Tools for raising kids

Copyright © 1998,1999,2002. Feel free to copy this at will
but include a link to this page. Last update on June 25, 2002 

A Parents Handbook?

A lot of this came from Family Forward of Texas, an excellent agency from the 1990’s and early 2000’s that helped families struggling with various interpersonal and court mandated challenges, with whom I volunteered for over six years. But I’ve added insights and experience that I gained raising my son through the trials of our lives.


First let me say that most changes we make to ourselves take time.  And when changing the habits we have created with our kids, it may take even more time.  When you begin to react differently to a “habit” the two of you have, your child may not know at first how to react and simply continue on as usual, thus giving the appearance that your efforts are in vain.  Don’t give up!  Persistence and determination will show them this is important to you and these kind of changes will show them you respect them.  With diligent effort your child will learn to mirror that respect back to you!

Remember that as Mom or Dad, you are your child’s most influential and important teacher.

Second, one of the most annoying things I encountered while seeking help are people who tell me to do things that require me to be calm and together right away.  Hey, if I had infinite patience I wouldn’t be asking for help in the first place!  The reality is that you and I can’t expect, nor should anyone else expect, us to be great parents until we have some time and energy for this work.  We can’t give what we ain’t got!  If this rings true, you might want to look into making time for your self first.  The best way to teach self respect is to make sure you have self respect first, and then show others how to do it too.

Always give a child a CHOICE. Giving someone a choice helps them feel like they have some control over their lives.  The more choices the better.  You know what it feels like to be forced into doing something you don’t want to do.  Your child feels the same!  Giving them a choice often avoids reactions of fear, anger, or rebellion.  Of course you will want to make sure that all the choices you describe are ones you can live with, and that you can and will follow through on them!  For a long time we get to be bigger than our child and thus get to have the final say via physical intimidation.  When we get frustrated it is very tempting to resort to this powerful advantage (often worded as “I’m the parent, you will do what I tell you!”). We also will want to use it if it was used on us a lot when we were kids.  But when your child grows up you will lose this advantage.  Begin now!  By providing choices instead of ultimatums your child will develop respect for you that can last throughout their teenage years.

IGNORE bad behavior if possible. Often a child will act in an annoying way in order to get what they want.  Children learn your “buttons” and how to use them to gain control over their environment.  For them, this is a natural “survival” instinct and most are probably not conscious of what they are doing.  Crying, tantrums, charm, fake illnesses are all quickly adopted when they get the intended result.  The way to break this pattern is to stop responding to it.  Ignoring them is simple, but it is often not easy, because for you there is likely some emotional issues from your past surrounding whatever they are doing.  For some reason you have a soft spot, or an angry spot, or a fearful spot, about the character they are acting out.  It is possible to ignore a childs tears when there is clearly no real pain and if you then also respond compassionately to the pain that is real.  But to do this you will need to be both persistent and clear-minded.  Get your spouse or friends who understand, or professional help if needed, to help you resolve your past issues surrounding the hot button your kids push so you can then show your kids your keen perceptive abilities and enjoy and tease them about their excellent acting skills.

Use NATURAL CONSEQUENCES instead of parent-made consequences, as often as possible. The world is something no one can argue with.  It simply is.  You can avoid being the “bad guy” by letting your child experience the real world as often as possible.  If they break their toys, they may need to experience that a magic elf doesn’t comes along to replace everything that gets broken.  If they drink all the juice in the refrigerator in one day they may have to go for a few days until there is a trip to the grocery store.  You have to face limitations all the time, so pass these on to your children in this reasonable way.

It is also important for parents to model the real world as much as possible.  Laughing off a slap on the face teaches a child that it can be fun to slap.  Becoming enraged over failures or accidents usually makes a child nervous about failing or mistakes and teaches them they have to be perfect – which is impossible.  Over reacting, reacting improperly, or not at all, sets a child up to react incorrectly to the world and will make them less successful in it.  When extreme, over reaction actually becomes “structural abuse” where children are given a dramatically incorrect framework for the world around them and will cause them to grow up dysfunctional.

REDIRECT attention. Is the cup half empty, or half full?  A child learns what is important by where their attention is directed.  If the time to visit a friend has ended, they can lament about how lonely they are, or they can look forward to the next time.  If they miss a good TV show, maybe there is another one on or something else fun to do.  It is important not to ignore their emotions, but instead to put the emotion properly into context and give them emotional options.  For example, if a child falls and gets hurt a parent can rush to their side and direct the focus attention on how horrible the injury is, or the parent can model the alternative surprise, concern, and then determination: “OUCH!  That must have hurt! Are you OK?  Does everything still work?  (and if so then)  Good!  Do you want to try that again without slipping?  (or if something does not work!)  Humm, lets go and get that taken care of.”

