Raising kids these days isn’t easy. Parents have expectations for their children that often don’t jibe with who the child is and his or her temperament — and that can lead to problems with behavior that disrupt family life, and end up being counterproductive for the child. We talk to a psychologist about why kids behave the way they do in certain situations, and offer strategies for dealing with a child that can help them grow more responsible and independent.
Dr. Ross Greene, a psychologist at Virginia Tech University and founding director of the non-profit organization “Lives in the Balance.” He’s also the author of the book, Raising Human Beings: Creating a collaborative partnership with your child
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Kids Behavior and Parents Expectations
Marty Peterson: Parenting these days seems a lot more complicated than it was back 50 years ago. Back then, “spare the rod and spoil the child” was still considered sage advice. Today, however, parents are much more likely use “time outs” than spankings when their child throws a tantrum – a strategy that pediatricians, child development experts and psychologists all agree is a better alternative. But parents these days are sometimes unsure of how to proceed when a child is being difficult – and often don’t understand why their kids behave the way they do. Dr. Ross Greene is a psychologist at Virginia Tech University and founding director of the non-profit organization “Lives in the Balance.” He’s also the author of the book, Raising Human Beings: Creating a collaborative partnership with your child. He says that many parents could use some help when a child enters their lives – and he means more than learning about feeding schedules and car seats.
Dr. Ross Greene: It is not intuitive. I think a lot of parents feel like they don’t have the slightest idea what they’re doing when it comes to raising kids, so at the very least, it’s nice to have an opportunity to think about it, think about how you want to parent and what kind of influence you want to have and what it is you’re trying to create through you parenting.
Peterson: To understand why a child acts the way he or she does, Greene says that you have to understand their personality. He says that they show you who they are as soon as they’re born. That’s right, in the delivery room.
Greene: Your child starts letting you know who he or she is in terms of personality the minute he or she pops into this world. And a lot of people would call that “temperament.” But there are kids who are over-reactive, kids who are under-reactive, kids who respond badly to noise and lights, kids who are very placid. Now that doesn’t mean things can’t change over time, but kids start communicating, and not necessarily with words, who they are from the get-go. As kids develop words, and as kids start to have ideas of their own about what they want to do and what they like and don’t like, they are letting us know in even more explicit ways who they are. But infants let you know who they are, just not in words.
Peterson: Parents want their kids to be themselves, and in a perfect world mom and dad would tailor their expectations for their children to the kids’ personalities. He says that conflict arises when what the parents expect doesn’t jibe with who the child is.
Greene: You do want your kid to be who he or she is and get to know who that person is and get comfortable with it. And that’s where sometimes the clash comes in between who the parent was hoping their kid would be and who the kid is turning out to be. Some of the biggest problems I see arising between parents and kids is where there’s a clash between who the parent was hoping for and who the kid is turning out to be. You only have so much control over who the kid turns out to be. In fact, the truth is, you really don’t have control at all. That’s the wrong word to use. I find that the more parents shoot for control, the less control they have. The best a parent can accomplish is influence. The best a parent can do is make sure their child benefits from their experience and wisdom and values. You know, the idea is to give the kid roots and then give him the wings to fly and hop you did a good job.
Peterson: Greene says that a parent’s job is to help their kids learn to meet expectations by teaching them life skills that will let them be themselves and lead a successful life.
Greene: Where the incompatibility comes in is when a kid is having difficulty meeting those expectations and then and there is where the rubber meets the road. How parents and other caregivers handle unmet expectations or what I call “unsolved problems,” really has a great deal to do with how this relationship is going to go, how communication’s going to go, whether this problem is going to get solved, and whether we are teaching kids the skills that are on the more positive side of human nature. Skills like empathy, and appreciating how one’s behavior’s affecting other people and resolving disagreements in ways that do not involve conflict and take another person’s perspective and honesty. How we parent has a great deal to do with whether we raise kids with those skills. If we parents are relying mostly on power and being unilateral, I would argue we’re not teaching those skills.
Peterson: Greene proposes three plans that can be implemented by parents to navigate the tricky waters of child raising. First is Plan A – the “do it because I say so” plan. Now although he just said that playing the power card isn’t the best way to teach a child to solve problems in life, there is a time and a place for this strategy.
Greene: I think that every once in a blue moon, especially when safety is an issue, parents will sometimes have to pull Plan A out of the hat. But Plan A refers to solving a problem unilaterally, through the imposition of adult will and that involves power by its very nature. That’s been traditional parenting for a very long time. Is that the best way to solve problems? Is that the best way to help kids learn how to solve the problems that affect their lives? And is that the best way to foster the skills that I was just talking about? And the answer is no. The next question is, “What if there was another way to solve the problem, even better, that was non-adversarial and non-punitive and didn’t involve carrots and sticks and did help with communication and relationship and does teach skills on the more positive side of human nature.” To me that is something that all parents should be interested in.
