Imagine that interactions about behavior in your parenting life can be neatly divided in to two categories of situations. Overly simplistic, yes, but work with me here for a minute. Depending on the category, I propose that two distinct types of situations, goals, and behavior management strategies apply. And, knowing which category you are dealing with (and keeping an eye for how much time you spend in each one) is an excellent asset for parenting well.
Category 1: Finish Line Parenting
Finish Line Parenting is what 99% of us were employing this morning at 7:30am. In my house, weekdays at 7:30am during the school year often look about the same. PUT ON YOUR SHOES! WHERE IS YOUR BACKPACK? HERE’S YOUR LUNCH! ACCCKK HURRY UP! I might not be actually yelling, but I am often wound up a bit and/or micro-managing, Worse, there are the days when the usual techniques aren’t working, and parents feel like the only way they are going to get their child out the door in time is to use bribes, threats, yelling, consequences, etc.
I call these situations “Finish Line Parenting” situations, because in those moments, our priorities are about an outcome, ie the ‘finish line.’ The finish line might be getting to school before the tardy bell, hustling a tantruming child away from judging eyes, or getting your child to back away from a busy street curb, but your primary goal for that moment is about achieving something external IN that moment.
When parents have short-term goals, and a child’s participation is necessary for success, there is a potential for conflict. If our child doesn’t just happen to feel like doing whatever it is that we want them to do, and we don’t think that the goal should be postponed or discarded, we are left with a situation where the only way to achieve our goals is to make another person to do what we want. The techniques for doing that are generally techniques that use power, like the above named yelling, bribes, threats, etc. Our focus on a short-term result, when combined with our child’s non-agreement, means that we will likely need to use our power in order to control our child. This, while necessary at times, is a parenting technique that comes with some less desirable side effects.
Think about a time when you felt like someone didn’t care about what you wanted, but rather only their own opinions & priorities. I’d wager that it felt bad to you, and our kids are no different. Overused power and control techniques tend to result in lower relationship closeness, increased deceit, and more power struggling.
Now, having said all that, I will also strongly say that I don’t think it’s possible to parent without doing this some of the time. Children, by definition, are immature and unable to always make decisions based on long-term health and well-being. Part of our job as parents is to make them do things even if they don’t want to. So, don’t read this like I’m saying that Finish Line Parenting techniques are bad. They aren’t bad, they are just better when used thoughtfully and sparingly. Our goal should be to limit their use, and look for situations where we can pull tools from the other category.
Category 2: Growth Parenting
Growth Parenting moments are those when we can choose to opt out of our otherwise goal-directed activity, and let our child’s preferences or needs take priority. Growth parenting techniques vary widely, but typically involve lots of calm energy, patience, and good boundaries, and sometimes also include physical calming, playfulness, reflection, validation, and parental time-outs. Growth parenting lets the child’s needs set the timeline. Growth Parenting techniques are flexible and responsive to the situation, and especially to the needs of the child.
Growth parenting techniques are what we are employing when, for example, we see our child struggling with something, and we think twice about intervening. Growth parenting is when we see our child getting more and more upset because they didn’t get the thing they wanted, and we take a deep breath, stay present but not over-involved, and let them wrestle with those difficult feelings in an age-appropriately independent manner. Growth parenting is when we offer calm connection during hard times, and wait until later to handle needed feedback or reparations.
Growth parenting is when the trip to Target you thought you were about to take gets set aside because you realize that the priority is now giving your child a chance to practice tolerating some uncomfortable emotion. This is no longer Target-shopping time on your calendar. Target can wait. Your new agenda item for 2pm is “Let my child practice feeling and tolerating and managing difficult emotions.”
Growth Parenting techniques can challenge us–it’s hard sometimes to stay calm when your child is escalating and not being cooperative. The effort pays off, though, because these moments facilitate long-term growth and maturity for our children, particularly around the critical skills of tolerating and managing difficult emotions. The other payoff–these techniques strengthen our relationships.
Telling them apart
Last thought– improving our ability to differentiate between growth and finish line parenting moments is really where the rubber meets the road. When I can see that a moment isn’t a finish line parenting moment, it instantly steers me towards a way of being with my child that is inherently de-escalating.
If you’d like to put this in to practice, identify 2-3 moments recently where you parented as though it was a finish line moment, but can now see that it did not have to be. Once we begin to identify them in real time, there is freedom and connectedness in those moments.