The Theology of the Body teaches that families are schools of love and virtue and that parents are the primary teachers of their children. Well, great teachers need state-of-the-art techniques and since parents are teaching the most important lessons of all–as Evangelium Vitae puts it, how to experience “all the values that enable us to live life as a gift”–we need the best techniques available.
There are many different techniques parents can choose from; verbal correction, time-outs, star charts, consequences and even–though I don’t recommend it myself–corporal punishment. But how do you know what will actually work? Here are four tips that can help you evaluate the power of your parenting techniques and help make your parenting life that much easier.
4 Things the Most Effective Parenting Techniques Share:
1. Technique can’t substitute for relationship. It is a truism in family psychology that “rules without rapport leads to rebellion.” Parenting techniques don’t work well in the absence of a good relationship with your kids. For instance; the effectiveness of the popular Time-Out technique is, at least in part, predicated on the idea that your kid doesn’t want to be away from you. If your relationship has deteriorated to the point that your child would rather be away from you than with you, Time-Out is a reward for bad behavior. In fact, paradoxically, the more you use it, the worse your kid’s behavior will get.
If you find that your traditional, go-to techniques aren’t working–or aren’t working as well–it might be time to back off the techniques and focus on filling up the relationship bank account with your child. Take some one-on-one time with your child that isn’t focused on correcting or lecturing. Go out to breakfast. Do a project your child needs your help with. Play a game your child is good at (maybe even better than you). You will find that when your relationship is in a better place, virtually any technique you use will be more effective.
2. Effective Techniques are Immediately Employable. In order to be effective, a technique has to be something you can do right now. If you can’t employ it immediately, it isn’t a technique, it’s a threat. Threats are very poor motivators. Saying to a child, “I’m going to take X away” (a threat) isn’t as effective as simply taking the thing away right then. For example; if you are talking to your child and he is ignoring you, don’t say, “I’m going to turn off the TV if you don’t start listening.” Save your breath. Just walk over and turn off the TV. Now you have his attention. You can decide whether to turn it back on or not when you’re done talking. The point is, a consequence that doesn’t happen right now is no consequence at all. Don’t waste time with threats. Instead, focus on techniques you can use immediately.
3. Effective Techniques are both Easily and Consistently Enforceable. There are lots of parenting techniques that are great ideas on paper but tend to fall apart in application. For example; star charts or “token economies” (where you give a child points or chips that they earn for good behavior and save up to use for certain prizes or privileges) are great ideas in theory, but they can be very hard to keep up with especially if you are trying to use them with multiple issues with multiple children. Techniques like these tend to work best if you use them with one child for one issue for a limited period of time. The best techniques are those that are easy to keep track of and consistently enforceable. Don’t waste time with techniques that require too much effort to maintain.
4. Effective Techniques Point to the Positive Opposite. Effective techniques don’t simply focus on stopping bad behavior they also teach the “positive opposite” (i.e., the desirable behavior that the parent wants to replace the negative behavior). Too many times, parents imagine that if they do a good enough job stopping the bad behavior, then good behavior will spontaneously erupt in its place. People tend not to work that way. If a kid is misbehaving it is either because he doesn’t know what to do instead, OR he doesn’t know how to do what he knows is right in this particular context or when he is overwhelmed by these particular feelings. To be effective, parents need to teach children what to do instead or how to succeed at doing the alternative behavior in this context.
This is where punishments like yelling or corporal punishment fail. They do stop bad behavior, but they don’t do anything to teach new skills. Some children will, eventually, figure out what to do on their own but many other children will just stop trying. This latter group of kids are the ones who ultimately become completely immune to consequences or punishment. A parent once said to me, “I don’t know what to do anymore. I’ve taken away everything except air.” If you have a kid like this, chances are your approach to discipline has been much more heavily focused on stopping the bad without necessarily teaching what to do instead. Telling a kid what to do isn’t enough. For instance, as a child, I struggled in math class. I had plenty of teachers who told me what to do, but until I had someone walk through it with me, step-by-step, over and over, and taught me how to use the formula in lots of different contexts (even though it was the same formula) I just couldn’t get it. The same thing is true of some kids and behavior. Using techniques that don’t just stop bad behavior but also teach how to do the “positive opposite” step-by-step in many different contexts (even if its the same “formula”) is the best way to make sure that you aren’t wasting your parenting energy.
In a late post, I’ll share some examples of techniques that fit these criteria. In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning over 20 different techniques that allow you to raise the behavioral bar while simultaneously making your parenting life easier, pick up a copy of Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.