Intentional Parenting: Training Your Kids for Success

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When we first started having children we discovered something that would have not surprised some, but came as quite a shock to us… parenting is hard! Like, making dinner blindfolded with your hands tied behind your back ‘hard’.

You have no idea what you’re doing, are most likely too tired to care, and you’re desperately trying to find a way to avoid messing your kids up for life. We lived there for years, acting and reacting, drowning in if then’s, don’t you dare’s, do you want a time out’s and other extremely ineffective parenting defaults.

We didn’t want to have endless fights with our kids and we especially didn’t want to be reactive parents. We wanted to be purposeful, proactive, intentional. And then we stumbled upon the one truth that changed the way we raised our kids.

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Operator Error

You’ve seen the error message that pops up on your computer or phone when you accidentally do something so stupid the technology doesn’t know how to recover. Instead of playing the game correctly, you pushed the wrong button and ‘boom’ – it crashed.

That was the kind of scenario you would have seen a few years ago at our home on any given day. Our kids, we had two then, both excitable, loving, energetic kids that, not so much unlike their mother, enjoy teasing and getting a reaction out of people just for fun.

Within ten minutes they’d have us playing right into their hand, resulting in an altercation that left us feeling exasperated and angry, and them pouting their way to their room.

We could never figure it out – what was their game? Why did they bait us? Why did they try so hard to push us to the limits of our sanity? Did they really have a masterful plan to make us miserable?

We struggled to make our way through the endless journey of parenthood until one day it finally clicked: this was a game, but they weren’t the ones playing it. They were doing the only thing they knew how to do: respond to us.

We were the ones with the controllers and we were grossly mishandling the opportunity we had been given. That’s when the plain shifted and we found ourselves, albeit a little apprehensive, in the driver’s seat for the first time.

Now firmly grasping the steering wheel, any mistakes were our responsibility and learning opportunities were our advantage. This is what intentional parenting looks like. It’s not necessarily following a sleep schedule or reading a book on children’s behaviors; it’s about continually trying and re-evaluating different approaches and adjusting based on how your kids respond. It’s trial and error, but it’s incredibly effective.

As we began looking at the ins and outs of our parenting defaults, we started to realize we had been missing the mark on the majority of our interactions with our kids.

We discovered that what we had for so long been calling ‘behavior’ was really just a default setting that came standard with every kid. It was our job to go in and change the settings.

We had the ability to rewrite what they perceived as acceptable and unacceptable. We could strategically train, train and retrain until we got the results that we wanted. Not because children are stupid, on the contrary, they’re terrifyingly smart.

But they are wired to learn, and they do it very well. Just like a dog will learn to obey a command with proper training, a child will learn to respond to their parents. It’s a simple cause and effect equation.

Our kids are the video game and we hold the controller. And when it malfunctions? Operator error.

Learning the Rules

I don’t know how far I can take this analogy with training kids, but even I can see the similarities! Training children is serious business but it’s not rocket science. From the time their babies all the way up to high school, you’re teaching them to respond to you by the way you interact with them.

My husband and I have started saying that simple phrase ‘operator error’ to each other when we’re on the battlefield (a.k.a. bedtime prep) and one of us missteps.

Instead of getting upset (at the kid or each other) we’ve learned to roll with the punches, but only after assigning true blame. If one of us unintentionally asks a leading question that sends our bedtime routine into a tailspin, it was an operator error.

If I snap an answer impatiently to an overly talkative three-year-old and he responds by finding the most elaborate way to capture my attention (namely, squirting toothpaste all over himself) it’s an operator error.

When we inevitably ignore the child hanging off our arm to finish reading that Facebook article and they resolve the issue in their minds by hitting their sister… yup, you guessed it: operator error.

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Once we realized it was a cause and effect system, parenting suddenly became a whole lot simpler. Yes, it’s still hard and the stakes are incredibly high, but it is a very simple idea to understand.

Implementing it, however, can be a tall order. I’m not saying our kids shouldn’t take responsibility for their own actions, but to some degree, especially when they’re young, their behavior isn’t strategically thought out, it’s a reaction.

If you control the environment, you control the reaction. It’s really that simple.

So how to start… first you need to understand the rules. We are not ‘playing’ with our kids’ character, we are training them. There’s a significant difference.

One implies we are manipulating them for a response, while the other equips them to respond not only to our training but others’ in their life, therein solving the ageless problem of kids respecting authority.

You also need to understand that, just like training a dog, your kids are going to respond the way you want them to some of the time. There will be occasions, probably many at the beginning, where their old training overrides their new training.

You can’t tell a dog to sit and stay for the first time, then take them off the leash and expect them to obey. It’s a slow, grueling training process. The same is true for kids.

The difference, however, is that we tend to get outrageously frustrated when our kids are as predictable as an untrained dog. Instead of blaming ourselves for taking them off the leash too quickly, we assume that our child has it out for us.

Herein lies perhaps the single most enlightening thing we have ever learned about parenting {Are you ready? Do you want to grab a pen? Brace yourself, it’s painfully simple}:

Don’t be offended by bad behavior.

Talk about a light bulb moment. When we read that our minds just exploded. That’s it. That’s exactly it. That’s why we get so upset, why our emotions are trigger happy – why parenting is so exhausting.

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Because we’re running around all day trying to get little people to do what we want them to and then GETTING OUR FEELINGS HURT WHEN THEY DON’T. And suddenly you’ll never look at your kids the same way again. You’re welcome.

So, a refresher course on the rules:

  1. We are training not manipulating
  2. Training takes time – you don’t take the dog off the leash until you know they won’t run
  3. When they do run, because they inevitably will at some point, don’t be offended

Case in Point

When our oldest daughter was six months old we started training her to respond to the word ‘no’. Believe it or not, kids are incredibly perceptive at that age, and even though she didn’t understand the implications of the word, she came to understand it like she would ‘outside’, ‘more’, or ‘hot’.

