Are you ready for a parenting tip that may change the way you correct your child’s behaviors? As a couples and family therapist who looks at life (and clinical cases) through the attachment theory lens, I couldn’t resist but write about how attachment theory may look in action. The art of parenting starts when we know how we can correct our kids behaviors and still stay connected to them—without sacrificing our relationship by having fights with them. Connection versus correction is a parenting tip that I want to share with you today.
DOES THAT SOUND FAMILIAR?
Your 10-year-old son, Billy, comes back from school and he starts doing his homework. After a few minutes, he turns on the TV. He broke a rule because he knows that watching TV happens after he completes his homework. If you were to ask him why did he do that, he might say: “I just want to watch my show.”
He doesn’t attach more meaning to this action—he watches TV because he wants to.
NOW, LET’S THINK ABOUT WHAT IS GOING ON FOR YOU – THE PARENT…
You may start experiencing Billy’s behavior as disobedience or as a sign of laziness. You might even think of Billy as disrespectful since he didn’t comply with the rule. And do you remember from your Psychology 101 class that once you start attaching meaning to something you actually experience it as that? So for Billy, if you assume that he turned the TV on because he is disrespectful, lazy, or disobedient, you will start constantly experience Billy as that.
HOW DO YOU THINK YOUR PERCEPTION OF BILLY IS GOING TO CHANGE BILLY’S MEANING ABOUT HIS “INNOCENT ACTION OF TURNING ON THE TV?”
It will definitely change the way Billy sees himself! Doesn’t it?
PARENTING TIP: YOUR THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS WILL FURTHER DEVELOP BILLY’S OWN IMPRESSIONS ABOUT HIS BEHAVIOR.
Now let’s talk about a different scenario.
Let’s imagine that your experience of Billy’s behavior is less negative and you will see it as a fairly normal and not uncommon action for a 10-year-old boy to turn on his TV before completing homework. Maybe you will think about Billy having a long, tiring day and wanting to relax before doing his work. Maybe you know that Billy struggles with math, and every time he needs to do math homework, he gets really discouraged about it. Whichever positive assumption you make, you don’t allow Billy to experience any negative messages about himself that his behavior came to represent. In other words, you make it safe for Billy and you give room for him to figure out for himself what is the reason behind his actions.
You might be thinking now, “I must correct his behavior so he does his homework?” After all, you as a parent need to teach him to make the right choices so he succeeds in life. You are right! It is your responsibility as a parent to help your child make good choices in life.
HOW YOU CORRECT THAT BEHAVIOR AND DIRECT BILLY TOWARDS HIS HOMEWORK IS WHERE THE ART OF PARENTING BEGINS
CONNECTION OVER CORRECTION IS THE ANSWER
Connection over correction is an approach to parenting that has to do with being able to guide your child in a positive manner without sacrificing his autonomy and individuality.
Dan Hughes wrote that “successful parenting strives to find a balance between independence and dependence, freedom to choose and following the rules, autonomy and emotional intimacy, and maintaining safety and seeking to explore.”
So when Billy turns on the TV before finishing his homework, you can either make no assumptions and put no judgments on him OR you can guess what positive intent could Billy have in watching TV. You may simply observe his behavior OR you can genuinely ask: “Billy, what is going on? Usually, you remember the rules, so I wonder if something happened today?” Your focus should be on engaging with Billy so you can understand the meaning of his behavior.
You might think now: “This is ridiculous! He is simply wanting to get out of doing homework!!” If you think that way, do you think that Billy will be more or less likely to talk to you about his behavior? You guessed it right. He may get mad and shut down…knowing or even only feeling that you think that way.
Remember, the human brain is designed to work in good relationships. Good relationships help children develop properly on the cognitive, emotional, social, behavioral, and biological level. If you approach Billy in that nonjudgmental, caring way, who knows what he may tell you about his rationale behind watching TV.
He may say: “I hate math! I don’t understand it. I feel stupid!” or he may say: “Kids at school made fun of me, so I don’t care about anything and anybody anymore!” Regardless of what he says, Billy gives you “an opening” to talk about what is on his mind. That would be an ideal time to use those reflecting skills and empathy that I know you have. Let him know that you understand him (not as a way of getting him to do his homework! He will feel it if that is the case).
PARENTING TIP: Be as genuine as you would want someone to be with you when you feel stupid or when you feel embarrassed for being made fun of.
You will know that you are doing a good job at reflecting his feelings and empathizing with him when Billy gets back to his homework. Granted, you may have to compromise a little, talk to him about what happened, maybe even make an exception and let him finish his TV show. After that; however, Billy is more likely to sit down and do his homework than if you tried correcting his behavior right away.
When you CONNECT with your child this way, CORRECTION or consequences of his behavior might not even be needed. Dan Hughes said it right that “it is the connection between the parent and child that is central to his development, not the corrections that are applied.”
PARENTING TIP: PARENTING IS MUCH MORE THAN GUIDANCE AND DISCIPLINE.
Since guidance and discipline still have to happen, the context in which they appear is what makes the whole difference….you can either create an experience for Billy that can make him feel lazy or as if he was a bad kid for breaking a rule OR you can provide Billy with understanding that will further shape his core sense of worth. It is your choice.
Erin Black says
Wow, Marta, I was struggling with my 10 yr. old yesterday with a very, very similar scenario and jumped online this morning to google some help tips and decided to look on your website instead. This was a helpful reminder of things you have shared and suggested in the past years to me. I thank you, again, for your loving encouragement. I choose connection.
Marta Kem says
I am so glad Erin that you found this post a helpful reminder:) When we are in the midst of dealing with the day to day things, and when we are feeling even slightly tired, overwhelmed, or stressed, it is so easy to forget about how powerful connection over correction can be.
Sounds interesting, but what if the child can’t or won’t explain their behaviour?