By Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC
Whether we argue consistently with our partners, or only lock horns on rare occasions, when we’re in the thick of a conflict it’s natural for us to ask: Why are we fighting?*
While finding the answer might seem important in the moment, given how precious our time and energy is, it’s wise to shift our emphasis from “why” to: How do we fight?
I’ve coached a few couples in which one or both spouses insist they don’t fight. What they don’t realize is that conflict-avoidance is how they fight, despite their insistence otherwise.
Whether or not we’re comfortable with conflict, not only is it a normal part of relationship, it’s a necessary one.
In fact, research-psychologists Lawrence A. Kudek and John Gottman maintain that our satisfaction with our partners is tied to how well we resolve conflicts with them and how effectively we manage the negative fallout of disagreements on our relationships and on us individually.
The problem with arguments, then, isn’t that we have them, it’s that most of us are neither skilled at resolving them nor adept at ensuring that their impact on our relationship and our family is productive instead of destructive.
Importantly, learning how to better navigate conflict is crucial to parenting. Why? Because the stakes aren’t solely about our relationship satisfaction, but also include how capably we model conflict-resolution for our kids and with our kids.
Developing the ability to “fight well” with our spouses enhances how we handle disagreements with our children, now and in the future, and also influences how they manage relationship conflict in their own lives.
I’m a big fan of John Gottman’s work on this topic and appreciate his simple, yet compelling, list of four primary negative attitudes and behaviors—what he dramatically calls: “Horsemen of the Apocalypse”—that erode relationship happiness. This list is pretty much a blueprint for how most of us handle or instigate conflict:
1) Disrespect (a.k.a., Contempt; the most destructive, according to Gottman)
To be clear, we’re talking about actions as much as words, e.g., disrespect can be rolling our eyes or a sarcastic comment; stonewalling can be walking out of a room or announcing we’re done talking.
Whatever our personal predilection, becoming more aware of how we fight is an important step in improving our conflict-styles. In truth, when we’re being disrespectful, pointing fingers, shirking responsibility, or refusing to interact with each other, we get so stuck in our style of conflict that resolution becomes impossible.
When I start to coach a couple, I ask the following question pretty quickly:
What’s your favorite conflict-style?
I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t have an answer. (Although some of us, myself included, find it hard to choose just one!) Once you’ve picked the style you default to most, share it with your spouse; this works best if you share with each other.
By the way, don’t be surprised if you have matching styles. Embarrassed as I am to admit, given that it’s so toxic, I’m quite adept at disrespect and no slouch at criticism. My wife, on the other hand, excels at defensiveness and stonewalling. In other words, if left unattended, our conflict styles feed off each other and accelerate arguments.
That’s why copping to our styles is important, followed by spending a few minutes talking about how we, together, can shift the emphasis from our current preferred conflict-styles to conflict-resolution.
Here’s what some couples, my wife and I included, have tried: Give your Horsemen names (preferably, ones not associated with friends or family) and agree that if either of you notices, say, Defensive Dave or Critical Clarissa make an appearance in your conversation, call them out and ask them to leave.
Whether or not we agree with our partner’s belief that we’re being defensive or critical isn’t important in that moment. What matters most is our willingness to pause, assume that she or he notices something that we might not be aware of, and try to shift how we’re approaching the topic at hand.
A great way to make that shift is to invert Gottman’s list. Doing so gives us four powerful ways to fan the flames of relationship satisfaction via:
If you’re adept at disrespect, ask yourself: How can I discuss this subject respectfully?
If criticism is your forte, consider: How can I appreciate my spouse even if I don’t like something he or she does or says? How can I share what I’m thinking or feeling without pointing fingers?
If you’re prone to defensiveness, think about: What’s my part in this?
And if stonewalling is your thing, consider: How can I stay connected to my spouse, even if I want to shut down or run away?
Asking these questions, like owning our Horsemen, doesn’t magically resolve our conflicts or ensure there’s no negative fallout. Yet the more we’re able to shift how we approach conflict, the more we can infuse disagreements with respect, appreciation, personal responsibility, and engagement. That’s bound to enhance our relationship satisfaction and expand the scope of our parenting skills.
* If you’re keen on delving into the “why” question about conflicts, here are a couple of books that offer interesting theories and techniques: Harville Hendrix, Getting the Love You Want; and Stephen Betchen, Magnetic Partners.
Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC is a Relationship Coach and Founder of Parent Alliance® , a relationship resource for expecting couples and parents. She helps couples coparent successfully and maintain relationship satisfaction. In other words, she helps us stay sane and stay together.
By Ann Brown
I’ve been listening to The Four Tops. If you don’t know what I am talking about, if you do not know who The Four Tops are, if you are not familiar with their music, well, then, I really don’t know what to do with you. Maybe a time-out. Oh wait, I don’t believe in them. And I certainly cannot spank you. So, for now, I will give you “what am I going to do with you” shrug and make a note to myself to meet with you later, privately, to give you a quick tutorial in Motown music and to remind you what is truly cool.
