I have been contemplating why some parents seem to have a calm relationship with their kids, without yelling and punishing, while others always seem to be yelling and controlling. I’ve been observing different parents and have noticed that without fail, when parents do a lot of yelling and controlling, there is always much less of the parent being present with their children and connected to them at a deep, soul level.
Some time ago, I wrote about Discipline and Radical Unschooling. I’d like to expand a bit more on one of the points I made there, which was, “Spend time with your child. A lot of time.” Because it’s a bit deeper than simply spending physical time with a child. It’s more about being present and connected with your child–both physically, mentally, and emotionally.
When I suggest to parents that they stop not only punishing but that they stop yelling at and controlling their kids, some of them will laugh and say, “You don’t know my kids.”
Sure, some kids are more difficult than others. Some kids are a lot more difficult than others. Some kids have personalities that mesh more with their parents’ personalities than others, which makes parenting them easier.
But even with the kids who are more of a handful, connection and presence makes all the difference in the world.
If you’re in your own world and doing your own thing and the kids are fighting, or a kid is doing something that he shouldn’t be, and you just sit from your separate place, disconnected from your children, and yell, “Stop it!”, and then keep yelling until finally, the behavior gets so bad or you get so sick of it that you snap and really yell or punish, that could all be prevented by connection with the child. When I say, “Don’t yell at your kids” or “don’t be controlling of your kids”, I don’t mean to just hold yourself back from yelling. Nor do I mean just let your kids do bad, destructive things. If you’re disconnected from your kids, it might seem like those are your only two options, but there is another option.
Step away from your place of being disconnected and step toward being connected with your child. Physically step toward him, but that’s only a small part of it. Step toward being connected with him on a deep level. See your child. Really see him and study him until you know him and understand where his thoughts and emotions are coming from.
Is he really frustrated? Or angry? What’s he frustrated about? Something his sibling said? Coming from a place of disconnection, you’d simply say, “Don’t fight.” or “You have to learn to get along.” Coming from a place of connection, you’d listen to exactly what the conversation was, what specifically upset him, why specifically it upset him. You might not be able to fix it, at least not completely, but you can help him work through it. You can help him appropriately deal with his emotions.
Did his plan not work out as he expected? Sympathize. Listen to the details. Share ideas, if that seems to be what he needs. Search google or youtube with him. Brainstorm together.
Is there some little thing bothering him? Maybe he’s refusing to get dressed because the tag on his shirt is bothering him. Maybe someone laughed at his shirt the last time he wore it. Maybe he can’t find his favorite pants, or is embarrassed to admit that he can’t figure out how to tie his shoe. Maybe he won’t get dressed because he doesn’t want to be going wherever it is you want to take him. Take the time to really listen. And then help him and honor his wishes.
Did his toy break? Sympathize. At the very least, be a person he’s connected to who understands. That can make all the difference in the world. From your perspective as an adult, it might seem trivial. Especially if you think it’s his fault that it broke. But to him, it’s a big deal. Listen deeply and connect to what he’s feeling. See if it can be fixed or a new one bought. Some of our best learning opportunities have happened when something broke and we rigged up a replacement. The doll’s dress ripped and we sewed it, or the crown broke and we made a new one out of aluminum foil. There’s this big “maker” movement right now where people create lesson plans for kids to use stem principles. Stem is fine and good, and coming up with projects your kids love is awesome, but you can learn just as much sometimes when you patiently fix life’s snags together.
Is he bored? It’s a legitimate emotion, and a cue to find something more appropriate to do. Kids often need help learning to deal with boredom. Be very present and connected to your child, carefully studying him and feeling his energy and letting your instincts guide you as to what kind of activity this particular child would shine with at this particular time. Move mountains to make the perfect situations and opportunities happen for your child. Show him what it’s like to create a life that calls to him. Research, order, drive, email. Does he need to get out and do more physical things? Figure out a way to get him doing those things. Does he thrive with a particular group of friends? Get him together with them more often. Do you have an inkling that a particular kind of game would really fascinate him? Would late nights with a telescope or laying outside looking at the stars, just talking and observing, be perfect for him? Make it happen. Is he currently spending time doing something that he doesn’t enjoy? Respect his time and don’t drag him to things he dislikes.
I’m not merely talking about doing lots of things with the child and for the child. Parents who aren’t connected often say that they do PLENTY with their kids. They drive them to their activities and make them their dinner and buy them the supplies they ask for and clean up after them. It’s not just about physically doing stuff for your kids, though. It’s about connection.
If a parent is connected, a child won’t plot how to get the parent to let him do something or how to get away with something. When there’s connection, there is no disobeying because there isn’t an adult acting as an authority trying to get the child to obey. Rather, there is one parent-child team.
Some parents might say, “But he never listens”. But I’d turn that question around and ask, “Do you listen?” When a parent says, “he never listens”, it usually means that the parent is disconnected from the child, sitting doing her own thing, yelling at the kid from afar and expecting him to do as told.
