Friday, April 8, 2011

Empowering Your Children - Intact or Broken Families

Some of the most distressed adults had significant care and resources as children while some of the most successful adults had little or no help as children, sometimes practically raising themselves. Although it may seem somewhat counterintuitive there is a good reason for this.

Children need to be empowered to be responsible for themselves. There are many reasons for this but I will focus primarily on one. Discipline and punishment.

For our purposes here discipline is teaching children self-control, how to recognize limits, maintaining acceptable behaviour and, when and where to stop. Punishment is an indirect punitive consequence for the failure to abide by the rules.

The Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines [IPTG] have this to say about discipline;
Clear rules that are agreed upon by both parents. As a child matures, it is very important that the teen knows rules of acceptable behavior. The chances of this occurring are much better if both parents agree in these important areas. When parents jointly set the standard of behavior for their teen, the chances of the child accepting those values are greatly increased.

We know that parents are not always going to agree. When you have an undisciplined child you are going to have problems and possibly be the bad parent. If you become the parent solely responsible for punishment you may be viewed as the bad person in the short term. If you are the parent who takes no discipline or punishment action you may later be viewed as the bad parent in the long-term.

Empirical evidence tells us that fathers tend to take on the role of disciplinarian more readily than mothers who tend to want to be the gentler parent and 'friend' to the child. Yet, this easiness often has catastrophic results for children including a greater likelihood of sexual assault, incarceration, mental health treatment and failure in school.

You may not think so but children want rules and boundaries to be set for them. This protects them in two important ways. First, it provides to them an excuse not to be pressured into something they don't want to do because their peers will know you are a disciplinarian. Secondly it allows them to shift responsibility away from themselves if something goes horribly wrong.

The IPTG provides further support for effective discipline here. A teenager who does what is expected should be offered more freedom and a wider range of choices. It is helpful if a teenager is reminded of the good decisions that have caused the teen to be given more privileges. If a teen is helped to see that privileges are earned and not natural “rights” he or she will be more likely to realize that the key to getting more freedom is to behave well. If rules are not followed, appropriate consequences should result. A teenager who does not make good use of independence should have less of it.

Effective discipline allows you and your child to do more and ultimately your child will appreciate you for it. Imagine not being mentally drained from having to constantly tell your child to do the same thing. Imagine your child doing as you wish without having to be told. Imagine the opportunities your child could have if you had more time, energy and patience to provide those opportunities.

This is just one area where you can empower your child.

A child needs to do more than just be able to follow direction or abide by rules. Your child also needs to know that he has the ability to tackle and surmount tasks. This isn't always easy and may involve you having to change what you may feel is well-intentioned assistance.

Many parents, either through trying to avoid a stressful situation, being pressed for time or through thinking they are helping their children are actually enabling. Enabling involves allowing the child to avoid the consequences of his or her own actions. It can also include taking over the child's tasks, bailing the child out of trouble, or allowing the child to avoid accountability for his or her actions.

As an example I will use one I have witnessed. The child was told to get his room straightened up before his sports game. He messed around and messed around until it nearly became time for him to get dressed for his game and leave. His mother went into his room, complaining at him the entire time and proceeded to clean the room for him.

What she did was not only enable him to not be responsible for his actions but also failed to acknowledge his ability to successfully accomplish tasks. He has now had it demonstrated to him that he cannot clean his room, that he is not a capable person. His mother was crushing any self-esteem he may have been developing because she didn't want to take the time to effectively discipline the boy before taking him to the game to drop him off to his father.

In the future this mother will ask the boy to do something else, be it homework, helping with the younger child or cleaning up his own toys. Again, she will face a battle. She will repeatedly ask him to perform the task, get annoyed, yell at him, then get frustrated and smack his butt. Ultimately, he is going to see her as the mean parent from the situation she created.

What would have been best for her and him would be for her to have gone to his room at a much earlier time and made it clear that he was not going to the game until the room was straightened up. It may have required her missing one of her television shows and spending about five times as long with him doing it as she could have had it done by herself.

Her failure to plan ahead was without justification while she rationalized her enabling behaviour by saying that she couldn't be late getting him to his father. Instead, both parents should have been operating under a plan whereby the child would be required to straighten his room before participating in the game or seeing his father.

