When parents came to me as a clinical psychologist, they frequently asked this question. The knee-jerk answer is, “Of course!” However, let’s think about this. Is your spouse a clone of you? Does he have your childhood experiences? Your needs? Your feelings? Your expectations of your children? Of course not. Presenting a united front to our children is a societal myth that many people buy into, but that has no basis in reality. When the united front does happen, one of you is giving into the other and, guess what? Your kids know exactly what’s going on.
Because each of us has unique life experiences, we each bring different gifts to the parenting table. When we are honest about that, both with ourselves and with our children, that’s a good thing. Learning to adapt, and that people are different, are teachable moments.
Okay, then, who’s in charge? Who gets the final say in parenting? The unsatisfactory answer is, “it depends.” Since we have been given the blessing of birth jointly, leadership in the family is a joint appointment. As parents, we must negotiate who’s in charge continually, based on availability, circumstances, and the unique challenges of the moment.
Paul told the church at Ephesus, “Husbands and wives, submit to one another.” This verse precedes the more famous ones, “Wives, submit to your husbands,” and, “Husbands, treat your wives just as Christ treats the church.” So, our togetherness as parents precedes our individual leadership in the family.
Jeff asks his mom if he can sleep over at Billy’s house this coming Friday night. Mom sees no problem with this, but she knows that Dad and Jeff are planning to go to an early Father/Son breakfast Saturday morning. She could say yes to Jeff and talk to her husband later about it. Or, she could say no because of the conflicting schedules. Better yet, she could put the decision on hold and confer with Dad before getting back with Jeff. Best of all, since Jeff’s plans don’t impact Mom directly, she could defer to his Dad, who could then negotiate with Jeff himself.
A united front in this situation would likely leave someone feeling less than. We each bring different things to the table. The catch phrase, “When in doubt, check it out” applies here. If a decision impacts more than one person, take time to confer among all parties, understand needs and feelings, active listen, and make plans accordingly.
As we all know, kids come in all shapes and sizes. You know what else? So do parents. Some parents choose to be the power-oriented, in control kind of guy. These folks parent by fear and have only a fear-based relationship with their children. “My way or the highway” is their theme.
Others go to the opposite extreme and become a doormat to their children. “Yes, dear. Whatever you want” They fear that confronting their child or setting healthy boundaries will stunt their emotional growth and lower their self-esteem. Such well-intentioned parents will put their child in T-Ball, where runs scored are not kept because “we want them all to be winners.”
Fortunately, Jesus gave us another option, providing a third role model for effective parenting. Before the Last Supper, He removed his outer robe, got a bowl and washcloth, and washed the feet of his disciples. This lowly but loving act of service is our example of being a servant parent. What???
Let’s be clear. This was not submission. It was servanthood. Jesus followed with His teachings about the first being last and the greatest being the least. Being a servant parent involves understanding your child’s needs and feelings, and being supportive while helping tend to them.
Fifteen year old Chip stomped into his dad’s den early one morning, where dad was paying bills. “Dad, this shirt’s dirty and I want to wear it today.” Dad stopped his work, and, while getting up, responded, “Okay, Son, let me wash it for you right away.” While thinking he was being helpful, dad was being a doormat, with no teachable moment in sight.
Eight year old Tommy is doing his homework in his room. His mom checks on him and offers, “I’ve got some time, Son. If you put your vocabulary words on flash cards, I’ll quiz you when you’re finished.” Classic servant parenting. Being helpful and available, sharing the load. And ripe for a teachable moment. Which are you? Power dude, doormat or servant parent?
When you see or hear your child having an issue, and you conclude that his emotional fever is spiking, your efforts to give him active listening are coming from your heart. The beauty of active listening is that you are right when you are right, and you are right when you are wrong. Whaaat?
You are helping Bobby with his homework one night. He erases his answer to the same math problem for the third time. He screams, breaks his pencil in half, and flings the pieces across the room.
Most parents would be inclined to firmly respond, “Now Bobby, calm down. Throwing a fit isn’t going to get you the answer to this math problem.” You are being a concerned parent in correcting Bobby’s behavior, but have you missed a teachable moment? With that response, Bobby may just turn on you, or stomp out of the room.
