I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. I was raised on a family farm where hard work was expected every day. My father was a difficult man. He seemed angry most of the time and had a litany of cuss words to prove it. I can only guess he was stressed about raising four children. He ruled his house with an iron first, which was difficult on my sisters and I. When we stepped out of line, we got the razor belt.
I have always been confident with an eye on the future. When I was 16, I knew the university I wanted to attend and the degrees I wanted to pursue. I studied abroad, learned a foreign language and relocated to Los Angeles at age 23. I married a beautiful woman, completed my MBA and built a successful career as a project manager. Now I’m 40, and I’ve watched my self-confidence erode over the last seven years as I faced my most difficult challenge, raising a son.
“He is a lion.”
My son is extremely strong willed. He is a lion. He’s always been very respectful and well-mannered outside our home, but inside, was a different story. Until the summer after first grade, he was having tantrums daily. This took a tremendous toll on my wife and me. My son was extremely defiant and had to have the last word in every conversation. He believed the rules didn’t apply to him. He screamed for boundaries and I was very diligent about setting them. The consequences for crossing those boundaries included; spankings, timeouts, restrictions from friends and taking away toys.
About a year ago, I noticed it wasn’t anger or frustration driving me to spank, it was fear. I would set rules and then my son would test his boundaries. I would follow through on the consequences and my son would feign indifference. I would notice my efforts weren’t working and I would begin to feel out of control. I was fearful that my son would lack discipline as a teen and then I would begin to imagine worst-case scenarios. In my mind, my son would end up on drugs, in prison, or worse. I would then fly off the handle and spank him to shut down his behavior. It worked temporarily, but my fear was causing his tantrums to happen more frequently and with greater intensity.
“Noticing helped me stop.”
This was happening subconsciously of course, but if I took the time to sit down for some self-inquiry, I could trace my thoughts back to an original thought or fear. I did this by asking myself why. Then I waited for the answer to rise out of me. My inner dialogue sounded like this:
Me: Why am I spanking my son?
My inner voice: Because I’m angry!
Me: Why am I angry?
My inner voice: Because he’s not listening to me!
Me: Why do I need him to listen to me?
My inner voice: Because he might get in trouble when he gets older.
I noticed that even spanking can come from a place of innocence. That doesn’t make corporal punishment right or wrong, it just proves that we’re confused. Noticing helped me stop. It was important for me to stop, not just for my son’s benefit, but for my own.
“The hardest part of being a parent is self-doubt.”
The hardest part of being a parent is self-doubt. I found myself jumping back and forth between strategies, explaining myself or my son’s behavior to others while feeling out of control. I was constantly wondering if his behavior was somehow my fault. Am I too hard on him? Am I too soft? Do I spank him or don’t I? Will playing with him too often send the wrong message about my role in his life? Was he born this way? Was this just immaturity? I was spinning myself. I needed a strategy I could stick to.
I used descriptive praise to make my son feel good about himself.
The most valuable strategy I learned is to make my son feel good about himself. Everything else is secondary. Having this goal in mind directs my speech and guides me through difficult situations. I help my son feel good about himself by using Descriptive Praise. I learned Descriptive Praise from a book called, “Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting,” by Noël Janis-Norton. The first chapter of her book describes how to effectively praise children so they will repeat desirable behavior. Descriptive Praise not only built my son’s confidence, but also helped me set clear expectations. I always describe, in detail, what behavior I am praising my son for. Here is an example of how I used to give Generic Praise and how I now give Descriptive Praise.
Parent: I like how you’re sitting respectfully at the table.
Parent: I like how you sitting with your legs underneath the table while you eat dinner. You are becoming a big boy now.
Usually, my son responds like this.
Child (next time at the table): Look dad, I am sitting with my legs underneath the table!
Parent: And I didn’t even have to ask. You’re really growing up to be a big boy.
Direct Language Sets Expectations
My wife and I stopped making weak statements. Weak statements demonstrate that the child has done something wrong. Unfortunately, we were communicating that he’d screwed up again and that we were annoyed with him. This is an obvious violation of my earlier lesson, make my son feel good about himself. Below are examples of weak statements that my wife and I used with little effectiveness.
You should keep your hands to yourself.
You should take out the trash without being told.
You need to sit and eat!
Instead, we chose to use direct language. Direct language doesn’t focus on what’s wrong with my son’s behavior, instead it sets expectations of what is to be done now. I use strong eye contact which requires me to get down on one knee. This is usually done less than two feet away. I use a monotone voice that shows I am calm and serious.
I want you to keep your hands to yourself. Understood?
I want you to take the trash out, before any TV is watched. Okay?
I want you to sit and eat. Are we clear?
Truthfully, he didn’t want control, but he couldn’t help himself.
I stopped interrupting my son’s tantrums. My sisters and I could be in the middle of an epic battle and my dad could walk in the room and put a stop to it immediately. I incorrectly assumed, I should be able to do the same with my son, however, I am not my father and my son is not me. I mistook my father’s method for The Method to be used with all children. Tantrums were my son’s last resort at exerting control over my wife and I. Truthfully, he didn’t want control, but he couldn’t help himself.
When my son was having a tantrum, I picked him up and carried him to his room. My demeanor was stoic. I closed the door and windows and let him roll around and scream. I sat in front of the door with the intention of keeping him put. I just listened.
His dialogue reflected how angry he was, “I don’t want to be in my room! You’re mean! I don’t like you!” When his attempt to get a rise out me didn’t work, he started negotiating, “I’m hot! I want water! I have to go to the bathroom!” When I continued sitting quietly he began to play the victim. “Why are you doing this to me? You never let me play with my friends! Why aren’t you answering me?” When he finally realized he couldn’t control me, he just laid on the floor and cried. This was the turning point in the tantrum. It was the first honest moment. He was vulnerable. He had halted all attempts to control me. At that point, I extend an olive branch by saying, “Would you like to come sit on my lap?” He replied with an immediate “Yes.”
We sat for about 10 minutes and I noticed how affectionate and obedient he was. It was an amazing feeling for both of us. He recognized I was in charge and what behavior would be acceptable in our home. Once we were done, I said, “I want you to go out, sit at the table and finish your lunch. I will come sit with you. Do you understand? His response, “Yes, Daddy.” That is what I wanted to hear; compliance with no backtalk. It was finally over and we could enjoy the day. He had two more tantrums after this, but they only lasted 10 minutes and were much less intense. We haven’t had a single tantrum since.
For any parent who has a lion, my parting advice is stick with it. You will eventually get tired of using tactics that don’t work. You will observe and clock enough hours with you children to begin learning what works and what doesn’t.
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