Cliff Notes of Effective Parents

I want to share a “Cliff Notes” version of how to be a more effective parent.  These are the things I find myself advising over and over.  While they sound simple, I know they are not easy in the moment. I’ve been there too.  Here’s the short version.

  1. Be brief.  Kids really do stop listening after a couple of sentences.  It’s good to explain why, but if you’ve done that many times,  don’t say it over and over.  Lectures are not effective.
  2. Be calm. Directions given calmly are much more likely to elicit a good result.  Angry tone is likely to increase anxiety and or defiance.  Calm and firm can go together. 
  3. Be positive.  Tell your child the behavior you want to see, not what you are seeing and don’t like.  For instance, tell him to pick up his shoes rather than complaining about all the times in the past week you have tripped over the shoes.  That leads to the “not listening, fingers in ears, la-la-la” state of mind.  (See #1 above.)
  4. Listen. When a problem presents or persists, find out what your child would suggest.  This is especially true for older elementary school children and up.  You might agree or not.  Perhaps you can incorporate part of a child’s suggestion in your solution.  In any case, if you have listened and responded, your child will feel heard. Very important.
  5. Be respectful. Yes, even when you are not being treated with respect.  Stay to the high ground. Name calling, swearing, shouting — all actually model the behavior you don’t want.  (Not saying this is always easy.)
  6. End fruitless interactions.  This refers to the times you have said no to a second ice cream or a sleep-over.  You’ve even explained why in a respectful way, but your child persists in asking why, etc.  It is perfectly alright to say that you have said all you have to say on the topic and stop talking.  Hard to do with a very persistant child but very worthwhile. I wish you fortitude.

Good Luck in your challenging yet rewarding job of parenting!

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Child Safety—It Takes a Community

My hometown is abuzz with concern about child sexual abuse.  A man who has taught second grade here for twelve years has been arrested in connection with a federal investigation of child pornography.  The prosecutors say they have found a video of him molesting a twelve year old girl.  The man is being held on $100,000 cash bond.  There have been no reports of abuse from among the children he has taught.

We often imagine that child abusers are strangers.  Yet most sexual abuse is perpetrated by people known to the victims.  This man grew up in town and is reportedly well liked and respected in the school where he taught.   A school or agency’s first line of defense against child sexual abuse is to require a criminal background check.  I know of one church that successfully screened someone out on this basis and another that could have avoided an incident had they screened (this was nearly 30 years ago).  In this week’s case, the teacher passed because he had no prior arrests.

That brings me to the most effective way to protect children:  good practices.  Good practices involve a whole school community and perhaps beyond in keeping children safe.  There need to be very clear definitions of appropriate ways to interact with children and definitions of where and when it might be appropriate to be alone with a child, if ever.  There also needs to be clear accountability.  Someone needs to be working with staff to know what they are doing and how.  This is someone who can approve or disapprove off-site activities or after school hours activities.

Good practice is not about being paranoid.  It is about being clear about proper behavior with children and good supervision.

As far as I can tell at this point, there is no question about the performance of the school system.  Many perpetrators have not had prior arrests.  Thus, good practice is essential to  keeping children safe and possibly preventing potential abusers from becoming perpetrators.

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Baby Steps

Some of you may have seen the old Bill Murray movie, “What About Bob.”  Murray plays a man who is very dependent on his psychiatrist, played by Richard Dreyfus.  Dreyfus encourages his patient to make progress in his life by “baby steps.”  He has even written a book by that name.  It’s a good spoof on the mental health profession.  Dreyfus is making a bundle with simplistic advice, and Bob is ultimately the undoing of his pompous doctor.

All the same, there is a lot to be said for the baby steps idea.  At this time of year many of us are ready to turn over all the leaves that we did not get to last year.  Parents are no different.  People are telling their children, “Now you are big enough to sleep in your own bed all night.”  Or, “Now you can do your homework in your room all on your own.”  Or “I think you can get up on your own in the morning.”  “This year you can be ready for school on time.”  “This year when you are rude to me, I will ignore you, and you will treat me more nicely.”  These are all good goals, and every parent has a right to them.

But it takes baby steps.  Another way of putting this is that all change happens slowly, bit by bit.  If you are dealing with grade school or older children, you will need to include them in the conversation.  They need to agree that the change you suggest is worthwhile.  Then you can discuss how to start.  For instance, when should the alarm be set?  How much time does your child need to get ready in the morning?  Or you will need to explain just what you mean by rude and say what you would like instead.  (This may sound as absurd as the baby steps book, but believe me, it is helpful to be very clear.)

