Part 1.

Has anyone ever asked you why you were doing something and you couldn’t provide an answer?

I have.
When my oldest daughter was little, I asked her to get me a drink. She responded with “No.”

To my shame, I grounded her.

My wife asked me why I grounded her.

I didn’t really have a suitable answer. She was four, I was an adult, capable of walking and getting my own drink.

A Dad with young children
Family Picture from a few years ago

Maybe you’ve been there too?

Our lives are driven by assumptions. We don’t have the cognitive capacity or time to ponder all the sides of each decision. To solve the problem, our brain often decides on what we understand to be “autopilot.”

And we rarely like those assumptions or autopilot decisions to be questioned. Our brains find that frustrating.

In graduate school, when I was studying to become a counselor, our textbooks and some professors regularly instructed us to avoid asking the simple question of why at all costs because people react poorly to that question, and it might hurt the therapeutic alliance.
But, I find the question to be one of the most powerful ones I can ask someone.

And yes, I know that sometimes it puts people off, and I am quite certain that some people have stopped seeing me because I asked the question. I find the payoff to be worth the risk.

Often, like that day many years ago with my daughter, people don’t have a sufficient answer, and recognizing that is the first step to living better, more full lives.

I often hear people say they assume nothing, which is often a wholly inaccurate statement showing an incredible lack of self-awareness. They actually mean that they question their assumptions at an almost preternatural speed. They have trained themselves to question everything.

Today, I invite you to examine some parenting assumptions I’ve encountered.

Kendra and Kyra with Joey, Day 2

Some I’ve done myself, and others I’ve seen in client sessions. I know that any conversation about parenting can be fraught with perilous pitfalls. Let’s be honest, parenting is not for the feint of heart. We all know the stakes are so incredibly high, and often, we are terrified of screwing it up. Our hearts race with fear at the thought of permanently damaging our children if we make the slightest mistake. Because of this, when our assumptions are questioned in conversations, we may react emotionally because we feel that the person questioning us is saying that we are screwing our kids up.
That is not what I am saying here. I am offering some thoughts that I hope will make you consider the why of what you are doing.

Assumption 1. Intensity will overcome consistency. Dr. Robert Lehman, a professor and mentor of mine, used to tell us regularly that the exact opposite is true. I’ve come to the place in my life where I believe that intensity rarely moves other people. I feel it may be beneficial to distinguish between two types of intensity. There is a type of intensity that is internal. It emanates from some people. They have a gravitas about them that moves other people. Perhaps it is on a topic that they feel passionate about, or it is how they approach life. It may be in their approach to a task or venture. This is not the intensity I am discussing here.
There is a second type of intensity, which is external. This type of intensity attempts to move people by making them uncomfortable. People frequently achieve it through yelling and screaming, although not always. People can use threats of disproportionate consequences. It is weird to me how popular this type of intensity is in pop culture. There is actually a motivational speaker who travels around the world telling people they are pieces of doo doo.

In parenting, this can have problems. Intensity brings compliance to those on the receiving end but also causes the loss of teaching opportunities. This can lead to disciplinary actions that don’t match the offense or an increase in the intensity of the consequences if the behavior doesn’t stop immediately. It can lead to repercussions that have nothing to do with the behavior. For instance, Susie failed to eat her baked beans, so I took her phone away for a month (an actual offense/consequence I was told about once). We can see this belief in many areas of our world. In parenting, we can tie it to the idea that the parent is in charge, and consequences show that truth. In fact, I’ve heard people brag about the intensity of the consequences they offered with the proffered truth connecting the high-intensity consequence to the parent’s authority and power. However, training a child is not about demonstrating our authority. Leadership is about serving others, even our children. It’s about demonstrating the adult behaviors we want them to emulate through our actions. Which can then create another problem. It paints the parent into a corner of their own making. If the intensity didn’t work the first time, their only option is to become more intense and increase their energy. This often results in unhelpful actions.

