At Positive Parenthood, we have eight principles for creating Rules That Work. We are going to share the first three here, and applying these three rules should help your family in terms of building a more peaceful home and encouraging children to behave in calm, socially appropriate ways. So, without further ado…
Principle #1: Rules That Work Use Positive Opposites
Positive Opposites are the flip of every “no” or “don’t” direction we give our children. Instead of telling children not to hit, we tell them to keep their hands on their own bodies. This works because young (and even not so young children, and especially those with special needs) will focus on what they hear you say. So, if you tell a child “Stop hitting! Don’t hit your sister,” what they hear- twice- is the verb to hit. It’s no wonder then, that the action continues. Instead, we want to offer the desired behavior in our language- “Hands on your own body” is a direction that can be given in this situation that offers the child an idea for what to do.
The underlying assumption here, is that children want to behave well, and that they want to do the correct thing. Think about your relationships with other adults- most of us are more inspired to perform well when someone else assumes our capacity and ability. It’s the same for children- and assuming they are capable (especially when they have special needs) can go a long way to supporting their success. Building in the assumption that children are capable of following family rules is one way to weave support for your child into your daily interactions.
So, what are some rules that use positive opposites? Here’s some examples from families we have worked with: In our family, we use quiet voices inside. In this house, the rule is food stays on the plate. We always clean up our toys before we go outside.
Principle #2: Rules That Work Are Simply Phrased & Melodically Intoned The Same Way Always
State your rules as if they are mantras- that means choosing just a couple of the most important rules. The desire is for the child to know the rule in the same soothing, consistent and familiar way that he or she knows their favorite bedtime story. The sign of ultimate success is when the child starts to announce the rule- using your phrase and melodic intonation- to others! You can read more about why melodic intonation is so critical here and here.
For example, perhaps in your home you have a rule that children cannot hit. You have many different ways of saying this, and you have tried them all, again and again. Your children, though, still can’t keep their hands to themselves, no matter how often you tell them to stop hitting.
There is a better and more effective way- and you guessed it, it has to do with simple melodic phrasing that is used the same every single time. So- whenever a child makes a move to strike another, you say only one thing and in the same intonation every time: “The rule in our house is hands to self.” This means you must be close enough to intervene, and that you must commit to a phrase and melodic tune… but after a couple of occasions you will notice your children to be doing better.
Principle #3: Rules That Work Are Consistently Applied
Consistency turns rules into part of the normal, natural, readily accepted fabric of daily life. This means that you must always use the rules, and that as you commit to doing so they will become standard ways of life for you and your children.
There are often environments that make consistently applying our rules hard- but its in these moments we need them the most. One such environment is the grocery checkout. Many children may ask for- or beg, whine, or demand- candy at the check-out line. Let’s imagine you’ve created a rule that you phrase as “Check-Out candy is only for looking.” As you move through the line, your child begins to whine for candy. You bend down and look in your child’s eyes and remind them of the rule. Your child starts to cry loudly, and you can feel the reproach from the person behind you in line, who you imagine is thinking “why can’t she just control her child?” You start to become embarrassed, and give in to your child’s cries, handing them the candy. Your child learns that when he or she tantrums, they get what they want- the forbidden candy. Next time, they may throw a bigger tantrum, or cry for a longer time, in order to get what they want. We’ve all been there, and the reproach of other people judging you is real, but there is a better way.
Let’s go back to the check-out line, and the child whining for the candy. You repeat your phrase, “Check-Out candy is only for looking.” Your child begins to cry. You grasp their hands and say the rule again. You pay for your groceries. You hold your crying child’s hand and smile at the reproachful person behind you. You leave the store. It is hard… but fast forward to the next time you are in the check-out line. Your child asks for candy. You bend down and say “Check-Out candy is only for looking.” Your child whines a bit. You repeat your phrase. Your child sighs and waits until you are done paying. It might take two or three or four times, but your child is capable of learning- and given the right support, they will!
Here’s how it went down: My almost three year old twins were wreaking havoc. I could not understand why they were not tired from a long and enthusiastic zoo trip that had left me and the baby totally pooped. We were prepping dinner when I noticed it smelled like a nail salon. I wondered if I’d spilled nail polish remover somewhere? Did I even own nail polish remover?
And then I peeked into the next room and found two naked toddlers dumping- literally, dumping- my expensive nail polish on the leather couch. Just in case you don’t know, nail polish does not come out of leather.