When you have explained the goal and your child has agreed, you might also consider incentives to increase your child’s motivation.  Incentive does not need to mean expensive stuff.  It could mean a special dessert or fifteen extra minutes of screen time.

The last goal is to moderate your expectations.  Remember baby steps.  Your child might get up on time some days and not on others.  She might do her homework on her own for a day or two but have a meltdown about a new type of math problem.  Try to notice the progress, and not be too discouraged by the slip-ups.  Always praise progress.  And consider whether you can learn from the slip-ups.  Maybe the program needs adjustment.

Change takes time.  A few good days don’t mean you are out of the woods, but a few good days are definitely a few good days.  Progress happens in baby steps.

Good luck to all of you on the changes you are trying to make in your families in this New Year.

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Try a Little Tenderness—for Yourself

Recently I went to a workshop on Mindfulness, and its use in psychotherapy.  I was quite excited as I listened because I could see its usefulness to parents. 

First of all, what is mindfulness?  When people practice mindfulness, they try to change the quality of their awareness so that they are observing and accepting of themselves.  Mark Sorensen, Ph.D., ( one of the presenters, teaches his clients to Stop, Observe, Accept, and Refocus.  This shortens very nicely to SOAR.  That’s a good concept isn’t it?

Imagine that your three children are home after school.  They are quarreling, procrasting about homework, and begging you to intervene.  Meanwhile, you are very tired.  This is a recipe for an angry outburst in many families.

 What would SOAR look like here?   Stop means that you stop your action and your thinking.  Just stop with resolve and intention. 

Now, Observe.  Observe your own mind.  What is the story you are telling yourself about the situation?  Here are some possibilities:  “This is a disaster.”  “I’m a terrible mother because Angie is behind in spelling, and I can’t get her to start her homework.”  “This will never stop.”  Wow — thoughts like those would upset anyone.  Try to separate the events from the story you are telling about them.  Imagine that the events are appearing on a radar screen.  Observe your thoughts, your emotions, and your physical feelings.  “I’m thinking this is a disaster; I feel anxious and angry; my shoulders are tight and painful.” 

Next Accept the situation.  (I know this sounds absurd, but stick with me.)  Accept is an attitude.  You stop struggling with the reality.  You are open to it.  “My children are arguing.  My children are asking me to intervene.”  This is a way to relax into the situation. 

Lastly, Refocus.  Try to refocus to good intentions.  Can you feel compassion for yourself?  Patience? 

After this sequence you might be better able to decide how to respond to the situation in a productive way.

I’ve listed the steps, but this is a discipline that is learned with practice.  One participant suggested that people practice “Mindfulness Moments” or M&M’s during the day.  You can tie the M&M’s to specific behaviors, like using the bathroom!  Each time is an opportunity to go through the steps. 

I will be researching some resources on this topic, and I’ll post more next week.  Meanwhile be kind to yourselves as you observe Thanksgiving.

Keeping Your Child Safe from Sexual Predators

This week we all have our minds on the disclosure of sexual abuse of young boys by a coach at Penn State.  I have been struck by the emphasis on who did what when rather than concern for the children who were abused.  For many of us it raises the frightening prospect that our children or children we know could be sexually abused.

I want to spend some time talking about how parents can find out whether a camp, preschool, Sunday School, or club is a safe place for their children.  The way I see it there are three lines of defense.

Educate Children

One is to educate children about good touch and bad touch, and to encourage them to tell an adult about anything that feels like a bad touch, no matter what someone else told them.  But children are young and can be influenced by a powerful adult, especially one they look up to.  Most perpetrators are known to their victims. So what else can parents do?

Criminal Background Checks

The next two parts of defense have to do with the policies of organizations that care for children.  First, find out whether they require criminal background checks on their staff.  If they have checks on some but not all staff, ask how they manage the unchecked staff’s contact with children.  Are they always supervised on site by someone who has been checked?  That would help.

However, most perpetrators never make it into the criminal justice system.  Doing background checks screens out people who have been convicted, and a policy of doing this conveys that the organization cares to prevent child sexual abuse, but this is not the whole story.  Again, most perpetrators are known to children.