“Sugar Pie, honey bunch,” they are singing, “you know that I love you….I can’t help myself…”
Can’t help myself has been a topic in parenting class recently. In behavior speak, this is called impulse control. Which is the stuff young kids lack.
Let’s not even get to kids yet. Judging by the empty box of Wheat Thins and Manchego cheese next to my computer (we will overlook the half-empty wine bottle, but we both know it’s here), I would add that impulse control is something that 56-year-olds aren’t exactly full of, either.
Sure, I told myself that, say, twelve Wheat Thins were enough, and that a few slivers of cheese is all I need (and that opening the second bottle of wine was just asking for trouble) but when push came to shove, my impulses kicked the derriere of my control.
Impulse control is a wily thing. You have it one minute, and the next minute you are completely consumed by other forces. You tell yourself that you are giving up caffeine, that it makes you jittery and gives you ulcers, and the next minute you are face down on the floor with yesterday’s funky old coffee filter stuck to you lips, sucking in the old grounds.
And that’s adult behavior.
Impulse control in the hands of a preschooler, well, you can just imagine. Oh wait, you don’t have to imagine. You are living it. Want some wine?
Preschoolers know a lot of stuff. It amazes us how much they know. It also confuses us, however, because we tend to mix up “knowing” with “being able to retrieve the information at appropriate situations and overpower impulse with intellect.” Easy mix-up.
What does your kid know already? Let’s just name a few things:
Don’t run into the street.
Don’t unbuckle your car seat.
Don’t pull the cat’s tail.
Don’t sneak candy from the Halloween bowl.
Don’t take Mommy’s lipstick and practice making “M”s and “N”s on the wall.
Don’t stick stuff up your nose.
Don’t pick your nose. Or anyone else’s nose.
Don’t scream while you are waiting for the toast. Screaming doesn’t make the toaster go any faster.
Don’t throw your new toy on the ground just because I didn’t open the stupid package the way you wanted me to.
There is no wrong way to open a stupid package, anyway.
Don’t hit your sister even though she’s been bugging you all morning.
Get the idea?
Now…how many of those things does your child NEVER EVER EVER do?
I am presuming none of you answered that your child never does any of those things. And if one of you did answer that way, then why on earth are you sitting around reading an article on parenting? Go. Get up, get dressed and go accept your Most Awesome Parent award at the Kodak Theater. And don’t expect any of us to be your friend anymore. There is such a thing as being too awesome, you know.
When we rely on their impulse control to keep our kids in line, we are not only setting ourselves – and our kids – up for failure, we are not respecting the reasonable expectations of their developmental stages. And, we are going to be feeling and projecting a lot of disappointment, exasperation, and frustration towards our child. And sooner or later, that comes back to bite us.
So, instead, we need to give our children appropriate doses of power, of choice, or frustration; we need to set them up for success. And in doing so, we get the added benefit of not feeling like our heads are going to explode any minute.
A single example:
Your child runs away from you. You say to him, calmly, while he is still in his car seat, in the parking lot, “now remember, you need to be safe and not run from me.” Or you say, “remember to wait for me at the corner so I can cross the street with you” or, “Listen, you little snot-nosed rug rat, I’ve HAD it with your running away” (for the purposes of this article I am not judging).
Your child listens, nods, agrees; she can even recite back to you why it isn’t safe to run away from Mommy or Daddy. You unbuckle the car seat. She bolts.
Yes, she bolts. You yell. You chase. You grab. You lecture. She promises. You reiterate, for good measure. She is contrite (or exultant, high on her victory). You hug.
Then she bolts again.
There is another way, my friends.
Do not give your child the opportunity to fail, to defy you, to get hit by a car. You can do this while still building his confidence that he is capable of making good choices (even when he isn’t making them right now).
You pull into the parking lot and you say to your child, “I am going to help you remember not to run away because it is my job to keep you safe.”
Try not to say too much more than that because after a few paragraphs, we are pretty much nothing but white noise to our kids. And spouses.
And then you unbuckle the car seat, help your child out and NEVER EVER LET GO OF HIS HAND UNTIL YOU GET INTO THE BUILDING.
He will protest. He will negotiate. He will yell. And you will look at him with compassionate detachment and shrug. If you feel an overwhelming need to talk and if he is listening, you can say, “we can try it again tomorrow (or next month, whatever) to see if you are ready to keep yourself safe.”
It’s not a magic strategy. It’s not flawless, but it works. I promise you that it works.
Now, pass the wine and cheese over here. And open up a new box of Wheat Thins, wouldja? And don’t be giving me that “what about your impulse control?” look. I’ve had a hard day.
By: Ann Brown
Doing the work I do and having grown children who no longer pick their noses in public or have screaming tantrums at Whole Foods, affords me a certain amount of, um, flexibility with the truth. I mean, my kids are 25 and 30 years old and they are great kids. They make me look like I knew what I was doing when I raised them.
