From the book, “Don’t Get Mad, Get Busy, A Handbook for Raising Terrific Kids” by Karen E. Dimick
Now that your home is safe and secure, and you are in control of yourself it is time to build some structure into your family organization and take control of your children. Family structure is built one day at a time, one rule at a time and usually one child at a time. Most parents do not have a list of rules set down on the day they give birth to their first child. Most family structure is developed as a need is seen or as problems arise. Most parents, however, do begin their families with a set of unwritten standards for raising children. Unfortunately parents do not always question their unwritten standards or why they hold them and they often do not communicate these unwritten rules well to each other. Research has shown that the number one determiner for how parents raise their children is how they were raised. This is great if you had a wonderful childhood and your parents did everything right, but since this is rarely the case it is important for parents to question and consider their unwritten rules. It is also important for parents to discuss their ideas and expectations on child rearing with each other. One of the most important things that parents can do is to build consistency in their methods and build unity between parents. Even if you and your spouse both had wonderful upbringings they were likely very different. Without careful consideration of methods and communication between parents you will likely fall back on what you saw your own parents do and say, and your spouse will do the same. This usually leads to a mixture of effective and ineffective inconsistent methods. When children are parented in this manner they sense that parents do not really have a reason for many of the things they do or say and lack control. Children who do not feel that their parents really control the family will try to bring control to their lives by taking it themselves. In the long run children who try to take control of the family are unhappy and never content. Children need consistency and parents who head and pilot the family. The first ground rule, therefore, is that parents consider and communicate with each other parenting ideals and methods.
The next ground rule is that parents should always retain control of family resources. In a family there are certain rights that each child has, and there are certain privileges. Parents should agree on which family resources are rights and which are privileges, and should clearly communicate these to the children. Parents have a responsibility to provide basic rights to all children in the family, and children should know that these basic rights will always be provided simply because the child is a part of the family. Rights may include three balanced meals a day, clean clothing to wear and a safe and clean place to play in the day and sleep at night. Privileges are family resources that can be accessed through appropriate behavior, completion of family responsibilities and completion of outside responsibilities (homework, church and community obligations, etc.) Privileges may include the child’s favorite meal (including convenience foods, snacks and fast food) or dessert after dinner, designer or specialty clothing, a child’s own room, special or fancy toys, TV viewing time or video game use. Parents should make it very clear to children the difference between a right and a privilege and should take steps to control children’s use of privileges.
Simple as this principle may sound, parents often have difficulty retaining control of family resources. This is especially true of media and electronic resources. One thing that can cause this difficulty is if a TV set, video game system or telephone is kept in a child’s room. For this reason, as well as others, our family chooses to keep all TVs, computers and video game systems in a room accessible to all family members. Our older children could have a phone in their room, but they had to show that they could use it responsibly and follow the family rules. Parents should teach their children to ask permission before accessing these family resources and should take steps to prevent their children from using this equipment without permission. This can be done through the use of parental controls available on some TVs and computers, through the use of software or web-based blocking services or through removal of hardware such as power cords or game controllers.
Prepare for Change
The next important ground rule is to not get too comfortable with what you are doing. One of the things you can always count on in child rearing is change. Children grow and change, you change and circumstances change. Be prepared to change your methods as your children grow and as circumstances change. You should also be prepared to make changes just to keep things fresh. Parents who get too comfortable with methods or procedures and fail to update or change them are bound to experience frustrations and failure. Change is necessary in child rearing because both parents and children become tired of the same old thing. Parents who continually use the same methods without some change or modifications will find that they do not implement them with the same effort or follow-through that they exhibited early on. Change and modification keeps you on your toes and keeps you interested. The same is true for children. Children will quickly become bored of the same rewards for the same actions over a long period of time. If you change it up often, however, children will remain interested and afford their cooperation.
Know your Limits
The next ground rule is to know your own limits. Some of the techniques and methods explained in the book are very complex and detailed. Some of my children had quite severe behavior issues and were adept at finding ways around simple behavior modification techniques. I found it necessary, therefore, to devise some detailed plans and methods. These detailed methods were only used for short periods of time and only with some children as needed. All methods are only as successful as your ability to implement them. If you cannot implement a technique in its entirety then don’t choose that technique, or modify it so it fits your personality and schedule. I found that the most successful techniques were the ones that I worked into my schedule. For example, if you choose to give you children points everyday for certain activities you will need to decide what time during the day the points will be given, how the points will be tracked and who will decide how many points are awarded. If you do not have a time each day to award the points, then look at giving points once a week, with a way to track what is being done on a daily basis. And be sure to plan a specific day and time each week to track and award points. The goal should be to make your life simpler, not more complex. Use the simplest technique that is successful for your child and only increase the complexity to a degree to which you are able to successfully implement it.
