Go Clean Your Room!

It’s funny that I can write a whole post on getting kids to clean their rooms, but it’s actually quite a complicated skill, and sometimes an emotionally-laden one as well.  All parents want their children to be neat and tidy and keep their rooms organized.  But it’s one of those developmental processes that takes years to complete (approximately 18!).  I want to talk about the appropriate developmental expectations for children keeping clean rooms (at various ages), and give some tips and tricks to help your child learn this skill.

From a parent’s perspective, cleaning a room should be a simple task for a child.  The room is messy; clean it up.  There are clothes and toys on the floor; put them away.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  Children’s brains don’t function in the same way adults’ do.  If children could verbalize their subconscious processes, they might say. . .

“Why would I want to put things away?”  For some reason small children get way more pleasure out of taking things out of a cupboard or drawer rather than putting things in.  I think this is a joke God played on parents!  Children naturally want to explore their world, and that requires emptying any space they come across.  In my efforts to positively reinforce behaviors I wanted, I tried to make a big deal whenever my little child would put something in (it was a rare occurrence, but I kept a look out).  If she started putting toys in a toy bucket or socks in a drawer I would say, “Yay!  You’re putting them in! I like it when you put the toys in!”  I did not show as much excitement when she took things out :).

“I don’t see any mess.”  Their enjoyment of emptying containers is one reason why small children have difficulty keeping their room clean.  Another reason is their lack of attention to detail.  They can walk right past (or through) a mess and not notice it.  They don’t necessarily know how their rooms should look, so they literally don’t “see” a problem.

“I don’t know where to start.”  A third struggle is the overwhelming nature of a messy room.  If you say, “Go clean your room,” to a child under ten, it really is too much for them to handle.  There are so many aspects to the task: the unmade bed, clothes on the floor, scattered toys of different categories.  They don’t know where to start, and they don’t have the ability to break the task down to smaller chunks.  This means they are discouraged before they even start.

“I want someone with me.”  Furthermore, children are social creatures.  They don’t want to work by themselves, and we all know they get distracted when they are working alone.  Most children work better with someone by their side.  They don’t think it’s “fair” that they do the cleaning on their own.

“Or what?”  Instructing children to go clean their room can set you up for a battle of wills.  Children, especially between the years of 2-5, are willful and defiant; they are working out that separation between their parents and themselves.  They test boundaries – it’s as if they are saying, “Clean my room – or what?!”  If you approach this the wrong way, you are faced with enforcing stricter and stricter consequences (punishments) for not obeying.  As you hopefully know by now. . . there is a better way. 

When my oldest daughter was two and a half (and before I knew or understood any of these principles), I got in just such a control battle with her.  I remember a time when the living room was littered with toys, and I wanted her to help me clean them up.  I’m sure I didn’t say anything more original than a few versions of, “Please clean up the toys.”  She wandered around aimlessly, not picking up any toys.  The less she did, the more frustrated I became (I had very little skills or tools for calming myself and remaining patient). I made threats about taking the toys away, etc., but these threats were not working.  I was getting very angry and didn’t know how to motivate her.  She had a beloved stuffed Big Bird which she called Birbie.  She took him everywhere and slept with him every night.  I decided this would be the threat that would finally propel her into action.  I threatened to take him away if she didn’t clean up, and . . .nothing.  She cried and held tightly to Birbie but wouldn’t clean any toys.  Now I had painted myself into a corner.  As I took Birbie away and put him on a high shelf I felt terrible and ineffective.  I knew I hadn’t changed her behavior for the better.  I’d only been the mean mom who took her favorite lovey away.  It was not the solution I was looking for.

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The well-loved Birbie

 

Now I know the better way!  I have learned many more tools for motivating children, and I know to avoid these battles of wills.  Here are a few ideas to consider and tips to keep your children motivated and you sane.

I mentioned above that children want company when cleaning.  I’ve learned to avoid saying, “Go clean your room” to a young child.  Instead I would say, “Let’s go clean your room together.”  It’s always a group project.  I stay in the room with her and work beside her.  Sometimes I work slowly, or I put away the same item over and over!  Things will go more smoothly if you stay with the child, giving her companionship and some direction, keeping her focused and making it fun.

If the child is old enough to read, break down the individual tasks of the overall chore on a 3×5 card.  Write “Clean Your Room” at the top and then list the parts such as: make your bed, put dirty clothes in the laundry basket, put away clean clothes, pick up any items on the floor and put them where they go, etc.  This card will help prevent them from getting overwhelmed and frustrated.  (You can do this same thing for other chores like cleaning the bathroom or yard work.)  A child doesn’t have the cognitive capacity to do this break down on his own.  It’s very helpful if you teach him how to do it by modeling it and/or writing it down.  This point-by-point list is much more manageable for a child than just tackling the whole room or the whole chore at once.

When you go together into a room to clean it, they might have this card with them, or you can verbally guide them through this same approach. You can explain the various individual tasks and ask, “Do you want to make the bed or find dirty clothes first?”  You can each take one portion after another until the room is done.

For young children, give even smaller, simpler tasks that will be manageable for their age.  This avoids overwhelming and discouraging them.  For example, “Would you like to do Barbies or books?”  They clean up whichever category of toy they choose, and then you give them another choice. Giving choices is very important in a chore such as cleaning, where they don’t really want to do it in the first place.  Always try to present different options of what they can do.  It gives children a sense of control and melts resistance. It also makes the job seem easier because they don’t have to think about the whole room at once.  Don’t overdo the choices, though.  Two is really enough; more can be overwhelming.

