Knee-jerk parenting

Threatening to toss the TV to win a parenting battle? Time to change your discipline channel

We’ve all had them. They’re the moments we later confess online under the heading Not My Proudest Parenting Moment. One of the kids does something infuriating, bone-headed or obnoxious, and instead of responding with firm but gentle discipline, we curse, cave or threaten an absurd punishment we’ll never follow through on. Call it knee-jerk parenting — emphasis on jerk.

These low points usually come when families are harried and overscheduled, says Alyson Schafer, the Toronto author of Honey, I Wrecked the Kids. “A lot of parents are just at a loss for what to do. They’re stressed, they’re exhausted, and they go for the quick fix.” Unfortunately, the quick fix turns out to be no fix at all. Read on for some scenarios that prompt common knee-jerk responses, and some tips for handling them the next time they come up.

The psycho blow-up

On the morning of your important breakfast meeting, your six-year-old is dilly-dallying as she packs her school bag. After 10 minutes of prodding her, you go Jack Bauer, shrieking, “Now you’ve made me late for my @#*& meeting!”

“This really becomes a tit-for-tat,” says Shafer. “You’re saying, ‘You stuck it to me by going slow and screwing up my morning, so I’m going to stick it to you by making you feel bad.’ It might feel good for a second to have released this bitter, toxic thought, but you’re not going to get to your meeting any faster.”

A child who habitually dawdles in the morning needs a firm routine with lots of time built in for her slow pace. Rather than imposing a plan of your own design, involve your child. “I used to nag one of my daughters about getting out of the house on time,” says Toronto parent coach Terry Carson. “She would say, ‘Mommy, you’re always shouting.’” So Carson and her daughter, who was about 12, decided on a plan: Carson’s first two requests had to be sotto voce. But her daughter agreed that a third request could be shouted. “I never had to do that. Because it was her idea, because she had a stake in it, she actually followed through.”

Schafer suggests using the timer on the stove or microwave, which allows your child to gauge her time without constant reminders from you.

The spineless give-in

Your three-year-old has just enjoyed an hour in the community pool and you’re heading home for lunch. He spots a vending machine and melts down when you say he can’t have any candy. As others in the lobby give you that judgmental glare, you hand your son a loonie so he can buy box of Smarties.

“If that becomes a habit, you’ll be in a vortex of give-ins forever,” says Carson. “Parents complain to me all the time. When I get down to it, I realize they’re giving in too often and the kids are using that — not in a vicious way, but because that’s human nature.”

Schafer encourages parents to try to understand how toddlers or preschoolers view this situation. “In a child’s mind, we are the gatekeeper to their joy. We might have a rule that the child should eat only so much sugar per day, but those rules are not apparent to them. All they know is Sometimes you say yes, so how come this time you said no?” That’s why she recommends that parents have a consistent rule that their child can grasp, such as “We don’t buy treats in the checkout line. Ever.”

If your little one does melt down, Carson says the feedback needs to be immediate. “I know it’s embarrassing, and there might be people around you who aren’t happy about it. But take your child off to the side and say, ‘You need to calm down and let me know when your calm.’ You’re not going to put up with a hissy fit, even if it’s extremely inconvenient for you.”

With older kids, Carson says, it’s appropriate to wait until you get to the car. “Then say, ‘I was really embarrassed back there, and I found that unacceptable.’ I’m a huge fan of never humiliating a child in public, even if the child humiliated you.”

The heroic rescue

Your nine-year-old calls from school to announce that he’s forgotten his homework on the kitchen table. Last week he forgot his lunch, and then his science project, and both times you had to deliver them. Once again, even though you have a dozen chores to do, you drop everything and drive to the school to hand in his homework.

“The number-one mistake that good parents make is they rescue,” says Carson. “Kids need to be accountable and responsible. When we rescue, and when we fix, we rob them of that opportunity to learn.” A child who routinely forgets things has no incentive to improve if you keep bailing him out.

That doesn’t mean we should never help our kids when they’re in a bind, Schafer stresses. “Situations do arise when parents need to ask, ‘In this particular case, do they need a lesson or do they need a friend?’” If your child routinely leaves projects until the night before they’re due, then she needs a lesson — she doesn’t need you to write a note to the teacher, making up an excuse. “But if they have soccer practice, and we have company coming over, and they just have too much on their plate, then what they need is a friend. That’s why we are in a family: to support each other.”

