May 102012

“No.” “Stop doing that.” “Share the truck.” “Don’t lick your brother’s forehead.” “Don’t roll your eyes at grandma.” “Don’t use that word.” At the end of the day, most parents have unwittingly made statements such as these too many times to count. It seems that if we aren’t careful, we can get sucked into a never ending stream of what I call “micromanagement parenting.” We can feel like we are hanging on by a thread, trying to keep some semblance of calm while the storm continues to wear at us. We can feel like we constantly have to redirect, maintain control, referee, sidestep disaster and prevent chaos. It’s not very fun (for us or our kiddos), not very rewarding and the biggest downside is that it never seems to end. Just when we get one situation under control, another arises, like we are one step behind in a losing battle. This pattern can leave us feeling frustrated and exhausted as parents.

So, what is really going on here? Childhood is a time of incredible learning. Children are learning not only facts and skills such as math and reading and how to tie shoes and ride bikes, but they are learning how to negotiate social interactions, how to process feelings, how to empathize with others, how to relate. Parenthood is a time not only of protecting and nurturing, but also of teaching and providing opportunities for learning these skills. Essentially, as parents, we are given the job of being our children’s “life manager.” Thinking about how we fulfill this role will give us insight into our own parenting strengths and weaknesses.

Micromanaging. It is about getting people to do specific tasks: when we want them to and how we want them to. End of story. In a business setting, it may sound like, “Take this file, put it in a red envelope and write this address on it.” The manager doesn’t care at that moment if the employee understands why this process is important and they are not thinking about creating long term skills that benefit the employee or the company. They simply want the task done now. Similarly, in parenting, micromanagement might sound like, “Stop hitting your brother, give him the truck and pick up your toys.” This is an immediate solution to a moment in time that feels out of control for some reason. The parent is saying that they need quiet. They aren’t thinking about whether or not the child develops an empathic understanding of why she shouldn’t hit her brother, they just want everyone to stop crying and screaming right now. Micromanagement may lead to an immediate solution, but frustration lies in the fact that it has little impact on future behavior. So while she may stop hitting her brother right now, she will likely need to be told again tomorrow (or in five minutes).

When a child learns to read, we teach them to understand the letters, the sounds and the relationship between these components, along with rules and patterns of language. It would not be possible to simply tell a child to read and have them succeed. This is also true of social skills, empathy, emotional knowledge and relationships. We have to help children understand the nuances of interactions so that they can incorporate and, more importantly, utilize this information later. This learning does not happen when we say: “stop doing that” or “be nice” or “share.”  Saying such things is equivalent to saying: “read.” Rather, healthy social skills develop when we teach a child the rules, nuances and components of social life. When we help a child figure out what is going on in the moment, what options they have and what the outcomes may be based on these options.

When a child is frustrated and hitting, they are doing so because they feel something or think something that they cannot express or solve. The micromanaging parents says, “Stop hitting.” The teaching parent says, “I can see you are so frustrated, and when you hit your brother he got really sad. I wonder if there are other options right now? Let’s figure it out.” The teaching parent is helping a child to develop a language for identifying and expressing their feelings; they are communicating to the child that their feelings are valid and they are taking the time to help the child figure out how to negotiate the social interaction in a way that may be more productive in the future. These are skills that over time, with practice, the child will be able to do on their own. Just like reading. Every parent’s dream!

I often help parents to get out of micromanager mode and into teaching mode using the CORE acronym:

C – Center and Connect – We are all more likely to find ourselves in micromanager mode when we are tired, overwhelmed and distracted. Making dinner, talking on the phone, paying bills, doing laundry and taking care of life can often challenge our ability to be present for our children. It would be great if we could all be present for our children 100% of the time, but this isn’t realistic (and maybe not even healthy). However, it is a worthy goal to be able to redirect our attention when we need to. Taking a moment to breathe and center ourselves first may allow us to have a different view of the situation.

O – Opportunity – After we have taken a moment to breathe, we can get a better idea of what opportunity is presenting itself. Rather than seeing situations as “problems to be solved,” we can start to view these moments as opportunities to help our children learn to negotiate the world. “Not again! They are fighting over another toy” becomes “Great, another chance to practice communication of needs!” We aren’t born with these skills, we need to learn them and the more practice the better. It is amazing what a difference reframing this in our own minds can make.