Safe Practices

This brings me to the part of protecting children that I think is the most effective:  safe practices.  If you ask a program coordinator about their policies for child safety, they should be able to tell you about a number of practices.  How do they screen new staff?  You can ask about what kind of training staff have in preventing child sexual abuse.  There should be training for all staff.

Ask who the staff are accountable to.  Is there someone who knows what the programming is and can authorize it?

Ask if there is a written policy on protecting children from child sexual abuse in the program.  Is it posted?  Find out who is responsible to report abuse or neglect to the proper authorities.  Find out what the response plan is.

Ask whether staff are ever alone one on one with children.  Hopefully, they are not, but if they are, ask what the procedures are to provide supervision in those situations.  For instance, they might be in a room with a window in a door so that a supervisor can walk by at any time and see what is happening.

Ask what the practice is for taking children off site. Again, are staff ever alone one on one?

Ask whether parents are welcome to visit at any time.  If the answer is no, that is a concern.  While you wouldn’t want to disrupt a program, you would not want to feel that there is anything going on that you are not privy to.

Ask whether older children ever have care of younger children and whether they are one on one with younger children.

As you can see, the primary concern is whether there are opportunities for private, unsupervised contact between a child and staff or anyone with greater power (like a teenager).  In addition, you want all staff to be accountable to someone.

Some people might find that this type of program sounds a little paranoid, but once it is in place, it protects everyone—including staff.  Policies like these protect staff from false accusations.  In addition, there are people who might be perpetrators if given enough opportunity.  Being very clear about policies and practices can actually be helpful to prevent someone from becoming a perpetrator.

A fine resource on this topic is Reducing the Risk at    It is a comprehensive program and training manual written for religious institutions, but the basic lessons are the same for any organization that serves children.

Say Please!

How do you get your children’s respect?  How do you know that they respect you?  Is it that they obey?  That’s a big part of it when they are young. 

 When parents of young children come to me for Parent Coaching, they often ask for help with compliance.  Their children don’t “listen.”  I think that most parents have this problem at one time or another.  I know that I did.  Parents find themselves telling a child over and over to do the same thing.  Often they report, “He doesn’t do it until I yell.  I don’t want to yell all the time, but that’s the only way he’ll listen.” 

I begin by talking to parents about how they tell children what to do.  We talk about the importance of getting your child’s attention, perhaps with a light touch on the shoulder.  I also advise parents to tell a child very clearly what do to. “Pick up your room” is not specific enough for many young children.  They need to hear, “Put the toys in the bin and put your clothes in the drawer.”  In fact, some need to be told only one thing at a time, but that’s for another week.

This all goes fairly well, but some parents, especially Dads, are surprised when I advise them to say “please” and to use a firm but kind tone of voice.  I am sure that these people are telling me how they were raised.  Somehow it hurts their own sense of authority to say “please” to a child.  I hear that children should just do it.  Why do we need to be so polite to kids?

One reason is that you want them to treat you politely.  Children learn best from the behavior we demonstrate.  This produces a wince from many of us.  All parents have their moments. 

Another reason is that harsh commands tend to make people (even young children) angry.  Never mind that you are the parent and you are in charge, if you rely on requests like “Get in here and pick up this room,” your children are quite capable of demonstrating that “you aren’t the boss of me.”  We’ve all been there.

The third reason is that it works.  Be clear. Ask for a specific behavior. Be calm and take the edge out of your voice.  And yes, say please.  See how it works.  And let me know.

Joining a New Generation

This past weekend I met my grandniece.  She is three months old, and I think she is adorable.  The visit prompted some reflection on the nature of families and generations.  This little babe has bumped me into a new generation — that of the “grands”, along with my sister who is now a grandmother.  My nephew and wife are now parents.  It was a pleasure to see them joyously and comfortably taking on that role. This is a pretty mundane experience — it’s what happens in families.  But I did notice that I’m in a new generation now. 

I reflected on how families can support each other over the miles.   Recently the new babe’s parents had professional obligations on a weekend, and my sister travelled to stay with them and care for her granddaughter.  Distance precludes doing that very often, but evidently it worked out very well.  We joked about having them move in together.  I know more than a few families who have done that to support new parents where both parents work. 

While we walked around Brooklyn on Saturday afternoon, my nephew’s wife and I talked about returning to work and finding care for our babies.  My baby is almost twenty-five, but we found similar feelings about balancing work and motherhood.  We agreed that there are times that it is a relief to go to work where life is a bit more predictable.  We are both in helping professions, so we could share the need to balance the energy we give to clients and the energy we need for family. 