Through that the child would have learned that he can do it, that he is accountable for his actions and that he is the decision maker, through his actions, when it comes to getting to do the activities he wants to. The amount of time it took to discipline him would have been returned to her many times over. But in the years since she still has the same problems.

Here are some tips and information about how to avoid enabling your child -

Stop solving their problems - you won't have time to do everything for your children. As they grow older they will have greater demands. The sooner you help your child to learn that he has not only the ability but the responsibility to perform tasks for himself then the more likely he will be to achieve and the more rest you will get.

Let Things Get Worse - Allow your child to miss out on opportunities, think you are the bad guy for not helping or missing a game in which his teammates would have relied upon him. This may be the way to get him to realize just what the consequences of his inaction are.

Avoid Feeling Guilty - It may be frustrating and upsetting to see the disappointment, the tears and the anger in your child. However, this short-term pain will result in significant long-term rewards and is in your child's best interest.

Here are some tips on how to empower your child -

Avoid Nitpicking - When you are trying to empower your child it is important to recognize the accomplishments. Nit-picking may lead to a child feeling that even when he puts forth the effort he still can't succeed. Strive for improvement over time.

Allow Children to Begin Making Some Decisions - Things you may normally do that may seem helpful can be relinquished to your child so long as any wrong decision won't be harmful. Tell your child to prepare his own breakfast. Let him determine what time to start on homework so long as there is a consequence for failure to complete it.

Avoid Negative Words, Like "NO" - Prohibition does little to help build self-esteem and empower your child. Don't tell your child that he can't stay up to watch a show or stay out and play. Instead, tell him what responsibilities he is to have accomplished before those activities and ensure that they get done.

Pay Attention to Your Child - Your child should know that he is more than someone who is told to do something. When you really stop and pay attention to him, you send the message that you care about what he says and feels, he is important, and you empower him. I am still stunned and often saddened that when I arrive to the homes of some children that I am greeted by a happy child with an anecdote that the parent hasn't heard. Many children have given up on even trying to tell their parents.

The IPTG suggests letting children be involved in the decision making process so long as a poor decision won't harm the child. Additionally, it is cautioned that parents should not allow a child to make a decision simply because the parents cannot agree.

As a general rule, a teenager should be involved in making important decisions if the parents agree the opportunity to make the decision is valuable, and the value of that opportunity outweighs any possible harm of a poor decision. If the parents feel the welfare of the child is dependent on the decision made, and if they allow the child to make a decision simply because they cannot agree, the parents are in danger of failing the child.

In closing I leave you with some tips from Developing Responsibility And Self Management In Young Children: Goals Of Positive Behavior Management by the Virginia Cooperative Extension of Virginia Tech.
* Set long term goals for the children in your care beyond the short term goal of keeping peace - Long term goals of helping children to develop responsibility for their own behavior.
* Recognize that a change in a child's behavior usually occurs when there is a change in the care giver/provider's behavior or practice.
* Avoid engaging in power plays, struggles with children -YOU WILL LOSE AND SO WILL THE CHILD.
* Recognize that positive attitudes of encouragement, understanding, and respect by the care giver are the basic conditions for desirable behavior in children - Avoid the use of threats, put-downs, embarrassing statements, and criticisms to control children's behavior.
* Keep in mind that children are social beings who have a need to belong and feel significant and important - Provide/create opportunities for children to share, to be independent, to be recognized, to receive praise, and to be involved in chores.
* Keep in mind that children are decision-makers - Create an environment where children are encouraged to make choices and are actively involved in planning activities for the day.
* Recognize that acting out behavior in young children is often related to their language development - Young children's language capacity assists them to express their needs. Children may feel and express frustration when they have not yet developed the language to effectively communicate their wants and needs.
* Make time-out a tool for building self control. For example, let the child decide when he is ready to cooperate and return to the group. This practice helps children to begin to take responsibility for their own actions.
* Catch a child doing something right instead of catching him/her doing something wrong. Many times when a child is behaving desirably, such as playing nicely with a playmate, or sharing his/her toys in a friendly manner, we ignore the child or are too busy at the moment to notice. Giving a child a smile, a word of praise, or a pat on the back can go a long way in making the child feel special, significant, and a sense of belonging.

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©2008, 2011 Stuart Showalter, LLC. Permission is granted to all non-commercial entities to reproduce this article in it's entirety with credit given.

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