Which, of course, I didn’t. Nobody knows what they are doing in the middle of doing it. Raising kids is pretty much a leap of faith and a commitment to not keep making the same mistakes over and over again. Yeah, I talked a good talk even back then and I totally lorded over Robin that I WAS A PARENTING INSTRUCTOR and he was an electrician and that meant that I was right about everything, but I was just as clueless as the rest of the hoi polloi.
Which is why it is helpful when my grown kids tell me where I went wrong. And by “helpful”, I mean it is a huge pain in the derriere and nobody asked them, anyway.
Still, you can’t unring a bell. So I endeavor to listen with an open mind when they tell me these things. And I endeavor to share honestly with you about the mistakes I’ve made so you can benefit from my cluelessness. And if you cannot benefit from my cluelessness, then I endeavor to offer really good coffee and snacks in class. And wine in my private groups. Because, you know, raising kids is hard, and eating brownies and drinking wine helps take the edge off. Even when your kids are 25 and 30 and doing great.
Last summer, one of my kids made a comment about my parenting that blew my mind. We were talking about how vehemently he refused to do things he didn’t want to do, and how it was nearly impossible to talk him into trying new things.
He said, “I wish you would have forced me.”
I said, “What are you talking about? You were very strong-willed. And besides, I wanted to give you a voice in the decisions.”
“Yeah” he said, “but you should have just forced me to do some of the stuff. I would have had more experiences, you know?”
Since then, I have been mulling this over. Not only does it fly in the face of my general parenting philosophy, I actually don’t know how I would have forced him to, for instance, go to summer camp. Tie him up and throw him on the bus?
I get his point, however. When it comes to pushing someone (or myself) out of the comfort zone, I tend to err on the side of DON’T. On the side of STAY. On the side of IT’S NO BIG DEAL. CLIMB BACK INTO BED AND HUNKER DOWN.
Clearly, there has to be a middle ground in this. I couldn’t have been the kind of parent who, say, throws a screaming kid into the deep end of the pool. That isn’t who I am. And I had VERY articulate children. Even at age four, they presented strong arguments against my opinions. I remember one of my kids – at age three – saying to Robin, “what makes you uniquely qualified to know if I am tired? It’s my body.”
So, hearing that he wished I had not given him so much power is an intriguing thought to me.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I didn’t let them make all their own decisions about everything. It wasn’t complete Woodstock over at our house back then. But when it came to issues that pushed me out of my comfort zone, I tended to not push the kids that way. So, for instance, if the kids made a stink about, say, taking a hike on a beautiful day and the truth was that I really didn’t want to have to get dressed and leave the house that day, I let it slide. Or if they hated soccer after one game and I was secretly relieved not to have to schlep them to practices and games, I let it slide and let them quit.
And I was probably wrong to have done that. So I tried to remedy it by forcing the kids to take a walk the last time they were here. They said, “we are grownups now. You can’t force us to take a walk.”
I said, “I am old and might die soon.”
We had a nice walk.
I see that the trick, now that I have the benefit of hindsight, to this forcing/giving a voice conundrum is to get very clear about where we – the parents – are on the issue. We so often tell our kids to do something before we have really processed out how important it is to us. And then when the kid refuses or argues, we automatically take an opposite stand. And a fight ensues. And we get stressed. And we run out of brownies and wine. And life sucks.
The trick is to give our kids a very clear message. This is what we are going to do because it’s something that is important to our family. Or, I would like you to try, but ultimately, it is your decision. Unfortunately, we too often give them a message that is nebulously in-between the two. We say things like, “I really, really want you to do this. You will make me very happy if you do it.” Which is really nothing more than guilt mongering for young kids.
I mean, let’s say you asked your child to clean his room, or come with you to visit Grandma or do the extra credit homework or feed the dog or take the SAT or bring you a glass of water or drive the neighbor to her doctor appointment or write a thank-you note. And your child argues that there is no time, or s/he is tired or it’s not important. The first thing we have to ask ourselves is, “how strong is my commitment to having this done? Where does it find into the big picture of the kind of kids I want to raise?” If you figure that out first, your response to your child’s refusal will come easily. And arguing will be greatly reduced. And it will stop raining and unicorns will dance in the meadow.
But you will still be out of brownies and wine.
By: Ann Brown
A parent dropped off a magazine article to me a few weeks ago, saying, “I thought you’d like this.” I am always curious to see what kinds of things you think I’d be interested in because I know I kinda have a reputation for being a bit….well, offbeat. I remember a while back, a parent in my class brought me a book on parenting by the alignment of the stars, certain that I had already read it, perhaps even co-authored it. And I still have the article a parent gave me when I taught in LA, on how to raise your child without ever saying the word no; with a personal note attached: I bet you agree with this, huh?
I hope I don’t need to tell you that I most certainly do NOT agree with that idea. Although I do feel that we say no to our kids before we are committed to enforcing it, and that causes all sorts of problems.
But I digress…
Admittedly, I do embrace some of the more Bohemian ideas in life; however, I have not raised my kids by the alignment of the stars, never telling them no, hydroponically, speaking only Esperanto, in a Skinner Box, or by feeding them food that correlates to their inner temperaments. Okay, well, I did do the food–to-temperament thing but only because my son really did like the fruits that grow high on trees. (It’s a Waldorf thing.)