Even across the miles and episodically I expect that our family will support this new family.  My extended family has not lived in the same neighborhood for nearly fifty years now.  This new family has already found supports among their solid group of friends.  It takes a village, as the saying goes.  It was good to be a small part of the village for this young family.

What’s Normal?

Lately I have noticed that parents I work with need information about normal child development. It’s quite reassuring to hear that a behavior is just what’s expected at that time.  I explain that parents are expecting too much self control from a three year old.  Or that they are expecting too much responsibility from a seven year old.  At times my message is that an eight year old would do better sleeping in his own bed and that he is capable of it.

This led me to look up some books from the 1970’s that you may have seen on your mother’s bookshelf. This is a series of books put out by the Gesell Institute of Human Development at Yale.  The series starts with Your One Year Old and goes year by year up through Your Nine Year Old.  There is also Your Five to Ten Year Old.  Most of the books are by Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D. and Frances Ilg, M.D.

The books in this series are brief with clear chapter titles so you can find what you want.

The series gives you a good idea of normal child development, including the ways that your child might be difficult—just because of the way he or she is developing at that time.  For instance, the authors talk about the six year old wanting to be more independent but having mixed feelings about it.  This leads to some confusing behavior.

Ames and Ilg also include good ideas for managing difficult behaviors.  The ideas are practical and caring — of parent and child.  Think of a kind hearted grandmother helping you out.

There are good ideas for age appropriate ways to interact with your child, to encourage creativity, and good toys to provide for your child.  I especially like that the books were written before video games, computers and smart phones were such a part of our lives. The ideas are low tech.

Some of the suggestions and examples will be quite dated.  You have to give them a break on that.  But overall, child development has not changed in thirty years.  These books have some real gems to offer.   You can find them on Amazon or in your library.

The Last Word

I have been thinking lately about having the last word.  Often when things get tense between parents and children, both sides want to get the last word.  It’s a pretty normal impulse.  But when parents insist on the last word, it doesn’t contribute either to problem solving or family harmony. 

Say you have told your child for the third time to start his homework.  You are pretty aggravated by now, and your voice shows it.  He finally turns off the TV and stamps off to his room, saying, “Whatever you say, your majesty,” or worse.  You see red (rightly so), and you have a choice.  You could say, “Come back here, young man.  You talk to me with respect.”  Or you could take a deep breath, exhale slowly, and notice that he is complying (at last) with your request. 

But, you say, “Didn’t he win?  I don’t want him to think he can be fresh and get away with it.”  I don’t think he won if he did what you asked.  I agree that he shouldn’t be rude, and that’s an issue you still need to deal with.  If you can work on compliance, so that you don’t have to ask three times, I’ll bet that you won’t have the problem with your child having the last word.  In a conflict, no one wants to knuckle under and “say uncle.”  For many children “the last word” is a way to comply and save face. 

So, if your child does comply, but with the “last word,” it’s a step on the way.  A good one.  Enjoy.

Putting Up with Whining in Order to Avoid a Tantrum?

I often meet with parents who are caught “between the devil and the deep blue sea.”  They ask for help with their children who are begging for something (a toy in a store, a little more television time).  I usually suggest that parents tell children that the conversation is over and then ignore further requests on the topic.  The parent then says plaintively, “But then he’ll cry,” or tantrum or some such difficult behavior.

Lately I’ve met a number of parents in this situation.  They wish (rightly) that their child would just listen and accept no, but they have a hard time ending the conversation.  Often these good parents are struck with guilt.  They don’t want to be mean.  They don’t want their child to be unhappy.  And they really don’t want to deal with a tantrum. 

I am not talking here about the child who would become physically out of control and tantrum for an hour over a simple “No.”  The garden variety, “You never give me what I want,” accompanied by stamping away and kicking a toy is plenty challenging. 

What to do?

  1.  Tell your child that starting now, no means no.  (Then you need to be careful to say no only when you want to follow through.)
  2. When the situation arises, say no and explain why if necessary.  Do this once.
  3. Then turn a deaf ear to the complaining.  Walk away if needed. 

It takes two to have an argument.   If you are not doing your part, it is quite likely that the argument will end more quickly.  Probably the first time or two will be a little hairy, but then it should get better.  Try not to be involved in an argument you don’t want. 

This sounds simple, but I know that it isn’t.  In a newsletter to come, I’ll talk more about the difference between being mean to your child and being firm and consistent.