Try to motivate kids to clean by being creative and fun.  Tell them to pick up all the blue toys (or ask them if they want to do blue or yellow toys, for instance), or have them pick up ten items and put them away.  If stuffed animals need to go into a toy box or bucket, make “baskets” and give two points for each shot (sneak some math in, also!).  If they like a certain character, have them pretend to be that character (say, Superman) and show you how fast Superman could clean up the blocks.  Sometimes I would tell my kids we were pretending to be the Clean Up Fairies, and when we were done the real us would come in and be amazed at the clean room and wonder who did it!  (I also do this to encourage “secret service” to other family members: pretend you’re the Clean Up Fairy and do your sister’s chore, then she will be happily surprised and want to know who did it!).

One fun and creative way to motivate kids to clean is called Five and Five.  Carry a timer with you and set it for five minutes.  That’s how long you all work on cleaning the room (you can give the choices and direct as needed while cleaning).  When the timer goes off everyone stops and does something fun together – maybe read a book, play blocks, rough-house – until the next five minute timer goes off.  Then you go back to cleaning.  My kids loved this method, but it was so hard for me!  Once we got into cleaning, I just wanted to finish!  It killed me to stop and do something else.

As a proactive parent, you should think about the timing of your cleaning.  Is your child more cooperative in the morning or in the evening?  Maybe it’s best to wait until after he’s eaten a meal.  Timing can make a big difference in how helpful your child is. If you’re trying to get a room clean and getting a lot of resistance from the child, maybe leave the mess (which is hard, I know!) and try again later.  If you can find the time of day he’s most compliant, try to assign chores during that time on a consistent basis.

Here’s another great technique that has to do with timing.  Use something your child is requesting as a motivating factor for cleaning.  For instance, you know the basement toys need to be put away.  The children finish and meal, and one asks, “Can I go to a friend’s house?”  You answer, “Yes, as soon as the toys in the basement are put away.”  Or if she is working on a craft project at the table and then asks to watch a show, you say, “You may watch the show when the craft supplies are put away.”  There have been so many times when I’ve said yes to the request and realized later that I missed a golden opportunity of motivation!  It’s easy to get kids to do some chore when they want something else.  The chore seems painless and quick because they are looking forward to the next thing.

Think about your own attitude toward cleaning.  Do you view it as drudgery?  Do you go into a room and make negative comments about how messy it is or how long it’s going to take to clean?  If you do, your child will sense that and be less likely to clean cooperatively!  You can change the statement, “We have to go clean your room now” to “We GET to go clean your room!”  Act like you enjoy it, talk about how nice it will look when things are put away and how your child will be able to find things.  Have a good attitude about your own cleaning chores.  When you’re done cleaning a room, comment to your children on how great it looks and how nice it feels to have a clean space.  Your example will have a great effect on their cleaning behavior.

Each family’s standard of cleanliness falls somewhere on a “clean” spectrum from every last item put away every day to rarely cleaning and never seeing the floor of the child’s room.  There are many variations along this spectrum that are normal and work fine for families.  Some families clean each night before bed.  Some thoroughly clean bedrooms once a week.  There will be times when extra cleanings are in order and times when the kids play without making too much of a mess (not many of those, though!).  It doesn’t matter where you fall exactly on this spectrum as long as you have a system or routine for encouraging cleanliness.

Don’t force children to clean.  You won’t win.  Some days your children will be cooperative, other days not so much.  Encourage them to do at least something, such as pick up five toys.  But if it’s not going well, it’s best to do it yourself or leave it for another time. There’s no benefit to having a battle about cleaning up.  Don’t fret about your children not learning to be clean or responsible. View your children’s abilities to clean with a long-term perspective.  Don’t overreact to one day’s failures.  Just let it go and hope for a better day tomorrow.

I know it’s hard to know what age you should start expecting responsible cleaning behavior.  My main answer is, older than you think!  Once your kids reach ten or twelve or sixteen you will see how little and young a five year old is.  When your oldest is five you expect a lot of him and worry that he will never be responsible.  But there are many, many years for him to learn this!  Here are the main ingredients for clean and responsible kids: 1. Your good attitude toward and positive modeling of cleaning.  2. Your kind but firm guidance for them to clean, with increasing responsibilities as they age.

By age 8-10 you can start to expect them to clean their room independently.  I still like to be in the room with my kids, though, or close by, putting other things away.  If you send a child off to clean her room on her own, be sure to follow up on that task.  Inspect their work after or have them tell you when they finish the job.  Otherwise kids will learn to dawdle and avoid the chore, knowing you won’t realize it wasn’t done until much later. (See the last section of Positive Ways to Speak to Your Child, Part II for more on this.)

Expecting teenagers clean their rooms is a whole new parenting challenge! You probably know that for teenagers, their rooms are their sanctuary.  They want privacy in their rooms, and they want to keep their rooms how they like them.  As the saying goes, parents have to “choose their battles” with teenagers, and if this is a battle you choose not to fight, I think that is okay.  Eventually your example will sink in, but maybe not until they go to college.  Still encourage cleanliness from time to time, in a playful way if possible.  If and when they do clean their rooms, be sure to make a positive comment about it, but don’t be sarcastic! For example, it’s tempting to say, “We can finally see the floor!” but this type of sarcasm just annoys teenagers.  It’s better to simply say, “Thanks for cleaning your room; it looks great!”   At other times try to find any part of the room to compliment, such as, “Thanks for making your bed every day,” or “I like the way you keep your books organized on your bookshelf.”

