Is there anything in your life that you wish you could do differently? Some people say they live their life with no regrets, because every choice they made led them to the place they are today. I am not one of those people, especially when it comes to parenting.
I wish I hadn’t gained 50 pounds when I was pregnant. I wish I had ignored the recommendations of the time and allowed my son to have a pacifier. I wish I had my daughter tested for dyslexia in kindergarten. I wish we had never owned a train table because it only got in the way. I wish I had fixed the toilet in the kids’ bathroom before it caused Poopmagedon.
But most of all, I wish I’d learned to translate what my children’s behavior was telling me, sooner.
There’s a popular maxim that says, “All behavior is a form of communication.” But many parenting approaches rely entirely on rewards and consequences. The consequences can be artificial, like a time out, or natural, like being hungry for a few hours after rejecting a healthy snack.
I still remember one parenting book I read where the author advised parents to make their teenagers walk home from soccer practice if they were five minutes late. That tough love approach made a lot of sense to me when I read it 10 years ago, but now it gives me pause.
Love does need to be tough sometimes. It also needs to be compassionate, kind, patient and ever-flowing. When we make parenting decisions based on a “let the punishment fit the crime” approach, we risk treating children like criminals. Children and teens aren’t criminals. They are human beings whose brains haven’t fully developed yet. They often express distress in inappropriate ways.
The longer I parent the better I get at reading my children’s cues. Sometimes I can see storms coming because I weathered them before. My biggest regrets are the times when I failed to be my children’s lighthouse. Instead of leading them to shelter, I was yet another rock to break upon.
There is a psychologist and parenting expert named Dr. Ross Green, whose research I admire. He advocates digging deep to find the root cause of behavior. If a 5-year-old is throwing a tantrum in Fred Meyer over ice cream, maybe it’s not about the ice cream. Perhaps the child is tired or overwhelmed by stimuli. If a high school junior is irritable in the morning and mouths off to her mom, maybe she didn’t get enough sleep, or is being bullied at school or is depressed. Of course there needs to be consequences for disrespectful behavior, but consequences won’t magically solve the root cause of what’s going on.
I wish consequences were magic, but they aren’t. They’re needed, but they don’t have supernatural powers. That’s what love is for, and compassion, kindness and patience. All behavior is a form of communication, and it’s a parent’s job to listen.
Jennifer Bardsley publishes books under her own name and the pseudonym Louise Cypress. Find her online on Instagram @the_ya_gal, on Twitter @jennbardsley or on Facebook as The YA Gal. Email her at email@example.com.