SIMPLIFY your child’s life – only make rules that are obvious to a kid.  Children cannot follow rules that they do not understand.  “Don’t touch the TV when my show is on even if I’m not watching it” is something young kids can’t grasp.  “You can’t play with so-and-so because I don’t like them” is also unfathomable.  “Keep your hands off” something that is right at eye level makes no sense to exploring toddlers.  Watching parents break rules that kids have to follow is unfair.  If you can’t explain your rule to your child in a way they understand, consider changing the rule.  Or maybe let the NATURAL CONSEQUENCE teach them instead.  It is possible that they will come to the same conclusion about the outcome as you did long ago.

As an example I have only four rules in my house (things that are not negotiable), everything else is negotiable.

  1. We do not hurt people (or ourselves) on purpose.
  2. We do not scare people on purpose.
  3. We do not destroy other people’s stuff on purpose.
  4. No sex of any kind before 18.

My kids know there are lots of things I don’t like, but these are the only things I absolutely require of them – and these are plainly obvious.

(rule 4 however can be difficult to explain to a pre-teen child going-on-21.  See the bottom of this page for a few more notes on this one)

Everything else falls into the “respect dad’s wishes and he will respect yours” category, or “dad may have learned this the hard way so maybe there is something to it”.

CHOOSE your BATTLES carefully – you only want to win a few of them.  Rebellion is a perfectly natural reaction to an overbearing authority.  RE-examine how you dish out your authority if rebellion is common place in your home.  Too many, too strict, or rules that are too ridiculous are the culprit.  Think back to how you felt when you were a kid – how unfair many of the rules were – how you plotted to get away with stuff!  You can avoid this with your child by minimizing the number of confrontations the two of you have.  The more often you win the more determined they can get to win next time.  Note that this is not about logic, it is about their feelings of self value and self respect.  The less the two of you fight, the more likely they will agree with you on other things.  Try it, it works.  Your kids are just like you – they need to feel in control of a significant part of their world or else they feel fear and/or anger.  Balance their needs with yours – this can help them create a lot of respect for you.

(And hopefully they will fight back with you because if they don’t, then maybe their will has already been broken and they have resigned themselves to permanently being a follower instead of a leader…)

Be as CONSISTENT as possible.  One of the most confusing things for a child are rules that change due to things the child can’t see or understand.  If the consequences for spills are “no big deal” one day, and harsh the next, your child can live in fear of never knowing what to expect.  Most of us have experienced the chaos of not knowing what is going to happen next, and this can be terrifying if something painful has happened before.  Fear and anxiety are natural responses to chaos even without bad consequences.  Consistency and structure can alleviate these fears.

Folks who parent while intoxicated will also face this problem.  There are good reasons why ACOA meetings are as prevalent and well attended as they are – many of us have grown up with this kind of chaos.

A parent’s emotional state is perhaps the most frequent source of changing rules in a child’s life.  If this describes you, then look into ways of expressing those emotions in ways that don’t involve your child.  Take time, or make time, for yourself so you can release your emotions in private or with adults who can support you.  But if your emotions are about or involve your child, make sure to include your child as you resolve your issues in a safe way.  It is very important for your child to not be hidden from the emotional aspect of life.  They need to witness and interact with healthy expression of, and safe resolution of the emotional issues in which they were involved.

Use I STATEMENTS to describe your feelings and emotions.  First, are you describing your emotions to the important people in your life?  No?  Does that mean the people around you are having to guess what is going on?  Is the song that goes “if you don’t know me by now you will never ever know me” one of your favorites?  Well your face may show the expression, but actually using the words goes a long way to improving the communication between the two of you.  This is really important if you want clear and accurate communication and it is very very useful in keeping the two of you close.

“I” statements tell others how you are feeling so they can feel along with you – or at least understand what you are going through.  “You” statements, on the other hand, make others responsible for what you are feeling.  That is a very heavy burden, and neither kids nor adults are interested in being responsible for your stuff.  As an example compare these two statements someone might say to you:

  • “You are always spilling stuff in the living room!”
  • “I get real nervous when you drink that in the living room, I just hate to clean up spills on our beige carpet.”

The first statement is literally an attack on your audience, but the second encourages them to empathize with you.  Now to be honest these two are different for other reasons besides the words “I” and “You” – the first expresses anger and the second expresses frustration or futility.  But to keep things simple: the way you say things can change everything including the way you feel.

One of the hardest emotions to change while it is happening is anger.  Yet this is the one that gets us in the most trouble.  The ability to regulate it is the difference between a civilized and an uncivilized person.  If someone has messed with you deliberately then anger is appropriate and even necessary (provided you don’t over-respond and escalate things).  Otherwise your anger probably has these other roots: hurt, fear, or frustration.  You are probably either angry that you got hurt, angry that something important will be lost, or angry because something isn’t going the way you want it.  If you are feeling angry, and someone else is involved, simply saying “I’m angry” is a good way to start, but it needs to be followed by what is going on beneath your anger to really be effective.  That is where the real resolution will occur.  Example:

  • I’m angry about what you are doing!  Last time you did that the TV broke and we had to buy a new one.  We don’t have money for a new TV.  If it gets broken again, we will have to do without one.  I like to watch TV!