Remember your Ultimate Goal
The next ground rule is to take each step in child rearing with the end in mind. As mentioned before, parents normally parent their own child the way they were raised. Rarely do we look at our actions and consider the possible consequences. What happens if I give in to a child who begs for something after I have already said no? The child learns that begging is a successful tactic to get what she wants. What am I teaching my child if I put his things away when I told him it was his responsibility to do so? I teach him that he is not really responsible. If he doesn’t finish his work someone else will step in and do it. Take a moment right now and think about what your ultimate goal is. What do you imagine your child should be doing 10, 15 or 20 years from now? What are you doing to move your child toward that goal? My goal, as a parent, has always been to raise happy, healthy, well adjusted adults. Many times I had to step back and look at my actions to reevaluate if what I was doing was bringing me closer to that goal or further away. With that long term goal in mind I determined that it was important for my children to learn the following important principles.
How to Work– If you look at people who are truly successful in life you will realize that they all know how to work. I believe that work is important to all. It brings satisfaction and gives a feeling of purpose. The only way to learn to work is by working. Very young children love to work. Use that love early on and give your children little jobs. Often it is easier to do a job yourself than to have a young child do it, but remember to keep the goal in mind. Are you more concerned about raising a child or keeping a clean house? As children grow chores should be increased and children should be held responsible for completing them. Make sure the chores are needed and meaningful, but realistic. Chores should not be made up or contrived. They should be tasks that benefit the child himself and the entire family. I feel it is important that not all chores revolve around the child’s needs. Children should have responsibility for caring for their own belongings, to the extent of their age and maturity, but they should also have some responsibilities that benefit the entire family. This helps them feel important to the family and teaches responsibility.
Remember when assigning jobs and chores to keep in mind the skills and age of the child and their time constraints. You also need to keep in mind how much time you have to teach the skills necessary and always remember what your ultimate goal is. I once met a mother who told her children that their only job was to be good students. She would do everything around the house, including cleaning their rooms and picking up after them. I carefully considered this point of view and wondered if my husband and I were not putting enough of an emphasis on my children’s school work. After thinking of the long term consequences for this attitude I realized that this was not what I wanted to teach my children. Of course it was important for my children to learn in school, but being a good student did not hold nearly the importance for our family of learning responsibility and learning to work. Rarely in a job interview does a boss ask what your GPA was, however if you do not know how to work hard and carry out responsibilities you will not be a valued employee. Children who have no other responsibilities other than school work learn that they are entitled to have people wait on them and take care of them while they complete their studies. This is not a realistic view of the world and it does not teach children skills that are necessary and important in life. For more on jobs and chores see chapter seven.
Education as a Lifelong Pursuit– Anything in this life that is worthwhile can be had through hard work and proper education. Often we think of education as the years that we formally attend school, however your child’s education begins the minute he is born, and continues throughout life. The school system will assume a lot of responsibility for educating your child in certain areas, however you as the parent are ultimately responsible for her education. Education is much more than learning to read and write or about science or history. Education includes book learning that children receive in schools as well as communication and social skills; physical fitness and nutrition facts; sports skills and etiquette; citizenship and community awareness; values and ethics; and facts about music and the media. Public schools touch on many of these areas, however depth in these areas is taught in the home. Parents should decide when their children are young what they feel is important for their child to learn in this life and then emphasize leaning on those areas. Many parents today teach their children that sports participation is the most important thing. This may not be their intention, however so much time energy and emphasis is placed on this area of the child’s life that he learns this lesson inadvertently. If you feel that sports involvement is ultimately important then this is appropriate, however do examine what you really want to teach your child before you spend large amounts of time in this endeavor.
Make sure that children understand that learning is a lifelong endeavor by continuing your education. If your child sees you reading, taking classes or gaining skills to enhance your career she is likely to take the pursuit of education seriously and continue that pursuit throughout her life.
One thing that parents must realize is that learning cannot be forced or pushed. Young children have a natural desire to learn. As children age they go through developmental stages that are optimum for learning different skills. Take advantage of this early zeal for learning and of various developmental stages and give your child the tools to learn when the time is right. If you develop a habit of learning and growth when your child is young this will help through the difficult stages when your child is less than enthusiastic about education.