I’m a pretty clean person and for me a clean house is a high priority.  I still “make” my teenage daughters clean their rooms; although make is not really the right word.  I encourage it often and even offer to help them.  They don’t usually want my help, but they are pretty cooperative about keeping their rooms clean.  I communicate my feelings to them on a regular basis, telling them why I feel it is important to keep their rooms and the house clean.  Their rooms might get messier and messier for a few days or weeks, sometimes because they are extra busy.  When I know we have a free weekend, I’ll instruct them to work on their rooms. I still give discrete instructions such as, “Please pick up the clothes on your floor” or, “Your garbage needs to be emptied.”  I try not to bother them too often about it, and I try to be very positive about the clean portions of their rooms.   If it became a real battle and rift in our relationship, I would lighten up.

In summary, getting children to clean their rooms is more complicated than you would think.  You have to work with them at it (literally, both of your working together), have a positive attitude about cleaning in general, try to make it fun, don’t expect too much too soon from them, and model cleanliness in your own life.

Rules or Relationship?

My oldest daughter just turned 16 and got her driver’s license.  Many people have asked me about our rules for her driving: What time is her curfew?  How far can she go?  Whom can she drive?  My simple answer is we focus more on our relationship than the rules.

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My husband majored in Family Science while doing his pre-med courses at BYU.  In one of his parenting classes he learned about this concept. He learned the importance of cultivating a relationship with your teenager over enforcing a long list of rules.  Many people think that when it comes to parenting teenagers you’ve got to “lay down the law” and battle them to get them to obey and behave.  Parents think you’ve got to establish a lot of rules and consequences and be on the lookout for any misbehavior or rebellion.  But there is a different way.  If you have nurtured a good relationship with your child, you can focus more on that bond for influencing good behavior than any rules and punishments.

This philosophy is based on an understanding of the developmental growth that occurs in the teenage years.  Growing up includes the process of separating from parents, and by the end of adolescence that separation should be complete.  Parents will and should have less and less influence.  In Parenting with Love and Logic the authors describe this situation with V and an inverted V as two symbols of children’s decision making as they age.  The upright V shows that when children are small (the bottom of the V), they are not making many decisions on their own.  The parents control most of their lives and make most of their decisions. Parental control decreases over time as children mature.  Children learn how to make more and more of their own decisions, and by the time they leave the house they are equipped with the skills to live independent lives.

Some parents mistakenly subscribe to the inverted or upside down V philosophy, where young children are given many liberties and allowed to make their own decisions (many of which may be beyond their developmental level). Then as the child grows, the parents clamp down and implement more rules (presumably to keep the rebelling teen in line). This is a vicious cycle because it leads to more rebellion from the teenager, followed by even more rules from the parents. This kind of cycle can dampen the parent-child relationship.  Interactions start to focus on reviewing and enforcing the rules and this leads to a more closed-off relationship.

With a strong relationship already in place, parents are ready to guide their children through adolescence with less and less control over their choices.  This doesn’t mean you don’t know what is going on with your child.  In fact, it is the opposite.  Through your relationship you know a lot about each other.  Rather than reviewing rules, you are getting to know your child in a more mature way, trying to understand what the child is thinking, learning, doing, and experiencing.  You have mutual respect and consideration, and you communicate about what is going on each day.  You know where your child is and what they are doing, not because they have to tell you, but because it is a natural part of your relationship.

In the context of a relationship, the child understands that she can’t come home whenever she wants, because her parents will be wondering where she is and would be worried about her.  She wouldn’t take the car without discussing it because the parent might need it.  In this system, parents expect the child to talk to them regularly, not just to inform them what she is doing, but to have an open discussion together.  This might include the child recognizing that what she has planned won’t work for the family as a whole.  For example, if a child says she wants to go to a friend’s house after the football game and stay out until one am, the dad might explain that the family has an activity planned early Saturday morning, and so she will need to come home earlier.

Don’t get the wrong idea that keeping a healthy, strong relationship with your teen is easy!  It takes work, patience, and self-control.  But it is possible, and it is preferable to viewing your teen as an adversary and trying to control her behavior with rules.  In the book How to Hug a Porcupine, the author goes into detail about how to create and maintain a positive relationship with your child from about age 9 on.  The tween years (9-12) can be the time when children start to get “prickly,” harder to love and more distant.  The author describes how to overlook the difficult but normal behaviors (similar to the difficult toddler behaviors I talked about in Why Is She Crying?!) and forge ahead with a positive attitude toward bridging the gap that your child insists on creating.  If you get in the habit of these helpful tactics, you will have a good relationship in place as your child enters the teen years.

Don’t expect that this will always go smoothly.  There may be a time when your child forgets or doesn’t want to communicate and just stays out late without explanation.  When this happens, try to keep you irritation in check and have a discussion (not a lecture or a reprimand).  The discussion centers on finding out what happened and why the communication broke down.  Give the child the benefit of the doubt, asking for her perspective rather than launching into a lecture about how terrible the behavior was or how it impacted you.  Believe the child wants to make good decisions and keep up the relationship, and reemphasize that expectation.  Assume the best of the child, and be surprised when she doesn’t behave in that way, rather than assuming the worst and trying to “catch” her in a mistake.  It makes a big difference to come at the relationship from this perspective.

Again, it’s not easy, but it is possible.  We are fortunate to have this foundation of a good relationship with our daughter (the new 16-year-old), and therefore don’t have a lot of rules in place for her.  She tells us where she’s going, whom she’ll be with, and when she’ll be back.  We decide on an appropriate return time depending on the particulars of each situation – week night or weekend, what the activity is, etc.  If she gets into a phase where she doesn’t want to tell us these details, where she wants to pull away emotionally and gets annoyed when we “make her” talk to us, we will remind her of this concept.  We’ll tell her that we prefer to have a relationship instead of a lot of rules, but that requires consistent and respectful communication.  We’ll be understanding and sympathetic, knowing this emotional separation is a normal part of growing up and not something to get annoyed about, but we’ll be firm in the fact that we need to know some of these details before she goes out.

