butterflyI hope you have enjoyed Parts 1 and 2 in the “Be Your Child’s Best Bet” blog post series. Today, we will conclude this series by exploring “But What do I do When X happens?” with the unspoken part being “Because you said I shouldn’t be giving time outs/punishments/consequences!” This is a very common question I get in my parent coaching sessions and in my classes. Once we start to explore the imperative of being our children’s best bet — and how separation and punishment-based methods work against this principle — parents often feel at a loss. The questions start coming, “well, what do I do when my child does X,” with X being: pull the cat’s tail/call me a “stupid mommy”/tear up their brother’s drawing/refuse to brush their teeth (I’m sure you can fill in your own ‘X’s’ here!). These are valid questions: there is a very big focus in parenting these days on ‘what to do when’; we should call a spade a spade, though, and note that this is behaviorism. Behaviorism is when you act as if the response to a behavior will affect that behavior in the future: if you give a reward, you expect it to happen more and if you give a punishment, you expect it to happen less. I am not a behaviorist: I believe that the motivation and impulse behind behavior comes from a much deeper, more complex and more, yes, human place than imagining what will happen after the behavior is displayed.

I am a developmentalist: I believe that, given the right conditions {and this is where our work is as parents: always working those ‘right conditions’} children will develop into healthy, well-tempered, mature adults. So, given this, my focus is not on the ‘Y’ response to ‘X’ (Question: What do I do when X? Answer: Y!); rather, my focus is on “what is the W?” What is happening before the behavior/what are the general conditions like/how is the attachment going etc? These questions are so much more important than “What do I do When.”

Okay, but I know many of you still really want to know what to do when! Here’s what you do:

1. Do no harm to the relationship. That is the key: in the heat of ‘an incident’ do not do anything that will harm your connection to your child. This means: no sending away, no criticism, no shaming, no punishment or consequence. For real. The actual growth that will lead away from these types of incidents happening in the future will come from a secure attachment; keep this long view in mind and take “incidents” in stride: they’re part of the long and messy path of growing up.

2. That’s it!

(3. Well, okay, you can say a little something – either then or later when you are connected – about not tearing up our sibling’s things and you can remind them that if they have a ‘sorry’ in them, it might be a good time to use it.)

4. But then, really, that’s about it.

I have been doing this long enough that I bet some of you are wondering: won’t this just encourage X? If nothing happens and I’m still nice to my child after they do X, what’s to discourage them from doing it in the future? “Aren’t I letting them get away with it?” Put simply: no.

Growth and maturity will take care of things (16 year-olds who have healthy attachments generally aren’t tearing up their brother’s art or protesting toothbrushing) and the only way that is going to happen is if they feel that you are their “best bet.” Your relationship with your child is the womb of their healthy, moral growth; given good attachment and time (we often forget about time: it takes a long time to grow up!), our children will mature out of most of the “X”’s that concern us.

Won’t you join me over here on the developmentalist path