Stop being a servant
Adella Mousseau of Penn Hills, Pennsylvania, mom of 7-year-old Anastasia, admits she spent years "doing everything" for her daughter: getting her dressed, fetching her what she wanted, brushing her hair, begging her to lie down for a nap. "It made my husband really frustrated," she says.
A few months ago, she had a new baby and decided it was time to change the way she dealt with her daughter. "I gave her more responsibility," she says, including having Anastasia get dressed by herself, fetch her own cup, and participate in after-dinner cleanup. To help her make the transition from princess to family member, Mousseau gives her a sticker when she dresses herself and pays her a quarter for doing certain chores. These rewards motivate her daughter, who seems to like her newfound independence.
As embarrassing as it sounds, I can relate to Mousseau's servitude. Weirdly, I brushed Claire's teeth for her when she was, let's just say, old enough to have a diploma from preschool. Finally it got too absurd, and I quit. "This is what children do," I told her. "They brush their own teeth." One of us had to grow up, and I decided it would be me.
"She was a hard baby who wasn't sleeping a lot," says Sara Hendrickson of Duluth, Minnesota, about her daughter, Greta. Colic, acid reflux, and a milk allergy made Greta unhappy and her parents desperate. "We were in the frame of mind of doing anything we could to make her comfortable and happy."
Greta is 2 now, with no acid reflux, but she's figured out that a little fussing can get her what she wants. "She's learned to work us," says her mom, who's retraining herself not to jump up to eliminate every complaint. Now when Greta's upset because she wants her brother's Star Wars figures, Hendrickson doesn't rush in. "We have to step back and say, yes, she can cry a little bit," she explains.
Hearing my kids cry was tough for me. When Andrew was 18 months, he sobbed bitterly when I took a sharp-edged metal car out of his hands. A nearby dad said, "It's okay if he cries." This was news to me. In some convoluted way, I'd felt that crying meant I'd failed as a mom. Over time, I learned: Crying happens, it passes, and then we're on to another emotion.
Give them respect
If there's one thing I notice about a lot of moms with well-behaved kids, it's that they don't insult their children. Demeaning kids can create temporary compliance (it worked for my parents), but take it from me, it doesn't make for a great relationship. Here's what kids learn from being disrespected: I don't matter. How do kids behave when they don't matter? Poorly. The solution is to let them know that they do matter.
A good way to do that: Pay attention to them. Abram Isaacs of Minneapolis, father of 3-year-old Yasemin, makes an observation that is wildly obvious and yet one that I often ignore. "Those times when I'm distracted, when the phone rings, things don't work out well," he says of the daily challenges of getting Yasemin out the door, to the park, and back home. "If I can focus on her, it works."
Many were the times when I wished my kids would miraculously behave without any involvement on my part. Wishing, however, is not a take-charge strategy. What I've learned: Kids who tend to be well-behaved usually have parents who are involved with them. So now, instead of dragging Claire to Andrew's soccer game and expecting her to entertain herself while I chat with other moms and dads, I bring art supplies and a blanket. On one level, this planning is more work. But in the long run, a little bit of attention has a big payoff: Her behavior improves.
So, have I transformed my parenting style? Am I a take-charge mom? In my humble opinion, I've made a lot of progress. The tip that helps me the most is to stay detached. Sometimes I try to pull myself out of the heat of the moment (Claire: "I can't get up! I'm too tired!") and imagine how this scene would look if I were watching it on video. Old me: I guess I could let her sleep until the last possible moment. New me: This child needs to get to bed earlier, but for today, she needs to get up on time. Firmly, and gently, I tell her that she needs to get up in five minutes. As I set the timer, I feel remarkably, wonderfully like an adult -- a mom who knows what she's doing, at least for right now.
Jane Meredith Adams is a contributing editor at Parenting.