Parents should teach their children that their school performance is very important; however they should also balance the amount of emphasis they place on grades versus what the child is really learning. Some children learn early on how to perform well in school, and others do not have this skill. Grades are a good indicator of how well children perform the tasks assigned by the teacher, however they do not always reflect what the child is learning. Although it is always appropriate to applaud excellent behavior and reprimand less than adequate behavior be careful about giving large rewards and punishments for grades. Research has shown that children and adults alike benefit most from intrinsic rewards, or the reward of inner satisfaction. Children who are continually rewarded for activities that give them internal satisfaction begin to lose that internal satisfaction and look for the reward itself. Conversely, punishment rarely helps a child perform well in school. Most children want to do well in school, and when a child is not performing well it is usually a sign of a missing skill, a lack a motivation or a disability. Poor grades should have consequences, however the consequences should include teaching the necessary skills or learning to cope with the disability. For more on this topic see chapter eight on school performance.
Communication Skills– A person who knows how to communicate effectively and positively will get much further in life than one who does not. Your child will first learn how to communicate by listening to you. How do you talk to your child and others around you? Are you polite and patient when communicating a need, or are you rude and impatient? Do you use language that you would like to hear your child repeat? Not only does your child learn from listening to you, he will also learn from direct instruction and practice. Encourage your child from the time that she starts to speak to “use her words” to communicate instead of yelling, hitting or grabbing things. When your child has an altercation with a friend or sibling take some time to help him practice communicating his needs, wants and feelings. Children should be taught to communicate their feelings about a situation. When most of us are upset we tend to point fingers and make accusations on what the “other person” did to avert responsibility. Children are no different. From a very young age they learn to blame their “upsets” on others. No matter the age, when finger pointing begins and accusations are made communications break down. Instead, teach children to start by stating their feelings, and then their needs. “I feel upset and I need my toy back,” clearly communicates what is wanted and keeps the lines of communications open better than, “You took my toy, give it back!” Psychologists call these “I” statements, and I statements open up communication instead of inciting arguments. For more on this topic see chapter 9, Family Communication.
Compassion in the Home
The last ground rule is to remember compassion. Children do need rules and order, however rules should not take precedence over expressions of love and understanding. I was once taught by an English teacher that there is an exception for every rule, and that is true for every rule in the house. Exceptions can be made because of an unforeseen event, because a child makes a good argument for an exception or because you realize it may not be in your family’s best interest to enforce or continue with the rule. If bed time is 8:00 and Aunt Sarah shows up for a visit at 7:45, don’t immediately hustle the kids off to bed because it is the rule. Carefully consider the consequences, and then think about making an exception this once to go to bed a bit late. If the rule is that no one is allowed to have dessert on a weeknight and your son points out that the local ice cream store is having a special sale, consider his argument and if the consequences are not too dire consider an exception. Be careful, however that the exception does not become the rule, and be sure to explain the reason for the exception. If the exception is more common that the rule, then there is no point in the rule. Children quickly learn that you can be manipulated easily if you are constantly making an exception. Exceptions should never be made, however, if children begin begging and whining. Listen to your children when they make a good argument to change or suspend a rule, but once begging or whining begins put your foot down and do not give in. Teach your children to communicate by using a good argument, not by whining and nagging.
You should also remember compassion when you discipline your children. Remember that the goal is to shape your child’s behavior, not to be punitive or seek revenge. Instead of thinking of punishing your child think about providing consequences. All actions in life have consequences, some good, some not so good and some neutral. Some actions your child takes will have natural consequences that will adequately teach her and guide future actions. If your daughter leaves her lunch at home, the natural consequence will be that she will go hungry that day. Natural consequences teach children the quickest and are the easiest consequence to provide, however they are not always feasible or desirable. If your daughter left her lunch at home because she hates what you packed for her and her friend brings a better lunch that is big enough for two the consequence would not teach the lesson you want her to learn. If your son begins to run into the street in front of a big truck the natural consequence of his actions would be too dire to allow. If possible, allow natural consequences to teach your child, but be mindful of possible unintended lessons or dire consequences. If natural consequences are not feasible you can provide logical consequences. Logical consequences do not happen naturally because of an action, however they are closely linked to the action in some way. As an example, if your child does not get up for school on time, a natural consequence could be an earlier bed time the next night. Logical consequences require an adult to impose and administer. They are not as powerful a consequence as a natural consequence, however they are much better than totally unrelated or arbitrary consequences. Sometimes it is difficult to think of a logical consequence for a behavior, however it is well worth the effort.
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