8 Fundamental Parenting Rules

Feeling a little unsure of your parenting skills? Here are eight basic rules to help you navigate the most fulfilling, and challenging, job you’ll ever tackle.

Parenting sure would be a piece of cake if kids waltzed out of the womb knowing how to behave. But since we’re not that lucky, teaching them the rules of civility is our cross to bear. The tricky part: making sure they don’t counterattack us in the process, which means we need to find ways to get our kids to use their own internal dialogue to follow the clear and reasonable rules of behavior that we establish. In other words, we need to get them to think their way to good behavior by getting them to comply with the rules we establish because they know it’s the right thing to do, instead of following them because they’re afraid we’ll go ballistic and ground them until their grandchildren are potty trained.

There are several prerequisites to our discipline program that can help us accomplish this goal without too much blood, sweat and tears. If we follow them, we’re sure to encourage self-direction instead of external direction in our kids:

1. Comprehension

If we want our children to decide, inwardly, to comply with a rule, it needs to be one they agree with. If they don’t understand a rule or agree with its purpose and meaning, they won’t follow it because it’s the proper thing to do. If they do follow it, it’s because they’re afraid of being hounded, reprimanded, criticized or punished.

2. Respect

We should treat our children with respect. Treating them as inferior puts us in the position of being something they need to react to through aggression or surrender. If we want them to trust their ability to make the right decisions on their own, we have to show them that we respect their ability to do so.

3. Consistency

Our discipline needs to be consistently enforced. When we’re inconsistent, it sends mixed messages, making it impossible for our kids to be consistent while assessing their own behavior. (Is this the time it matters that I’m good, or not? They end up using external cues to make that decision.)

4. Example

We need to model our own good behavioral choices. There’s no sense trying to get them to stop cursing if we say things that would make Marilyn Manson blush, right? Double standards like this create a confusion that makes creating clear internal dialogue tough.

5. Control

We need to try to keep our cool. Yelling, screaming, or wigging out in any way brings to a screeching halt any attempts our children may have to internally reflect upon their poor choice. Then what do they do? They put the thing in reverse and drive right over us. We become the bad guys. If I say, “Erik, you haven’t even cleaned your room! I’m sick and tired of having to remind you!” Erik is going to spend the next hour wishing he had been adopted at birth by a troop of chimpanzees. He sure as heck won’t be thinking about going on a cleaning frenzy, that’s for sure.

6. Communication

It’s important to address the behavior, not the child. Saying something like, “You’re so lazy! I can’t believe you haven’t started your chores!” is a statement that attacks a child’s self-worth, not his bad choices. So eventually, he’s gonna assume every mistake he makes is a reflection of his self-worth. He’ll also be more likely to counterattack, shifting all of his focus externally on what meanies we are rather than thinking about his behavior.

We can cut the blabber. The more we lecture, explain, nag, negotiate, threaten, coax, bribe, plead, whine, beg, direct, demand, insist, warn or interrogate, the more static our children will have to cut through before they can think about their choices.

We need to nix most of the negative words in our discipline language. Words like “stop,” “no,” “can’t ,” “quit” or “don’t” encourage us to define our children in terms of their flaws, not their strengths, and it gives them every excuse to lash out against us, which means they’re way too busy to think about their behavior . Here’s an example to help illustrate this point: Externally directed parenting: Mom: “Tommy, don’t run around the pool, or you might get hurt! Tommy ignores her because he’s sick of being told what he can’t do. Of course he becomes a human hockey puck. Mom: “I told you not to run! I just knew this was going to happen.” Internally directed parenting: Tommy races around the pool like an over-wound maniac. He slips, he falls, he cries. Mom: “I’m so sorry you forgot about our rule to not run around the pool.” (A remark that gives Tommy no reason to get mad at her.) So the first example just makes Tommy feel furious and maybe a little stupid. The second encourages him to think about his mistake.

We should avoid using external influences to change their behavior. Threats, bribes, ultimatums, or rewards are examples. Invoking a higher authority like Santa or the Easter Bunny is another no-no. Using these fictitious authorities or even the ol’ “Wait til your father get home,” trick lets our children know that we (and they) can’t handle their problems alone. Sure, they help our children behave (around the holidays, anyway,) but for all the wrong reasons. These tricks teach them that the answer to all of their problems is in the outside world, not within them—that they must be guided by external beacons, not internal ones.

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