The Thankless Job of Parenting

Just because you do something nice for them…

As we wrap up the holiday season, our kids head back to school from the long vacation, and we have a new year in front of us, there’s no better time to reflect on the thankless job of parenting.

We’ve all spent lots of money on gifts, on trips away to places that our kids might enjoy, and on fun activities to fill the space left empty by the absence of school. Does all the fun stuff we do for them translate into appreciative, well-behaved children?

The other day I took my daughter to a bouncy play space and for ice cream afterwards. She had a great time. When we got home I told her that the next stop would be the tub and she screamed, “I hate you daddy! You’re the worst person in the world!”

My first thought was “WTF!” But what I said (a bit too loud) was, “How could you say that to me when I just took you out to a bouncy house and ice cream?” She said, “I don’t care, I hate you!” Things were going well.

This brings me to a truth of parenting that I myself am still having trouble accepting: Our kids are not going to behave themselves or change their bad behaviors simply because we do something nice for them.

Quid pro no!

Trouble often starts with a concession.  When I say concession I mean the times when we buy or do something for our kids because they’ve asked and asked, or just because it’s the holidays and there’s an expectation that we’ll indulge. In these cases, we tend to concede either because we want to make our child happy, because we’ve worked out a deal (“If I get you this then you…”), or just because we want them to shut up about it.

Even without “the deal” I feel that we often fall prey to thinking that there’s an unspoken implicit deal – an “I did this for you, and I know you’ll do for me, too.” This deal is the slippery slope that causes trouble in families.

The problem is, as with most things we do for others, we have at least a small vested interest in receiving something in return for our efforts. Even the most saintly of parents has the expectation that their child will thank them when it’s warranted. But while gratitude is an important value to impart, it’s also really important to limit our expectations about how our children should behave in return for the good deeds we do for them. Parents’ high expectations often leads to disappointment because most kids just don’t get it.

A loss is a loss

Of course I got mad when my daughter acted rude right after I indulged her for the whole day. I was simply asking her to do one thing in return. This “one thing” highlights my expectation of our deal (“I did this for you, and now you should do this one thing for me, too”). The implicit deal is the problem because I was set up to be let down.

Am I taking a soft stance here? Am I setting the bar low and, by doing so, I’m at risk of raising an ungrateful daughter? I say no.

In the context of a whole day of fun, my daughter’s angry reaction is her way of dealing with the loss of the moment. She isn’t comforted by recounting the day’s highlights and only wants to continue doing what she was doing before I brought up the tub. I think the tub also represents a clear end to her day of fun, and this only exacerbates her sense of loss. The loss she feels now is more powerful than memories of that “dumb bouncy house” from hours before.

My daughter can’t really see things from my perspective: the effort, time and money I put into taking her out and the effect that her mean words have on me. A child’s capacity for empathy – or putting yourself in another person’s shoes – doesn’t really begin to happen until age 7, and even then there is a huge learning curve.

If we’re really being honest about it, most of us didn’t truly understand what our parents did for us until we ourselves were parents.

Don’t take it personal

The less I make the battle of the tub about me and how my daughter has let me down, the better I will be able to handle dealing with the loss that she feels and is learning how to control. Kids are always learning how to control their emotions around loss. Even when they finally begin to get a handle on this during their tweens, hormones kick in during adolescence and the mood swings and tantrums are revisited with the added bonus that we can’t just pick them up and put them in their room.

Accept the loss when they can’t

While I’m by no means a professional when it comes to keeping myself calm when my daughter melts down after a day of indulgence, sometimes knowing that she’s actually suffering a real sense of loss is enough to keep me from really losing it myself (most times). As hard as it may be, validating her experience of loss in this moment (“You’re really upset about having to take a tub right now”; “You had such a great day today and taking a tub feels like the fun day is ending”) will help her identify the sense of loss inside.  Perhaps the next time she’ll be able to bear it, just as I’m bearing it this time.

Say it now so they can say it later

In addition to validating my daughter’s feelings and providing a calming voice to soothe her experience of loss, my words also help model a way for her to cope in the future. By using words to explain what’s going on inside her, my daughter will learn to gain control over these difficult feelings and also hopefully gain support from those with whom she shares her feelings.