Time Out

No parenting website would be complete without addressing the topic of Time Out.  Time out is a popular parenting tool, and can be used effectively, but it’s an ill-defined concept.  Your version of time out could be different than mine or anyone else’s, so I’ll start with some clarification.  One use of time out is as a break.  In this sense it is not a punishment or a sign of misbehavior necessarily, simply a neutral, unemotional separation.  If two children are having a hard time getting along you might see the need for a little break from each other and suggest a time out.  The children can go to different rooms and play something else for a specified or unspecified amount of time.  If two or more children are arguing over a toy and can’t find a good solution using their words, the toy might have to have a time out and be put away somewhere for a while.  Even moms can have time outs in this sense: a short period of time to be in your room alone. When interrupted you can explain to your children, “Mom needs a break for just a little bit, a time out.”

The more common usage, however, is time out as a punishment.  Parents know that spanking is no longer an acceptable general-use punishment, and they want something that they can hold over the child to elicit cooperation.  The problem with punishment is the more you use it the less effective it is.  The child may be afraid of the punishment in the beginning and motivated by that fear to behave as you want them to. But after a few times of experiencing the punishment he will realize it’s not that bad, and the motivating effects will wear off.  Any kind of punishment (taking away privileges, grounding, time outs) needs to be used sparingly to be effective.  If this is your main tool, it’s going to work less and less over time.  Using the proactive principles described in this blog will be more effective in producing the desired behavior.

Another problem with punishments, including time out, is that often parents don’t actually follow through with them.  Saying you’re going to enforce some punishment and then not doing it is just giving the child permission to misbehave over and over again!  The child quickly realizes the punishment is not coming. Granted, it’s a hassle to follow through with your punishment.  It requires a lot of effort on your part, and it brings up a lot of emotions, such as anger and irritation.  It’s easier to threaten the punishment and *hope* the behavior improves so you won’t actually have to go through with it!  But, this style of parenting is less effective, of course.  This gets back to the idea of say fewer words when you’re angry or disciplining.  If you are not ready to enforce the consequence, don’t bring it up!  Just don’t say it.  Say something about how you want them to act; try to find positive behaviors to reinforce; but don’t threaten the punishment unless you absolutely intend to enforce it.

An example of this happened in our family recently.  My daughter had 5 friends sleep over for her 11th birthday party.  My husband and I knew it would be difficult to get them to go to sleep and not disturb us in the night.  He went down to see if they had the blankets and pillows they needed.  He decided to “lay down the law.”  He told them if we had to come down to tell them to be quiet, we would separate them all to different rooms to sleep the rest of the night.  When he told me that, I was surprised.  I said, “You’re not seriously going to do that – separate them after only the first time we have to go tell them to go to sleep?!” We’d be the meanest parents on the block!  He thought for a minute and said he guessed he really didn’t intend to enforce that consequence.  I was a little disappointed that he (who is usually in complete agreement with my parenting principles) would threaten something he didn’t intend to do.  It didn’t matter that much in this one instance, but it shows how easy it is to come up with a scary sounding threat to manage behavior.  As parents we don’t always think through if the threat is reasonable, realistic, or even advantageous to us!  We’ve all had that sinking realization that the punishment we just gave our child was really a punishment to ourselves.  Think before you speak!  Ask yourself if a punishment is really necessary in this situation, and what it will be like for the child and you to carry out the punishment.

These same ideas apply to rewards (i.e., bribes).  Rewards are really just punishments turned around.  If you do this, you get a reward; but if you don’t do this, you don’t.  The withholding of the reward based on behavior is the same as a punishment.  To build enduring patterns of good behavior, children need to be motivated by internal rewards (the positive feelings they have inside knowing they are doing the right thing) more than external rewards (what someone is going to do or not do if they behave).  If they get used to being rewarded for each action, they will stop doing the behavior once the reward stops.

There are the occasional instances where rewards can be effective.  When you’re in a situation that doesn’t come up very often, such as flying on an airplane, rewards can be a great tool.  If the behavior is one you want her to do consistently (not hit her brother, take her plate to the sink, clean up her toys) rewards as motivation are not very helpful.  The effects will wear off over time.  But, if it’s a behavior that you just need them to do once (or once every long while), the short term benefits of rewards can be just the thing to get the child motivated.

Time out can be ONE of your parenting tools, if used only occasionally.  This is how I would suggest implementing this tool.  First, use the proactive tools that have been described in other posts (positive reinforcement, explain expectations, stay close to your child, stop and redirect).  If there is a situation where the child is misbehaving and these other forms of redirecting aren’t working, explain that if the behavior continues, the child will be put in time out.  Don’t ask, “Do you want to go to time out?”  It’s tempting to say that, but it’s a silly question with no good answer.   Say something like, “Please stop hitting your brother with that toy.  If you don’t stop you will have to go to time out for 3 minutes.” If she continues hitting her brother with the toy, you say, “You will need to go to time out.”  Some books say don’t start the time until the child stops crying; I think that sets you up for a control battle.  Some books say to have a discussion about the behavior during the time out; I think this is giving too much attention and reinforcement to the misbehavior.  When the time out is over you can give a short summary and explanation of what you expect: “You were in time out because you hit your brother with a toy after I asked you to stop.  I expect you to treat your brother kindly, and I expect you to follow my instructions.  Please say, ‘Okay, mommy.’”

If used sparingly, the time out will have a strong effect on the child and the behavior will improve afterwards.  If the misbehavior continues you may need to look at the larger situation.  Is the child tired or hungry or had enough of spending time with her brother?  Is there something else reinforcing the behavior (the attention or laughter of an older sibling)?  If you find yourself using time out often, review the posts on this blog and try to implement the other, more positive parenting principles.  It takes dedication and effort to parent in the proactive rather than reactive way, but your child’s behavior will improve and the improvement will not be just for the short-term.  He will have the internal motivation to succeed; he will have the desire to please you with his good behavior because of his positive relationship with you.