“Wow, Son. You’re really angry right now.” “No I’m not. I’m frustrated. How can I be so stupid? I can’t get this answer right,” might be Bobby’s response just before he dissolves into tears.
So, you were active listening, but you missed the mark. You suggested anger, when Bobby was feeling frustration. You were wrong, but you were right, because you’re focusing on his feelings leading Bobby to think what he was feeling and then tagging it for you. Now you can fold him into your arms and let him cry it out for a while, reassuring him that he is smart and encouraging him to try again, with your help if he wants it.
Active listening promotes bonding and encourages your child to think through and work on solving their own issues or problems. If you judge, criticize, or solve their problem for them, you run the risk of distancing from her and diminishing her confidence and worth. Active listening when you see your child’s emotional fever spike is coming from your heart and brings you closer together, and even when you are wrong, you can be right.
I’ve shared with you how active listening is your go-to response when your child has an emotional fever. This is the proverbial “You feel…” comment, where you give your child what you think she is feeling at the moment. However, to engage your daughter, dare to be different. That is, be creative in how you empathize. Also, to help her know how important her feelings are to you, expand your responses.
Allison comes running in from outside, where she was talking to her friend, Jennifer. Allison slams the door and stomps into the kitchen, where you are cleaning up. “Jennifer says I’m dumb and she won’t play with me.” You gather her up in your arms and she sobs into your shoulder.
An active listening response might be, “You feel hurt.” Daring to be different, you could expand that with, “Aw, baby, it hurts when Jennifer says mean things to you.” Allison will then hug you closer.
Another tool in your response toolbox is called passive listening. Yep, you guessed it. This is simply being quiet and letting Allison just be or just talk. A verbal prompt that could help her share her feelings is called a noncommittal response. Us shrinks call this the therapeutic grunt, such as, “uh huh, hmmm, I see” This tells Allison that you are listening and encouraging her to share more.
A third tool for you is parroting. This is when you say back as a question exactly what she just said. “Jennifer says you’re dumb and that she won’t play with you?” Here, you are making sure that you heard right and again prompting her to continue. The fourth tool is paraphrasing. Here you give her content, but not necessarily feelings. “So she’s not playing with you because she thinks your dumb?”
Active listening is the gold standard for helping your child through tough times, but you can also expand your responses with parroting, noncommittal responses, paraphrasing, and just being quietly there with her, that is, passive listening. All of these options keep you engaged with your child in her hurt and let her know how important she is to you, helping her find her way out of her hurt. Expanding your responses helps you stay connected.
Four year old Matthew climbs up on their kitchen counter to retrieve the large box of dry kitty food. “Mommy,” he asks, “Can I feed the kitty?” Simple request. Our kids ask our permission almost all the time, and mostly we say yes. However, where parents are emotionally tuned in to their children, getting permission works both ways.
Matthew’s mom has several choices. She could quickly reach over her son for the canister of dry kitty food and abruptly add, “Here, I’ll do that.” Or, she could caution, “Sweetheart, I think that’s too big for you to handle. Can I help?” Or, she could say, “Sure, Honey,” while gritting her teeth and preparing to pounce to avoid a mess.
Taking over avoids the possible mess, but also deprives Matthew of a teachable moment. Mom’s unintended hidden message is, “Son, my keeping control and keeping my house orderly is more important than your curiosity and wanting to help me.” Ouch! Not good.
Asking to help him is a step in the right direction, but her judgment that the canister is too big for him to handle deprives Matthew of an opportunity to experiment and to stretch his abilities.
Telling him to go ahead, but expecting disaster, may set Matthew up for problems and feeling responsible for making the mess.
This teachable moment in the making needs to start with mom giving observations and asking permission of her 4 year old son. “Matty, I’m glad you want to help kitty get to her food. You’re getting to be such a big boy. I know you don’t want to make a big mess and then have to clean it up. I have an idea. Can I share an it with you?”
Getting permission from your child, at whatever age, often comes as a pleasant surprise to him. It also puts the focus on the relationship, not just the task. You share your wisdom and your child has an opportunity to grow, with your guidance. This is the value of getting permission.
In my book, Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, chapter 1 is titled “Communication Is Relationship.” A corollary to this statement is my belief that you cannot not communicate. Children, teens, parents, families are always communicating with each other, if not verbally, then nonverbally.
