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.