Remember those days before you had kids? You would see parents in a store or public event and gawk at the kids throwing tantrums. You may have uttered those ill-fated words: “When I have kids, I will never…” My version included verses like, “I will never bribe my kids with sweets” or “I will never allow my kid to throw a fit in public.”
Fast-forward a few years and most of us are now eating those words. As I look back at those pre-parenthood days, I realize that much of my switch from parenting in theory and parenting in reality had to do with the difference between a reactive and proactive approach.
Before we had kids, we all probably imagined that we would be those proactive parents who knew how to respond to every situation in a thought-out, reasonable way. The reality of parenting is that kids often act in ways that are so unpredictable that we struggle to be proactive.
No parent can be proactive all the time. Some situations require a quick, reactive, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants decision. There are a few strategies we can keep in mind, however, to keep us in a more proactive, logical mode much of the time.
1. Try to stay in your right mind (literally)
In a great talk I was listening to the other day, the speaker was discussing the roles of the different parts of the brain. The emotional part of the brain often takes over when we get upset with our kids. This rush of emotion tends to make us much more reactive instead of proactive. Not surprisingly, our kids’ brains our dominated by emotion, too. Since their brains are still developing, it is much harder for them to shift up to the thinking part of the brain.
For us adults, however, we can consciously try to keep ourselves thinking instead of just reacting based on emotions. Emotions serve a purpose, but if we want to model self-regulation for our kids, learning to help us calm our emotions enough to respond rationally is key. Strategies such as taking a deep breath or taking a few minutes away from the situation are often helpful. Switching to our thinking brain will help us respond in a more proactive way.
Try this: Keep breathing and step away if necessary. Repeat to yourself, “They are just little and still learning.”
2. Consider your child’s temperament
Do your children have very different personalities from you? My children differ in temperament from me quite a lot. This was evident early on when my toddler would try to talk to every new person on the playground while I was content to hang back.
Having differing temperaments can spark some challenges, especially with being a proactive parent. Your temperament usually influences how you automatically respond to a situation. If your temperament differs from your child, your automatic reaction might not always be the best approach.
For example, imagine you have a much more outgoing, talkative temperament, but your child is more introverted or quiet. If you are trying to discipline her, a loud wordy reprimand is probably going to cause her to shut down. If you understand her temperament, you can act proactively to think through how to react in a way to help her learn the lesson instead of feeling anxious.
Try this: In a calmer moment, consider the approach that works best for your child, such as quiet words, time out, wordy discussion, etc. Make a mental note of this for the next time a meltdown happens.
3. Connect first
This may sound counter-intuitive, but sometimes when you like your kid the least, is the best time to spend more time with her. We’ve all had days (or seasons) where you and your child are just not getting along. The stresses of life and school are wearing you down. Your kid talks back to you and you may not respond much better in return.
Many times this is a signal that you and your child are just not connecting. Just as the saying goes, all work and no play makes everybody grumpy. I have found on taking time to play with kids to be a real game-changer. Even 10 or 20 minutes a few times a week can really help you become a more proactive parent, instead of just responding to immediate emotion of the moment.
It seems that when kids know you will take time to get down on their level and engage in something they enjoy, the grumpy moods and snarky attitudes are almost impossible to maintain. In turn, you have a more positive attitude too and can respond to them better.
Try this: Ask your child if you can join her in an activity that she enjoys. Ask something like, “Would you like to play a board game or Legos.”
4. Simplify life
In the past year or so I have really tried to focus on simplifying our life and routine. If I feel stressed about piles of toys and too many activities, I can only imagine how it must make my kids feel. After reading several insightful about how we can simplify our lives to encourage our kids to play longer and feel more content, I was on board.
How does this relate to being a more proactive parent? For me, just taking steps to simplify is itself a proactive move. It’s about being intentional with how we spend our time and money and what effect that has on our kids. Additionally, the calmer, less stressful environment makes it possible for me to be more proactive with other parenting decisions. If you are always in a mode of “putting out fires” it is difficult to be a proactive, intentional parent. Simplification for me was the first step in moving away from just reacting to my kids and towards a goal of living more in line with our larger family goals.
Try this: If you are considering signing up for another activity or getting another toy, ask yourself, “Will this benefit my kid long-term?” Or, “How long do I think they will stay interested in this?” Additionally, consider, “Is doing this worth the extra stress and less downtime for my kids.”
5. Set clear expectations
This one may seem obvious, but it is easy to forget that kids sometimes do not have the same goals or assumptions about behavior that we do. This hit home to me just the other day with my 7-year-old son. We had just had a long discussion about the difference between playful roughhousing and actual hitting with friends. Then, just a few days later I saw him repeating the same inappropriate hitting with his brother. I sat him down and explain in clear terms that hitting was wrong. This time the lesson stuck.
He said he did not understand that it was wrong before. I was shocked, but I think he was being genuine. It was then that I realized how clear we have to be with kids. Long, wordy discussions sometimes go over their heads. Clarity in expectations is key.
Setting clear expectations is the cornerstone of proactive parenting. It sets out ahead of time what we consider appropriate in a given situation. I find myself having the little talk about expectations prior to almost every event or outing with my boys and I do think it helps them.
Try this: Before an event or outing, sit down for a minute and clarify the expectations with your kids, “We are going here, I expect you to…”
As parents we often fluctuate between proactive and reactive parenting styles. If you are in a season of life where just surviving from day-to-day (hello newborn stage) is a big accomplishment, then proactive parenting may seem like a distant goal. Over the long-term, however, a proactive approach can help you remain a calmer and more consistent parent and help your kids thrive.