But this parent last week was right on target with me. I loved that article she gave me, titled, “The Benefits of Boredom”. It’s so refreshing to read something academic; something with scientific data that supports my soapbox pontificating. I knew from years of being a parent and more years of being a teacher that our kids do not get enough “off duty” time. I knew it in my intellect and I knew it in my heart, and here it was in black and white: “…some experts think that allowing kids to do nothing may be the most creativity-building activity of all.”
Pretty revolutionary words in this age of in-utero Baby Mozart.
There was an expression in the article that I particularly liked: unbroken days. That expression evoked in me visions of warm, sunny days, long summer afternoons and full relaxation. As parents, the first thing we relinquish to our new life is the promise of unbroken days. Who among us doesn’t long for an entire month, week, day, even an hour of uninterrupted time? To begin a project knowing that we don’t have to stop until we are done. To sit quietly with our thoughts. To be the master of our own time. To be free of the insidious alarm clock within us that finds us only half-enjoying our free time, never knowing when we will be called away, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Anyone with kids knows what I am talking about. We are so burdened with schedules, time limits, hurrying, doing, doing, doing.
And yet, we visit this burden upon our children. In our sincere and noble quest to enrich our children’s lives we might have forgotten the value of doing nothing. “The moment you start slotting things in and breaking up time, you’re breaking up the opportunity for discovery,” reads the article. It goes on to praise giving kids space to daydream. A first grade teacher remembers scolding one of her students for daydreaming during a lesson on the letter M, but when she asked the child what he was thinking about when he was supposed to be thinking about the letter M, he replied, “I was wondering… if people are flying in a jet that’s going faster than the speed of sound, would that change their conversation?” A daydream worthy of Einstein, to be sure.
Summer is here and with it comes the rite of modern society: summer activity sign-ups. The papers are filled with summer camp advertisements, classes, enrichment programs. It’s easy to get pulled along. It’s easy to think that your kids are missing out on important opportunities if they aren’t enrolled in Advanced Papier Mache class, or Conversational Sanskrit, or SAT for Tots. It’s easy to think that your child needs a handful of playdates during a week-long school break. It’s difficult to swim against the stream, to introduce your family to doing nothing. We all want to avoid hearing the dreaded, “I’m bored” when it’s only 10AM on the first Monday morning of a three-month summer vacation.
My sister and I used to perform “plays” for the neighborhood kids when we were young. These plays were conceived in long, boring, hot summer days when we had given up bugging my mom to take us to the beach, to take us to a friend’s house, to take us ANYWHERE. We flopped around on the backyard lawn for a few hours and then we started on that day’s play. Lucky for us, the rest of the neighborhood kids were as bored as we were, else they would have walked out on our daily musical extravaganzas, which consisted mainly of my sister putting various costumes on me while singing the “ya da da da ta da” theme from The Can-Can. But the point is, we didn’t need to be enrolled in a children’s’ theater class (though our critics might disagree) to inspire us; we simply needed the time and the absence of distraction.
I am not against all extracurricular activities. And spending a summer or a weekend at home, but glued to the tube or in front of the computer is also not what I am talking about. I am talking about giving our kids the gift of unbroken days. Letting them be bored. Letting them discover their thoughts, their inner quietude, letting them discover themselves.
And discovering who you are is a truly enriching activity.
By: Ann Brown
The mistake I want to talk about this month is difficult to label in a few words. I guess I could call it thinking that I needed to entertain or engage my kids when I was home with them. I know that it’s nearly impossible to get anything done when you are home with young children; what I am trying to figure out is why. Well, I know why; what I am trying to figure out is how to get the balance back.
In class, I often refer to other cultures or other generations when attempting to get a perspective on the problems parents face today. I think that one big difference is that parents today have somehow gotten the notion that it is their job to play with their kids. I know that’s a simplistic way to put it and I certainly don’t mean to say that we should never play with our children. But we do seem to devote a lot of time to dealing with the cry of, “Mom! Dad! I’m bored” or “play with me!” Even if we aren’t playing with them, we are explaining to them why we aren’t. Either way, we aren’t getting our things done.
This is not an article about how to be more efficient at home, or how to organize your chores. This is, instead, a more philosophical look at the messages we give our kids when we allow their activities to rule our lives.
Those of you who have sat through my endless analysis of the PBS series of “Frontier House” will have to humor me one more time because I think the lessons learned from that show are worthy of considering. (Quick recap: modern families spent eight or nine months living in conditions that were as close to actual frontier families’ lives as the producers could recreate.)
The parents in those cabins didn’t waste a whole lot of time helping their kids find something to do all day. Not only did the parents have to tend to their chores; so did the kids. It was a matter of survival. I see some tremendously important messages in that: one, that life demands things of us and it isn’t ours to whine and protest and have hissy fits about it; and, two, that each of us holds an essential link in the chain. We are responsible for each other, as well as for ourselves.
