doing and saying to their kids. I had a lot of “always” and “never” ideas about my own future parenting, as in, “I will never let my kids sleep in my bed,” and “I will always focus on my child’s positive characteristics.” Ha!
What I have now learned, after all these years, is that it is much easier for me to be consistent, friendly, calm, and positive with other people’s children than with my own. And, other people’s children respond differently to me than they do to their own parents. Despite my many years of training and experience working with children, I continue to make mistakes in how I parent my own kids.
I am fortunate that much of the training I get for my job also informs my own parenting. Last week, I attended a webinar by one of my favorite camp gurus, Bob Ditter, about managing camper behavior. He covered many topics, but one section jumped out at me: the five common mistakes adults make when working with children. Bob’s instruction was geared towards camp directors like me who will, in turn, train and support our counselors in their work with children this summer. But as I listened to him, I was putting mental checklists next to each point in reference to my own parenting.
“Yes,” I thought, “I talk too much with my kids.”
“Yep, I get too emotional. That’s me.”
This week, I’ve decided to share with you the five tips Bob Ditter shared last week about common mistakes adults make when working with kids. I’m guessing there are other parents, like me, who make these same mistakes and want to do better. I’ve also included my own thoughts on each. Please note that I’m not saying, “parenting mistakes to never make,” because, as I’ve shared before, there is no room for perfectionism in our parenting, only growing along with our kids.
Five Parenting Mistakes to Avoid
#1 We talk too much!
Unless, like my husband, you’re blessed to be more of introvert, you may, like me, talk way too much during conversations with your kids. I can’t even begin to count the number of leadership trainings I’ve attended where I’ve learned the 80-20 rule (we should be listening 80% of the time and talking 20% in any conversation) and to ask open-ended questions rather than lecturing or spouting off ideas. I work so hard to practice good communication in my job, but I haven’t put the same energy into practicing these skills at home with my kids. The same principles that hold true in our work relationships and conversations are true in our families.
I like conversation. I like to talk, and, unfortunately, enjoy talking and hearing myself talk… a lot. I can chat for hours with my sister and other friends. But I see clearly now, with my two teenage sons, that I need to focus on keeping my mouth shut more of the time. Besides the fact that I often get an extremely negative response to what I think of as “helpful” comments, I need to listen more to what they have to share. I have to stop trying to fix their problems and be more of a sounding board, so they can learn to problem solve for themselves. Instead of continuing to talk, talk, talk, I am going to work on listening when they talk, asking follow-up questions to better understand, and letting them ask for my input as needed. I need to stop all the talking, which I think is extremely insightful and informative, but they’re hearing as “blah blah blah blah blah.”
#2 We get too emotional.
This is the kicker, and the reason why camp counselors have such an edge over parents when it comes to getting kids to listen and do things they might not normally do at home. As parents, we are so emotionally invested in our kids, and our kids in us, that we inadvertently create weird dynamics that sometimes hold our kids back from being their best selves. I see this a lot with anxious kids and parents. The kid’s anxiety seems exacerbated in their parent’s presence. For whatever reason, parents and kids get more emotional around each other. Throw in some extra (adolescent) or lacking (menopausal) hormones, and it can be a recipe for relational upheaval. With all that we’ve learned about how the brain works, we now also understand that we cannot talk to our kids when either of us is upset or emotions are running high. As Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson describe so well in No Drama Discipline, “If kids are upset or out of control, that’s the worst time to try to teach them.”
Bryson, in describing an event where she got too emotional, describes something I know I have experienced in my behavior towards my kids: “My rational, empathic, responsible, problem-solving upstairs brain was hijacked by my primitive, reactive, downstairs brain.” In moments of high emotion, from either our child or us, no problem will ever be solved. In fact, it’s more likely that the problem will escalate when emotions are running high. Let everyone calm down before trying to talk about or solve anything.
#3 We tell kids what we don’t want.
Staying positive has been a pet philosophy of mine since I started working with kids. I can’t stand all the “anti-bullying” and “just say no to drugs” way we talk to kids. I don’t like rules and signs that tell kids “no” and “don’t.” We adults – and parents – spend a lot of time telling kids what we don’t want them to do, and what they hear and absorb (because they’re only partially listening to us and taking in a mere fraction of what we say) is often only what comes after the “don’t.” So, as I’ve talked about in Focus on the Dos and Catch Them Doing the Right Thing, we have got to start focusing on what we DO want from our kids. We want them to be kind and take care of their bodies and set goals and be a good friend. That’s what we need to talk with them about. Not all the things we don’t want.
#4 We “pick up the rope!”
This is one of Ditter’s famous analogies he uses in trainings with camp counselors. When we are having a negative interaction with kids – something they are complaining about, for example – our tendency is to jump in and join them by commenting on how unreasonable they’re being. Unfortunately, we just “picked up the rope” and are now in the losing situation of tugging a rope back and forth with an emotional kid who has gotten us emotional, too. See #2. It never works out well. Ditter suggests that instead of “picking up the rope” of disagreeing or criticizing our children, we listen carefully and make them right about something. By not engaging in the tug-of-war, we can help our child calm down and problem solve.
#5 We wait until we are in struggle.
With our own kids, we know the potential quicksand areas. I know, after all these years, that my kids are hungry and crabby right after school. They need food. They need some exercise. And they don’t need me to badger them about a school project or their chores. So, instead of getting into the same struggle again and again, at the exact same time and in the same situation, we can anticipate the quicksand areas and tread cautiously (and get them food – stat!).
Additionally, we need to look for the small signs of concern rather than waiting for the big explosions. With our children’s behavior and mental health, we need to stay more aware of small changes over time and not dismiss areas of concern as “normal,” especially in the teenage years. Rather than waiting until we or our children are in a full-blown crisis, we can help ourselves and them through difficulties by seeking outside help earlier.
I am grateful for the resilience of kids. I have met so many young adults over the years who, despite their parents’ shortcomings and mistakes, have come out the other end of adolescence as healthy, productive, and thoughtful young adults. So, while I will continue to avoid these and other parenting mistakes, I am sure that I will keep making them from time to time. I will be more aware and apologize to my kids when I talk too much, get too emotional, and focus on the negative. And, God-willing, my kids will still turn out just fine. And yours will, too.
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Bob Ditter’s Website
Description of “Dropping the Rope”
Dr. Baruch Feldman on Ditter’s “Drop the Rope”
Tina Payne Bryson’s Website
Dan Seigel’s Website
No Drama Discipline, Article from Huffington Post
No Drama Discipline video introduction