R – Realize the Moment – What really needs to happen in this moment? This is where we consider all the external forces and situational factors. Is someone going to be hurt? Does this chore need to be done right now? What are the actual demands? Usually when we are in micromanaging mode we feel like something has to happen NOW. In reality, this is usually not the case. If we are honest with ourselves, the truth is that we often want something to happen now simply because there is discord or loud voices or a mess, and we crave quiet and order. Once we have taken a moment, and a breath, we realize that things aren’t so immediate and that the opportunity for learning can in fact be the top priority. What do I want my child to learn here?

E – Engage, Explore, Experiment and Educate – At this point we can think about how to engage our child in this learning opportunity. We can reflect feelings, we can brainstorm options, we can talk through consequences. We can support our children as they practice a new way of doing things. We become guides, teachers and mentors. As a parent, this feels so much more rewarding than being a micromanager.

Admittedly, this can sound like a giant task. But in reality, this process of centering/connecting, considering the opportunity, realizing the moment and engaging our children may not take much more time than the micromanaging style. The first three steps may happen in the time it takes to inhale and exhale a couple of times, and the difference it can make in our interactions with our children will be beyond comparison. After all, unless we plan on being there every moment of their lives to remind them not to hit when they are frustrated, micromanagement parenting is not a sustainable plan. And it certainly isn’t very rewarding. And while no parent is going to get through parenthood without the occasional “just do it because I told you to,” it is reasonable and admirable to expect ourselves to be engaging more than hovering, exploring more than directing, experimenting more than arbitrating and educating more than micromanaging. And, I promise, the outcome will be worth it.

 Posted by at 2:30 pm

Bubbles of Independence

 child development, Control, Independence, Tantrums  Comments Off on Bubbles of Independence
Oct 102011

This week I found myself pondering and meditating on the issue of tantrums. We as parents use this word pretty indiscriminately to describe a wide range of behaviors that our children display in an even wider range of situations. From the three-year-old who throws himself on the floor in a rage of exacerbated screams, to the nine-year-old who stomps off to her room muttering under her breath, to the 14-year-old who rolls his eyes and posts nasty things about his mother on Facebook. We seem to lump all of this into one general category: Tantrums.

But what is really going on? What is the point? What is the child really trying to tell us? Open any parenting book and the message seems to be the same. It always seems to boil down to control. Children want more control than we allow them. Maybe they want more control than is good for them. But maybe the other side of the coin is just as important here. Maybe we, as parents, in return want more control than our children allow us. And maybe we want more control than is good for them.

From birth on, parents and children engage in an intriguing dance of giving and taking control. Sleep-struggles, food-struggles, and putting-on-shoe-struggles plague the relationships between toddlers and parents. And then it’s homework-struggles, chore-struggles, staying-out-too-late-struggles. No matter what stage of development, children seem to be screaming, “I can do it!” while parents scream back, “You need my help!” Only after seemingly endless battles do parents and children find the right combination of independence and support, and then almost immediately the dance begins anew with the next step of life.

Whatever the step, independence is the name of the game for kids and the challenge for parents is to know how much help to give and when help is really necessary. I have noted, time and time again, that “tantrums” seem to increase at times when children are on the brink of being able to master something. Sometimes their own abilities limit their odds of success at independence, but more often, I think, it is the parent’s belief that the child needs their help that is really getting in the way.

Sometimes I imagine my own children with little bubbles around them. Inside their bubble is what they can take care of themselves. It is their bubble of independence. Outside their bubble is what they need my help and support with. Maturation, or development, is the process of expanding their bubble, until they grow into healthy well-functioning adults who have all the skills they need to negotiate the world on their own terms. (That’s the goal, right?) In order to do this, they have to push the bubble from the inside out. My job is to help them grow their bubble and to protect it from popping. Guard their bubble, support their bubble, nurture their bubble without hindering its expansion.

I have noticed that when there is a lot of friction between me and my child, it may be that I am pushing in on their bubble while they are pushing out. Instead, I need to assess the situation. What independent actions are they capable of that I may not be acknowledging? Sometimes it may feel counter-intuitive to give more freedom at times that a child seems to be acting out more, but maybe, by giving their bubble room to grow in one area, they can be more receptive to our support in another. And, who knows, they might just blow our minds at what they really can do on their own.

 Posted by at 3:00 pm