Learn to say 'no' to kids

Thursday, May 8, 2008

According to parenting expert, Dr David Walsh, more parents are using "yes" instead of discipline, guidance and standards to appease their children and ease their own guilt. The result? Children "are experiencing an epidemic I call 'discipline deficit disorder'," says Dr Walsh, the symptoms of which are impatience, consumerism and always wanting more.

Culture of disrespect
Sixty years ago, war-era parents over-disciplined and over-criticised their children. In the ensuing decades, however, the culture has slowly reversed and become so child-centred, the high note of self-restraint has been lost.

"The culture today really glamorises more, fast, easy and fun. More and more parents almost have an allergic reaction to kids being unhappy, we feel it's our responsibility to make sure they're having fun," says Dr Walsh, author of No: Why kids — of all ages — need to hear it and ways parents can say it (Free Press, $49.95). "The culture just is not as supportive of saying no as it was in the past."

A distorted self-image
As a consequence, children have become emotionally detached, less considerate, more self-absorbed and unaware of "real world" expectations. Australian parenting expert, Ken Mellor, who co-authored the book, ParentCraft: A practical guide to raising children well (Finch Publishing, $24.95), says: "We think we're building our children's self-esteem by praising every ordinary thing they do, and letting them believe that mediocre is acceptable. But we're actually giving them a distorted self-image."

Schools are starting to feel the impact too. According to a recent national survey of 1300 school teachers, in NSW alone, a third of teachers plan to quit within 10 years. More than 60 percent cited student behaviour as the reason. It's a crisis mirrored in America.

"Too many teachers aren't only dealing with just a few unruly kids," Dr Walsh says, "they're contending with a culture of disrespect."

Saying no in a yes culture
It all starts with a bigger word than "no" — "yes". Saying yes may bring instant gratification and fleeting happiness, but it also cheats children out of the single most important lesson parents can deliver: self-discipline. "It is twice as strong a predictor of school success as intelligence, and without it I think our kids are ill-prepared for many things in life," Dr Walsh says.

How do you reverse the 'yes' curse?
Begin making long-term changes with these steps:

Set limits as well as standards.
"You want to work toward a set of family rules and consequences that everybody understands," Dr Walsh says. "And don't try to address everything at once; pick the ones that you think are most urgent."

Make sure you explain consequences ahead of time.
" Enforce them calmly and follow up with your child on how she could have behaved better.

Don't cave in to tantrums.
" Unless you want a lot more of them," advises Dr Walsh. Never try to bribe, out-shout or threaten a child having a tantrum. Remove them to a safe space and once they're calmed down, follow up.

Expect a bit of mouthiness from kids.
" Particularly teenagers. If it escalates into swearing, stop the discussion so they can calm down. Don't let them do something else in the meantime — the discussion must be finalised first. If cursing and put-downs become endemic, consider getting your children to sign a "behaviour contract" that rewards good behaviour.

Demand some accountability and responsibility for your child's actions.
" Mellor recalls a time when his daughter broke the washing machine door in anger. "She was grounded, but she also had natural consequences in that I made her pay for it," he says. "It was a lot for a child to manage but she had to be responsible for her own actions."

Implement natural consequences.
If your child gets up from the table and wanders around during mealtime, despite the family rule that's been set in place, and that she's well aware of, take the plate away and don't let her whine her way out of facing the results.

All children lie at times.
When they are young, try to understand why they are lying — they may need your undiluted attention at that time. If you suspect your teen is lying, however, follow your hunch and calmly ask them for the truth. If they blow up, simply stop the discussion until they are composed. Explain how trust affects your relationship and how losing it will determine the consequences they will face for lying to you.

Teach your child how to follow through and achieve objectives on their own — particularly between the ages of seven and 10. Many parents "help" too much with homework, for instance, and end up creating a lazy thinker in their child who makes no effort, but still gets results. "To avoid this development, we need to keep at them every day to prompt themselves, so they complete things that will pay off if they keep at it for days or weeks," Mellor says.

Don't overdo "no" — it loses its effectiveness. Instead, offer clear options. If your teenager wants a nose ring, for example, tell them you understand how popular they are, but high school is not the time to make such a decision. They can have a "fake" removable nose ring or wait until they're 18.

Always use positive language. Try to avoid "don't" messages like, "No yelling". Instead, say "Please use your 'inside' voice".

Teach them to be competent. Dr Walsh admits that he used to take over when his eight-year-old cleaned the bathroom as her chore — because she didn't meet his standards. While you need to teach children to "do things right", it's equally critical to let them feel capable.

Encourage good behaviour. For example, take note when your son is patient with his little sister, and tell him you appreciate how responsible he is.

Delay gratification. Instead of constantly buying things for your child, give them an allowance and let them save for their own purchases.

Count how many family meals you share. If your child's extracurricular schedule is cutting in, drop an activity. According to Dr Walsh, children who eat family meals are less likely to do high-risk behaviours.

Never put a TV or video game system in your child's room, and limit TV access to two hours per day. Kids with their own TVs spend five hours more a week in front of the screen.

We should say no Parents struggle with instant gratification just as much as their kids. Whether it's buying a new TV, or parking the children in front of it so you can answer the messages on your BlackBerry, Dr Walsh says self-indulgence is "an epidemic amongst adults. Good parenting takes a lot of time, attention and energy — but we're a very short-term society".

The trend towards smaller families translates into more disposable income to make kids happy. "But we can go down the wrong track if we don't understand that frustration and disappointment are part of growing up," says Dr Walsh, "and children need to learn how to deal with them."

So many parents seem to think that feeling good equals positive self-esteem. According to Dr Walsh, this is a mistaken belief. "We have a myth that feelings of frustration and disappointment damage self-esteem. And that's why a lot of us get overprotective, and try to shield our kids from bad feelings."

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