My grandmother once told me that, in parenting, there are only two things you need to say to your child.
Two things. That doesn’t seem hard, does it? Just two things, and you’re a great parent? I was eager for a pencil and paper and could see myself in the future as a new mom: Did I say the “two things”? Check! Cross “parenting” off the list!
But the problem, my grandmother told me, isn’t that people don’t say two things to their kids; it’s that most people say the wrong two things to their kids.
Most people, she explained, say, “Here’s who I think you are,” and “Here’s what I am going to do for you,” when what a parent should say to his child is “Who are you?” and “What do you need from me?”.
I often come at my children with pre-conceived notions about how a conversation is going to go, or what they’re going to need from me that day, and I continue to be surprised at my surprise when those notions are turned on their heads! I remember when my second daughter began to eat solid foods, and I eagerly introduced her to all the foods her older sister had loved so much as an infant. I was shocked when my little one didn’t like avocado, and I can even remember saying to the messy, crying little six-month-old in a bewildered voice, “but your sister LOVED avocado as a baby!”
That was the first time I realized that my younger daughter was, um, a completely different person than my older daughter, and that all my expectations of how it “should” go were about to be dashed. My youngest wasn’t a sequel to a hit novel – she was a blank page waiting to be filled; an undiscovered country begging to be explored.
My oldest is now ten and my younger daughter, eight. I have learned over the years that I parent best when I don’t try to come in as the expert on Who They Are, or with a problem preemptively diagnosed, and the prescription already written; instead, I’m the most useful to them when I try to reverse engineer the situation. What is the problem (who are you?) and if I can picture the desired solution, then how can I work backwards from that to figure out how to get to A from Z (what do you need from me)?
This past fall, we went through a “valley” time in family life – lots of sibling squabbling, door-slamming, disrespectfulness, and more. Their bad attitudes were wearing on the whole family, and our usual discipline methods were not cutting it. So I tried to work backwards through the issue.
The problem – a lack of respect for other family members, and a lack of self-control when dealing with anger and frustration. Rather than heaping consequences on each child for bad behavior, I wanted to encourage good behavior and good choices. But how to do that without outright bribing the girls?
We ended up handing each child a big stack – and they were fairly big – of one dollar bills. “This,” we said to them, “is yours to spend on the family in two weeks, any way you want. We’ll go bowling, or to the movies, or ice skating – you name it. Start planning it now, and we’ll look forward to it!”
Both girls lit up.
“But here’s the catch,” we continued. “Every time you slam a door, speak disrespectfully, are mean to your sister, and so on, we will take a dollar out of that stack. So your behavior over the next two weeks is going to determine whether or not we go for a night at the movies or we all split a single cone at Braum’s.”Their actions, we explained lovingly, have real consequences on the whole family. When one of them acts out, the whole family suffers, and we wanted them to see that in a very real way.
At the end of the two weeks, each girl had nearly all her money left. (Yeah, I was shocked too!) They worked hard, and you could see that as their outward choices changed, their hearts softened as well. Patience grew, and disrespect shrank. One girl took us ice skating and out for cookies, and the other treated us to a family movie day. And on each girl’s “special” day, she was beaming with pride the entire time, bursting with joy at providing such fantastic quality family time. We made sure to praise her throughout the day, saying “Thank you for the choices you’ve made over the past two weeks. It’s because of your patience and grace and kindness that we are able to have this great family time together!”
It’s so easy to stop checking in, I know. When I’m busy and rushed, I fall back on what I think I know of my girls. I forget they’re constantly changing, constantly growing, and I need to continuously look at them and ask them those two questions: Who are you, right now? And what do you need from me, right now?
I don’t always find the answers the same way. Sometimes the girls will tell me themselves; sometimes I find the answer after much quiet reflection; and sometimes I turn to an expert like Amy to help me figure out the reply to those questions. I’ll be the first one to tell you I don’t have all the answers.
But I never stop asking, and it has absolutely shaped who I am as a parent.