Jan’s Guide to Effective Parenting

First of all I want to make it clear that these are not completely original ideas.

Some of my favourite sources are:
James Dobson, who wrote books and made tapes mostly for a Christian audience. Rudolf Dreikurs, Children, the Challenge. And William Glasser, Reality Therapy.

This is not new stuff, but it may still be available.

Dobson made a distinction that I found useful between a child’s “will” and “spirit”. He suggested, and it makes sense to me, that children are born with a very strong will. They are programmed to do whatever it takes to get their needs met. This is the basic selfishness of our human nature, what might be seen as the original sin. Children are also born with a much weaker spirit. This is the inner sense of their own self, their self-esteem, or maybe even their soul. The trick is to shape the will without breaking the spirit. The old fashioned “spare the rod and spoil the child” kind of parenting often erred to the extreme of breaking both the will and the spirit. It seems to me that many contemporary parents are erring in the side of being so gentle with the spirit, that the children’s wills are left to get out of control.

Glasser maintains, and I agree with him, that controlling the will is something that children need to be trained to do for themselves. It can be imposed from outside, with strict rules and punishments, but it is much more effective if the children take responsibility for their own actions. This is very important – the responsibility for the poor choices lies with the child, not the caregiver! Any response to behaviors, therefore need to keep the onus on the child. Glasser suggests three important questions. First, “What did you do?” so the child has to actually verbalize what was chosen; second, “Was it a good idea?” so the child must make a judgement; and third, “What would have been a better choice?” so the child can see a way to doing better the next time. This helps the child to develop an understanding that we all make choices, that some of them have unfortunate consequences for other people, but that it is possible to go on and try again.

Giving children the tools, and the hope, that they can do better the next time, is a way of nurturing the spirit. They learn that they do have control and they do not have to wallow in guilt. They do, however, have to be reminded that other people have needs and feelings too!

Another important part of nurturing the spirit of children is the way praise is used. Sometimes it can be very controlling, with all sorts of hidden messages. The best kind of praise leaves the responsibility with the child. It is not “What a good boy!” (which implies that without this action he was a bad boy, and gets the chosen action all confused with the child himself, and his total self-worth). More effective praise focuses on the actions. “I like how you did that” leaves the child to internalise the message that she made a good choice and made someone happy, and is therefore not a total loss as a human being. Little by little the child builds a picture of a worthwhile, contributing individual, who is capable of making good choices.

Children can be helped to see the difference between good choices and bad choices. I believe that children will always be curious about where the limits are. They will explore all kinds of behaviour to find out how people react. If they do not find any firm limits they are inspired to keep pushing. If the limits change at different times children get confused. Secure children know that their caregivers will not let them get out of control. They test the limits, find them pretty consistently firm, and then accept them and use their energy for more creative things. Insecure children can get hung up on how far they can go today, and have trouble focussing on other things. Limits can be set in any number of ways that do not break the children’s spirits. Dreikurs’ book has lots of good ideas. He and Glasser both use the phrase “logical consequences” to suggest limit setting situations. Again, the responsibility lies with the child, and is communicated clearly – “If you choose to behave this way, than you will have to….”. It can be removal from the situation, or withdrawal of privileges, or some kind of reparation. For example, “if you do not eat your dinner, you cannot eat dessert”. The onus is on the child, and the choice is his. The caregiver only has to make the expectations clear and follow through on the consequences. The children learn that you will help them get control of their will, and that you care deeply about them and believe they can make good choices.

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