I was astounded (how did they get it? How did they open it?) but immediately sprung into clean as much as you can action. And as I realized this would be a permanent stain, I turned to them and said “You’re never ever allowed to touch mama’s stuff in the bathroom. EVER.”
This was a rule that did not work. Know how I know it didn’t work? Because less than a week later, I went to change the baby and returned to red nail polish on their yellow shag rug. It went down pretty much the same way- mad attempt at cleaning that didn’t work, followed by my declaration that they would never go into my bathroom ever again- impossible because they brush their teeth in there every day.
It probably sounds familiar, if you have children. Someone told me once that parenting can be really tough, especially if you have curious children. Which sounded funny to me, because all children are curious, right? Yes, and all parenting is hard.
My nail polish experience illustrates one of the most oft-committed errors in rule-creation and enforcement. Here’s the deal: I made these rules in fits of rage in order to display dominance and hopefully instill in my children the total wrongness of nail polish on leather and shag rugs. I did not think, I acted. I did not pause and look them in the eye, I saw in horror and burst into fix-it mode.
Anytime you glance in horror though, or even anytime you have that hot feeling of rage inside of you, the one that screams “how is this even happening,” it is always a very poor time to create a rule. Creating a rule during these times is almost never going to work. You may scare the living daylights out of your child, and they may obey briefly out of fear, but you’re not going to get lasting change.
So what? So these rules are rules that don’t work. As you can see from my nail polish story, it didn’t matter that I was mortified about the nail polish. It happened again even though I tried so hard to instill in these two little girls with big brown eyes, that nail polish stays in the bottle and it never ever goes on the couch, especially not the leather one, and it never goes on the nice yellow rug, and you never go in my bathroom and you never touch things in there either…. It did not work.
The point here, is that these sorts of made in haste rules fail. Every single time.
They do not help our children learn. They do not help us learn either. They do not feel good- to us or to the kids.
And so stay tuned, because tomorrow we’ll be posting a blog about how to make rules that do work and with any luck, you’ll be able to avoid the nail polish havoc I’ve endured lately.
You know what summer camps really got right?
At summer camp, everyone sings. There are breakfast songs and lunch songs and done with dinner songs and swimming songs and walking somewhere songs and bedtime songs. There are even contests where someone shouts out a random word (like say, "alligator") and groups have to sing a song that has that word in it.
What's right about this?
The little kids sing. The big kids sing. It's fun. It's silly. It's expected. It helps everyone move from place to place. It's a ritual. There are sing-song songs, and hand motion songs and repeat after me songs and chant songs.
Here is a YouTube playlist of some camp songs- in case you need to get inspired.
Here's the secret that every camp counselor knows: everything is better with a song, no one cares if you're off-tune, and anything can be made into a song. This carefree, must-sing attitude would do well to sneak into your everday parenting.
Sometimes, we grow up and become adults and have kids and forget that somewhere inside of us, there's a kid (or maybe a camp counselor) that loved (or would have loved) camp songs. Parenting seems so serious. But the truth of the matter is, a little levity- and a whole lot of camp songs- could do us an awful lot for supporting our challenging children. We'd be singing- helping them understand. We'd be staying light and bright ourselves- helping them to co-regulate and stay calm. We'd be entering their worlds, having fun, keeping it light.
So I urge you: unearth your inner camp counselor. Let her out to play. Encourage her. Be silly with her.
Your kids will follow.
Lots of research suggests that if possible, parents should keep little eyes away from screens. At the very least, most studies show that children under two should not be exposed to screens because the impact on their brains is pretty negative, and that after that, it’s smart to keep it to a minimum.
However- there’s little research on the impact of screens and parenting… and yet we all know how deeply cell technologies have shifted parenting practices. Most of us have thousands- if not millions- of photos that chronicle our children’s lives. We send them over text and post them to social media. And often, we share, view, and swipe on our digital devices while we are parenting.
I do it all the time- when things are really mundane, I just need a little freshness or to know that there are other mothers out there doing the same things as I am. Connecting is soothing, it helps me feel a part of a community raising children, and it makes me feel visible. What’s really interesting about this is that my desire to be part of something really big and relational and community oriented is mediated by a cell phone, and many researchers believe that that cell phone facilitating my connection to others is harming the connection I have with my children.