Mike’s dad asked him to help him wash the car. He was gaming on his bed in his room early in the afternoon on a beautiful day. Mike looked up from his game toward his father, but with only a blank stare. Was he responding to his dad’s direct request? You betcha. His nonverbal communication either said “I didn’t hear you,” or, “I don’t want to hear you.” His hope, I’m sure, was that dad would just go away.
Bethany’s mom was talking on the phone to one of her friends, when she toddled over to the kitchen counter and began tugging on her mama’s pants leg. Mom shook her leg free and turned in her chair as she continued her phone call. Were mom and daughter communicating? Oh, yeah, however unhelpful their nonverbals were to each other. Bethany was saying with her tug, “Mama, I need some attention.” Mom’s response was, “Go away. Leave me alone. Can’t you see that I’m on the phone? My conversation with my friend is more important than you are right now.”
When your child’s nonverbal communication is vague, indirect, or confusing, help them with a prompt like, “Sweetheart, I’m confused. Can you use your words?” If the behavior is intense or suggests distress, it will trigger your emotional fever alarm and you want to use your active listening skills. “Wow. You really slammed down that book. Are you frustrated?” Once her feelings are acknowledged, she will be more receptive to your correcting her behavior.
We are always communicating, whether it’s verbally, nonverbally, or even both. Teachable moments come from tuning in, decoding, and understanding the underlying feelings.
I’ve talked with you at length about how active listening is the go-to response when your child has an emotional fever. Emotional fevers come in all shapes and sizes. A verbal outburst, defiance, silence, being mean to siblings, exclamations like “not fair!” and the like all indicate feelings that are going on inside your child. If they are not expressed in helpful words, then they will continue to come out in unhelpful behavior. In your active listening response, be creative with your words and dare to be different.
Ten year old Emily comes in from outside and slams the door behind her. Recognizing an active listening moment, you comment, “You feel angry.” “You won’t believe what Alice just said to me.” “You feel surprised.” “Whatever, she’s so mean.” “You feel rejected.” With exasperation, Emily huffs, “Mama, will you get off the ‘you feel’ kick.”
Going through the motions of active listening, with repeatedly leading in with “you feel,” will shortly fall on deaf ears. Emily just knows that mama is trying re-state her feelings, but not trying to be with her in her emotional pain.
Emily comes in from outside and slams the door. “Wow! That was loud. Everything okay dear?” “No, it’s not okay. Alice just called me a freak because I got my hair cut short.” “It sounds like Alice hurt your feelings by calling you names.” Raising her voice, Emily clenches her fists and sobs, “She’s so mean.” Mama gathers her into her arms, stroking her hair, and adds, “Alice and you are best friends. It really makes you sad when she says thoughtless things, and you don’t know what to do.”
By words and actions, mama is being with Emily in her emotional pain. The words are varied responses to what mama sees and hears from Emily. Emily may cry for a short while in her mama’s arm, and then mama will notice her emotional fever going down. Crisis calmed more quickly, and then they can think about problem-solving. Because mama was creative in her words and actions, and she dared to be different, Emily is more willing and able to find a good solution.
Soon we will be coming up on barbeque season, for me anyway. Although I have seen people barbeque in the snow. When grilling a burger, it’s easy to burn and it won’t be well cooked if you don’t flip it on the grill. Flipping a burger, even several times, and adding seasoning, gives it opportunity to cook just right. I can see it on the grill and imagine its savory taste even right now. Similarly, while training your children up in the ways of the Lord so that, when they grow old, He will not depart from them, and those are our marching orders from Proverbs 22:6, don’t forget to flip your comments back and forth.
Saturday morning is cleaning time in the Bower household. Jason is buried in his ipad, lost in a gaming battle. As she opens his bedroom door, mom calls out, “Son, put the gaming up. Let’s get your room straight.” “yeah, yeah, Okay, in a minute,” Jason muffles a reply.
Here, mom has a choice. She can choose power. She walks to his bedside, grabs the ipad out of his hands, clicks it off, and orders, “I said now, young man.” Jason will nut up, mouth off, and reluctantly comply.