Why Is She Crying?

As a new parent, when my child misbehaved I used to think, “I must not be doing the right things or else she wouldn’t be acting like this.”  The parenting books I read would describe certain methods to get your child to behave.  I would do those things, and she would still be difficult.  (I’ve mentioned my irritation with parenting books before!).  My mind couldn’t help but sense that maybe I was not doing it “right.”  There had to be some change I could make so her behavior would improve and parenting would be easier.

The hard truth is it’s part of children’s normal growth and development to misbehave, cry and act out.  They are going to throw fits, hurt other children, refuse to go to bed, whine, and hit. Maybe everyone else gets that intuitively, but this was not something I knew or understood or could even begin to grasp when I was a new parent of a toddler.  I am more of a Type-A personality, used to solving problems head-on.  If my child’s behavior is a problem, there must be something I can do about it, right?!  It was a real epiphany to me that you can hold these two truths in your head at the same time: “I am a good mom with sufficient parenting skills” AND “My child will misbehave.”

This is when I started saying the phrase, “That’s just how kids are.”  It was seriously a shock to me how difficult parenting is and how bad kids are!  Of course, I don’t mean bad, but there is a lot of unpleasantness that I was not expecting. I had to say that phrase over and over, and at first I really didn’t believe it. This can’t be how parenting really is!  Why didn’t someone warn me?!  You don’t see the worst behavior of other children in public (and if you do, you assume they usually aren’t like that), and I became obsessed with wondering how my child compared to other little kids.  Was she worse?  Better?  By how much?  I secretly wished I had a camera in other moms’ homes so I could see how things really were.

Because I had unrealistic expectations, I became unduly irritated at what I perceived as misbehavior.  One incident that sticks out in my mind is putting on my two-year-old’s shoes.  She was fighting me and kicking her feet at me.  Looking back it seems silly that I was so shocked, but at the time I was very irritated and angry!  Just put your *&%$ shoes on!  After a while (and a few kids) I came to see that as normal and even expected behavior.  I got used to the general, every day difficult behaviors.  Children will fight the shoes, the car seat, eating dinner, and going to bed.  I had to learn to be patient through all of it.  Part of the problem was I was magnifying these problems and viewing them as a reflection of my parenting skills or self-worth.  Once I truly believed this was normal behavior, I was also able to believe that I was a competent parent.

So I realized that parenting becomes easier when you have the appropriate expectations of children and when you are accustomed to their behavior. It also helps to focus on the good parts more than the difficult parts.  Reinforcing your child’s positive behaviors helps you focus your attention on what the child is doing right more than wrong. Another skill is being grateful for the tender moments with your child: when she’s on your lap and you’re reading a book; when she hugs you and says, “I love you”; when she learns how to do something for the first time.  Unfortunately, it took me quite a while to do learn these lessons.  I am so grateful that in my parenting now the tender and fun moments far outweigh the irritating moments.

You have to understand and believe that not only is misbehavior normal, but children’s behavior is very complicated.  They are motivated and controlled by so many different factors, physical and emotional.  You can’t know or understand all those factors.  Many times the reasons for their misbehavior are a mystery.  Sometimes there isn’t a quick fix to that particular problem at that particular time.  You can’t let their behavior undermine your self-worth as a parent.  All you can do is be the best parent you can be, and trust that is enough.  Again, having confidence in your parenting principles can give you the security to get through difficult situations.  It’s easy to get focused on specific misbehaviors and bogged down by what that behavior means about you and/or your child.  But it’s better to look at the big picture.  Keep your focus on your core parenting strategies, and don’t worry if they don’t work all the time or if you’re not sure of the correct response to one particular problem.

Remember, the tantrums, the whining, the stubbornness and all their other difficult behaviors are an important part of their normal development.  THAT’S JUST HOW KIDS ARE!

Electronics

Monitoring your child’s use of electronics can be challenging.  I’ve struggled with this parenting problem for quite some time, but finally realized that if I apply the principles outlined in this blog, I can get a handle on it, because the problem of monitoring electronics is just the same as any other parenting problem.  You have to 1. Decide what your rules are and 2. Calmly enforce the rules.  (This is one of those “simple” but not so “easy” situations!)

Step One: Decide what your rules are.  This is really where the difficulty comes in with electronics, because we don’t have a sense of cultural or family norms.  With many other situations you can look to what your parents or other parents you know or admire did, but with electronics everyone is new at it!  All parents are floundering, walking around blind, bumping into (metaphorical) corners and chairs.  Talking to other parents helps some, but there are so many particulars – type of electronic, age of child, personal comfort with electronics, knowledge of parental controls. It used to be you could reasonably keep electronics (computers) in the main living area, but more and more children want their own personal device.  You have to decide: Are you going to have all electronics on the main level? Have them “turn them in” at a certain time at night? Turn off the wifi at a certain time? Monitor their usage through history or mobile updates?  There are many options.

When you are figuring out your family rules talk with your spouse first.  Explore how you both feel and make a plan for what the restrictions should be.  Then present the plan to the children and get their input.  Involving them in the discussion (in a developmentally appropriate way) will help them be more invested in the rules.  Be sure to listen respectfully to all their ideas, experiences and concerns.  They may have some valid feedback to consider and you will possibly modify the rules accordingly.

We sometimes present it like this, “We are worried about your electronic use (maybe elaborate on the specific worries and/or reasons these behaviors can be harmful).  What ideas do you have to fix these problems?” These types of discussions can lead to some very useful information – how they feel about their own usage, what their friends’ rules are, what apps or sites they like or visit frequently.  It’s a time for open discussion about issues that are important in their lives.

