Updated: May 28
I’d like to tell you a story. Like all classic tales, this one has a hero, a goal, nasty villains, a set of trustworthy guides, some seriously high stakes, and a plan that either succeeds or fails.
This story happens to be mine. But it could be yours, too.
When my daughter was five, she began to exhibit behavior that was outside what I considered appropriate at the time. She screamed when she didn't get her way. She refused to cooperate with basic asks. She went from zero to meltdown in minutes. (Any of this sound familiar?)
The more that I — your tireless hero — stood my ground, the more often she seemed to struggle, whether it was a dispute over food or playdates or how often she needed to bathe.
My goal, of course, was to make her stop. And I might have succeeded, too, if everything I knew about discipline hadn’t been based on the false belief that effective parenting required some form of manipulation. I believed that my salvation lay in tactics such as timeouts, taking my daughter’s toys away, counting to three, raising my voice, withdrawing affection, praising "good" behavior and, in countless tiny ways, showing her who was boss.
But it turns out every one of these manipulation tactics, and so many others, were villains in disguise. While I spun my wheels trying to come up with just the right “logical consequence” to make my daughter stop hitting me or yelling at me or refusing to do what I said, I was being sapped of my energy, drained of my confidence and robbed of potentially happy memories with the most important person in my life.
And so when I met Ty and Linda Hatfield, my guides in my parenting journey, I was relieved to learn that there was another way — a better way — involving a model called heart-centered parenting. The solutions they offered were based on mutual respect and collaboration, rather than manipulation and obedience.
My plan, my personal mandate, was to become a heart-centered parent. But could I do it? Could I learn to parent without manipulation? And given that most of the rest of the world — including good friends with great kids — were treating these vile little buggers as necessary house-guests, was it even necessary? That’s when I learned the high stakes involved. Used repeatedly and over time, manipulating children into doing what we want them to do — even when we have wonderful, rational reasons for doing so! — has severe consequences. Not only does it strain the parent-child relationship, it chips away at kids' self-esteem, putting them at much higher risk of drug and alcohol abuse, early sex, criminal behavior, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, addiction, self-harm and even suicide. And you don’t need to believe me. It's not me saying it. This is a century's worth of psychological research into child development talking. Thousands of studies (not to mention TED talks) the world over paint a wholly convincing picture: How parents handle children's challenging behavior contributes significantly to children's long-term mental health. Learning this made me realize that what I wanted in the moment (for my child to behave the way I wanted her to) wasn’t what I wanted for her long-term. What I really wanted — my deeper and truer goal, if you will — was to raise a kind, capable, resilient, happy and mentally healthy adult who could create her own path in the world, make her own difficult choices, and be content with those choices. These are the things I wanted for her because they are the things I wanted for myself. So I changed, and so did my husband. Ten years ago, almost to the month, we gave our manipulation tactics the old heave-ho. We grounded them forever. We put them in a permanent timeout. We revoked their privileges... You get the idea.
Yes, those sneaky bastards still slip back into our house once in a while and cause us to veer off course — hey, no one's perfect! — but when that happens we recognize our little nemeses for what they are and immediately and show them the door. So now, the moment of truth. Is this a story of success or failure? What I can tell you is this: The seeds that I’ve worked so hard to sow are sprouting up all around me. I can tell you that Maxine, now 14 and in the midst of a stressful pandemic, is still a happy, confident, trustworthy child. I can tell you that, despite the emotional landmines that teenager not only experience in their lives but also rig for their parents on a regular basis (mad respect to anyone parenting a teen), I have a relationship with my kid that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
So, yes, I suppose I could say I succeeded.
But the truth is, I haven't. Not yet.
Because my story isn’t over. Because my child still has a lot of growing to do. And while I'm eager to glimpse the results of this great experiment we call parenting, I’m also desperate to slow time. I’ve got my girl for four more years, and I’m going to do all I can to enjoy the hell out of every minute of it.
After all, if we aren’t enjoying our kids, what's the point?