This weekend my five-year-old son lost his first tooth. Continuing with the theme in our family that we do not lie, the tooth fairy did not visit our house.
When the tooth began to wiggle, we talked about the bravery prize he would get when his tooth came out. Not usually a fan of the regular use of a reward-based system with kids, I think it is okay to give a token to help boost courage during a challenging time. We explained that there might be some blood, and that the tooth would come out of his mouth. In order to smooth over the fear I could see growing on his face, we talked about how we would put his tooth under his pillow and the next morning he would find a surprise there instead of his tooth. I mentioned that "some people call this the tooth fairy." My son replied, "Yeah, I know about that mom."
But isn't the tooth fairy a white lie? And isn't that okay? Actually, maybe not.
A study by Gail Heyman of the University of California-San Diego and her colleagues, which was published in the International Journal of Psychology, found that parents in the US and China use lying to get their children to behave the way they want them to, and to support the belief in magical beings like the tooth fairy. "Parents in both countries reported telling lies about a wide range of similar topics, including ones designed to influence their children's eating habits, or to dissuade children's pleas for toys or treats when shopping." (Routledge Psychology Journals)
So what's wrong with that you might be asking?
If we are trying to instill the value that lying is wrong—then it is always wrong. If we get upset with our children for lying lie on one hand, but tell lies ourselves on the other hand, the inconsistency is hard to process. Other studies have shown that when young children are deciding who to trust, they take into account a person's history of being truthful with them.
If we tell the truth about some things, but lie about others like the tooth fairy, the Elf on the Shelf, Easter bunny, etc, we may undermine their trust in us. We can still have loads of fun at Christmas, Easter or other holidays without needing to lie.
Parenting expert and writer Alyson Schafer posted a wonderful article about how parents might be inadvertently causing trouble by telling the occasional lie: Children's Lying. Turns Out, We Teach Them How!
Instead of using lies to get children to behave or avoid unpleasant conversations with other adults, please consider the many techniques colleague Alyson Schafer and I suggest to guide children in a firm and friendly way. When we parent with honesty, we reduce the risk of conflicting ideas, which helps our children grow a rational, thoughtful and caring mind. We also increase the chance of a secure relationship with them.
As promised in my last post, here is how I shift from a raging-nagging-mommy to a *mostly* responsive and rational one.
In order to rage less, we need to learn how to make and use an anger plan. In order to nag less, we need to learn how to speak to our children in a way that reduces "counterwill." For the counterwill piece, I invite you to visit my facebook or goodreads pages where I post great resources.
For the anger plan, make the shift from the freaking-out to the checking-in parts of our mind. As outlined by Kathryn Tonges in Research Paper: Shifting from Anger to Calm-Assertive Parenting Using Visual Coaching Tools, the two key areas of focus to making this shift are having a visual cue and spending time becoming "anger aware."
These are the steps I created and my own anger plan:
1. Choose a visual cue as a reminder to STOP.
The visual cue I use to begin the shift is a STOP SIGN. I also put my hand up and say "stop" out loud.
2. Slow the situation down. DROP
Ninety-five percent of the time, the event causing tempers to flare is not an emergency. Make a physical motion which reminds you to slow down and breath. I DROP into a chair and say "breathe sister;" breathing slowly until the hotness in my ears starts to cool. In the five percent of the time when my kids are in physical danger, I manage that first then sit down. I use the word ROLL to remind me to using rolling breaths; slow, deep, without holding my breath between exhale and inhale.
STOP ∙ DROP ∙ ROLL
3. Speak less, think more. SHUT UP (sorry Mom)
We cannot make sense when we are emotionally flooded; the part of the brain that reacts will be in control. I silently tell myself to shut up until my responsive, rational words can make it out. I say this to the kids, "I am taking a moment to calm myself down. I will talk again when my brain stops freaking-out and starts checking-in." This shift to our rational mind turns, "What the hell do you think you are doing??!!" into "I am angry you hit your brother. I also see you are very frustrated with him. Let's sit on the sofa and figure out what is going on here. I want to hear from both of you and see how we can do this differently next time."
SHUT UP first, CALM DOWN next until you can use rational words.
These steps are likely to have the best effect if we engage in a process to understand what gets our blood boiling and why—I use journaling, talking with my husband, and the occasional visit to my own psychotherapist to help with this (yes, therapists benefit from counseling too). It is also important to have an outlet valve for the anger you calmed down. Some days I'm doing my anger plan five times when my youngest is really struggling with tantrums, and those days I need to let off steam. Going out with friends, singing, writing, and dancing like an idiot are all ways I do this.
So remember this: STOP ∙ DROP ∙ ROLL ∙ SHUT UP ∙ CALM DOWN
What a gift to you and your children! By modelling this process, you will be teaching them how to self-regulate their own anger.
It can be very hard to be kind to a child who continually pushes our buttons. I know; I just spent the last two hours trying to calm myself when my youngest son woke me up early then proceeded to throw things, hit me, not eat the cereal we fought about making for half an hour, and disagree with everything I said.
One of the most liked comments on my facebook page was, "Wow. Three-year-olds can be crazy making."
Hands down my greatest challenge as a mother has not been about finding work-mom balance, it has been how to stay calm and facilitate growth through the natural wild behaviour children have. Children's brains are growing when they are freaking out. If I freak out too, the part of their brain that is reactionary will grow, if I can stay calm, the part that governs rational thought will grow. I know I want to be calm, but wow, it is hard to do. Really hard.
My daily question to help me stay focused on being calm is this: what is my nice-to-nag ratio today?
I can say that every family who has come to see me in my psychotherapy practice with "misbehaving children" has had a very LOW nice-to-nag ratio. In some cases, the nice is almost zero. Children use behaviour to communicate until they can find the words to express themselves, and misbehaving children and their parents (and teachers) can get into a pattern where the bulk of any communication to that child is corrective. "Stop it! Why are you doing that? Why won't you listen?" Again, it can be hard to be nice to a child who, in your mind, is always blowing it.
"Your ability to enjoy your child may be the most important factor in his development." Laura Markham, PhD, author of PEACEFUL PARENTS, HAPPY KIDS
I remember staring at this quote in Dr Markham's book. She is so right. If I can stop myself from hurting/ scaring my child or continually being on my child's back when they need direction, I won't be contributing to their negative self-talk. Children push away from their parents when they experience too much wounding from them.
Do you like to be around people who are continually on your case? Neither do your children.
An exhausted, sad mother of a "rebellious teen" looked me squarely in the eyes and said, "I wish someone would have told me this when my daughter was little. How can I possibly take back all those days I constantly nagged her? HELP me get her back." Thankfully, I can report that after a year of that mom's conscious decision to communicate with her daughter openly, she is well on her way to getting her daughter back.
In my next post, I will share the tips that have helped me the most to calm my anger, and turn my nice-to-nag ratio around. The awareness of what percentage of time we spend being nice to our children, and the percentage of time we nag them is the first step.
Photo credit: Flickr – issaikina