In class, I call this a sense of purpose. And I do believe that it is one of the two keys (the other being a sense of belonging) to a healthy and happy life (and a healthy and happy society, in my opinion, but that’s an article for another month).
When a child has a hard time separating from Mom or Dad in preschool, I sometimes like to approach the problem from a new angle. Instead of devoting lots and lots of time to feeding the role of being sad or homesick I offer a new role to the child. I entrust the child with a task, a contribution, a sense of purpose in the class. I do this because I believe that we all rise to a higher place when people are counting on us. Someone in my class a few weeks ago made a parallel analogy. She was in an elevator that got stuck between floors. This woman was a bit claustrophobic, and when the elevator stopped she began to panic, feeling her heart starting to race. She looked to the other woman in the elevator for comfort and help. But before she could say what she had planned to say (which was, “I’m freaking out. I am going to faint”), the other woman started hyperventilating. “I’m claustrophobic,” the other woman told her, “I’ve got to get out of here.” Well, in a remarkable turn, the woman in my class immediately assumed the role of the one in control. She talked the other woman through her anxiety attack and kept her calm until the elevator started up again. It wasn’t until the woman in my class was safely back in her hotel room that she realized what had happened.
When we are necessary to others, to our family, to our community, we rise to the occasion. The mom in my class rose to the occasion. The kids living in the frontier times (or, at least the kids living in the televised recreated frontier times) quickly realized that milking the cows or chopping the wood or taking care of the things they have or even simply staying out of the way of their parents were things that were necessary to eating, staying warm, and having things. And, in the end, having purpose, being a contributor to the family, raised their sense of worth and self-esteem to heights that few modern children possess. In fact, when these kids were interviewed after returning home to their modern lives, they all expressed feelings of emptiness and depression despite their TV’s and CD players and Game Boys and action figures and full refrigerators. They felt happier, more connected when they were back in the frontier house with only one handmade toy and long hours of chores.
To begin a quest for a sense of purpose for our children we need to put our own lives under a microscope and evaluate the lifestyle we’ve created. As I’ve said many times in class, it is indeed a challenge to create a sense of survival in a world that offers pizza delivery, gas fireplaces, twenty-four hour online shopping and already-peeled onions at Zupan’s. It is indeed a challenge to find meaningful contributions our young children can make to their family and their community. But it is a quest so worthy of our time and efforts because with a sense of purpose, almost everything else falls into place.
By: Joe Newman
Sara, the mother of seven-year-old Aiden told me her son was complaining that his friend of several years, Noah, a boy a year or two older, had been bullying him. Apparently, Noah had pushed him into a closet where he and another boy hit him. This had happened a few times and always out of view of any adults. Additionally, the boy told him if he tattled that he would hit him again when no one was around. This was happening when both boys were at either at Aiden or Noah’s house.
Although the occasional abuse made her son reticent, he still wanted to visit and play with his friend. His mother was concerned because this was one of very few friends Aiden had and she and the boy’s mother were also friends.
What to do?
To understand how to respond to bullying we must first understand its motivations. Bullying is an attempt to exert social power. Bullying is not the result of the bully’s lack of understanding about right and wrong, or their lack of empathy. Quite often a bully is conflicted between his desire for power and his empathy. It’s not that a bully doesn’t understand or feel empathy, it’s just that his desire for social power is stronger.
Social power is increased when a child shows disregard for the opinions of adults. Grade school children are uncertain about who they are, and there is nothing cooler to their peers than a child who shows that he not only doesn’t need the approval of adults but is unafraid of their opinions or outrage.
Consequently, there are generally two effective approaches to handling bullying. One is to consequence the bully and the other is to coach the bullied. The biggest mistake adults make is to intervene by lecturing the bully or otherwise telling him how his or her actions are wrong, bad, shameful, or disapproved of. Berating or lecturing the bully in front of his peers is particularly ineffective as it provides a perfect platform for the bully to display social status and power.
So what to do with Aiden and Noah?
I suggested the mom start by coaching her son in effective ways to handle the situation. Ask him to look out for the first signs of the bullying and when he sees it going that way he should say to his friend, “I don’t want you hitting me. If you hit me I won’t play with you.” Then if his friend does hit him, he should immediately tell the adult who’s at the house that he wants to go home or he wants his friend taken home.
Sara asked me if she should sit Noah down and tell him that she knows about the bullying and that it isn’t okay and I told her no.
There are two problems with Sara, not Aiden, confronting Noah about his bullying. First, it undermines the power of Aiden by demonstrating that he must rely on his mom’s power and can’t assert his own and it denies him the opportunity to assert that power himself. Second, it gives status to Noah’s actions by allowing him to flaunt his opposition to Aiden’s mom’s wishes and approval, inadvertently increasing Noah’s social power.
Then Sara asked me if she should talk to Noah’s mom and have her talk to Noah about his behavior. My answer was no. Again this will increase Noah’s status and show Aiden’s lack of power and status. If she does talk with Noah’s mom it should be to ask for her support of Aiden as he negotiates this problem while specifically asking her not to talk to her son.