Here the anger (your initial response) gives way to frustration about lack of money.  And even kids can relate to not having enough money.  This one then evolves even further – your audience probably likes to watch TV too, and the end of this statement points out that they will feel the loss too BUT it does so with an “I” statement instead of “and you will be sorry too”.

The real purpose of “I” statements are to help you focus on what is going on, not over react, and assign appropriate responsibilities.  The people around you are actually not responsible for how you have chosen to feel!  But they are responsible for their actions and need to be aware of their influence on you and everyone else near by – calling their attention to this in an appropriate way is a natural and very important part of parenting.

Be ASSERTIVE instead of passive (wimping out) or aggressive (domineering).  When your child is ignoring you, try to react in an assertive way.  An assertive response is when you act out of respect for yourself and from a position of strength.  A passive response often comes from fear, and an aggressive response from anger (underneath which may likely also be fear).  Passivity and aggression do not encourage others to respect you, especially when used too frequently – instead they will often result in disgust and resentment.  Acting assertively can take a lot of practice, reacting assertively even more.  But self-respect will be your first reward – it will feel good to have acted assertively no matter how they follow up!  Respect from your child will come next.  An assertive statement that works well is a variation on the I-statements discussed above.  “I need for you to…” is a way for you to then assert your position without demanding your child obey; and then calmly but firmly stick by it through whatever comes next.

Note: but don’t use an “I-need” statement in place of an emotional “I-feel” statement – that can be a disaster:

“I feel angry and ignored when you don’t clean up your room.”

This statement is simply begging for trouble.  It is emotionally manipulative.  Depending on others to do things so you won’t feel bad will create distance between the two of you!  Instead, take some time off to get to the bottom of what you are really worried about and then discuss that with them.

PREVENT mishaps by removing or locking away things that cause problems.  One of the simplest ways of making your life easier is to prevent accidents (or intentional destruction) from ever happening.  If you want your great grandma’s antique lamp to remain intact – store it away until your child is old enough to leave it alone.  If you don’t like cleaning up, arrange things so that messes cannot be made or are easily handled.  Latches on cabinets and drawers are common place in many households these days.  Your stress level can go way down!

MODEL the behavior you want to see in your kid.  They learn from YOU.  Children do what they see.  There is no way to stop this.  “Do what I say, not what I do” is at best a feeble attempt at humor (your joking right?), and at worst a form of mental and perceptual abuse.  Unfortunately we have a tradition that perpetuates the myth that children learn best by being told things.  It is in fact probably the least effective way to teach.  The most profound method of teaching is to live the way you think is best and let the results speak for you.  You can prove to me that your way works by showing me, and you can prove to your child that you believe in what you tell them by matching your words with actions; or better yet act first and talk later.

Again, this one is simple, but it may not be easy!  But also again, consistency promotes stability and respect and you will feel better about yourself as you do the work and see the success.  There are at least two ways to make changes here: a) rise to the standards you set for your kids, b) give your kids more of the same freedoms that you enjoy.

Use TIME-OUT when a child is out of control. Physical danger to you or others must be dealt with firmly and immediately.  The child needs to learn that harmful behavior is never acceptable.  This lesson is best learned at an early age before the child can do significant damage.  If the child is already too big for you to restrain, you will need to start treating the child as if they are an adult who is attacking you.  This means defending yourself and others in whatever way you need and calling 911 if you are out of options.  It is regrettable that things have come this far – but it will be more regrettable if you continue to let your child control you through their violence.  You must ask for help if you need it, and as they get older your child must deal with the “real world” consequences of their actions.

Smaller children still have a chance to more easily learn respect for your and other’s boundaries.  If they are out of control, and they do not respond to your words, physically restrain them gently but firmly with your arms, and repeat to them “you do not get to hurt me” or “you do not get to hurt others” until they a) calm down or b) promise that they will stop.  If they strike out again you may have to repeat the time-out until they understand that there is no compromise here.

NOTE: it will be difficult to say “you do not get to hurt me” to a child that receives spankings or other physical punishment from you.  This is hypocrisy and will likely cause your child to resent you and reject your authority.  Not only are you telling them that the world is unfair, but also that you aren’t even going to try to make it fair!  The rules work by far the best when they are the same for the both of you.  Time-out is calming down time, not a punishment, and do not use it to “control” them.  Let your child know that they can decide when time-out is over by choosing to act appropriately.  I have often heard time-out used as a punishment, and then I have also seen other instances where a child will put themselves in time-out because they recognize that they are out of control and want to do something to stop it without your help.  This is the ultimate goal!  Self-discipline!  If you use time-out as a punishment or way to control your child, it will become a power struggle between the two of you and they will never realize that they get to, and can, control their own behavior.  It can be tough trying to find other ways to deal with your child’s behavior so that time-out doesn’t have to be a punishment, but it is very well worth it.  Take another look at the other tools above.

