Being a parent can be so rewarding. At times, we can achieve transcendence. Remember those first smiles, those first words? That big hug to greet you when you get home from work after a long day? Building a sandcastle at the beach? Ah, life doesn’t get any better than these moments! And then…there are those other times. You know, when they are whining about everything (or so it seems), they won’t do their homework, the siblings are fighting incessantly…and so on. Such times can be so frustrating that, if we aren’t careful, we can lose our marbles.
As parents, we want to guide our children to grow to be happy, productive, and, if you are like most people, financially independent of us! Now, there are a lot of different ideas out there (and countless books) on parenting, raising “successful” children, etc. What’s the “right” way to do this?
Now, I do want to qualify this suggestion by first stating that, if your child is on the autism spectrum, this advice is not likely to work very effectively because of the very nature of autism. You will see what I mean as you read below. We will have plenty of other posts in the future regarding help for parents whose children are on the autism spectrum, I promise.
The “Infrastructure” to Successful Parenting
The suggestion that I have for successful parenting that comes from Dr. William Glasser’s work, particularly For Parents and Teenagers, as well as many other readings, my training as a psychologist, my work with hundreds of clients over the years, as well as my own personal experiences as a father of 3 boys.
The parenting suggestion that I have doesn’t have anything do with meticulously crafting the perfect sticker chart or reinforcement contingency for your kids. Nor does it have to do with the best way to punish misbehavior. I’m not a big fan of using rewards and punishments with kids and teens, although there is a place for them. Importantly, with what I’m suggesting, rewards and punishments won’t be needed near as frequently…and will likely be more effective when you do use them.
The key to successful parenting, in my opinion, is the relationship. As humans, we are inherently social creatures. Most of our happiness in life comes through and from our social relationships (by some estimates, around 70%). We can reflect on our own lives to see the truth of how important relationships are to our happiness. When have your best times in life been? Most likely, these have been when you were doing something fun and engaging with close friends, family, or your significant other. How about the worst times? Those usually have to do with conflict in relationships, loss of a relationship, or when we are feeling alienated, isolated, or ostracized.
Importantly, because on some level we all realize that our own happiness is nested within our relationships, we have a natural tendency to try to preserve need-satisfying relationships.
We all want to influence our children – for them to listen to our guidance, respect the limits that we set, and comply with our requests. However, if our relationship with our kids merely consists of trying to get them to comply with our requests and follow our rules, well, we don’t have much of a relationship.
Our Leverage of Influence
In essence, when a parent-child relationship is conflictual (or detached), then children don’t stand to “lose out” on the positives of a close relationship should they be oppositional or give push-back. Yes, coercive tactics might temporarily get a child to do what we want – but at what cost? And, perhaps more importantly, how will the child behave without the looming threat of punishment present? How do children learn to make healthy, judicious choices in life if we never give them those choices to begin with – that they are effectively coerced into doing what we think is “best” for them? I’ve watched what happens when some of these kids finally move out of the house and go off to college – not a pretty sight!
Investing in the Relationship
Again, rewards and punishments do have their place in parenting. But we should use them sparingly and only when needed. What I’m proposing is that as parents, we mindfully invest in the relationship with our children. This is actually the fun part of being a parent! This isn’t a form of trickery or manipulation. Remember, our own happiness as well as the happiness of our children resides within the relationship. So, we should be sure engage in fun, connecting activities with our children on a regular basis. Such as:
- Going on hikes
- Going fishing
- Flying kites
- Throwing the football
- Seeing plays/musicals
- Playing board/video games together
- Building Lego sets
- Eating dinner together as a family
I realize this can be challenging and kids sometimes say “no” to our offers (especially teens!), but at least they see we are trying. We can only open the door, they have to walk through it. When we are spending quality time with our kids, it is a good time to keep that time “sacred.” We shouldn’t use it as an opportunity to remind them about homework, how they can do better in school, what chores they still need to do, etc. If we start doing that, our kids will start avoiding the “quality” time because they won’t view it as that!
So, we always need to be investing in our relationships with our children. Then we can have more of the type of influence that we want to have on them. And, when we do need to correct their behavior, they are more likely to listen and comply because they truly care and want to keep the positive connection with us in good standing. There are no guarantees in life (except for death & taxes, right?), but I think we can’t really go wrong for trying to actively strengthen our relationships with our kids. Because our happiness is connected with theirs, it’s a win-win.