This way Aiden can exercise the power of following through with what he said he would do. When Aiden comes to either adult he should be coached to say simply, “I want to go home now” or “I need you to take Noah home now.” And the adults should honor his request immediately without questioning him or reproaching Noah.
The other effective approach to bullying is hard to do in this situation since the boys are always playing alone when it happens. However, in other situations I would advise the adults to stay close and within eyeshot when possible and intervene with an immediate action consequence that lowers social power. Telling the bully to take a break for five minutes away from other children, without discussing with them why, can be a good way to do this. Once the adult says why, or what the bully did was wrong, they inadvertently increase the status of the bully.
My wife told me about a teacher she had as a child who insisted that any child he caught bullying wear a big pink bow for the rest of the day. While I’d never recommend this kind of shaming, her teacher clearly understood the root cause of bullying and attempted to counter it with something that diminished social power and status.
As we move forward in our attempt to eliminate the growing epidemic of bullying it’s essential that we respond with more than simple outrage and moralizing for the bully and empathy for the bullied. Our responses must consider why it’s happening and which actions will undermine, or strengthen, the true motivations for it.
By: Joe Newman
A passive tantrum is when a child feigns inability or lack of understanding in order to avoid difficulty, frustration or effort.
Jackson was an eight-year-old who was very inconsistent in his ability to focus and complete most class work. Most of the time he sauntered slowly through his assignments and needed constant prompting to stay on task or he would slowly drift into doodling on the sides of his papers, playing with something in his desk or talking quietly to the boy next to him. When prompted by Ms. Gibson (his teacher) he would often tell her he didn’t know what to do next or he didn’t understand, despite his apparent understanding only a few minutes before. Because Jackson showed difficulty comprehending social interactions and communications and had some difficulty making friends, he was diagnosed as being on the Autism Spectrum.
Ms. Gibson noticed that when Jackson was excited about an assignment he readily understood her communication, remembered the directions, and moved through the class work at a good pace without assistance.
One morning, when Jackson had been sauntering through his class work at a particularly leisurely pace, Ms. Gibson decided to see how much he was actually capable of. During the lesson right before lunch the students had been given about 25 minutes in which to write three sentences. Jackson had only finished writing one.
When the bell rang for lunch and Ms. Gibson excused the class she called Jackson over to her desk, “I need you to finish your last two sentences before you go to lunch.” A moment later Jackson went to his cubby got his lunch and brought it to his desk. Ms. Gibson saw this and said, “Jackson, maybe you didn’t understand, but you can’t have your lunch until you finish those two sentences.” A minute later she heard his bag rustling and saw that Jackson was taking out his sandwich. She walked over to him, placed her hands on his sandwich, and said, “I can see you really want to eat your lunch. However, you won’t be able to have your lunch until you’ve finished writing your two sentences so I’m going to put your lunch on my desk till you’re finished.” She took his sandwich, put it back in the bag and sat it on her desk.
Jackson sat without saying anything for a few moments. Then he picked up his pencil and began writing. Forty-five seconds later he had finished writing his two sentences (a task that on a good day might have taken him 5 minutes). He showed his paper to Ms. Gibson and said, “Can I go to lunch now?” And she gave him his lunch and he left the room.
From that day forward Ms. Gibson shifted her expectation of what Jackson was capable of. She set natural consequences for not completing work she thought he might be capable of and created frustration around those behaviors she felt Jackson could change when motivated. She began to assume understanding and ability where before she had assumed inability and insisted that he complete more work independently. And in the month that followed, the amount of class work that Jackson would complete in a day almost doubled.
I see children like Jackson in every classroom I visit. Children who have learned to camouflage their actual abilities in order to avoid frustration and difficulty and assert power and control over adults. This is the passive tantrum.
In a culture where parents have been taught to empower their children in every way possible, we need to be aware that children will find more creative ways to assert this power, even if it means feigning inability. Add to this the fact that parents and teachers are taught to be constantly on the lookout for signs of a disorder so as to intervene as early as possible. Consequently, parents and teachers are more likely to assume inability and react by accommodating, rather than frustrating, these behaviors and many children quickly learn that a passive tantrum is an effective way to avoid difficulty and assert control.
When the new statistics came out in March about the sharp rise in children who are being diagnosed as on the Autism Spectrum I couldn’t help but wonder what percentage of these children were children like Jackson who had learned (and could therefore unlearn) the patterns of the passive tantrum.
By: Joe Newman
Our boys are in trouble. They are falling behind girls academically, socially, and psychologically. Consider the following:
• Boys are 30% more likely to drop out of school before graduation.
• Girls outperform boys at all levels of schooling, from elementary to graduate programs.
• Boys are 11% less likely to get a B.A. and 10% less likely to get a graduate degree than girls are.
• Boys make up 2/3 of special education programs.
• Boys are five times more likely to be diagnosed and medicated for ADHD.