I’ll tell you a little about our experiences and rules we’ve set.  This is not meant to be a template for your situation because each family is different, but you might benefit from our example and learn some lessons sooner than we did.

A few things that seem like no-brainers now took us a while to realize.  Requiring the door to be open when using a device was the first of these.  The oldest child complained that the younger ones were loud and annoying, so we allowed her to have her door closed.  She would be holed up in her room for hours playing on her device.  Once we figured that out, we changed the rule to doors must be open when using a device.  After a while we changed again, and now we only allow device usage on the main level.

Our second discovery was Restrictions on Apple devices.  If you go to “settings,” “general,” “restrictions” you are able to set up a 4 digit passcode (on EACH separate device) and then set the age appropriate levels for many different aspects: music, apps, websites, games, etc.  It is the simplest, most effective way to limit what content they are consuming.  I wish I’d known about it from the beginning! One friend told me that when she gave her 10-year-old an Apple device she simply took off the Safari (web-browsing) app.  There are plenty of other fun ways to use the device without surfing the internet.

Here is a screen shot of the Restrictions menu.  It’s very simple to turn off certain applications or set maturity levels for various media.

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Third, we realized we must create our own account for whatever social media our children are using, and follow them.  Many parents (including myself) don’t necessarily want accounts on the apps their children are using.  But to effectively monitor your child’s usage, you need to take the time to figure it out and check on his activity from time to time.  My husband used this analogy: would you allow your child to have a locked room in the house that you weren’t allowed to go in?  Of course not. You need to be aware of what your child is doing on these sites.  This not only allows you to monitor his electronic activity, but also helps you get to know him.  It’s a little window into his world: his interests, his friends, what he’s posting or liking

Here’s a summary of our other rules or methods of dealing with electronic usage.

  1. The wifi goes off at 10:30 pm. We literally unplug the router because I couldn’t find a system that would turn it off for certain devices at certain times.
  1. The iPhone can still be used through its data, so her data is turned off at 10:30. I set this up on AT&T’s website through our account.
  1. We created an Open DNS account. I set it up to restrict adult websites all the time, and restrict social media usage (what Open DNS calls “time wasters”) after 10:30, just in case we forgot to unplug the wifi.
  1. We don’t allow use of electronics while making or eating food.
  1. Likewise, they are not allowed to use them during family dinner or family meetings.
  1. There is a time limit for Netflix watching.

We wanted to make a rule that they have to hand over the devices when we ask for them, because really they are ours. Even if they bought the device themselves, we pay for the phone service and the wifi.  We got a surprising amount of resistance on this, partially because we didn’t set this up as an expectation from the beginning.  They really believe the devices belong to them and that we are invading their privacy by looking at them.  I can understand their position somewhat.  On the one hand, we as parents need to be monitoring not only the amount of time they use devices, but also what they are doing on them and with them.  However, it is also like reading their diaries in a sense, or listening in to both sides of their phone conversations.  It’s a tricky balance.

I decided to set one hour a week when they give their devices to us.  We chose Sundays from 6:00-7:00.  The regularity helps solve a few of the problems.  First, it gets the girls in the habit of handing over their devices.  It is a weekly reminder that the devices do not belong solely to them.  Second, it gives us a weekly reminder to check on what they are doing.  Without a system or routine, we tend to forget to do this regularly.   We look over their usage and do a quick check (or a lengthy one, if warranted) of their texts, emails and posts.  This is not a complete solution.  They still can and might delete their web page history or texts.  We just have to trust that we have a good enough relationship with them and have taught them correct principles well enough that they will make good decisions.

We do allow exceptions to these rules, especially when the children calmly explain what they want.  As I explained in the post Use Your Words, I want my children to learn that the more words you use the more likely you are to get what you want.  For example, if friends are over, the internet can stay on beyond the usual time. Or, over Christmas break if they want to watch an extra show on Netflix, that’s okay.

Here is a link to a blog with more tips on parental restrictions.  There’s a menu at the top with options for various devices and apps.  It can be complicated and time consuming, but that’s what parenting entails in the 21st century!

Once you’ve decided the rules for your family, give yourself permission to change them as needed.  If you try the rules out for a few weeks or months, you may find they don’t work for various reasons.  It’s okay to say to your kids, “We’ve realized this isn’t working, we’ve reassessed and these are the new rules.” The rules are necessarily going to change through the years as your kids get older and the devices change.


Now we come to Step Two: Calmly enforce the rules.  The rules you decide on are somewhat arbitrary and may change, but once you have chosen your regulations, you can be certain you are doing the best thing for your family at this time.  If you are unsure, children can sense that and will test you more.  Also, being unsure makes you more frustrated and more likely to lash out at them (when it’s your uncertainty that is really causing the stress).  Be secure in your rules and present them in a confident, sure manner.  Also, present them in a positive manner, explaining that it’s your responsibility to keep your children safe and help them develop good habits around device usage, and that you want to encourage real things with real people as much as possible.

As you explain and implement the new rules, your children may (probably will) complain and balk at first, and you may be worried that it’s going to be terrible.  But, BELIEVE ME, I’ve done this many times and always found that they get used to the rules. As long as the rules are enforced in a calm, kind way, there will be no long term negative detriments to their health or well being, or your relationship with them!  At first it seems dreadful, but after a while everyone gets used to it, and things go smoothly.