The issue is that while I’m filling my attentional needs through social media, my children are making bids for my attention, and I’m failing to respond. I think we need to complicate this: surely, women have long failed to respond to their children because they were preoccupied by other women, activities, work- whatever it was. However, I do think this challenge is symptomatic of late capitalism, even if I favor a more holistic view that incorporates technology as fundamental to our society over the blame-based model where social media is blamed for weakening relationships between parent and child.
The truth is, we all need connection: both children and adults require it. Children’s brains are developing, and they are also learning how to behave socially- and so connection with their parents is really important. However, mothers now spend more time with their children than they did in the 1960s! So what is going on?
Let’s take a step back and look at the systems: we live in a world that often requires both parents to work full-time, just to make ends meet. Families are often scattered across different cities and states. Financial stress, the sleek perfection of family life curated on social media, and in most of us, a deep desire for connection are part of the portrait that makes up our lives. It’s no wonder we reach for our phones and start to scroll, even when our children need us.
So what’s to be done about it? Start connecting. Put your phone away when you’re with your kids. Select activities to do with your children that you really love- activities that make your forget about your phone. Connect with others- attend groups and classes and playdates where there are other moms and other children. Build opportunities into your life where both you and your child receive the kind of connection you both crave, deserve, and need.
Be aware of your habits, but be gentle with yourself. It’ OK to want to be connected, and it’ a need you can fulfill in one of many different ways. So go fourth, and find your tribe!
Before I had children, I imagined our Sunday mornings would be like this: sunshine streaming through the windows, we’d be flipping pancakes and the children would be giggling and sipping fresh-squeezed OJ and there would be lots of singing. I guess I thought parenting would just be an extended musical. Laugh with me though, because my Sundays now look like this: regularly burning pancakes which I flip with a butter knife because my children inform me the spatula is “hiding” in the sandbox; intermittently pulling squabbling children off of each other so that they don’t really hurt each other; cold coffee and no singing.
My life’s not a musical… but maybe I should start doing more singing.
Because here’s the thing: there’s neurological evidence that melodic intonation- using super inflected, sing-song voices for everything- actually activates a different part of the brain. Not only does it support children’s comprehension- especially those with delays- it calms the adult involved, making co-regulation easier.
We are all family systems, right? So it’s important to have tools and tips that can help the child- but that also help the parent. That is exactly what melodic intonation does. It’s near impossible to feel angry/frustrated/annoyed when you’re singing.
I’ll just point out that many-a-children’s show has already figured this out. The ever famous Daniel Tiger (yes, I let my children watch Daniel Tiger while I do their hair and sometimes in the car) sings through everything. His jangle for anger is: “When you’re so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four…”
It may be a show for children, but they’re on to something. Daniel Tiger knows how things can be so insanely maddening for children (and parents) and also, that its not possible to have harshness in your heart when you’re singing “When you’re so mad that you want to roar, take a deep breath and count to four…” If nothing else, recognizing you need this silly song is funny (because who would have thought parenting was so hard that you need to take advice from a cartoon tiger?).
You see the point? Melodic intonation- be it a song or a chant (if your kid is older) or even just a phrase said the same way every time can save the day.
Daniel Tiger models this as well: throughout the show, he sings the same short little jangle again and again and again, until he- and everyone watching- remembers it and can make use of it. So if as little orange tiger can do it, surely you can too!
Next time I’m burning pancakes and failing to have a Sunday morning that looks like a musical, I’ll be singing my way back. Won’t you join me?
I'd barely slept the night before, because the baby was up and down, up and down, up and down. And I had a big work project on the horizon. And so when my toddlers started having an enormous fight over the single red spoon in our home, I started to lose it. Don't ask why I only bought one red spoon (lesson learned), but let me tell you, when I saw one twin grab the other's hair and yank, I really got pissed. Like a lot. I won't go into detail about all the things I imagined doing, but I will say.... I had to yell for my husband to come, stat, and high-tail it out of the kitchen.
Even the most equipped parents sometimes get upset with their children. It's impossible not to, and if you've got a child who is genuinely challenging, this feeling may come up more often than you'd like. It's important to think about contingency plans for when you just.... can't.
You need to know what to when everything is falling apart- including you. Make a plan for those moments when it feels like your belly is on fire and you are just exhausted and your child is testing every limit you set.
So if you are agitated, if you cannot project calm, and if you are starting to make poor moves....here's your plan: stop talking.
Yes, you heard us.
Slow your physical movements way down.
