The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.
As a parent and former principal, I used to be asked what parents could do to encourage their children. Now that families are spending more time together, I am more frequently asked, “How do we coexist without wanting to kill each other?” Here are a few basic survival tips.
Reinforce the positive to reduce the negative. This is a teachers’ trick. Catch your kids doing something “right” and thank them sincerely. Even if you have to start with, “Thank you for exchanging oxygen for carbon dioxide so efficiently,” you can find something to recognize. Interestingly, the more you reinforce one child, the more others will want to cooperate as well.
Ask for help: Rather than tell kids to do something, just start on whatever it is, and ask if they can help you in a softly, desperate voice. When they do come over, thank them gratefully. For some reason getting started on a chore always seems harder than helping someone else who is already in motion. And being your hero feels good. This even works with husbands.
Be a scientist: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Observe your species in the wilds of your home. Watch for what time of day problems occur — and what variable you might change. Cranky after lunch? Get out for a walk. Constant fighting over the computer? Make a family schedule. Complaining of being bored? You are not the entertainment committee — make a list of options.
Offer choices: Kids want some control — and they don’t have much these days. Knowing they have choices helps. For example, “Would you rather do math or spelling, first?” Or, “Would you like to clean your room right now or after we go for our walk?”
Fifteen minutes: In these lazy days of COVID-19, everything feels hard — especially housework and schoolwork. Try saying, “Let’s see how much we can get done in just 15 minutes.” Then set a timer. At the end ask who got what done.
The whole truth: From tattling about hurt feelings or fights, children come running with their tales of woe. There is one key question to ask three times before acting: “What happened before that?” This prevents leaping to conclusions and teaches them you need the complete story.
Shut up: Some of the best advice I ever got as a young parent was to remember my child was not deaf. If you are constantly repeating yourself, inform your child their doctor said their hearing was fine and from then on you’ll only be saying things once. No reminding them.
Natural consequences: Didn’t pick up their dishes after you asked? Don’t get mad. Later, when they ask about dinner, sigh and gently tell them — since the dishes weren’t cleaned you didn’t think you could possibly cook for everyone. Toys left out again? When they ask for something they want, sigh softly — you’re much too tired from worrying if the toys were put away.
Huh: Hearing a lot of arguing or sassing back? Don’t respond. Instead say, “huh” and walk away. Go read in the other room. If they follow, shut the door and distractedly say your ears are bothering you. If it continues when you emerge, say, “Hmmm ... I find that stresses me out so I’d rather not discuss it right now,” in a neutral tone and move on. They will soon realize the likelihood of getting what they want is entirely dependent upon you getting what you need.
And finally, give yourself some grace. These are hard times — especially for parents. You are not going to be perfect. Just trust yourself and do your best — it’s enough if your family is alive at the end of all this.
Kathleen Bethel is a former principal and retired CEO of a science nonprofit.
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