For the first while we took away their devices for various lengths of time as the consequence of not following the rules.  But this started to feel like we were trying to “catch” them breaking the rules, and I felt it wasn’t conducive to a respectful and trusting relationship.  It finally dawned on me that I was not being true to the principles in this blog!  I was focusing on consequences (which were really just punishments) because doing so was easier and more straight forward.  We decided to change our ways and do away with any consequences, except in extreme cases.  Now we use the methods outlined in this blog.  In Stop and Redirect I explain how most misbehavior can be addressed with a simple reprimand and instruction.  In this case I would say, “Remember not to use your phone in your room.  You’re only supposed to use it on the main level.”  The next important step in managing children’s behavior is Positive Reinforcement.  We notice the times when they are using them on the main level and say, “Thank you for obeying the rule of being on the main level.  I appreciate that!”  We also make sure we Stay Close to Our Children in other ways, to maintain a positive relationship and to know what is going on in their lives.

We set up and modify the rules by having discussions with our daughters, listening to their points, and responding respectfully.  Through this process, they became invested in the rules and verbally agreed to follow them.  After that we give them the benefit of the doubt that they want to follow the rules, they just forget sometimes.  If they are repeatedly disobeying or forgetting the rules we would take the device away for a time (corresponding with the misbehavior) but that is not our first line of defense to encourage obedience.  When it was our first line of defense (when we were looking for disobedience and readily handing out punishment) it set up an adversarial relationship – one based on the premise that they will misbehave and we must “catch” them at it.  It just didn’t feel right to us.

So, in summary, to regulate electronics you apply all the parenting principles in this blog just as you would with any parenting dilemma. You explain expectations; you phrase it in positive ways; you reinforce the good behavior; you prevent your own irritation.  You address your own issues, and you practice patience.  Deciding the particular rules can be difficult, but after that you just stay calm and be kind!

There is another post about electronics here.  Some of the content is overlapping, but it is all important!

Resistance to Change

When you try any new “system” with your family or your children, they are likely to resist.  It is in children’s nature to fight the change, keep the old ways – especially if the new way means any kind of extra work.  I’m bringing this up because many times when parents come up against this resistance, they think they are doing the wrong thing, and they give up too soon.  As with so many areas of parenting, I want to normalize the crazy! We all go through this.  Knowing this resistance is normal and being prepared for it will help you push through with your new way of doing things until the family gets used to it.

For example, at some point your children will be old enough to start helping with chores.  Hopefully they’ve done little, age appropriate chores when they were young (making their bed, unloading the dishes), but then comes a time when you’re ready to give them real chores: daily dish or pet duty or Saturday jobs cleaning the house.  When you first introduce this your children will balk; they will complain.  They will perform the chores badly such that you feel it would be easier to do it yourself.  But don’t!  Be kind and calm as you continue to insist they do their chores day after day, week after week, and after a while, it will get better.  They will get used to this system as the new normal, and you will have extra help around the house!  It takes persistence and dedication from parents to get kids in these habits, but it will pay off in the long run.  Your children will be better trained to do chores obediently, and the younger children will follow the older ones’ examples (so it will be easier to train them to do their chores).

Another example is family scriptures.  Many families want to hold a daily devotional with their children: reading scriptures, having family prayer, and maybe singing a hymn.  If your family is not in the habit of doing this, and you want to start it, be prepared for rough waters!  In the beginning there will be a lot of resistance (the older the children are, the more verbal the resistance will be).  Younger children will misbehave, older children will roll their eyes and beg to be done.  But, stay the course!  Be kind and calm as you continue to insist that they stay in the room and participate (or just stay in the room and be quiet), explaining at times why this is important to your family.  I promise, over time they will start to behave and even enjoy this family together time.

Whether it’s a new chore chart, a new weekly or daily family meeting, or new rules regarding electronics, your children will put up a fight and try to wear you down until you’re tempted to give up.  This resistance is completely normal.  Don’t give it weight or too much thought or attention. You have to persevere for a few weeks before you can decide if the new system is a success or not.  Making these modifications will help your children get better at adapting to new situations, which is an important developmental skill.  Expecting resistance can keep you calm (and kind!) and give you the foresight to keep trying.

Improving Parent’s Behavior

Parenting advice is usually focused on what parents can do to improve or moderate their children’s behavior.  But sometimes it is the parent who needs to change.  You might need to learn how to stay calm in difficult situations, or create better habits about spending quality time with your child.  This can be a painful process, to evaluate your parenting and realize there are some places you are lacking.  It takes insight to see the areas for improvement, and humility to admit that you need to work on something.  But once you are able to focus on these areas and make changes, you will be happier as a parent and a person.  If anger is controlling your responses to your children, you can find more peace when you learn to control that anger.  If you’re being reactive as a parent and blowing things out of proportion, you probably regret it later and resolve to do better.

If you have seen a need for change and are ready to work on some aspect of your parenting, I want to applaud your efforts.  It takes maturity and strength to improve yourself.

Parenting is overwhelming – for everyone! So if you’re ready to make some changes, start small.  Realize that changing thoughts, feelings and responses takes time.  Go easy on yourself as you make progress.  Here is my formula for how to change.   It sounds easy and straight-forward as I type it, but we all know it is not.  You will have to repeat this process over and over to see progress.

First, assess what needs to be changed.  Just like when you are writing those New Year’s resolutions, try to be specific and reasonable. There may be many areas you want to work on, but just start with one.  Even a goal such as “I’ve got to be more patient” is too broad and overwhelming.  Focus in on one time frame, for example, “I want to be more patient at bedtime.”

Next, figure out the better way.  What will the new and improved behavior look like and sound like?  Make a list of specific ways you are going to respond or specific things you are going to do to improve.  Write notes to yourself and place them in the bathroom, kitchen, anywhere you will see them often.  Continuing with the ‘patient at bedtime’ example, try to identify what moments or interactions cause your frustration and what your usual response is.  If you know those moments are coming, you can make a plan for how to respond more positively.