There has been a confluence of cultural shifts responsible for this dangerous trend, a sort of perfect storm that is ravaging the psyches of our boys. The shifts fall into one of three categories:
Shifts in what our boys do with their free time, shifts in our schools, and shifts in the parenting. Understanding these three areas will point us in the direction of how we can take practical steps to save our boys.
First, boys are spending a lot of their free time playing video games and watching porn on the internet.
• By age 21 boys have spent an average of 10,000 hours gaming, 2/3rds of that in isolation.
• The average boy watches 50 porn clips per week.
The result of this is that boys are developing “arousal addictions” and they are developing minds that seek constant change, novelty, excitement, and arousal. This makes them unprepared for classrooms that are predominantly interactively passive, static, and analog in nature. It also makes it more difficult for them to develop real relationships which build gradually and subtly (from Philip Zimbardo: The demise of guys? – http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/zimchallenge.html).
Next, the culture of our schools is increasingly alienating boys.
• Boys are expelled 3 times as often as girls.
• They are suspended 2.5 times as often.
• They are 2.75 times as likely to be diagnosed with a learning disability.
• They are 3.24 times as likely to be diagnosed as emotionally disturbed.
Ali Carr-Chellman of Penn State attributes the above to three factors. First there is a “zero tolerance” policy toward weapons or violence. This is often translated into not only a ban on real and toy weapons but also writing about these things or about topics that seem destructive or violent in nature. Second, there is an appalling lack of male role models in our elementary schools. Ten years ago 14% of elementary school teachers were male. Today that number has dropped to 7%. And third, there has been a compressing of our children’s curriculum in essence making “kindergarten the new second grade”. The effect being that teachers are under pressure to move children quickly through the curriculum and there is much less tolerance for the child who is active and needs to move (predominantly boys).
Finally, in the last 30 years, our parenting culture has shifted from an emphasis on raising children who respect their parents to raising children who respect themselves. Consequently, our children are more confident, assertive, and willful. Add to this that the ways in which parents deal with conflict has shifted to using more and more communication and explaining instead of action consequences; the result is children who are stronger but more difficult to control. This lack of effective boundaries also stunts a child’s capacity for intimacy and promotes feelings of anger and isolation. (For more on this see my book Raising Lions or my blog ‘The Beautiful Tyrant’.)
Add these three factors together and we can see how boys are slowly being marginalized at our schools and consequently within our culture.
Here are some practical steps parents can take to bring back our boys:
• Move all computers into the public areas of the house. This will prevent a lot of your children’s ability/desire to watch porn. And use a porn filter to make it more difficult when you’re not home.
• Place a limit on video gaming time. Between 2 to 4 hours a week at most. Let your child choose how to divvy up the time.
• Encourage activities that aren’t virtual: Building projects, theater, Cub & Boy Scouts, sports and playing outside.
• Watch the TED talk by Gever Tulley “5 dangerous things you should let your kids do” then do these with your sons.
• Advocate for, and encourage, your sons to write about and express what they find interesting, even if it involves weapons, battles, and things being blown up.
• Learn to set action consequences instead of giving information in response to problem behavior.
• Create real jobs for your children to do that support the daily functioning of your home. This goes beyond traditional chores to include learning to make dinner, changing light bulbs, doing dishes or laundry, spending a day painting the kitchen with Mom and/or Dad. This can contribute greatly to your child feeling a sense of responsibility and connection to his immediate community.
Joe Newman is a behavior consultant who trains parents, teachers, administrators, and specialists. During the last twenty years he’s taught 2nd through 12th grade classes, designed curriculum, and founded a national mentoring program. His book Raising Lions is available at Amazon.com.
By: Joe Newman
Struggles, difficulties and deferred gratification are good for children. These things used to be a much bigger part of growing up and there wasn’t any other option. Today most parents have the option of giving their child almost everything they want (attention, toys, constant stimulation, choices about everything, lavish praise). One of my clients called the sickness this creates in our children “affluenza”. In today’s society it’s necessary for parents to create deferred gratification even when they have the resources to give immediate gratification. Struggles, difficulties, and deferred gratification are essential to the development of emotional regulation, intimacy, self–discipline, and feelings of connection with the world around them.
Parent like an adult, not like your inner-child. There is a natural, but unhealthy, tendency to parent our children in terms of what we needed and never got as children. Although doing this feels like being considerate of what your child needs, it’s not. It’s self-involved. Try not to parent in reaction to the way you were parented. Make a concerted effort to listen to feedback from others about your parenting and be extra reflective about recognizing the difference between what you needed as a child and what your child needs right now. Remember, no parent thinks they’re permissive.
Match the will of your child, but don’t shame it. We are raising children who are strong, confident, and tenacious. Parents must be prepared to be at least as tenacious about enforcing boundaries as children are about pushing them. It’s natural that our children push boundaries more fiercely than we did. Don’t expect them to respond to the same things that worked with us as children; they’re stronger so we also need to be stronger. At the same time we shouldn’t resent it when they question and test so often.