If its possible, remove yourself from the scene. Allow another person to take over- a partner, a grandparent, a teacher- anyone! Parenting is a marathon, not a sprint. Take time for yourself when you need it.
Unfortunately, it's not always possible to leave, is it? If there isn't another adult on hand, you've still got to get through the situation, right? If you're stuck in a challenging parenting situation, alone, and you're frustrated.... first stop talking and slow your movements way down. Get through the situation with the absolute minimum amount of interaction with your child.
The goal is here to not make things worse. When we are angry, we say things we don't mean. Our faces contort with emotion. We yell. This is why we want to stop talking, and why we must move slow.
Move slow? Yes. Move slow. Here's the science behind it: slowing down your body evokes a different set of neurological patterns in your brain, which you interpret as "ahh.... calm..." It's actually quite hard to remain upset if your body is relaxed and moving slowly. So pretend you're moving through sand or water or tar. Do a yoga pose. Force your brain to calm down by controlling your body in ways that... force your brain and nervous system to calm down.
After it's over- after you've either left and cooled down, or gotten through with the minimum interaction necessary, THEN connect with someone. Connect with us. We'll help. Review our training, Consider what you can do differently next time. If you're unable to figure out what to do differently, then ask for help- talk to a parent who's been there, review our modules, discuss your challenges with others. Keep talking, until you have a plan for next time.
We all know how hard it is to stay calm when your child is having a tantrum because soccer practice is over (or in the grocery checkout line, or after school...). Especially when that lady watching you leans in and says "You just need to...."
She has no idea what you need to do. She probably has no idea what your child needs, or what it feels like to mother your child as they fall apart in a public place.
Here's the deal: no matter what you do, it's not going to work unless YOU are calm. The best methods will fail with parental calm.
There are many reasons why, but here are a few based on the research in education and co-regulation:
The research is clear: we've got to calm down. It's hard in a world with a million things happening at once and other adults commenting on your parenting, but it's imperative. The kind of calm you're shooting for is a calm that is warm and accepting. It is a calm that invites connection. Sometimes, we get calm and flat, detached and uninvolved, and totally shut down when things are challenging with our children. To be clear- this is not what we want when we think about calm. We want a quality of calm that invites the child to connect, not that blankets everyone in silence and pretends whatever is going awry isn't happening at all.
Think about the quality of calm that you like most- the one that makes your belly feel warm and your shoulder muscles relax. That presence- open, grounded, inviting- is what you want to offer to your child all the time, but especially during times of extreme challenge.
Picture this: Seven year old comes in from school. He’s hot. His baby sister has been crying the whole ride home from school because she hates her car seat. Mama is tired too, and as they stumble in from school Seven Year Old kicks off his shoes in the doorway. He is so happy to be home. He is so happy to take off his sweaty sneakers. He is ready to play leggos. But Mama sighs. She has already asked him about one hundred times to place his shoes in the basket in the entryway. Baby sister trips over the shoes in the doorway and starts to cry, again. Mama asks Seven Year Old to move the shoes. She reminds him again. She warns him he has one minute to put them away. But he is already immersed in his leggos and doesn’t even hear the fourteen requests.
See, the clinical finding is that excessive reminders- be they pleas, instructions, reprimands, updates, warnings, or nagging- make the desired behavior less likely to occur. That’s right- saying something fifty times does not make it fifty times more likely to occur.
In fact, it makes it way less likely to occur.
When you say it once, and it doesn’t lead to thee desired behavior, then the effectiveness of w2hat you said diminishes. The next time you say it, it’s even less effective, and the chance that your child will do what you ask is further reduced.
Typically at this point, the parent starts to get frustrated. Their statements get stronger. Strong statements made with lots of intensity are aversive, like punishment.
The child then escapes further- mentally or physically- from the person giving the reminders.
In turn, the non-response from the child makes the parent even more frustrated, and the cycle continues…
It is guaranteed to fail.
Do you see how, in the sketch of Seven Year Old and his Mama, they are in completely different worlds? She is worried about a clean house and a million other things- he is hot and happy to be home and ready to play leggos.
His Mama- the adult with the deeper responsibility to effectively co-regulate- needs to come into his world for a moment.
What might happen if, while they are on the porch, they take a minute to talk about their days? What is the Mama asks the Seven Year Old what he wants to do this afternoon? What if they decide to take off their shoes together, put them in the basket, have a popsicle, and build a leggo house together, if only for a few minutes?