Finally, implement the better way.  Each time that situation comes up, try to remember what you practiced and planned.  Over time these purposeful, proactive responses will become your normal, replacing the negative automatic reactions that come so quickly in the heat of the moment.

Sometimes the change you need to make has to do with your own issues.  Here are a few emotional issues that get in the way of effective parenting.

Your parents. Most people respond to their children in the same way their parents did. You may have never thought about it before, but it’s a good idea to reflect on this.  Ask yourself if you’re doing the same things your parents did, and if that is how you want to parent or not.  This is part of intentional parenting, instead of doing whatever comes naturally.  Your answer may be that yes, you want to be like your parents and follow their example.  On the other hand, you may realize there are some things they did that you want to do differently.

The first step is to identify exactly what habits and family patterns work for you and your family and those that don’t.  It can be hard to do something different from your parents because they might be hurt that you chose a different path, or be disapproving of your choices.  It’s also hard to do something different because your automatic habits will be to follow their example.  Sometimes these reactions are so ingrained we don’t realize what we’re doing or it seems impossible to change.  But following the formula above is a good place to start.

You must also be aware of the risk of overreacting.  If you didn’t like something your parents did, like forbidding sleep overs, you might do the extreme opposite without really thinking it through.  You might be very lax in your rules about sleep overs and not realize the possible detriments to your children.  Allowing sleep overs or not is not the point, of course.  The point is you should make purposeful decisions based on you and your spouse’s examination of your feelings and the information about the situation. If parenting differently than your parents did is one of your emotional “issues,” than work through that and be aware of its effect on you.

Your pride.  I wrote about this in the Parenting without Irritation post. In a situation where you feel watched, where people might be observing (and maybe even judging) how your children look and act, you can’t help but feel a little more anxious, a little more easily annoyed.  And this feeling affects your parenting – you are short with your children, less patient and more on edge.  The “observers” might be your parents or in-laws, co-workers or friends.  Special occasions or places with certain expectations of behavior can be potential traps for pride flare-ups.  This is a natural reaction.  If you realize it and even anticipate it, you can modulate your own feelings and be ready for the situation.

You might do a little self talk, like this, “I know you want the kids to look and act their best today, and you will feel like people are watching what they do, but they are just kids and won’t be perfect.  I can talk to them beforehand and explain my expectations of them, but if and when they misbehave I can still be patient and calm, and speak kindly to them as I try to get them to obey.  Most people there have kids and know what they are like, and most people won’t be paying as much attention as I imagine that they are. My overreaction is worse/more embarrassing than their misbehavior.”

If you find that your pride is creeping up regularly, take a look at it and see what you can do to keep it in check.

Your marriage. I think we are all aware that the quality of your marriage can greatly affect your children. The most obvious way this affects your parenting is if you and your spouse are not on the same page regarding parenting principles. When spouses have differing parenting styles it can be confusing for children, and they sometimes play off of each parent to get what they want.   You might have to put extra effort into communicating about how to raise your children and find a way to compromise and work together.  There are many arbitrary decisions and rules in parenting, and therefore many areas of compromise that won’t have lasting effects on the children.  There are some important basic principles, though, that you will hopefully agree on.

Even if you and your spouse agree on parenting principles, if there are other trouble spots in the marriage it can affect your children.  It takes emotional energy to deal with marital difficulties, and that takes away from the emotional energy you have available for your children.  If this is a problem for you, do whatever you can to address those issues and strengthen your marriage.  Talk to your spouse, read a marriage-improvement book, or get counseling together.  Any effort you put into your marriage will directly benefit your children and make you a better parent.

Your self-image. In your child’s world, the boundary between self and parent is very blurred, maybe even nonexistent. Children see themselves as one with you.  Separating from you is part of the growing up process.  Therefore everything you say about yourself, you might as well be saying about them.  Hopefully you already have a positive self-image, but if not you should try to find out why and work on it.  Even if you don’t say negative comments out loud, your child can pick up on subtle cues exposing your dislike of yourself (and he internalizes them to dislike of himself).

But one thing you can absolutely control (though it may be difficult) is those comments – what you say out loud about yourself.  You should never put yourself down in front of your children.  In fact, do the opposite.  Make a point of saying comments like, “I’m having a good hair day today!”  or “Wow!  I made a really good dinner tonight.”  It feels silly at first, but you’ll get used to it.  And it is as beneficial to your child as giving him or her a compliment.  Don’t you want your child to feel and say those same things about herself?  Then you must model it.

When you get home from work say, “I really helped someone at work today; let me tell you about it . . .” Another example: “I’ve always thought I have a really nice smile.”  It sounds crazy because who would really say that out loud?  But again, it’s powerful modeling.  Keep these comments coming, both about superficial things (looks, hair, clothes) and deeper things like solving difficult problems or working on relationships.  Give your children an insight into your (positive) world.

This goes for eating issues, also.  Daughters especially pick up on their mother’s eating habits and body issues.  I try not to ever mention I’m on a diet or talk in depth about the calories or fat grams of any food. Don’t demonize food or fat; just have a neutral attitude toward all food.   I try to have the attitude of ‘I eat in moderation and I enjoy whatever food I’m eating.’  This may not be what is really going on inside, but having this attitude for your children’s sake can change your internal dialogue permanently and give you healthier self-talk.  It will be better for your own health and self-image to speak positively about your body and not negatively.  Making a point to say positive things in front of your children will force you to focus on the positive!

All these difficulties and issues are a part of everyone’s life; no one is immune.  But we need to be aware of how they are affecting our parenting.  Once the effects are identified we can be proactive, making choices that are purposeful and best for our families.