Here is July’s installment of “Ask Shelby” from Chester County’s own Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Shelby Riley.
I hear so much these days about how spoiled and entitled kids are, and I can see that mine are headed in that direction. But then I read things about “saying yes” as often as you can and being as kind and positive as possible. I am so confused about how to raise my kids into happy, healthy adults. What do you suggest?
Signed, Paralyzed Parent
Dear Paralyzed Parent,
I know how confusing it can be. We work with a lot of parents who are trying to create the best parenting plan for their families. And just the other day, I was noticing how spoiled and impatient everyone in my house is because Amazon Prime has conditioned us to click up a button and have something magically arrive forty-eight hours later. We live in a world of massive choice and convenience and as wonderful as it is, it does create problems when trying to raise happy, healthy kids. Here are my suggestions:
Know your children well so you can have realistic expectations for them. If your child has a learning disability, they may need a specialized plan for completing homework, and that plan may include allowing double the time and parent involvement than a different child might need. If your child has ADHD, she might need more breaks at long family dinners to get up and move so that she can sustain good manners throughout the entire meal.
Create a child-friendly environment that allows them to express themselves and get their needs met, while still challenging them to develop the skills they need for healthy development. If your child isn’t hungry in the morning, fighting over breakfast every day is going to be a tough experience for everyone. I would suggest compromising on something like a fruit shake with some hidden protein and healthy fat, so you know your child is starting the day off nutritionally sound, and your child can drink it down quickly. Finding ways to honor how your child is naturally wired, while still providing the experience and values you prioritize will help everyone feel respected. If your child is a picky eater, challenge them at lunch or dinner to try new things. Don’t run around like a short order cook trying to please everyone. Make something everyone likes and add a side of a new food, like asparagus, for everyone to try. Everyone has the right not to try it, but if they don’t try it, they don’t get something positive, like dessert or TV time. Create opportunities to challenge your kids to stretch. If your child has a hard time being flexible, a kid friendly environment means creating a schedule and structure to the day they are familiar with. Challenging them to grow means allowing for a few changes to that schedule each week in order for them to practice being flexible. I would allow more time to deal with the reaction, and coach them through using coping skills like positive self-talk, deep breathing, and using their words to negotiate with you about the change. It’s a tough interaction for everyone, but planned times to challenge them and stretch their skills are what kids need to grow up well.
Remember, and communicate, that parents are in charge. Do not give your power away to the kids. Parents need to own and communicate their power in a loving, respectful way. Kids have a voice, and their votes count, but parents are the ones to consider their votes and make the final decision. Communicate clearly when it is okay to negotiate with you, and when there is no negotiation, and what the consequence will be if they continue to try and negotiate when you’ve told them you won’t negotiate. If you state a rule, and then decide you don’t really care, and let them do the opposite of the rule, communicate to the kids your change of mind and your permission to break the rule. If you just “let it go” kids get the impression your words are meaningless and you have no real power. I hear so many parents give their power away to their kids, allowing them to choose where to eat or what to do, with a shrug and a resigned looks that says, “Oh, well, we all know the kid is really in charge.” Own that you are the adult and you are in charge, you call the shots. If you want to go with the child’s idea at times, great. Communicate that your decision is to go with your child’s preference, not that your kid is in charge so you guess you’ll just have to do what the child wants to do. There is a big difference, and you and your child will feel the difference if you own your power. Kids fight for power, but really, they are not prepared to wield that power well if we give it to them. Give them age-appropriate power only and never hand over parent power to a kid.
Consistency is key, but that doesn’t mean doing things the exact same way all the time. Consistency in parenting is about trust and respect. Say what you mean and do what you say. If you tell your son he won’t get ice cream if he doesn’t eat his dinner, then he doesn’t get ice cream when he doesn’t eat his dinner. Don’t give in because you feel bad that he looks sad, or you worry that his tantrum will be annoying for everyone around you. Follow through on what you said. Our kids need to feel the consequences of their actions. So often we say one thing, and then do another to spare our child, ourselves or others the pain of our child’s reaction to a consequence. Parent your child to give him what he needs, not to give them what you (or others) need.
Look for balance. Does your child go without a lot? Do you have to say “No” often? Then look for times when you can easily say “Yes.” Kids deserve to feel the joy that comes with a “Yes.” Do you say “Yes” a lot? Look for times to say “No.” Kids deserve to feel disappointment and learn to cope with it. Patience, gratitude, pride and perspective are all earned by dealing with disappointment. Don’t deprive your kids of the opportunity to develop these characteristics.
Lastly, take the time to flesh out your family values and make sure you are parenting in a way that reflects these values. If you value charity, are you living that out? If you value kindness, how are you teaching your kids to be kind? If they talk back to an adult in a nasty way, or treat their siblings in mean and disrespectful ways, are you providing direction and a consequence that helps them learn how to choose kindness in the future? Make sure your parenting interventions are about the big picture and not just surviving the moment.
Parenting can be a confusing sea of hundreds of daily decisions. Take the time to think through what you want for your kids, the fun experiences and the growth. Each day is going to provide “teachable moments.” Instead of seeing your child’s meltdown as a failure of some kind, see it as an opportunity to help them grow and change. I wish you all the best,
Shelby Riley, LMFT is the owner of Shelby Riley, LMFT and Associates, LLC. She is currently the Past President of the Pennsylvania Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (PAMFT). Remember to check out Shelby’s website www.shelbyrileymft.com for useful information about therapy for individuals, couples, and families.