Give Your Child The Gift Of Conscious Parenting

"ÖI was doing something else. And I did clean my room. Itís not fair, Daddy."

By: Michael G. Conner, Psy.D

"CaitlynÖ What are you doing?"

"Nothing DaddyÖ"

"Yes you are." I said.

"I didnít do anything."

"Caitlyn. You didnít clean your room like I asked you 30 minutes ago."

"Itís not fair. You wonít help me."

"Caitlyn. I offered to help and you said no."

"But that was a long time ago. I was doing something else. And I did clean my room. Itís not fair, Daddy. I did clean my room."

After that, Caitlyn ran to her room and shut the door. Caitlyn wasnít exactly crying, but she had tears and seemed very frustrated. Does this sound familiar?

Anyway, I was upset and I was wondering what happened. I was fairly certain it wasnít my fault. But I decided to stop a potential argument. Rather than barge into her room, I decided to think about what happened.

After about 15 minutes, I discovered the problem. I wasnít thinking. I was an unconscious parent. And it was my responsibility.

The worst thing about being a psychologist is my inability to fool myself and escape responsibility for my behavior. I have never been very good at denial, so my opinion of myself can be very stressful at times. Rather than try to fool myself and blame my daughter, I decided to take responsibility for my behavior.

Here is what I discovered.

First of all, I didnít really want to know what Caitlyn was doing when I said, "Caitlyn. What are you Doing?" I knew what she was doing. She was heavily involved in writing words and coloring a wonderful picture. As for me, I was sitting at my computer assuming that a seven-year-old child could easily understand what I wanted and would do exactly what I wanted without fail. Not only that, I assumed she knew what I meant by "clean", that she could organize a huge mess, and that she would not become distracted by all the wonderful and boring things she was picking up.

I gave Caitlyn a break and then went to her room. She was trying to find something to do. She looked upset and worried. I apologized and told her that I made a mistake. Then I asked her to show me her picture and to read what she wrote. She was very proud and I praised her for her efforts. Then I asked her to show me how she cleaned her room. Of course her room was a complete mess, but she proceeded to show me how she put her clothes in a pile, moved her papers to the floor near her desk and she put her crayons and pens on her bench. Basically she just moved the mess around. But, to her credit, she moved it in the right direction!

The definition of a "clean room", let alone the organizational, sequencing and behavior necessary to "clean" a messy room is not easy. In fact, a room that is in chaos can represent an overwhelming task. Caitlyn can use the word "clean" in a conversation. She can spell it. She knows what a clean room looks like. But that doesnít mean she understands the process, effort and behavior necessary to transform "chaos" into "order". Besides, her room was clean. When I asked her to give me examples of the word "clean" she showed me her hands and her clean cloths.

Here is what children need and one of the best ways to be a conscious parent.

  • Children need examples and simple instructions. They need you to show them what you want and how to do it.
  • Children need to practice. It is best to have simple goals with only a few steps. Tasks that are complex should be broken down into smaller takes. As a general rule, complex activities need to be practiced about 60 times before it becomes natural.
  • Children need supervision and guidance when they are learning new tasks. The idea is to keep students on task, correct mistakes, help when they are stuck, allow them to struggle, and to avoid discouraging failures.
  • Children need lots of encouragement and praise for their initiative, creativity and effort. They need to learn that persistence in the face of failure and discouragement can lead to success.
  • Children need opportunities to do things on their own while someone periodically monitors their behavior.

One of the best ways to become a conscious parent is to think about the words that we use and the impact it has on children. For the next few weeks I made a commitment to listen more carefully to myself and other parents. Here are some phrases that are worth looking at.

- "Stop acting like a baby." There is no purpose or value in a statement that is intended to humiliate a child. A child will act like a child when they donít know any other way to feel better or to get what they want. Telling them to stop something doesnít give them a skill, nor does it provide an alternative that works better than acting like a child. Besides, how would you feel if someone at work told you to stop acting like a baby?

- "You better do what I tell you." A statement like that is usually a threat. The natural response from any child is to worry, be afraid or to wonder "What are yah gonna do if I donít?" At this point many children are more curious than they are worried.

- "I donít care what you want" usually means "Do what I want right now and stop talking and making excuses." But children usually here, "I donít love you or care about you."

- "Donít even think about it" is actually a bizarre thing to say to anyone Ė especially a child. A child is completely unable to follow this instruction or understand what you mean. It is far better to be specific about what you want rather than acting like you are the "thought police."

- "Because I said so." Is usually the last resort of a parent who has lost control or has argued with their child in the past. Parents need to teach children that the purpose of asking "Why?" is to learn - not argue. So be careful if you ask your child why they did something wrong or made a mistake. If you argue with a child, then you might be teaching your child how to be argumentative.

- "Iíve had it with you!" is another great line that merely tells a child that you are no longer in control and that you are blaming your child because you did not get what you wanted. This can encourage children to say theyíve "had it" with a parent and they should get upset when they donít get what they want."

- "You need to change your attitude." This statement is very vague and by definition is not even possible. Your attitude is part of your personality. A statement like that usually means "I want you to stop feeling, thinking or acting a certain way". And telling a child to stop feeling is even more strange. Try it sometime. Children feel stupid when they are told they need do something that doesnít make sense and they donít know how to do. It is far better to tell a child what you need or want. If you try to tell a child what they need, they will usually come to the conclusion that you have no idea what they need and that you are simply trying to manipulate them.

- "Iím warning you" is the number one waste-of-time statement you can tell a child. You have already lost control if you need to warn your child. The absolute worst thing to do is to say something like, "Iím warning you for the last time." Children need instruction, supervision, guidance and monitoring before they get outrageous Ė not repeated warnings when they have already crossed the line.

-"Why are you making me angry?" Trust me, you would be far better off seeking the opinion of a psychologist than asking your child to answer this question. Can you imagine a child telling you something like "You are frustrated with me because nobody at work will do what you want", or "Because you expect me to treat you better than Daddy treats you."

After a serious examination of my behavior, I reminded myself that "conscious parenting" is not easy Ė even for a psychologist. As adults, we assume that children know what to do and how to do it because we can talk to them and because they can talk back. But just because a child can speak, read and write, that doesnít mean they know what we want and how to accomplish it. Learning how to do something on your own is usually more difficult than talking about it. Adults are masters of procrastination. We are fond of saying, "I need to do that", and then we donít.

Children need guidance in life. They need to understand who they are and how to succeed in the world. The words we choose and what we provide are very important. Think about how you talk to your child so you donít have to pay a psychologist to talk to your child later.

  copyright 2000 to 2008, Michael G. Conner