Suggestions for Effective TIME-OUT

  • Hold them with a firm but gentle physical embrace.  If you are too busy, AND they understand what time-out is for, have them stand or sit in a boring place.
  • Time-out should last until they are ready to honestly uphold your rules or for no more than 1 minute for each year of age – remember, this is not a punishment.  (use a timer that the child can hear – that way youare not the focus during the time-out; they are supposed to think about their behavior)  However remaining involved with them during the time-out, talking about their behavior, and discussing when they are ready to try again is necessary while they are learning what time-out is for.
  • Use time-out assertively with a calm and firm voice, instead of from anger.  (or maybe you could take a time out too and model for your child – I’m quite serious here!)
  • Make sure the child knows why they are in time-out and how you want them to act differently.  You may have to repeat these statements calmly several times until they hear you.  This helps them learn to use the time-out to evaluate their own behavior.
  • Comment on something good they do soon after the time-out is over.

Getting to RESPECT. When a child is not listening, or is hurting another child or yourself, there is always some emotional turmoil behind it.  Time-out can be a chance for the child to calm down and think about what they are doing.  If you treat their actions as “you seem to be making bad choices right now, I think you need some time to think about what you are doing” the child receives much more respect than with “OK that does it, go to time out!”  With the former the child still has a choice – if they stop acting badly by themselves then no time-out is necessary.  This is very different from the use of time-out as a punishment – where they have no choice.

Choices communicate respect for your child.  With that respect will come self-value.  Self-value and self-respect are the cornerstones of a child who is willing to listen, respond, respect, and have compassion for you and others.  Telling children how they must act denies them respect and destroys their self-value.  Kids, and adults for that matter, who are scared that they have no value will act out of envy to hurt others who seem better then they are, act out of anger at what has been taken from them, or act out of fear that they are indeed worthless.

Respect for our children is the most potent tool we have. But then few of us were consistently respected during our own childhood.  If our parents did not respect us when we were young then we don’t know how or don’t want to give respect to our children.  Yet respect is the quality that will revolutionize our relationship with our children.  So what do we do!?!  The answer is that armed with our new understanding, we get to be the ones that break the cycle of generation after generation of tyranny, neglect, and abuse in our families.  We get to be the champions of a new and better way, and we get to be the ones that change the hell and chaos that we grew up with into a world of compassion and respect for our children which will then be passed on to their children, etc.

But getting there can often be difficult, especially if we are low on self-respect ourselves.  When the well is dry at home, you can’t give water to someone else.  When you feel respect, it is much easier to give respect,  and so take the time to fill your own buckets (with at least self-respect) before or while you fill theirs.

Footnote 1. Notes on ” why I have to wait until 18 to have sex.”

Someone gave me the idea to compare sex to reading, or whatever is presently challenging them in school:

  • Child, “why do I have to wait until I’m 18 to have sex?”
  • Parent hands the child a book with small print and no pictures,and complicated words, “here, why don’t you read this book.”
  • Child, after looking through it, “I can’t!”
  • Parent, “ahhh, I guess maybe you are not ready for this yet either.”

There is nothing wrong with not being ready for every thing.  We keep learning all our lives.  And this means we must accept the fact that now and here may not be the time and place for anything.  This is learning about limits, and facing the fact that we currently have limits and they are natural.  It need not be disappointing.

Then later (or maybe sooner!) will come the next question “so what do I need before I can have sex?”  At this point you will want to use whatever moral criteria you see fit.  I base my answer on their ability to handle the consequences:

  • Parent: “when puberty comes around 12 or 13 everything is going to change a lot!, your feelings, your thoughts, and your body.  After everything changes you’ll need some time, a few years or so, to learn how all this new stuff works.  You will have crazy new emotions, strong new feelings, and you will need to know how to protect yourself from a number of dangerous situations that can happen.”
  • Child (if they have been paying attention in school): “Like AIDS?”
  • Parent: “yes AIDS is one very dangerous thing about sex, but there are others.  In only a few minutes your entire life can change forever, and maybe not the way you would like.  With your new emotions and everything, it can get really crazy.  You will want to be able to make good decisions in the middle of it all.  (pause)  Don’t worry, there is no need to rush this, and we can work through it together in a few years when the time comes.”

… or at least we hope we will be a confidant in our child’s life when that time comes.

… hey, It’s just an example, use what is right for you.


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