Does anyone else feel like parenting is an ongoing experience of what I imagine herding cats would feel like? I’ve been at it for 17 years now and it hasn’t really gotten any easier.
I feel as though I have spent most of my time as a parent trying to convince my kids to ‘do the right or best thing’. When they were very young it involved simple directions like “sit down so I can read you this book” or “put on your toque so you ears don’t get cold” or “use the potty so you don’t have wet pants”. Over the years it has evolved; With teens, although it’s more conceptual, nothing much has changed: “get a job if you need money” or “learn how to drive if you want more freedom” or “tell your friend how you feel if you want them to know you are mad at them”.
Each stage has had a common thread of me basically telling my child what to do and them being reluctant to respond to my guidance. My children, like most, prefer to exercise their own sense of independence and rarely wanted to do what I think is best. It drives me nuts since most of the time we are talking about how logical actions will prevent unpleasant experiences. When they very little I would think ‘how do I get this kid to understand that if he doesn’t wear a toque his ears will freeze?’ I still feel the same frustration when I see the obvious consequence that come with my teenagers’ actions or words (or lack thereof).
Years ago, a good friend of mine introduced me to a concept called ‘natural consequences’. What this meant was that instead of having a set method of pre-determined discipline such as a time out they would use ‘when and then’. For example (at the time they were 3-4 years old): “when you hit Sam, then he cries” or “when you sit on my lap then I can read you the book” or “when you throw your spaghetti at me then you won’t have it to eat any more”. Back then I had not embarked on my research of communication and human interaction and I thought this was a total waste of time. First of all, if Sam has been hurt, where’s the justice?? Or if the kid is not sitting down, can’t you just make him sit down?? And throwing spaghetti at me is NOT cool – where’s the respect?? I was not convinced.
As I moved past that stage, however, as an early-childhood music teacher I was mindful of my role as teacher. I was not meant to be a disciplinarian in these classes which at times could be challenging. I discovered that if I stuck with “when and then”, I got results. Now I completely understand the point and experience its effectiveness. Even better, it makes sense to me. The difference is that instead of telling the child what to do you are appealing to their own sense of logic to figure out the cause and effect. “Sit down” focuses on the result only and simply sounds like an order – to them you are saying “I want you to sit down” when what you really mean is “you are going to want to sit down because you will get what you want”. However, if you try “When you are sitting down, then I will start the movie”, it not only exemplifies the cause and effect, it also allows the child to do their own analysis. Then they may make their choice because you are appealing to their logic. This encourages a connection between action and result. Simple talk: it puts it on their terms. The benefit is that you are far more likely to get the result you are looking for.
If you are working with very young children, patience is key. It takes an ongoing practice of “when and then” to see results. There is rarely an insta-connection for their brains. In the moment, they will likely hold their position before they act. If you want to speed things along, try reflecting or mirroring their position. “You really want me to start the movie.” Then continue the cause and effect statement “When you are sitting down, then I will start the movie”. Repeat the process until you get the result you want, even if it means not putting on the movie. Fortunately, the more often you use “when and then” the more frequently you will see them respond. In the bigger picture, you are teaching your child a key lifelong skill and they will manage their own actions more easily into their teen years, not to mention the rest of your lives.
If you are guiding older children, do not expect to actually see the result for yourself. This does not mean you haven’t taught your child the concept. Older children have a stronger sense of autonomy and may not want to give you the satisfaction of being right. The good news is that they have the capacity to see the cause and effect you have taught them almost immediately ESPECIALLY when they haven’t taken your advice. For example, “when you get a job then, you will have money to do with what you please” becomes very clear when they neither have a job nor money. The tricky part here is also being patient and maintaining your position as well. If you hand them a $20 then you’re simply teaching them that if they are persistent, you’ll cave. Or “when you give your teenager money, then they will not feel inspired to earn their own!”
“When and then“ works like any investment. The more time you allow, the more you will see your returns. Or at least this is what I hear.
Tweeties Topics are written by Music Kids director and CSM instructor Margaret Dahlberg to support parents of young children in the Music Kids program. Music Kids is Chinook School of Music’s early childhood music program for ages six months to five years.