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An interesting question came in from a parent that has had me thinking all day so I feel inspired to talk about it this evening and would love to hear any experiences or comments you have about this topic.
Her struggle is, in her attempt to parent consciously, she would like to allow her young child to learn through natural consequences. But, telling her child, “you need to get dressed now, or you will have to wear pajamas to school”, or “eat now or you will have to go to school without breakfast” still felt like more of a threat than a natural consequence.
This is a difficult place and the definitions of these ideas often get wrongly exchanged...
So I want to start by breaking them down a bit.
Threats are empty and cruel.
They simply teach our children to fear us rather than to problem solve and understand how behavior is related to consequences.
There is a difference between natural and logical consequences and we have to be careful not to exchange the word consequence for punishment. Especially when it is handed down out of frustration and anger.
A natural consequence is one that happens to the child without the parent being involved.
If they touch something hot, they will get burned. If they run in the house and slip, they might bang their head.
A logical consequence is a result arranged by the parent but logically related to what the child did. They help children develop internal understanding, self-control, and a desire to follow the rules.
A logical consequence is respectful of the child and helps them fix their mistakes and know what to do next time.
This requires the parent to have clear boundaries and put their full attention on what would truly serve the child in the present moment.
For example, if a child does not eat their healthy meal, then the consequence is that the parent cannot serve them dessert. It is logical and connected to the action.
But, not allowing a child dessert because they did not pick up toys, is a punishment.
The dessert has nothing to do with the responsibility of clean up and you are no longer within that frame or boundary.
Consistency is crucial.
If you are not holding the boundaries, in the same way, every time, your child will not be able to believe you. They begin to think that if they cry hard enough, push back long enough, you will give them what they want.
So how do we being to draw the line?
The first thing I’d recommend is to recognize and be aware of “How you say something”. How you say something is far more powerful than what you say.
Especially with young children.
So if we take the earlier example and our child is asking for dessert but has not eaten dinner, to present it as a logical consequence, you would use a loving tone and be fully grounded in your boundary.
“I can hear that you are very excited about dessert. But I cannot give it to you until you have some healthy food in your body.”
Protesting is normal.
They may cry, beg, try and negotiate. But you don’t have to engage. Be present, calm, invite their feelings, then remind them of the boundary and offer to support them accomplishing it.
Another thing we want to recognize is where you are habitually using punishment.
Things like blame, shame, guilt, and judgment.
If any of these things are involved, you are using fear-based control tactics to manipulate your child.
A parent may feel that inflicting these painful experiencing on a child would cause them to stop the unwanted behavior.
And yes, you may receive temporary compliance, but what you are truly stopping is your child’s ability to feel worthy.
When we blame, shame and judge, our children internalize that they themselves are bad, not that the behavior is bad.
Yes, they will submit to you.
You can win, you are bigger.
But if we want our children to be respectful, caring, and empathetic people, we have to model it for them.
If we want them to know themselves intimately, love themselves, and trust us, then we have to show them that they are worthy of our respect and love, even when their behavior is inappropriate.
Punitive measures put your child into a “fight or flight” state.
They are only focused on the pain or fear they are experiencing, defending themselves, or how mean they think you are.
They are not learning anything here except to treat others with harshness when they do something they don’t like.
And in the long run, you are teaching them to rely on external forces to get motivated. As opposed to allowing natural consequences to build your child’s internal motivation.
Consider what could shift if your child felt unconditionally loved by you.
Are you able to fully respect and accept your child for who they truly are?
I don’t think we realize how much we hold our children to our petty expectations.
Our children are human beings with the same rights on the planet as we have.
Yes, it is our duty to guide them and to keep them safe.
But they have the right to express themselves and be accepted, regardless of our opinion of their thought or feeling.
I am often stumped, as a mother of a 4-year-old, when to step in and hold a boundary and when to let her learn by natural consequences.
Obviously, some situations are more clear than others.
No, you may never walk into the street alone.
No, you may not play with matches.
But other times, I wonder if I am setting a limit because of my preference due to my own personal experience and feel the need to project that on her.
For example, we were getting ready to leave for her swim class. It was raining pretty hard outside and a bit cold. I walked to the front door and found her putting on her flip flops. My reaction was,
“No, you need to put on socks and your rain boots. It is wet and cold outside.”
“No mommy!” she protested, “I want to wear these!”
“Your feet are going to get wet and cold and they will not be comfortable.”
“Yes they will!”
Now we are arguing over what?
How important is it really that she wear the boots?
I know her. I know she is sensitive to how things feel on her body.
I know that as soon as she gets into the weather she is going to start crying about her feet being wet, how she doesn’t like that and wants to dry them.
Then how they feel cold and can she please have some warm socks…
But here I need to ask myself, first, is this a non-negotiable situation?
Next, will she benefit more from me holding the boundary or learning from experience, hence allowing the natural consequence?
Maybe if it was freezing outside and we were going to have to walk a long way, we would be dealing with an issue of well being. But we are just going to the car which is only halfway down the block.
So knowing where this is headed, I popped the socks, boots, and towel in a bag then came back to head out the front door.
As predicted, we were maybe half way to the car when she started to cry.
“My feet are slipping! My toes are wet. Ooooh Mommy, I don’t like it.”
I admit it took everything I had to not say,
“See, I told you so! If you would just listen to me, geez.”
When we got into the car I asked her to tell me what was going on.
She repeated her complaint. I reflected,
“So wearing your flip flops in the rain made your feet feel yucky?”
