Recently, a teenager found Doherty’s book on the kitchen table and asked her mother why she had the book. Her mother told her she planned to read it to see if it would help their relationship, to which she responded with an exasperated sigh. The mother turned to the daughter and said, “Why don’t you read the book first and tell me what you think.” After reading the book she told her mother, “You know, he is right.” In spite of the fact that kids push the limits they do have a sense of what they need from their parents. Doherty suggests the following:
Prioritize family time. Parents must begin by placing a priority on family time. Family life should be the foundation that everything else is built upon.
“Families need to stop trying to compete with the Joneses and decide that they will not compromise family time,” says Doherty.
Work together. Parents need to work together as a team. If one parent is the enforcer and the other parent is neutral, it undermines the discipline process and does not serve the best interest of the child.
Set limits. When parents do not set limits with their children because they are afraid their children will not like them, it sets into motion a situation where parents become powerless with their children. Firm limits give children security and a sense of boundaries.
Respond immediately to inappropriate behavior. Well meaning parents who want to keep the channels of communication open often will not respond vigorously to situations because they do not want their children to be angry with them. It is critical that parents immediately label the behavior as inappropriate and disrespectful. When a child, no matter what their age, is in an emotionally flooded state they don’t respond to calm words such as “Mommy doesn’t like it when you kick me.” With a firm voice the parent needs to label the behavior and give clear instructions as to what you expect them to do. For example, get on their eye level and say, “You never kick me! You never kick me—do you hear me?”
Show and expect respect. Many children give orders to their parents, such as: “Take me to the mall.” Get me some milk.” “Give me the keys to the car.” Parents often respond as if they are the child’s servant. How you respond sets the stage for future experiences. Parents need to model what respect looks like and expect their children to follow suit. A clear message must be sent that disrespect will not be tolerated in the family. If you have let your children be disrespectful for years, you need to have a family meeting and talk about the changes that will be occurring in the family. Define respect and let them know what the consequences will be if they are disrespectful. Help your children understand the difference between disrespect and appropriately expressing anger. Children who are allowed to ventilate anger inappropriately learn that this behavior toward others is acceptable.
Stop trying to convince your children of the validity of your decisions. There will be decisions that you make as a parent that your children will not like. That is okay.
There are times when parents must make it clear that some decisions are not open for debate. It is not necessary for children to like the decision that has been made by the parent; however, the family can discuss the child’s feelings with the understanding that the decision will not change.
Establish family rituals. Think about a ritual in your family. It is kind of like a dance where everybody knows what to do. It is highly coordinated, repeated and significant. It is only a ritual if it has positive meaning. According to Doherty, many people do not remember a single sentence that their parents said, but they remember the rituals, the outings, the specifics – that is when you know it is a ritual. Rituals can actually become so well established that they become a tradition that is passed down through the generations.
In one family, the dad would make pancakes on Saturday morning in the shape of whatever animal the child wanted. Now the children are grown, but when they come home with their children, Dad or Granddad is requested to make the pancakes in the shape of animals.
Helping children grow into responsible young people can be challenging. Between parental activities and children’s activities, it is sometimes hard to determine what needs to go in order to keep family a top priority.
It is never too late to make changes in your family. Take the Barringers, for instance. Not long ago, Julie decided to turn down a board position, a decision which cut out a couple of meetings per month. She also lessened her commitment to some church committees, Webb chose not to play soccer this year, and Caitlin gave up soccer and Girl Scouts. In the process of relinquishing some current community responsibilities, Julie says she feels a tremendous sense of relief. Now she realizes that she and others in the family had begun to be so tired that it was affecting their relationships, and they are adjusting to the process of not feeling so stressed. Now when Julie and Steve end their workday the hours are dedicated to their children with a few exceptions. The Barringers have realized the value of reclaiming their family time and it is making a world of difference.
Julie Baumgardner is the Executive Director of First Things First, an organization dedicated to strengthening marriages and families through education, collaboration and mobilization. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.