Just because she does it at home…

Like many kids, my daughter is mostly a good citizen out in the world, even if she sometimes acts like an ill-mannered troll at home with my wife and me. Since I have proof that she’s learned her basic manners, I can put aside my concerns about her politeness and sense of gratitude so that I can address the more consequential issues around her learning to cope with loss. She knows how to act properly in most situations; she just lets out all her pent up feelings at home where she feels safe.

Repair the damage

There have been many times when my anger and frustration have caused me to say things that I regret. When this happens it’s important for me to always revisit the incident when my daughter and I are calm. These harsh words cause damage if left unchecked, and talking is like an emotional bandaid. Explaining that I was angry and why can make all the difference in whether my daughter continues to carry around those harsh words or lets them go.

Understanding Recency Bias Can Help with Parental Anxiety

What is recency bias?

Have you ever had the feeling that the new and awful behavior your child is exhibiting will progress into a downward spiral, eventually leading them to a life of crime, teen pregnancy, or worse – not getting into college! You may be experiencing what behavioral economists and psychologists call recency bias.

In economics, recency bias helps explain people’s expectations about how the stock market will perform. If the market is doing well, people often buy and buy, expecting that the market will continue doing well. When it drops, people are often surprised at how they didn’t see the drop coming. They expected the pattern of positive gains to continue because the most recent information they had pointed to this.

We see the same bias at play in psychology. We mistakenly take the most recent information given to us and form opinions and make decisions about what will happen in the future. For example, as parents we are constantly speculating about why our kids are doing whatever it is they’re doing, and recency bias affects how we gather information and evaluate these situations.

Some examples where I’ve seen recency bias affect parental judgment:

  • Several bad grades in a row (my child won’t graduate high school)
  • An increase in tantrums (my child is a hot mess, I’m a terrible parent)
  • A loss of appetite  (my child isn’t going to grow properly)
  • Low motivation (my child will wind up living at home till he’s 50)
  • Defiant refusal to follow rules (my child is going to end up in jail)
  • A series of lies  (my child is a pathological liar)
  • Trouble with sleep (my child will never sleep properly again)

Recency bias in parenting

My wife and I often fall prey to recency bias when we analyze our kids’ behavior, especially in situations where their behavior has gone from good to unruly. Here’s a not so recent, but fitting example.

I don’t want to brag, but for most of my son’s two year life, he’s been a fantastic sleeper. Recently he began to fight it. Rather than lie down to sleep, he stood up to scream. He wanted the light on, he wanted a book, he wanted us to stay in the room, he wanted to name all the items in his room. He absolutely didn’t want to go to sleep. After several days of this, we were edging towards panic.

Enter the recency bias. We basically looked at his three-day-no-sleep strike as a signal that his new behavior would continue indefinitely. I think we’ve all been there – you know, that feeling that the ship is sinking and there aren’t any rafts in sight? We start imagining ourselves five years down the line looking fifteen years older with that kid who simply doesn’t sleep.

But we managed, as most parents do, through trial and error. We found that our son stayed calm and eventually would fall asleep provided the light was on and he had a book in his crib.

A storm that will pass

The recently bias isn’t the problem. Rather, it’s the desperate feelings that go along with the bias that often turn what could be a simple fix into an anxiety-ridden mess.

As parents, getting upset usually leads to further negative reactions in our kids. And one way to make a hard situation more manageable is to know and believe that it’s a temporary change – a storm that will pass.

When behavior changes happen with our kids, being mindful of the recency bias is one way to keep a more balanced and even perspective when dealing with the change. (And even if there are cases when the storm doesn’t pass easily, keeping calm is always a good strategy.)

What causes the storm?

Even as a child psychologist, it’s sometimes hard in the moment to understand why my kids are acting the way they do.  But there are a variety of tried and true factors that play a role in sudden behavioral changes:

  • They are upset about not getting what they wanted
  • They are on the verge of a developmental change
  • They had a certain expectation that was not met
  • They are hungry or more likely they’re hangry
  • They are sick or getting sick
  • They had a bad day at school or are stressed about something they have to do for school

Being on the verge of  developmental change is the factor that set off my son’s sleep strike. It’s a phenomenon the developmental psychologist Piaget sums up best. He basically describes the process of learning and development as unsteady and progressing in “leaps and bounds,” and he calls the force that drives development forward “equilibration.” When a child has new ways of perceiving and explaining the world, but his current way of thinking doesn’t include the new information, “disequilibrium” occurs.