The ridiculous threat

Your kids have been bickering all day and you’ve had enough. You’ve already taken away their computer time, but that’s just made them more surly. Finally you blurt out, “If your behaviour doesn’t change, we’re cancelling the ski trip next month!”

“If a consequence is not being effective, the natural thing to do is pull out a bigger hammer,” says Schafer. “I call it whack-a-mole parenting. Finally, you pull out the biggest hammer you can think of, even though you know you’re never going to drop it.” The problem with this knee-jerk reaction, of course, is that your kids know you’re bluffing. “All it does is erode our children’s respect in our leadership. We become laughable puppets.”

Carson sees this dynamic in her practice all the time, usually with older kids. “Sometimes parents think that if they really clamp down, they really show they mean business, the child is going to pull up his socks. But quite frankly, often the exact opposite occurs. At this stage, it’s time to really have a conversation. Sit down with this child and find out what is really going on: Why is he or she behaving this way? Both sides need to have an opportunity to express themselves.”

If you do blurt out a ridiculous threat, Carson says, don’t be afraid to admit it to your kids. “Be very clear that you’re not changing your approach because the child argued, but because you either didn’t have enough time to think about it or you just overreacted.”

The indifferent bystander

You’re catching up on the last two episodes of Lost while your kids, seven and 10, are playing a board game. Suddenly the younger one shouts, “Mooooom! He’s cheating!” Engrossed in your show, you say, “You guys work it out yourselves.”

In some ways, this knee-jerk response is the opposite of the heroic rescue: Parents want their kids to settle their own squabbles without making you the referee. Fair enough. “But no one knows conflict resolution strategies unless they’re taught,” Carson says. Are your kids equipped to work out their differences? Have you modelled the strategies they need to settle their argument fairly? Or will the older or more aggressive sibling get his way, even if he’s wrong?

If siblings are to work out their own disputes, the rules need to be clear. For example, if they’re arguing about a board game, encourage them to read through the instructions together and determine whether the move was legal. If one child really is cheating, it’s appropriate for mom or dad to get involved and explain why that’s wrong.

“Parents can get into the picture if rules have been broken,” Carson says. “Rather than just saying, ‘You guys work it out,’ I encourage parents to ask coaching questions and to put a positive comment on the front end: ‘I know you two will be able to work this out because you both know the rules about sharing.’ Then you can say, ‘What you need to do to make sure you’re both following the rules?’ If they don’t know the rules, you can ask, ‘What do you think would be a better way to ask your sister to borrow her sweater?’ or ‘How can you ask your sister without being so rude?’ Now you are putting the ball back in their court, but you’re also guiding them through the process.”

The passive-agressive walk-away

You’ve just told your 14-year-old that she can’t go to a bush party this weekend, even though some of her friends are going. She angrily shoves a kitchen chair into the table, knocking over two glasses that shatter on the floor. Shaking with anger, you storm upstairs to your bedroom, slam the door and stew in silence.

When your child makes you so angry you can’t possibly have a rational discussion with her, walking away may be exactly the right thing to do. “It’s modelling what you want your kids to do when they’re angry,” says Schafer. “You can say, ‘I can tell you are angry with me, and I don’t want to act disrespectfully, so let’s talk about this when we are both more calm.’”

However, the parent in the scenario above is leaving the scene for the wrong reasons, Schafer says. “What the parent is saying here is ‘You’ve made me angry, so I’m going to punish you by withholding my love.’ That rejection is painful: It’s the worst form of punishment there is.”

In her book, Dr. Karyn’s Guide to the Teen Years, Karyn Gordon recommends the “parking it” technique: “Cleary, neither of us is in a good place to discuss this right now. Let’s park this conversation until later tonight or tomorrow when we’re in a better place.” And then, just make sure you follow through within 24 hours.

Being prepared with rational responses to your kids’ antics can help nix your worst knee-jerk reactions. But don’t beat yourself up if you occasionally have one of those not-so-proud parenting moments, because your kids will give you opportunities to improve. As Schafer says, “The great thing about misbehaviour is that if you don’t handle it right, you always get another chance.”