Assumption 2. Praising a child will not stop negative behavior. We have to punish to do that. A little while ago, I was doing a ride-along with a local police officer in my county. It was a wonderful opportunity to see some things a police officer does throughout the day. One of those responsibilities is speed enforcement. We parked in a spot on a major road in a very visible spot. Soon, a car came zooming by us, and the radar inside the car indicated the driver was going significantly over the speed limit. Until she saw the car, we were sitting in.
What does this have to do with parenting? Well, let’s come back to this story at the end of this point.

Whenever parents with a “problem” child come in, I often ask them to tell me about their interactions with their child when they are not engaged in problematic behavior. Often, the answer is minimal. Kids crave attention. If they are not getting enough attention for positive behavior, they will engage in any behavior that gets them more attention. Negative attention is always better than no attention. Also, there is ample research to prove that positive reinforcement gets better results over time than negative reinforcement.

But even without that research, ask yourself, what motivates you more?
I know that sometimes, this can get twisted. People think I’m saying that we should only offer positive reinforcement, and I am not. I say that the positive reinforcement should have been the greater share of our interactions.

This conversation can be a little nuanced as reinforcement, as used here, is more colloquial than clinical.

For our purposes, let’s consider positive reinforcement as honest praise of our children or an interaction that ends with us reinforcing that we both love and like them. The interplay can and, I believe, should end with the child understanding what needs to improve while still leaving him with a clear sense that there is a distinction between who he is and what he has done. It is important to reinforce their identity.
Let’s consider negative reinforcement as punishment (which I believe differs from discipline or consequences). There are so many things that call for our attention that we can often and perhaps inadvertently ignore our kids when they are doing the things we want them to be doing. When they’re being “good,” we can interact minimally with them.

Kaidance and Joe, 2022

Until they do something that requires our attention. Often, this is a negative thing that ends with us punishing them. The child may interpret this to get an interaction with us, though just reinforcing their behavior.

Our interventions should be about more than stopping the behavior we want to stop. It should be about teaching the principle that underlies the actions we want them to take. Whether it’s cleaning a room correctly or giving their best at something, we need to express and teach the principle that drives it.

Any discipline or correction that cannot do that is a negative interaction. Punishment rarely teaches anything beyond behavioral compliance. Don’t believe me? How often do you speed when driving? Most people speed regularly until they see a police car. Remember our friend from the beginning of this point? She said to the Sergeant I was riding with that she slowed down. He accurately pointed out that she didn’t slow down until she saw his car. If he wasn’t there, she would have kept on driving almost 20 miles over the speed limit. That’s how punishment works.

Assumption #3. All punishment/discipline is bad. This one should be self-evident, but our children must learn the consequences of their behaviors. Consequences can be good or bad (see #2). Often, parents will attempt to remove all possible consequences from their children. But what does that do? How does that help the child? If you don’t pay your electricity bill, there are consequences. If you don’t go to work, there are consequences. Of course, if you go to work and pay the bill, there are also consequences. That’s why almost all of us go to work.

The difficulty comes in how we, as adults, act through the process. We’ve all seen parents who refuse to allow consequences into their children’s lives, and we’ve seen the outcomes of this. When we allow our children to experience natural consequences, they learn to tie consequences to their actions. This is an important life skill for every adult to have.
I think maybe my generation had an extreme overreaction to consequences. Take that overreaction, mix in the proliferation of pop psychology and a little “if some is good, a more is better” mindset, and you have the perfect recipe for parents removing all consequences because of self-esteem.
Interestingly, perhaps removing consequences tied to behavior is one of the easiest ways to disrupt someone’s self-view, thus diminishing their self-esteem. When we remove consequences from children’s natural chain of events, they can feel as unmoored as a boat that has slipped its dock. We rob them of their power to control situations in their lives. Higher anxiety and distress can result from that lack of control, ultimately leading to lower life satisfaction.

By allowing our children to experience the natural consequences of their actions, we empower them to develop self-agency. Self-agency is a fancy term for the idea that we equip them to build their own self-control and, therefore, their self-esteem.
Next week, we’ll examine a few more prevalent assumptions in society that we might need to question. Until then, you might enjoy this post listing Rom Bradman’s suggestions on parenting.

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