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How I Became a Good Parent Without Losing My Mind

A book called “Parenting With Love and Logic” changed my life. Before I can tell you about it, though, I have to go keep my house from falling apart. It’s chaos in the living room right now.

My children view control of the television the way Germany viewed the Rhineland in 1935: possession of the remote is a necessity to their very identity, and its absence is a moral affront. No one’s gone full Saving Private Ryan yet, but the melee threatens to turn into a bloodbath on the couch at any moment.

The couch is white. The bloodbath will definitely stain. I’m going to need to do something.

A few years ago, there would’ve been yelling. I’m pretty good at it. I’m a fairly bulky human and my day job is coaching high school athletes, which involves a fair amount of high-decibel communication. Today, however, there will be no yelling. I don’t know exactly what I’ll do yet, but I know the first step is to simply ask, “Hey guys, what do you think will happen if you keep this up?”

This sentence is magic. Between my teaching job and my parenting life, I probably say it a hundred times a year. I don’t yell any much anymore, because this magic sentence somehow circumvents the script most kids automatically run by default: misbehavior to frustration to parental rage to impotent and ineffective discipline,  rinse and repeat.

In business, this sort of question is called “thinking past the sale.” The technique involves forcing an assumption into the conversation without ever, technically, stating it. Here’s the assumption I’m making about my two youngest children (aged 11 and seven): they are rational beings, capable of understanding cause and effect.

I learned about The Official Magic Question from a book called “Teaching with Love and Logic,” which is a companion book to “Parenting with Love and Logic.” Perhaps the magic question will not work for everyone. Experience has proven that it works for me. We’ll have a discussion, everyone will agree on a fair distribution of magical HD pixels, and life will calm back down for a while.

It won’t work forever. No system is perfect, and any parenting book that makes such a claim should be burned as the black-magic voodoo it apparently is. But I’ve learned that this process, though not infallible, will typically restore calm. More importantly, it will reinforce to my kids the thing I want them to learn above all else: adults solve problems instead of creating them, and they only use force or volume when absolutely necessary.

Although this article deals specifically with the parenting book, both titles share the same assumptions and goals. The assumption, as stated above, is that human beings are rational creatures who learn to navigate a cause-and-effect world through trial-and-error. The goal I have for my children and students is simple: they must develop a sense of personal responsibility for decisions and their outcomes.

“Parenting With Love and Logic” is divided into two sections. The first, “The Love and Logic Parent,” provides a broad outline of the authors’ philosophy. The second, “Love and Logic Parenting Tools,” provides context-specific applications of the broad philosophy to common parenting friction points: chores, acting out in public, and dealing with schoolwork.

There are only two rules. First, limits must be set “using enforceable statements without anger, lecturing, or threats.” Second, when children (inevitably) mess up, “the adult shows empathy…and then lovingly hands the problem and its consequences back to the child.”

Under that umbrella, there are a few principles that I rely on almost weekly:

The person who created the problem owns the problem. I routinely tell my eleven-year-old son, “I’m very sorry that you’re so tired this morning. I would recommend not staying up so late again since you know we leave for school at 7:00 every morning. If I didn’t like feeling grumpy, I’d change something.” He’s starting to notice a correlation between how late he stays up and how he feels at 6:00 a.m. This will serve him well in college.

Limits must be spoken (or written), and they must be enforceable.  Telling a child “Keep the house clean!” is useless, because it’s likely you have very different definitions of the word “clean.” On the other hand, I tell my daughter, “Shoes left in the living room floor are a safety hazard. To keep other people from tripping, I’ll just throw them into the backyard whenever I see them here.” Since she hates to go into the yard by herself at 6:45 a.m. to get her shoes, she’s pretty good about putting them away these days.

Offering a choice is better than offering a command. All people crave autonomy. All people reject being bossed. Issuing a harsh command initiates a script: he took my dignity, so I have to get some back. Offering a choice initiates another script: which option is better? Based on that, I might ask my daughter “Do you want to clean your room tonight or in the morning? Because it has to be clean before people come over tomorrow for lunch.”

Battles are inevitable. Don’t fight pointless ones. My son is an alarmingly picky eater. I could strap him to the chair and refuse to allow him to leave until he eats what I prepare. (Honestly, I’ve made that mistake before, without the straps.) However, I have a feeling we have some larger battles coming down the line, so I’ve chosen not to go all-in on this one. Instead, he gets a lot of this: “I cooked pasta. I’m not cooking anything else. Your call, buddy.” Sometimes he eats the pasta. Sometimes he fixes himself something, which is how he invented marshmallow-bacon-peanut butter sandwiches.

Obviously, no system can remove all the stress from parenting or guarantee perfect children. Even if it could, we are flawed beings, and wouldn’t follow the system perfectly. However, I’ve been parenting now for 14 years. For the first six, I felt like I was floundering and inventing a lot of things on the fly.

As a teacher, I also had a lot of experience watching what didn’t work. I could see what the parents of my students were trying, and I could tell what was unlikely to be effective. When I read “Parenting With Love and Logic,” all that observation crystallized for me. Here was an approach that actually took into account the “software” that children were running: cause-and-effect.

I can only speak from experience, and I do not exaggerate when I say that these books changed my life. Neither I nor my children are perfect, but we enjoy relationships characterized by conversation and rational discussion, rather than anger and threats. I don’t dread coming home, and I dare say they don’t dread having me around.

Of course, I could spend years doing this, and then find out one of them is a drug dealer. In that case, a very uncomfortable conversation will inevitably start with one question:

“What do you think will happen if you keep this up?”

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