This kind of structure promotes co-regulation: it offers both child and adult a chance to get into each other’s lives and feel each other’s perspectives.
It’s not easy, and it takes both practice and planning. It takes pushing aside the other million things tugging on your attention. It takes deciding to immerse yourself in your child’s world for a moment. But it will change your relationship with your child, and with yourself.
After all, who enjoys asking their children to follow the directions four thousand times, especially when they never ever follow them?
Praising children frequently can feel awkward, especially if you don’t have experience telling others, very frequently, what they are doing well. Most of us don’t go around telling our colleagues or spouses “Nice handwriting during the meeting!” or “Great work pushing your chair in,” or “You are excellently waiting in line.” It seems mundane, but when we are supporting children to be able to participate in daily life, this kind of praise is exactly what will help them to flourish.
So what does healthy praise frequency look like? How much is enough, really? There is never too much praise, and typically each child has at least one hundred praise-worthy moments every day. One hundred! Can you imagine how awesome and motivated you’d be feeling if someone told you how well you were doing one hundred times a day? That inner feeling of awesomeness is exactly what we are trying to cultivate for our children- especially for children who have special needs and may struggle with everyday tasks or understanding language and routines.
The question then becomes… what to praise? How to do it? How to maintain your sanity while giving your child one hundred+ moments of praise?
The Positive Parenthood approach is to praise any and all fragments of behavior that you’d like to see your child replicate more often. They key word here is fragments: it really does not matter how small of an act it is that is going well, and it doesn’t matter if it only goes well for one second. What matters is that as soon as it happens, you praise.
There are fragments of behavior you can praise all the time in your everyday life with your child. For example, you ask your child to wait. You know she has trouble 2waiting. Your child happens to stand quietly for one second. Before she has a chance to fall apart, you bend over and look at your child, your face glistening with pride. You grasp her hands, squeeze them, and say “Wow! (Name) is waiting!” These are the everyday moments worthy of praise; these are the moments that will enhance your relationship with your child.
Positive Parenthood is also about catching your child doing something well. Like fragments, this is an everyday, million-times-a-day, occurrence. For example- you announce it is time to get dressed. You start to sing the getting dressed song (whatever that is for your family). Your child independently begins to walk towards the dresser. You notice, and say “(Name) is ready to get dressed! Yay!” You smile broadly and applaud.
Are you beginning to get the gist of extremely frequent praise? It needs to be often, all the time. The idea here is that we are finding the golden moments and by emphasizing them, we are going to create more of them. It is important then, that you pay attention. You must be in it with your child, which means you must first take care of yourself. It may sound simple, but it is hard work to be so present with your child that you notice these micro-moments and can praise them effusively, frequently, and with lots of affection.
Offering positive touch- in a way that works for your individual child- is an important part of giving praise. Consider times when you've done exceptionally well at work or in your family- do you love to give high-fives, do you throw your fist in the air, or do you like a big hug? All of us have different orientations to how we like to experience praise, but for many of us using our bodies to celebrate is a key element- and it's the same for your child! What kind of positive touch do you offer when you tell your little one they are doing something well?
Because many children with special needs have sensory issues, touch can be an important piece of communicating, relationship building, and teaching. Learning how to give your child the touch that is right for her or him can deeply enhance your parent-child relationship.
Many children, especially when they are over-aroused, love deep pressure. Some of the gestures they might enjoy including having their hands, shoulders, upper or lower arms squeezed. At times, squeezing the torso by having the child face away from you and firmly wrapping your arms around their torso to squeeze is a welcome gesture! Other children like the "chest press and shake." Place one hand on the chest, the other on the back, and squeeze together briefly with a little shake. If a child is working on a task, sometimes a side-by-side buddy hug is best, as it allows the child to stay focused and oriented to the task they are completing.
Other children are prone to under-arousal, and for these children light, quick moving touches are best. For example, you can grasp a child's hand a shake, or place a hand on their belly and jiggle lightly.
If your child ever flinches or recoils when you are offering touch for praise, it may indicate that your touch has triggered sensory defensiveness. If this happens, try another kind of touch on the list. You can also consult an occupational therapist who can help you to identify what kind of touch works best for your child.
Most of our blogs are written by Chelsey, who manages our online space. Sometimes, Chelsey & Robin co-write. Sometimes, Chelsey interviews Robin. Sometimes Robin writes, too.