Fear is an extrinsic motivator. Meaning, it only creates the behavior you desire when you’re present or they think they’ll get caught. The more room we give our kids to act and feel intrinsically motivated by their own set of values and self-worth, the more impactful and longer lasting their thoughtful behavior will be.
And here’s the hard part about parenting — kids only develop intrinsic motivation from a long process of “getting it wrong” so they can course correct, come back to what they know is right, and solidify themselves in it. Slapping your kid doesn’t help them learn, but an opportunity to practice does. Here’s how you can help them do so along the way:
1. Understand their developmental stage
There are various stages where kids are inherently self-absorbed, as well as, times when pushing boundaries is healthy.
Not only are kids’ brains under-developed, brain growth happens in spurts … and that cognitive electricity is haphazard and sloppy. As more mature wiring develops, the mind often defaults to relying on the amygdala first, which is emotional and impulsive.
You may not think you’re expecting your kid to exhibit adult-like behavior, but when you get angry at them for not thinking of others, you’re not thinking of them. Thus, the hypocrisy you model shows your teen a false representation of how a mature “adult” behaves.
2. Meet them where they are
While kids probably aren’t juggling a million things outside of themselves (bills, in-laws, parenthood, etc), they are juggling a million things inside themselves.
They’re in a quagmire of their own development and the pressure society places on them to always be good, smart and successful is so overwhelming that kids live in a constant state of anxiety. They genuinely feel as though people lie in wait around every corner, just to catch them doing something wrong and judge them. It becomes an “always on” feeling, where they sense that peers, parents, siblings, teachers, clergy and strangers lurk in the shadows awaiting their screw ups — every misstep makes them an ambassador for their entire generation as a “lost cause.”
Your child’s struggles are just as real as yours, they’re just different. Empathy and compassion for their struggle helps them trust you enough to at least talk about what’s going on in their world … and, if you’re lucky, they may even do a little listening, too.
3. Admit your mistakes
We develop empathy and grace primarily through our own mistakes (if we learn from them). So admit you’ve made some. Like that time you hurt someone you love (when you didn’t know you had the power to hurt them). We learn who we are by learning first, who we’re not.
Tell your kids where you goofed up, when you were thoughtless or rude (to them and to others). Tell them how you felt about those blunders then, and how you feel about them now. What about when someone treated you poorly? How did you feel? How did you forgive?
If you flew off the handle last night — remember to apologize, right away. Tell your child how you wish you’d handled the situation and what you plan to do in future circumstances. Let them know that you’re human too and you still may not always get it right.
4. Catch them doing good
Imagine how you’d feel if — no matter how hard you tried to demonstrate “good” behavior — there’s always someone pointing out how “bad” you are.
Now imagine instead that every time you turn around, someone is saying, “You did this right! And this behavior is how you keep that mistake from happening again.”
You’d not only respect the encourager more, but you’d go out of your way to please them.
Try catching yourself being good, too and tell your child. Let them know that your first response was to get angry, until you realized a better way to handle the situation. Doing this is an ideal way to model what you’d like to see from your kids (and gain their respect at the same time). Kids respect you more when they see you’re humble enough to do your own personal work, too.
5. Set appropriate consequences
Punishment for punishment’s sake is merely punitive and not at all educational.
For example, if a tween doesn’t answer mom’s phone call and, as a result, receives a spanking or grounding; she learns that people who are bigger and stronger can arbitrarily define “right” and “wrong” for her, whether it aligns with her values or not. She also learns that she wants to either be the bigger, stronger one so that she can lord power over others or she must cow-tow to those bigger and stronger than her at all costs in order to feel safe. In other words, she’s afraid.
That same tween who, instead, has her phone taken away for a number of hours (or days) learns the privilege of having a phone is one worth keeping and thus (with a little loving guidance), how important connectedness and convenience are to her daily life. She’ll develop an intrinsic motivation (“I like to feel connected”) for being responsive to her parents without fear or defensiveness.
6. Trust that they’ll find their way
Let your kids trust their own instincts. Let them fail a lot while they’re young and the repercussions of mistakes are still small stakes. In the grand scheme, it’s better that your child fails a semester because you refused to harangue them about their responsibilities, than fail at a job in adulthood when their family and mortgage are on the line.
Your child WILL stumble while learning responsibility and intrinsic motivation. Let them learn as early as possible. Modern life is changing quickly. Our kids will require more agility in life and business if they want to succeed. Agility comes from a reliance on self, not others.
Encourage your child’s willingness to think differently than you — it’s not personal — it’s growth! Relate to their emotional state once they’ve realized their mistakes. And celebrate the victory you didn’t see coming, too!
7. Understand their motives (or, at least try to)
Mindlessly agreeing with you is NOT your child’s job. Thank goodness! Can you imagine where we’d be if each generation had simply done what their parents asked, without reflecting on their own values?
Children who find a third option when they’ve only been offered two aren’t trying to slow you down, get on your nerves, or undermine your authority. They’re thinking of alternatives that might fit both of your needs in the equation. If you celebrate their innovative mind they’re more likely to listen and respect your position.
Kids today are more tolerant, less racist, more equality-minded, less violent, more growth oriented, more open, more authentic and more intuitive than any generation before.
We can certainly teach them how to integrate into our “black and white” world because they’re reliant on us for everything as they grow up.
But at the same time, kids teach us how to integrate into their “shades of gray” world because we’re not an island unto ourselves and we’re going to rely on them for a lot as we grow up, too.