Yesterday we explored what it means to be our children’s ‘best bet.’ Today we’ll look at some common parenting practices that take us away from being their best bet and, in fact, can lead to our children distrusting us and believing that they need to hide parts of themselves from us.
Before we continue, I want to make clear that, of course, none of us use these types of parenting practices with bad intentions; usually we turn to them because we don’t know what else to do. These practices are commonly endorsed by parenting “experts”, pediatricians and how-to parenting books; we try them in hopes of finding an answer to our struggles with our children. These techniques might even actually “work” for us for awhile: misbehavior decreases, our children seem to “listen” better, and struggles – seemingly – become less frequent. However, as we will explore below, these techniques do not serve attachment or our children’s experience of us as their “best bet.”
What practices am I referring to here? Any practice that either pushes a child into separation (time-outs), relies on fear of consequences (1-2-3 Magic, I’m looking at you), or uses what they care about against them (punishments). When we push our children away, shut them out or use our knowledge of what they love against them (parents using these methods are advised to identify what their child cares about most and to use that as a consequence or a reward), we are doing the exact opposite of being their best bet; we are using our relationship with them to hurt or alarm them.* Being hurt and alarmed by “their adults” does *not* foster healthy development in children, and healthy development is, actually, exactly what needs to happen for our children to naturally grow out of most of the “misbehavior” we are trying to discourage! So when we use these popular behavioral modification methods, we move away from our “best bet” stance, we rescind the “unconditional invitation to exist in our presence” and we stunt the actual true answer to most childhood “misbehavior”: the healthy unfolding of maturity.
So then, what do we do with: children who won’t cooperate/have rude behavior/use bathroom talk at the dinner table/etc? If you are using the separation or punishment based methods above, the first thing you can do is just to stop. If you are concerned about stopping those methods because you don’t have another plan, you can rest assured that simply stopping those methods is another plan. By avoiding techniques cause harm, you are strongly conveying to your child that you are in their corner no matter what. This “unconditional invitation” is the sunlight, water and nutrients that children need to grow; and growth – not 10-minutes alone in their room or a missed trip to the ice cream store – is what will lead to better behavior over time.
*Can you imagine, for a moment, how you would feel if your partner or friend, after you had made some sort of very human misstep (replied irritably, not told the 100% truth etc.) told you to leave the room and think about what you had done? Or told you that they wouldn’t speak to you for X number of minutes? Or asserted that you would not be having dessert that evening? How many times would that need to happen before you began to distrust that person? Probably not too many…