Thursday, February 14, 2013

Identifying problems

One of the cardinal rules of parenting is that if you want a child to change his ways, you have to make the problem his problem. You see, if Mom doesn't like a messy floor, that's Mom's problem. And if you think your kid is going to volunteer to solve your problems, you are almost certainly wrong.

Another cardinal rule of parenting is that if you, the parent, are feeling perpetually frustrated by a recurring kid situation, chances are that you are owning the kid's problem. A recent example: Child A fusses and moans and delays doing homework. I encourage/remind/berate until, after weeks of this, I am worn out and annoyed and am no longer acting like the Mom I Want to Be. Fact: on some level this child is smarter than me. He or she has figured out how to transfer ownership of the problem by re-defining it from being about homework to being a matter of Mom and her temper.

How did that happen?

Partly it happened because there are very good reasons I want this child to do homework. It's in his or her long-term interests (I have a goal of having the child develop good work habits and perseverance), and it's also in his or her intermediate-term interests (I know grades affect other prospects). It's also in my short-term interest to make sure the homework gets done, because this particular child becomes frantic when suddenly it's time to leave for school and the work is unfinished. Then I have to endure the meltdown and use a pile of energy helping the child manage anxiety.

The child, being a child, has little interest in, awareness of or motivation to work for the longer term. The child, being a human being, has great interest in avoiding inconvenience and work. Result: we have a problem.

When I get stuck in a parenting rut, one of the first things I ask myself is What problem am I facing? It takes some probing, because in all probability the real problem isn't the one I've been addressing. 

For example, there's a huge difference between saying "This kid has to STOP acting that way!" and "I need to teach my child how to overcome procrastination". With choice #2 you can develop a plan to overcome the problem. You can do a Google search on effective strategies to deal with procrastination. You can sit the child down (not at homework time) and talk about how procrastination is adding friction to family life, and why developing ways to identify and overcome it is an important life skill.  You can explain that it's not Mom's job to save the child from the consequences of putting things off, but to teach him skills to overcome the tendency, and help him  practice those skills. And after that you can choose -- heroically -- to swallow your instinctive reaction to roar "Get busy!" and say things like, "Hmmm, it looks to me like you're procrastinating. Are you?" or "Are you keeping track of the time?" You can swallow hard and suppress your urge to nag and say sympathetically, "Wow, you're right: it's going to be scary to go to school without your work done. It's your choice."

If you define the problem as "This child is driving me crazy", you go another route. You will dig your rut deeper, nagging more, imposing draconian punishments, and desperately flinging golden carrots to lure your child to STOP BEHAVING LIKE THAT! You will vent to your friends and spouse, and that won't help. It won't help because you own the problem, and because the problem (now) is your frustration.

Rule of thumb: if your goal is to get someone to stop it! you almost certainly haven't identified the right problem.

Rule of thumb: if your strategy is to nag, you own the problem.

More later...



  1. brilliant. want to come live in my kitchen around 5 o'clock tonight? remind me?

  2. This is awesome. I'm putting it in my People In Y our Neighborhood roundup this weekend!

  3. This is so my problem with my teenager right now. I need the 'more later' now! (have followed over from flux capacitor :)

  4. where were you when I was raising children?? :) I have learned so much from you. Thank you, Julia
    PS.. I do pass your writings on to my girls. They have told me they have gained much from reading you!! :)