Peterson: Greene adds that when you use Plan A on a child – that is when you use power or threats – you’re likely to get power and threats thrown back at you. In Plan B, he says that a parent listens to the concerns of a child before taking action.
Greene: What I find is that human beings who feel heard are much more willing to listen to others. When a kid feels heard, when a kid feels that his concerns are being clarified, when a kid feels that his concerns are going to get addressed, the kid starts to feel much more capable of taking a parent’s concerns into account and making sure that they get addressed. And that’s the whole point of Plan B. Open up the lines of communication, make this mutually respectful and come to solutions that are mutually satisfactory. “If you don’t come home for curfew, I’m taking away your cell phone,” “If you take away my cell phone, I’ll never come home on time again,” that’s just your common power struggle. And a power struggle is what happens when we have competing solutions in play. What Raising Human Beings talks about is the concerns of both parties actually can’t compete with each other. But we’ve got to hear the concerns of both parties for us to come up with a solution that’s going to address the concerns of both parties – that’s collaboration, that’s teamwork, that’s where we are partnering with our kids, that’s where we’re treating them the way we would expect to be treated and that’s where we are teaching the skills that are on the more positive side of human nature.
Peterson: Greene says that because Plan B contains the “empathy step,” it allows parents to gain insight into their child’s thought process and concerns.
Greene: The empathy step is where the parent or other caregiver is gathering information from the kid so as to understand his concern, perspective, point of view on the unsolved problem that the parent is talking with the kid about. Kids have information, as I always say, that we very badly need. Information about what’s hard, information about what’s getting in the way. I often find that when we start gathering that information we are, number one, astounded at what we learn and we are equally astounded that what the kid is telling us is not what we were thinking. I and the parents that I work with have this experience routinely. We adults, we think we already know what’s getting in the kid’s way so often we don’t see the point in asking. But there is a tremendous point in asking because we adults are frequently wrong about what’s getting in the kid’s way.
Peterson: The other two steps in the plan are “defining the adult’s concerns” and “the invitation,” which is the collaborative step to work together to solve the problem. Plan C uses a more “hands off” approach. Greene says that parents don’t have to rush in and rescue their child or make a decision for them at every turn.
Greene: It’s a conscious decision to take a step back and see if this is a problem your child can solve on his own. So it’s not that you’re just not doing anything, it’s watching closely and seeing if you child can manage this because we want to give kids as many opportunities as we possibly can to learn how to solve the problems that affect their lives. And there are way too many parents out there who at the first sign that their kid is struggling, they jump in and they fix it for them. That’s actually not ideal parenting. I’m sure it’s with the best of intentions but it’s not ideal parenting because it’s not helping this kid learn one of the most important skills of his life: How to solve the problems that affect his life. Plan C also has another aspect to it and that is that it’s “prioritizing.” Basically saying, you can’t fix everything at once. You can only concentrate on two or three unmet expectations at a time. Plan C are the expectations we’ve decided proactively “We’re not working on those right now because we have bigger fish to fry.” So Plan C is very important, but I wouldn’t say it’s just standing pat, it’s actually pretty active.
Peterson: Greene says that as children get older and show that they are gaining in maturity, parents can let go a bit and let their kids find their own ways of solving problems.
Greene: If you feel comfortable that your child has good judgment, if you feel comfortable that your child makes good decisions, can keep him or herself safe, if you feel comfortable that your child is at the point where he’s pretty good at solving the problems that affect his life, you want to give that child rope because the whole goal of parenting is to produce a kid who’s capable of being independent and who can fly without you. And as kids start to show us that they’re capable of doing that, we ought to give them as much rope as we possibly can that’s within our comfort level because that’s crucial to their development as well. So a lot of this is, once again, coming back to being responsive to the hand you’ve been dealt. If a kid is, on the other hand, showing that he or she isn’t quite there yet, that’s a kid who you want to watch a little bit more closely. You do want to give them opportunities to solve the problems that affect their lives but you’re probably watching a little bit more closely because you’re not quite sure he can do it yet.
Peterson: You can find help and suggestions for dealing with your children from Dr. Ross Greene in his book, Raising Human Beings, available in stores and online. He also invites listeners to visit his website at DrRossGreene – with an “e” — .com. You can learn more about all of our guests on our site at Viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.