Mom could also, however, choose relationship. Confront. “Okay, son, what part of let’s go did you not understand?” Jason would test the limit with, “I said okay mom, in a minute.” Here is where mom notices her son’s emotional fever and so she uses her active listening. “Wow, Jason, you’re really locked in on that game right now.” This acknowledgement lowers Jason’s emotional fever to where he is more receptive. "Yeah, I haven’t gotten this far in the game before.” “You’re excited to be winning,” mom observes. Having flipped to active listening to engage her son in the relationship, mom can then make a suggestion. “Tell you what, take a moment to pause the action, so you can pick up where you left off after we tackle your room.”
Make the direction. Flip to active listening however many times it takes to see your child’s emotional fever come down. Return to a revised direction. You retain your authority, ditch the power, and build the relationship. Don’t forget to flip it.
There’s a cute video clip I saw recently on the TV show America’ Funniest Videos. A toddler is sitting within reach of a tumbler glass that is too big for him to hold. As he reaches for it, off camera his mother tells him “no.” He stops and then looks at his mom. He reaches again and is told no again. He stops, and looks at his mom again, this time as he tries again to reach out for the object. This dance occurs between mom and toddler multiple times, with each effort increasingly exaggerated, much to the delight of the audience. I think it won first place that night on the show.
This clip is so funny because all of us parents have been there, done that. We caution our kids and they try things anyway. In fact, I believe kids are hard-wired to test limits. In Teachable Moments: Building Blocks of Christian Parenting, one of my imperatives is, Kids Will Always Test the Limits. Why is that, especially if it almost always leads to trouble?
The answer is that kids always test the limits to be sure that they are there. Limits are about having/setting healthy boundaries. Permissive parenting leads to wide exploration of boundaries. This is a good thing because it encourages exploration, creativity, and problem-solving. However, it can also encourage worry and anxiety. In addition to the fun stuff, the unknown is also out there and might be dangerous. As parents, we want to encourage our children’s exploration of their world, but within healthy limits. We want to have their backs.
Mom brought her 5 year old Andy to my office and told me that she just can’t control him and that he runs wild all the time. Andy proceeded to demonstrate his mom’s concerns by opening doors, touching things, and generally misbehaving, all the while having a smirk on his face, while mom’s words of restraint fell on deaf ears. I gathered Andy up in my arms, gave him gentle words of calm in his ear, and firmly explained the rules of my office. He calmed down a little bit, but still looked to mom to see if I meant what I said.
Our kids are doing great? Fantastic. Celebrate and enjoy a teachable moment. Will they also test the limits? You betcha. Be ready with firm boundaries, and don’t threaten if you are not going to follow through. By confronting, setting firm boundaries, and being in charge, you are easing their worry and anxiety, while also freeing them up to safely explore and have more fun.
When my son was a youngster, he wanted to play baseball. Of course, I helped him prepare and he tried out for Little League and made the team. Come game time, he occasionally struck out. At first, he would stomp his feet, throw the bat, and cry. The coach rightfully gave him a talking to, as did I later after the game. It also gave me motivation to join an adult baseball team. If, at times, he saw me handle striking out, then that might help him handle the frustration better as well. How are you as a role model for your children?
Some parents fall back on the old saying, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Wow! Not a healthy perspective. Wouldn’t that promote hypocrisy and the notion of getting away with as much as you can? How about this one? “Out of sight, out of mind.” Are you one way with company and another way at home? How are you as a role model for your children?
You get no time off as a role model. Your children are aware of who you are, what you do, how you talk 24/7. Certainly when they are toddlers, you are their world. As they get older and wiser, you are still their world. They’re just not going to tell you, and they are looking to find fault and exceptions. Proverbs 22:6 tell us to “raise your children in the ways of the Lord so that, when they grow old, He will not depart from them.” If our role model is the Lord, and we demonstrate His judgment, compassion, and mercy in raising our children, then we give our children every opportunity to succeed in life.
We were at a theme park when our kids were 13 and 10. Where got lunch was very busy. The hot dog man gave us our order through the window and turned to get the next order. “Excuse me, but did you want me to pay for this? I said. He sputtered, “Oh yeah,” and told me the amount. I paid him. As we left, my son piped up, “Dude, why did you do that? We could have just walked away and had a free lunch.” He was exactly right. However, seizing the teachable moment, I told him, “but, son, that would have been wrong, cheating, and that’s not who we are.” How are you as a role model for your children?