Throughout the week of the storm, my son was experiencing disequilibrium. He was extremely interested in communicating the new words he was learning. He seemed too excited about his newfound skill to give it up and go to bed. And staying up as we left the room made him realize he was alone in the room.  He became scared of the dark.

The bottom line: when changes happen suddenly, don’t panic! Take into account all data about your children and not just their most recent developments, and you’ll help to quell your mounting anxiety. My son was a good sleeper for more than two years and a poor one for just two days. Odds are he’ll stay a good sleeper, at least until his next developmental leap.

What To Do When Our Kids Don't Listen Part 2

In a recent post I discussed some thoughts on how parenting has changed in the past few decades. Many parents now find themselves parenting kids who have it all and expect this to continue indefinitely.  A frustrating predicament as it often seems to lead to kids snubbing our requests. The question then becomes What Do We Do When Our Kids Don’t Listen? Simple lists just won’t cut it for this one as there is no silver bullet (point) that’s going to do just solve the problem. I’m therefore going to take the time to explore several points over a series of three posts.

The first post of this series introduced the concept of the “good enough parent” as one who is supposed to fail as a parent so that their child can grow to independence and learn about how to accept loss and imperfection by seeing it in their imperfect parent. The post also highlighted how fostering independence takes time and has a tendency to result in our kids not doing what we want them to. Part 2 will focus on how change happens and how to confront difficult/defiant behavior.

A Change in Thought Leads to Change in Behavior:  Long term behavior plans can be a very successful tool to provide structure in the home, correct a child’s misbehavior, and help parents to maintain their cool. I will discuss behavior plans in a future post, so let’s just say this: The goal of a behavior plan is to get our kids to think before acting. Like anything else, behavior plans rarely work right from the start, so 4 out of 5 times my son may get angry and use a bad word despite the plan. However, the one time that he gets angry and does not call me “stupid” but instead says “stoobie,” or the one time he doesn’t hit me and instead balls his fist is the major step towards the self-control we are aiming for. He is learning the ability to think “I may not want to say a bad word here because I’ll get a strike.” Ultimately, this is the key to his future ability to control his outbursts.

Focus On the Emotion Not On the Bad Behavior: Most of the times my son resorts to hitting, kicking, spitting or cursing it is not because he’s a bad kid, but because he is trying to deal with his feelings of loss in the only way he knows how. When my son wants to watch TV and I say “no”, he may lash out and hit me because he is trying to get rid of the feelings of loss inside of him. In a way, he’s trying to re-assert control over his 3-year-0ld world. Essentially, he is trying to give me his bad feelings. Think of out this way: What happens when he spits in my face? I get mad. Mission accomplished. He  gains some sense of control over his world by making me as angry as he is. If you are interested in further discussions of this dynamic, please read some of my past posts on the thankless job of parenting,  tantrums, and the recency bias in parenting.

Follow Through and Avoid Absolutes: Every parent chooses different battles to fight based on what is most valued in their own homes. Setting limits to successfully enforce that value system requires that you bear three things in mind: 1. Clearly define and state the target misbehavior and the consequence; 2.  Always follow through; and 3. Be sure you can follow through. So, a comment such as “if you are ever disrespectful to me again you will lose TV forever” will not work, because it is unclear what exactly being “disrespectful” means and because “forever” is a long time. A much better directive would be  “if you hit your sister again you will lose TV for the day.” The target misbehavior “hitting” is clear and the consequence is defined, realistic, and manageable. Often times, with our threats, the biggest problem is that making rules is easy, it’s enforcing them that is the real challenge.

So here in part 2 I focused on how change happens and how to confront difficult/defiant behavior all the while bearing in mind that our goal as a “good enough parent” is to fail so our kids can learn how to deal with loss and gain independence. Part 3 highlights a parenting mistake I made and some of the parenting fears that drive us to act in ways that may not necessarily be in the best interest of our kids.