Now, I said yelling at the kid from afar, but you can be doing stuff with a child right next to him and be disconnected. Helping him cook, for example. “Ok, just dump that in…No! Not like that! Here, let me do it.” As opposed to, “Ok, go ahead and dump that in….Oops! (laugh in a friendly way) (Look at child and note if he is bored and not really trying or just too immature to handle the physical task that was given to him or if he just needs more practice or just had an accident…senses whether at this time in this moment it would be better for the parent to just do it for him or encourage him to try again or something else).
We talk a lot in unschooling about following a child’s lead and doing activities with him that he enjoys and not saying no. But really, what we could say is just “Be connected and present with your child.” Be in tune with him. Like a musician who has to listen and focus intently. It’s an art. An art we’re all capable of if we focus and tune in. If we listen.
This focus on focusing, on being present and connected, helps with more than just not yelling and punishing. It helps with learning, too. It’s the difference between, “Kids his age should learn ________” and “My child likes animals so we’ll go to the zoo.” But it goes even deeper than that. “My child likes this particular animal and this particular zoo has this particular kind of animal, so we’ll go to this particular zoo”. But it could go even deeper than that. “This particular zoo lets kids observe things like this in this way, whereas the other zoo does things in a way that isn’t a good fit for my child, so I’ll suggest going to the one that’s a good fit, even though it’s further out of our way.”
When you’re really paying attention to your child, really focusing on Who He Is, you have deeper conversations, conversations that flow naturally and reveal parts of his heart, soul, and mind that would have been hidden to you if you had been talking to him from a disconnected agenda.
If you’re present and connected with your child, your heart opens up toward him and you really see him. I’m not talking about seeing whether or not he’s acting appropriately according to society’s expectations of a child his age. I’m not talking about seeing accomplishments and failures. I’m talking about seeing *him*. Seeing Who He Is. And not just settling and figuring that’s the best he can get. Not figuring out how to make him “better”. Not just tolerating or accepting. I’m talking about seeing him and celebrating him. Parents sometimes complain that following a child’s lead and happily cleaning up after him makes them feel like a slave. But if you’re connected, you’re really seeing that child and what his actual needs are and your heart is open toward him and overflowing with love and compassion and you want to help him. You enter into a partnership with him and there is no unnatural hierarchy, no obedience or disobedience.
I’m not saying to never do your own thing while the kid does his own thing. Not at all. But when the child needs your mentoring, he needs connection. Be ready to stop what you’re doing and help. Sometimes, all the help required of you is to consciously connect with the child, hear what he’s saying, and give an idea or do a quick and easy two minute task to help out. Other times, you’ll spend the afternoon deeply engaged in an activity with him.
Some kids need more of the parents and need it more often than others. But just because a kid needs a lot of your time and connection doesn’t mean he’s wrong for needing it. If you give him less than what he needs because you think it’s unreasonable to spend so much time connected and present with him, then you’re giving him less than he needs. And you’re probably going to replace meeting a legitimate need with yelling, punishing and controlling.
You could send a child to school so that someone else helps him when he needs it, but the very reason why a school needs to use systems of punishment and reward is because one teacher can’t have a deep connection with each child. All day long, a child is faced with arbitrary rules and arbitrary punishments and rewards, and is trained to do things the way he’s told, when he’s told, and only think the way the institution wants him to think. It doesn’t help him live creatively or learn to live life on his own terms. It doesn’t teach him to dream big and make things happen. It teaches him to settle. To obey without question. That other people have a bigger say over his life than he does. That he’s powerless and helpless.
In some ways, it’s easier to stay disconnected from our kids: tell them to go play, expect them not to get into trouble, and yell at them when they do. Just like in some ways it’s easier to send kids to school and not have to deal with them all day.
But in the long run, a few things will be true. First, if we aren’t present with our kids, we probably aren’t present with other things. If we aren’t connected to our kids, chances are we’re not really connected to ourselves and our other relationships–our spouses, friends, or those we work with. Being present and connected greatly improves our quality of life. We open ourselves up to deeply feeling things and deeply thinking about things, which is uncomfortable sometimes. It’s especially uncomfortable if we’re not comfortable with who we are, who our kids are, and living authentically. But it increases our quality of life so much that the discomfort, when it happens, is worth it.
Second, the more present and connected we are with our kids, the better our relationships will be with them. This isn’t about how to get them to behave. It’s about how to see them, how to understand them. How to connect with them.
Third, our attentiveness shows them how to understand and accept and celebrate themselves, and how to meet their own needs and craft a life that gives them what is perfect fit for Who They Are.”
It’s about mentoring them, but not in a “I’m going to be your teacher and your disciplinarian, and things will be fine as long as you do things the way I tell you to.”
When we’re more connected to our children and more connected to ourselves, when we’re accepting of who they are and who we are instead of spending their childhoods trying to make them into someone they’re not, we have less stress, less anxiety, and actually enjoy parenting. We have better relationships with our kids and our family unit is stronger. We can begin to heal from the disconnection we’ve had during years of being asked to conform, and take comfort in the fact that they’re not going to have as much healing to do as their parents. The creativity, cooperation, and natural learning flows. All of life flows–authentically, fully, and beautifully.