In the world of parenting, we all have our favorite tools. Perhaps your most used strategy is guilt, yelling or patient negotiation.
Often, our go-to strategies reflect how we were raised. Sometimes useful, these tactics often undermine our relationship with our children, their budding independence or both.
Here's my list of five parenting tools I have sworn to give up - and why:
When our children are babies, they rely on us for everything. It's exhausting. But it's also a heady feeling to be needed that intensely. Some of us become addicted.
As a result, we continue to meet certain needs well past the time children can meet them independently. We hand them a raincoat because we've checked the forecast, rather than teaching them to check the weather themselves. We pack snacks instead of offering them the opportunity to do it. What feels like a caring and loving act is actually a missed opportunity to train our kids to meet life's challenges.
Even worse, jumping in to rescue our kids inadvertently sends the message that we aren't sure they can handle these challenges. When we intervene in their friendship squabbles, our children may conclude they're so fragile that mom must protect them from failing or feeling hurt. When we email their teacher about a missing assignment and our kids conclude we don't believe they can handle it themselves, it's our own fault.
Our children must experience being angry, frustrated, disappointed and a whole range of other negative emotions. This is how they develop resilience and grit - by living through and learning from failures, and picking themselves up again and again. Not by parents swooping in to prevent failure.
This is one of my favorite crutches. As an adult, I know the pitfalls and what steps to take to avoid them far better than my kids do. But when I tell my kids what to do, they miss the chance to practice recognizing and averting hazards themselves. It's better to give information, remain available if they ask for help and let them muddle through their way.
This is true whether it's something small, like insisting they say thank you in front of a gift giver, or something large, like whether to sign up for another season of soccer. The more children act based on their own choices, the more responsibility they will take for the outcomes.
Sure, it takes longer and is less efficient to let a child learn what to do, rather than doing it ourselves. But there's no shortcut. Unless you want to be the parent giving your child a wake-up call every morning at college, start weaning yourself from directing right now.
Parenting author Jane Nelsen has a wonderful quote: "Where did we ever get the crazy idea that we have to make children feel bad before they will do better?"
And yet, somehow we imagine that our children won't learn a lesson without pain, upset or crying from the consequences of their mistakes. Should the child who is cheerfully cleaning up spilt milk also be shamed to learn to avoid spilling milk?
Remove guilt from our arsenal of parenting weapons. Help children do the right thing because of intrinsic motivation, not because they're ashamed of what we think. We want them to do homework for a love of learning, not to avoid disappointing us. We want them to come see us when they're adults because we have a strong relationship, not out of a feeling of obligation.
I admit, I once told my 4-year-old she could have a piece of gum if she would just smile for the photo. We all stoop to bribing once in awhile. But I hope we all realize this is not a parenting tool designed for enduring success. Study after study shows that offering short-term rewards to kids undermines their long-term motivation.
Parenting is a marathon, not a sprint. Bribing your child for an easy win today merely sets you up for more pain later. You're creating a reward junkie, who looks to external forces - parents, peers, society - for approval and rewards. Don't we all want to raise children with a strong internal sense of direction, of right and wrong?
Yelling, blustering and threatening to take away privileges just invites our children into a power struggle. We teach our kids that the person with the biggest voice or the harshest punishment wins. This could lead to noisy, tantrum-throwing teenagers. Worse, it distracts kids from clearly seeing and taking on their own challenges. It also damages our relationship with our children.
Threatening, rescuing, directing, shaming and bribing, they may be tempting tools to use, but let's give them up for good.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis is a journalist, mother of three and parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington. PEP offers classes and workshops to parents of children ages 2½ to 18. PEPparent.org