Instead of thinking of your child’s behaviour as wrong or naughty, it’s more constructive to think in terms of problems that need to be solved with a positive solution that meets some of the needs in another way. Children need a lot of practice solving their daily problems all through childhood to equip them to deal with problems in school, as teenagers, with friends, in work situations, and then dealing with all those huge challenges that us adults face in living our lives.
Scenario A: The child wants to climb on furniture that they’re not allowed to climb, hmm tricky, what other solutions might there be to meet the needs of parent and child – where the family rule is maintained and the child’s need to climb and have fun is met in another way? As much as possible, involve children in problem solving to help them develop their creative thinking and build confidence, pride and a positive self-image of themselves as effective problem solvers: “Hmm you want to climb on the furniture, I know how much you love climbing, but we have a rule about nobody climbing on the furniture. I wonder if there’s somewhere else you could climb or if there’s another game you could play that would be just as fun?”
As an aside if you don’t have a rule about kids climbing on furniture, know that this isn’t intended as a suggestion that you do, each family decides on the rules or agreements that meet the specific needs within that family.
Scenario B: The older child keeps getting angry at their younger sibling resulting in pushing them over because little sis wants to play with their toys, but it results in structures being broken that took a long time to make. Rather than judging either child to be naughty (which is never a kind or a useful label), look at it as a problem to be solved that you can involve your child in. Hmm this is a really tricky one isn’t it kids, your little sister really wants to play with your toys and you don’t want her to because things get broken and this is frustrating for you both, how can this problem be solved?
Scenario C: When a child wants to play in a way that’s risky: On this one, firstly I’ll say stop and think about whether this is a relatively safe risk to take. Parents can get in the habit of stopping their child in their tracks without thinking through whether the fun and practice of skills is worth a little risk taking. It’s not responsible to take risks with children around traffic, power tools or many other dangers, risk assessment is a big part of our role as parents and it’s important to have a common sense balanced approach.
A parent might tell their child: “Don’t play with your trike on the driveway, it’s too close to the road and it’s too steep, you could fall and hurt yourself. Just play down here on the flat instead”.
Optionally, a parent could express themselves with an “I” statement showing their child how they feel, but refraining from telling the child what they should do: “I feel nervous when I see you heading up to the top of the driveway with your trike” – because it lacks criticism or a specific solution or direction, the child will often enjoy showing that they can think of a safe place where they can play: “How about I just take my trike up this far so I’m not close to the road and it’s not too steep, but I still get to go downhill on my trike? Can I do that mum?” It’s great if you can, at least sometimes, leave it open for the child to problem solve, as the solution a child thinks of and suggests may not have been found if the parent had just told them what not to do and what to do.
Scenario D: Your pre-teen wants to make a snack but you want bench space to make dinner.
Instead of saying to your pre-teen;
“No you can’t make a snack now just as I’m about to make dinner, I need the kitchen, I don’t want to deal with the mess and I don’t want you to spoil your appetite.”
Optionally, you could say “ah I see you’re about to make yourself a snack, you must be hungry! The problem is that I need the bench space to make the dinner and I’m worried you’ll lose your appetite; hmm what are your thoughts?”
In the second scenario your kid is much more likely to truly connect with, care about and be considerate of your feelings and needs? In the second scenario, because you’re not just telling them what they can’t do but you’re expressing your thoughts while showing care and consideration of their feelings and needs, and your child is much more likely to join you in a communication that’s cooperative and collaborative. In the second scenario, you’re inviting problem solving together, which in itself opens the space to find a win-win solution.
Have you ever noticed how creative your child can be when they’re trying to work out how to meet their needs? It’s often viewed as manipulative, but we could just as easily perceive them to be creative pro-active go-getters keen to take more responsibility for their lives.
(Although sometimes it takes repeated calm level problem solving on the parent’s part before the kid truly trust’s the parents intentions, so naming the change of approach and why can really help with older kids).
Children need a lot of reflection from us about the effects of their actions, or lack of action, on others. They need us to help them explore their thoughts and feelings in facing their big and small challenges and in constantly reflecting back on how a situation might have worked better. We learn best from the mistakes we make. And there are times when their actions cause us to have all sorts of feelings; scared, worried, confused, sad, frustrated, misunderstood, accused, annoyed, angry or upset. Giving children information about how you feel and why you feel it gives a child the opportunity to figure out and voice what might work better or what might have worked better or to have a conversation or take action to resolve the problem.
Children tend to feel very empowered and proud of themselves when they can show that they can think of a solution, resolve a problem or acknowledge another’s feelings.
Parents tend to tell their child what not to do, why not to do it and what they should do instead. It’s not that this isn’t the right thing to do, but the more opportunities children have to problem solve with little problems, the more equipped they will be to think creatively with problems in general.
We don’t need to be so measured and mindful about every interaction with our child, but the more we practice respectful communication, the more natural and fluent it will become and the more opportunities we give our child to problem solve and think of solutions, the more experienced and confident they’ll become at solving problems.
When settling limits in general like this example of protecting the child from going too close to the road or cycling where it’s too steep, it’s best if your tone of voice conveys a sense of trust and positive expectation. Expressions of our emotions are generally important for a child to get to know and relate to their parents as real people with real feelings, needs and limitations. Limits often make more sense to children when their parent shows their related feeling. Yet because our feelings can impact our children strongly, it’s also very important to be very aware and sensitive to the fact that children’s feelings and actions can easily touch on a parent’s backlog of unresolved hurts, which can elicit an emotional reaction in us parents that’s out of proportion to the situation, so it’s important to keep our expressions relatively mild so as to avoid intimidating, frightening or overwhelming our child.
Moderating how you express your feelings is important and it may help if you think in terms of showing your feelings to your child to be giving them information that’s relevant to the situation, rather than trying to impact them with your feelings, which will likely result in your child feelings coerced, manipulated, attacked, guilt-tripped or even shamed.
As parents, we’re constantly helping our children expand their awareness to include an understanding and consideration of the needs of others. There are times when your child’s actions cause you to have feelings, you’re upset because they accidentally head-butted you when giving them a shoulder ride, you’re frustrated because they poured all the sugar into the baking mix, and sometimes those feelings offer relevant information as they learn about the effects of their actions on others. Children are egocentric by nature, starting from being completely egocentric as infants, and slowly expanding their thoughts, feelings and understanding to be considerate of the feelings and needs of others and how they affect others and also slowly realizing how others affect them. But this is a very slow and gradual process.
Parents become angry at children for not being more considerate a lot, yet they do need us to extend a lot of patience as they develop these skills, they’ll still be developing this capacity when they’re a young adult. But with our loving guidance, their consideration, understanding, interest and support of others gets better and better as the years go on. It doesn’t just happen by chance, children need our patient guidance and reflections. The more tolerance, patience and empathy we extend to them in the process, the easier it is for the child to develop tolerance, patience, empathy and consideration for others, while maintaining as much dignity as possible.