Recognize and acknowledge your child’s power. In both times of cooperation and of conflict do your best to point out and respect your child’s ability to make their own choices. Rather than telling them what they “should”, “must”, or “have” to do, point out that they are free to make their own choices even when you disagree with them. It’s a good way to teach them what they control and what they don’t control. “You can decide to _______, but _______ leads to this. If you’re okay with that then that’s your choice.” They control their choices. You administer the outcomes.
Don’t explain to a child what they can figure out themselves. Too much explaining makes feeble, passive children. Never tell a child something they could realize themselves with a bit of coaching or consequence. Ask questions about whether the choices they made served them well. And never tell a child something you are sure they already know. Never address problem behavior with explanations and information they already know.
Let consequences teach. Children make their choices based on what works. If rude and inconsiderate behavior gets them what they want, don’t expect them to change because this violates your moral reasoning. Don’t blame your children for their bad behavior. If you don’t like their behavior change the consequences of those behaviors.
Take the anger, judgment, disappointment, and moralizing out of your parenting. All of these things can be forms of manipulation and eventually they will backfire on you. While it’s natural to have an emotional reaction to some of the things your child does, never use emotion to manipulate or shame.
The parent is in charge and this is the natural order of things. Children who have too much control over their parents become anxious, angry, and lonely. Children are comforted by parents who assert control without negating their needs or feelings. These children are better equipped to internalize the boundaries the parent holds.
Have your own needs,and make sure your child learns to consider them. Teaching your child to consider your needs is as important as considering theirs. It’s important that parents maintain an independent sense of what they like, want, and enjoy and not allow their identity to be dominated by their sense of themselves as an excellent parent.
Embrace conflict. The less you shy away from conflict the less of it you’ll have. Learn to deal straightforwardly with aggression and dependence.
Joe Newman is a behavior consultant who trains parents, teachers, administrators, and specialists. During the last twenty years he’s taught 2nd through 12th grade classes, designed curriculum, and founded a national mentoring program. His book Raising Lions is available at Amazon.com.
By: Joe Newman
I recently saw a 20/20 program entitled Stupid in America with the tag line – “Kids failed to make the grade because their schools failed them” in which they looked critically at grade schools in America as compared to schools in other countries. The program showed how schools in America were producing much less capable children and implied this was because of the incompetence and lack of effort put forth by American teachers. They did this without offering any explanation as to why our teachers had apparently lost their efficacy and ability to care.
As I watched how European students far outpaced their American counterparts of the same age, I thought, “Of course Europeans are outperforming us! Their teachers don’t spend half their time trying to overcome the culture of entitlement. American teachers spend an inordinate amount of time on classroom management and attempting to deal with children who believe their opinions are just as important as the teacher’s. Hours of classroom learning are lost each day and by the time our children are graduating high school their European counterparts have had many more years of real education.”
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised that the reporters at 20/20 used the same kind of thinking to examine the problem as was used to create it – “Our parenting, our culture, and our children are perfect; blame the teachers.”
The unspoken assumption I see in most children at school is that they are perfect and correct until proven otherwise and that it is the responsibility of the teacher to prove himself or herself knowledgeable, entertaining, and engaging. Every teacher must constantly battle this assumption in order to get to moments of real teaching and learning.
While not all children come to school with this assumption, this is the current classroom zeitgeist and it pervades our classrooms.
Deference and appreciation is a rare commodity in most of the children I see in schools today. And these attributes are fundamental to creating an atmosphere that is conducive to learning.
Here are a few of the myths that are instilled in our children at home that create this culture of entitlement and undermine our children’s capacity to learn.
Education is something they’re entitled to, not something they are fortunate to get. Children feeling a sense of appreciation toward their teacher and their school is the first step toward a child coming to school with a seeking mind and willingness to work hard.
The child’s opinion is just as important as the opinion of the teacher. Children who are given choices about everything learn to question anything they don’t prefer. This might seem fine for a tolerant parent at home, but by the time these children enter school it becomes extremely difficult to deal with their belief that their opinions are just as valuable, or more valuable, than the opinion of their teacher.
Children should be treated with the same deference that teachers are. Wrong! Teachers, and for that matter most adults, are entitled to more deference than children because they have more experience, know more, and have gone through difficulties the child has not yet faced. And more to the point – if children come into school with this belief, the implication is they should have as much of a say in running the classroom as their teacher does. The teacher who has a classroom full of these kinds of children will spend an inordinate amount of class time dealing with behaviors and negotiating boundaries.
The following are some concrete steps you can take to prepare your children to learn at school.
- Give children choices about some things and not others.
- There should be times when “no discussion” is the rule.
- Teach your children that having choices is a privilege that can be taken away if they don’t respect the rules that govern them.
- Tell them the rule once, or not at all. Repeating rules over and over is condescending and tells them it’s the adult’s responsibility to remember the rules and not the child’s responsibility to proactively consider others.
- Choose what deserves praise. When everything a child does is praised, your praise becomes meaningless.
- Be authentic. Don’t be afraid of telling a child you think they could do better when it’s clear they haven’t given their best effort.
Transforming the state of education in this country will start with transforming the culture of parenting.