There are times when less is more.
In writing, for example, less means leaving room for readers to fill in some details via their imagination. In cooking it means allowing just a few ingredients to shine. And in parenting, it means permitting children to grow and develop without parental involvement and attention to every minute detail.
Unfortunately, modern-day parenting commands a contrarian philosophy, one that dictates that more is more. Parents are expected to devote every last bit of attention and effort to raising smart, successful, perfect little beings. This means more time volunteering at school. More time showering our kids with attention while they do even the smallest achievements. And it means spending hours upon hours negotiating, lecturing and trying to manage difficult behavior in our kids. Conventional wisdom decrees that all undesirable behavior must be conquered with more parenting.
Um, no. Wrong.
Parents are running themselves ragged trying to live up to a standard that is untenable. What’s worse is that their endless offerings of attention are having disastrous consequences. Parents are exhausted from trying to manage whining and complaining and tantrums. All the while children are learning that those same behaviors win them both attention and (quite often) more TV time or cookies and ice cream. As a result, we wind up with an endless pattern. The kids misbehave. The parents react. The kids misbehave. The parents react. The kids …
This is why, if parents want to curb behavior so they can start enjoying time as a family again they need to adopt the less is more philosophy.
Here are four ways parents can do less and improve more.
Ignore the Whining: Responding to whining is like furiously scratching an itchy mosquito bite. It soothes for a moment. But, ultimately, the action results in more itching.
But whhhhhy can’t I have more screen time?
But whhhyyyy can’t I have a sleepover at Jenny’s house?
But whhhhhyyyy can’t I have a cookie right before dinner?
Kids whine because they know parents can’t help but respond. Sometimes kids get a lecture. Sometimes a beaten-down mother or father gives in to the request. It doesn’t matter. Kids have learned that their whining is highly effective in getting some benefit (even negative attention is still a reward.). So stop responding to whining. Just ignore it. Soon enough your kids will see that their whining doesn’t produce the typical results and they will try to get your attention in more appropriate ways.
Don’t Negotiate: Parenting isn’t a democracy. Sure, kids can and often should have some input into decisions that may affect them. But at the end of the day parents want to be able to make choices without an endless barrage of mediation requests. Parents often think negotiation with kids is alright because everyone wins with a compromise. Nope. In this case, only the kids win. Once negotiation commences, children believe everything is up for debate. Before parents know it, they are negotiating the number of carrots little Becky needs to eat at dinner, or how many more minutes Mikey can watch “Bob the Builder” before bedtime. Want to avoid feeling as if you live in mediation court? Simple—don’t negotiate. Stand firm and ignore any efforts to derail your plan.
Ignore Anything Annoying: Kids are annoying. I know it’s a weird thing to say, but, well, sometimes they are. They make awful noises. They fidget and tap and interrupt without saying “excuse me.” They burb and fart on purpose. Oh, it’s infuriating. Just because the behavior grates on parents doesn’t mean it’s helpful to admonish it. In fact, it’s detrimental. Kids who are looking to get a rise out of parents—and then succeed—are only encouraged to keep at their behavior. And children who have difficulty controlling some of these behaviors feel badly about themselves when admonished. When parents simply ignore these behaviors they suddenly feel better. Often the annoyances disappear. But even if they don’t, they hold no power over the parent and parents eventually hardly even notice them.
Pretend You Don’t Hear Cursing or other Disrespectful Talk: Typically, kids curse for two different reasons. Little kids who’ve somehow heard a bad word have no idea what they are saying. But the reaction they receive from parents (laughing, yelling) teaches them that those words are powerful. The other type of cursing is done by older children trying to enrage their parents. Saying, “F**k you, Mom” is sure to earn a fiery response. And that’s the point. Any reaction from a parent will just encourage kids to curse even more. When cursing has no power to hurt or elicit a response children will find other more pleasant means to communicate. And that improved way to interacting means everyone enjoys each other much more.
Catherine Pearlman’s book Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction is available now from TarcherPerigee.