What To Do When Our Kids Don't Listen Part 1

In my last post I discussed some thoughts on how parenting has changed in the past few decades. Many parents now find themselves parenting kids who have it all and expect this to continue indefinitely.  A frustrating predicament as it often seems to lead to kids snubbing our requests. The question then becomes What Do We Do When Our Kids Don’t Listen? Simple lists just won’t cut it for this one as there is no silver bullet (point) that’s going to just solve the problem. I’m therefore going to take the time to explore several points over a series of three posts.

Before we get to the goods, I want to highlight a pearl of old school psychoanalytic wisdom that will serve as an overarching mindset as I go through each point. Call it the sauce for the meatballs or the broth for the dumplings.  A once famous psychologist named DW Winnicot came up with the concept of the “good enough mother”. Keeping with today’s cultural standards let’s refer to this as the “good enough parent”.

Winnicot’s good enough parent initially takes care to meet all of their infant’s needs, really a perfect parent. Gradually as the child grows, the good enough parent slowly meets less and less needs as the child can step into a more independent role for herself. This not only prepares the child for a more independent life, but also prepares her for dealing with the failure and loss that we all experience in our lives as we move into adulthood. Here’s the capper in this…the good enough parent is supposed to fail!

By failing as parents our kids are supposed to learn that we’re not perfect and that we will let them down. This process inevitably allows them to find love and respect for us in all our flawed glory and will ultimately enable them to love themselves, warts and all. Keeping in mind that we need to fail as parents in order to have well adjusted kids, here are some ideas for failing righteously.

We Can’t Make Them Do or Not Do: When your child is two or three years old, you can make him go to his room by carrying him there. Try that strategy when he’s a teenager! The sooner we as parents learn that we cannot force our children to do anything, the better. For the past few months, my son  has been going to bed late (9:30ish). Despite looking exhausted, he fights sleep with a number of irritating behaviors like jumping around his room, throwing around his toys, kicking the wall and coming into our room periodically to ask us a supposedly important question that he forgets before he even asks.  After a few weeks of trying to make him go to bed and stay in his bed, the only thing my wife and I had accomplished was adding to our own stress and frustration. What was driving our need for him to go to bed? We wanted to relax; we were concerned that he’d be tired the next day; we didn’t want him to think that he can stay up late as he pleases; we wanted him to listen to us and respect our authoritah! All this is still true, but we’ve stopped trying to force him to bed anyway. The result: sometimes he stays up late and sometimes he goes to bed early and sometimes he sleeps late and sometimes he wakes up early. So, nothing changed, except that now we don’t get obsessed and upset about it any more (most nights).

Play the Long Game: We can’t control anybody’s actions. We can only control our own reactions to other peoples actions. The same is true for our kids. Children’s misbehavior is usually a reaction to not getting what they want. Getting control over their emotional reactions takes time. Years. Their entire childhood. And their teenage years, too. In fact, that’s when many lessons have to be learned all over again. No lesson is learned in a day or in a single lecture; it takes multiple lessons over the course of a year or two or twenty. Learning and development is not linear; instead, teacher and student often take one step forward and two steps back. Therefore, the best and most important tool in parenting is patience. Lots of it.

Independence is a Major Goal of Parenting: Aside from ensuring survival, the main goal of parenting is to raise kids who can think and do independently. The trouble with that starts when we worry. The more we worry and micromanage, the less confident our kids will be in their ability to handle things on their own. The best way to instill confidence that our kids will make good decisions and handle their business successfully is to actually let them make decisions and handle their business. So, don’t meddle unless it is absolutely necessary. In the big picture, it really doesn’t matter if my son goes to bed at 8 or at 9. In other words, we must pick our battles or we won’t win the war.

So yes you get it, fostering independence is really important and much of the time it means parents being less involved rather than trying to control outcomes. There are, however, times where we absolutely need to be involved and firm in setting limits.  This post focused a lot on mindset, the next part will address more on what to do when we’re confronted with difficult and frustrating behavior and how to bring about change.