Simcha Fisher: Parenting strategies that work

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My children range in age from 20 to three – almost a big enough span to comprise two generations. Naturally, the older kids think the younger ones get away with murder. The love to talk about how strict I used to be, how inflexible, how unreasonable.

And they’re right. It’s not just that I had more energy to hold the reins tightly when I was a young mom; it’s that I had a very different idea of how kids should be treated. I was wrong about a lot of things, and much of that wrongness stemmed from wrong ideas I had about myself – about my self-worth, about my value, about my capabilities.

Here are some parenting approaches I’ve changed pretty radically since I’ve come to understand my own self better:

Validate feelings. The hallmark of childhood is that kids get upset for no good reason. All the time. They freak out over nothing, become enraged at little things, are terrified at trifles, feel strongly about stupid things. I used to see it as my job to point out to kids how foolish and inappropriate these feelings are, sweeping them briskly away like so many cobwebs so we could deal with what really mattered.

It turns out that, when you dismiss or belittle someone’s emotions, he feels dismissed and belittled. What do you know? When he feels something strongly about something, and you tell him he should not, he hears, “You don’t matter.” And that is the last thing a child should hear from a parent.

But when you let a child have his emotions, when you name them and let them just be for a time, you are saying, “Yes, you matter”. And then you can go from there. A child who knows he matters is far more equipped to be responsive to guidance or correction than a child who’s constantly being told to believe that the thing that’s consuming him is nothing at all.

It doesn’t always work. Sometimes the kid just keeps on flipping out, and you have to put the kibosh on it so life can continue. You can’t make kids grow, but you should at least give them the space to try.

Use positive reinforcement, or “catch them doing well”. I used to think that giving regular praise would make a child vain and fragile, and that plenty of constructive criticism would make him tough and eager to achieve.

It is true that praise should be sincere, not mindless and constant; and it is true that deserved criticism is just and necessary. But criticism from parents tends to come across ten times louder than praise, and it tends to live ten times longer in the psyche. A strong backdrop of praise makes necessary criticism more effective; whereas constant criticism breeds insecurity and bitterness. The kids who achieves a lot because he’s constantly criticized is a kid who’s frantically running away from worthlessness, which is manifestly not the same as a kid who’s confident and ambitious.

So praise your children regularly, as long as it’s all true. It’s much easier to correct an over-inflated ego than it is to rebuild a shattered one.

Use re-direction rather than showdowns. I used to think that, if a kid wanted a fight, it was my duty to take up that challenge, in the name of truth, honor, adulthood, logic, and not-backing-downness. I thought that if a kid was being irrational and hysterical, it was my job to push his irrationality and hysteria back in his face until he crumpled under the sheer ridiculousness of it, and then he would learn his lesson, or at very least respect my authority.

Of course this never worked, not even one time. Oh, it might quiet him down. You can cow a hysterical child into silence by frightening or intimidating him. But that only teaches him to be afraid of you, which is most certainly not the same thing as learning self-control.

What does sometimes work, when a kid has gone off the deep end, is to switch gears dramatically. Talk about something different. Ask a ridiculous question. Or just respond with overwhelming affection and sympathy, rather than deserved irritation. Give him a dignified “out,” and let him realise on its own that he’s happier when he’s calm than he is when he’s bugging out. Sometimes a kid doesn’t want to be upset anymore, but he has no idea how to climb down from that cliff, and feels his pride is at stake. Be the grownup and give him a helping hand.

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Part of the reason I had such a hard time recognising or acting on these principles is because I didn’t realise I needed them myself. It’s almost impossible to extend graces to people when no one has extended them to you, and you simply don’t have them in your psychological toolbox.

So if you’re really struggling with parenthood, and if your relationship with your young kids is mostly adversarial, it makes sense to look at how you see yourself. Do you think of yourself, at some level, primarily as an undisciplined, troublesome, illogical child who needs to shape up and stop making trouble for the world? If so, you might look into healing your own heart first, and then just see how that healing spreads to your relationship with your kids.

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