Parenting is one of the most challenging, yet meaningful life tasks. Unfortunately, popular wisdom and misconceptions about how to raise responsible kids can lead to ineffective communication and power struggles. Some parents use authoritarian parenting strategies that do not allow the child an independent voice or sense of efficacy. Other parents overcompensate with overly permissive parenting that doesn’t teach kids about limits and self-control. Research shows both extremes can interfere with kids’ ability to regulate emotions and form healthy relationships as adults. The best type of parenting is fair, flexible, respectful, and has learning, rather than submission as its goal. Hearing and respecting feelings, allowing choice, yet setting fair and clear limits on unacceptable behavior is the healthy balance that we should all strive for. This article will teach you how to avoid ineffective ways of communicating that lead to noncompliance and power struggles, or damage self-esteem.
(1) Talking Too Much
When parents go on and on, kids tune them out. Researchers have shown that the human brain can keep only four “chunks” of information or unique ideas in short-term (active) memory at once. This amounts to about 30 seconds or one or two sentences of speaking.
“I’m not sure what we should do about ballet and softball this semester. You know, you really probably can’t do both because softball is on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 4, but then you have to change and put your hair in a bun, so that won’t be enough time, unless you pack all your ballet stuff on Monday night, which means it has to get washed on Sunday…….”
There are so many different ideas in this message that the kid will get confused and tune the parent out. Also, the message has an overall negative, anxious tone that can cause the kid to react with doubt and anxiety. It is not necessary to tell the kid all of the information at once. Rather, break it up into separate steps to be more digestible. Let the kid express his/her overall preference first, before bringing up all the obstacles.
“If you do both ballet and softball this semester, you’ll have to go right from one to the other some nights. Let’s sit down and figure out if this makes sense for both you and me.”
In this example, the parent is limiting the conversation to two sentences, which makes it easier for the kid to absorb the information. She is also also being clear about the overall goal (make it work for both), and the next steps she is requesting (sit down and discuss the issue). Finally, she is communicating a willingness to collaborate and consider the kids' needs as well as her own.
(2) Nagging and Giving Multiple Warnings
Most parents are familiar with the early morning rush to get everybody out the door on time, along with their lunches, gym clothes, musical instruments, signed homework, and so on. The child who gets distracted and seems unmotivated to get ready on time is the greatest challenge to a busy parent. Many parents feel out of control and try desperately to control the situation by nagging or criticizing. The problem with nagging is that you are actually training kids to ignore you because they know there will be more reminders down the road. While very young kids, may need more assistance and instruction, effective parents allow the kids to take increasing responsibility as they grow older.
Ineffective Example (to a 10-year-old kid)
“I’m waking you up an hour early because you are never ready on time. You need to get dressed right now. Do you have the homework for me to sign? “
Ten minutes later.
“I told you to get ready and you’re still lolly gagging. You’re going to make us all late. Go and brush your teeth and put your clothes on.”
Ten minutes later.
“Where is your homework? I asked you to bring it for me to sign? And you’re not finished dressing. We are going to be late.”
And so on.
This parent is taking way too much responsibility and indirectly communicating to the kid that she doesn’t trust him to manage the situation without extensive instruction and interference. This so-called “helicopter parenting,” can lead to unconfident, overly dependent kids, according to Dr. Carol Deck, a best-selling author and researcher on parenting and motivation. The tone is also negative and intrusive, which is likely to create resentment and resistance or passive-aggression.
“We will be leaving for school in 45 minutes. If you don’t have everything you need, it’s up to you to explain it to your teachers.”
These instructions are brief and convey a clear expectation, with a consequence for not complying. They are free of judgment, anxiety, and attempts to control. The parent allows the kid to learn from the natural consequences of his/her own behavior.