Yeah, it does.
“Oh, and they feel all wet and cold and you don’t like that?”
Yeah, I don’t like it. I want my boots on now.
“Ok, I have them in the bag. Let’s dry your feet first with this towel.”
Now she knows, from experience, that she should not wear flip-flops in the rain.
Not because I made her take them off, but because she felt what it was like to actually do it.
And then I helped her to integrate the experience by reflecting it back to her without shame or blame.
How do we begin to step away from threats, bribes, and punishment?
I know that when we are parenting from a long, generational line of punitive discipline, it is so hard to break that chain. It is deeply ingrained in us.
But we do have the ability to change.
And there is a better way.
The first step is awareness.
Take a look at how you have structured your day and the routine you have provided for your child to move through.
Are you noticing the same issues surfacing at the same time each day?
What is happening?
Become deeply aware.
If you often get angry, why?
Is it during the same transition each day?
Is there a certain behavior that triggers you?
Ask yourself, what core need could be lying beneath the surface behavior?
What could your child be needing? What could you be needing?
And I am inviting you here to look past the behavior.
So if you are answering that last question with, “I need my child to listen to me.”
Let’s go a little deeper.
If your child is struggling to listen, what, in that moment could they be needing?
If you are always experiencing a melt down as you are headed out the door in the morning, pressed for time, and bribing your child to get out the door, is this really a behavior issue with your child?
Is it possible that if you got up 30 minutes earlier, got everything done, then spent a few minutes just connecting with your child before leaving, that the transition might go easier?
We often want to blame our children’s immaturity and lack of skills for our hardship and frustration.
But we are the ones who have the capacity to set our children up to feel safe, loved, confident, and capable.
They simply need to know we have their backs.
Manage your own emotional state. If you find yourself often yelling, getting frustrated, repeating yourself to the point of anger, and so on, there are some bigger questions to ask that have nothing to do with your child.
What is really important you?
Is the limit you are trying to set based on a core value or just your preference in the moment?
Are you holding your child responsible for your own needs not being met?
Threats are often spontaneous, emotional reactions to try and control the situation in the moment.
“If you don’t put your shoes on right now, we are not going to the park!”
Consequences are what naturally happens depending on the choice made.
“We need to put shoes on now so we have time to go to the park, or you will
need to play here at home instead.”
But I want to remind you here that preschool-aged children need our non-verbal and physical support. So saying this from another room and expecting them to jump up if they want it is really not fair.
You will have more success by meeting them where they are, connecting with them in their world, then moving towards the transition.
Sometimes we do not have the luxury to allow our children all day to decide.
We need to get to work, they need to get to school.
But there is something very powerful in the theme, “we are in this together!”
Barking orders, repeatedly to a preschooler is not only going to drive you crazy but is expecting them to be capable of skills they have not yet developed.
Yes, they are capable of putting pants on their legs, shirt over their head, and even some have mastered socks.
But the ability to follow direction, hold a concept of time, have empathy to the fact you can’t be late...well, those are all years away.
So if you let go of the expectation that they should just, go get ready or even finish their breakfast by staying at the table on their own, your stress level will go down.
But what happens when your child is standing there in pjs, crying, and proclaiming that they will never exchange them for clothing and not going to school?
The most important thing to note is that your child is 100% emotional here.
No amount of logic is going to motivate them. If you want cooperation, you have to go through an emotional connection.
The biggest tool I can offer you is Empathy.
This is not the first time I have talked about this and I promise it will not be the last.
Empathy inserted into any situation will bring connection.
Your goal is to allow your child to feel heard, seen and felt.
Even just 2 minutes of reflecting their voice with compassion can put you back on the same team.
“I hear that you do not want to go to school. You feel so cozy in your jammies and want to stay here and play. I wish we could do that all day together.”
And offer a physical connection. A hug, to hold them, to hold their hand.
Take a deep breath and keep yourself grounded.
At some point, you will have to transition into leaving. Using a calm tone, you can offer the choices at hand.
“Sweetheart, we have to leave in just a few minutes. I can help you get dressed now, or we need to pack your clothes to get dressed at school.”
I am not pretending that this is the line that gets your child to stop crying and go with the flow.
But empathy really does reconnect and often get you on the same page.
I have personally had to pick up my screaming child in pajamas and put her into the car seat.
Not a fun or flattering scene. But the key is our energy and how we feel about the situations we find ourselves in.
And I have to admit, that that whole scene happened because I woke up late.
When we take the time to observe the patterns at play, we can make conscious decisions to adjust them when they aren’t working.
If every morning when it is time to leave, your child refuses to put their shoes on and throws a fit about leaving.
Instead of looking for a strategy to get them to put their shoes on.
Start at the beginning of the morning routine.
What does it feel like?
Is it enjoyable?
Does it flow or are you all over the place?
The most powerful position you can take is to always be on their side.
Let go of the fear that you are going to lose control, or that you have to control them.
Your child truly wants to be in harmony with you, they want to cooperate, they want to be good.
All children are intrinsically good.
If they are not cooperating, it is because they can’t.
There is a basic need not being met (and these go beyond hunger and sleep. Basic needs also include attention, connection, autonomy, affection…) or maybe they have some stress built up that they are struggling to release.
I am brushing on a few things tonight that could all go way deeper.
I would love to hear from you.
What challenges are you facing?
Where do you get stuck?
Please submit any questions you have.
What breakthroughs have you experienced?
Share in the comments what has helped you move into conscious parenting and find more connection and love.
All the best,