The way we decided to do this was to sit down with her 15 minutes a day in a play space and put 3 objects within her reach: two she was allowed to have and one she was not.

The first few times she was too infatuated with the first two to even notice the third, sitting alone, slightly outside the circle, just outside of the sphere of her attention. But eventually she did reach for it, and that’s when I very calmly but firmly said, “No.”

You’d be amazed how quickly kids respond to your voice. She would look at me, those big sweet eyes trying to understand what was going on.

“No.”

She would reach for it.

“No.”

She would take it.

“Mommy said, ‘no’.”

And without any explanation, I would take all three items away. It took a while, but she got it and finally began responding to my voice so quickly that by the time she was 18 months old, all I had to do was start to say her name in that calm, firm tone and she would stop mid-snatch and obey.

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Was she a miracle child? Perhaps – she definitely has an innate desire to please, but it was more than that. We took the time to train her in a specific area and she responded.

Our son loves to work. I know that sounds like a silly thing to say about a three-year-old, but it’s true. He loves getting a job, doing it by himself, and showing off his work. This became our go-to method for initiating training for him, as he didn’t respond in the same ‘anything to please mommy’ way that our daughter did.

On any given day you’ll hear me say, ‘I’ve got a job for you! A really big job, do you think you can do it?’

You should see him – his chest literally puffs out with pride as he almost physically rises to the challenge.

‘Yes, I can!’ It’s almost always the response every time. If you were to ask the same kid to go clean up his trains there’s a 50/50 chance he’d look at you and smile as if to say, ‘Not a chance. I see your hand, Mama, and I’ll raise you – all in’.

If he feels like it, sure – but if he doesn’t, nothing doing. It is now a battle of the wills. However, when given the opportunity to achieve a task with recognition, he jumps at it wholeheartedly.

Do you think that presenting a task as a job for him to achieve is manipulation? I don’t. I feel it’s no different than seeing a button on a device and turning it on instead of turning it off. That’s the beauty of intentional parenting: it’s operator controlled.

2 Giant Steps and a Baby Step

When we began implanting these changes in our parenting, we used the iceberg concept to help temper our approach (90% of the iceberg is unseen, underwater, supporting the part you see which is only the tip of the iceberg.)

We realized that 90% of our approach was internal: how we talked our kids, taught our kids, thought about our kids, and responded to our kids. The other 10% was the day to day changes we made that our kids actually noticed.

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These came through a series of calculated steps. Believe it or not, the bigger changes, or ‘giant steps’, came first, followed by a few more subtle adjustments. I’m sure you’ve played Mother May I before; you know the fun excitement of carefully counting out the biggest giant steps you can muster without falling over.

It wasn’t quite as much fun, but it was very exciting to begin making ‘giant’ changes in our household. I would recommend beginning this process over the course of a weekend or over an extended period of time off, the best time we’ve found to implement big changes (starting potty training and curing picky eaters for starters).

That way you and your spouse can present a united front 24/7 and help each other adjust to the new paradigm.

It went something like this:

Giant Step 1: Introduce Change

We gave our kids fair warning, although who knows how much they actually understood at the time, that things were about to change a bit. It wasn’t anything new from those lectures you give your kids when they’ve absolutely tried the last of your patience and you let them know ‘things are going to change around here’!

The only thing that made this time different was that we weren’t reacting to a series of bad choices on their part that pushed us to the point of exasperation. We were calmly, happily even, discussing the future of our family with our kiddos, explaining in love that their behavior had to change, and we were going to help them.

We gave them specific examples to look for. For instance, if a direct instruction was met with whining or defiance, there would be an immediate consequence, like sequestering the toy that was more alluring then obedience into a 20 minute ‘Toy Timeout’ (one of my friend’s best parenting tricks ever!).

We were careful to be very calm as we implemented the consequences, making sure they knew we weren’t taking it personally. They weren’t losing a toy because we were mad, they were losing a toy because they’d broken a rule: cause and effect.

Giant Step 2: Enforce Change

The next step we took was putting our money where our mouths were. Helping set them up for success, we started with small, easy tasks, using some of the very examples we had discussed with them.

Careful to make sure our directions were heard and understood, and then met with decisive disobedience, we faithfully followed through with our end of the bargain: no computer, no TV, Toy Timeout, or take a break (our version of a timeout).

It was amazing to see how quickly their little brains took in the information and adjusted their behavior accordingly. Within just a few days the very tone of our home had changed.

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No longer did we feel the need to negotiate, plead or feel let down by our kids. We expressed clear expectations, gave them the opportunity to obey, and then helped get them back on track by immediate, loving, consequences.

We felt this was no different then the reality we experience as adults: when you overdraw your bank account, you get penalized. When you break a law, you are held accountable. When you treat people poorly, you don’t have any friends.

Simple cause and effect. Giant Step 2 helped us teach our kids in the most practical ways that what you do is your choice, and your choices bring results.

A Baby Step: Consistency

When you start a new diet or work out regimen, most of us know it’s not the one time slip-ups or the sick days you take off that keep you from succeeding, it’s the lack of consistency.

Consistency brings success.

We felt the same was true with training our kiddos. It’s not fair to introduce a new set of rules, enforce it for a week, and then slack off, forgetting your own rules from time to time and eventually regressing back to the way you used to parent.

Just like playing a video game or using a cell phone, the fault is not the technology, it’s the operator. Introduce the change, enforce the change, be consistent – repeat.

So there is the best, albeit perhaps the simplest, parenting lesson we’ve ever learned, and how it helped change our family for the better!

Having the brunt of responsibility fall on our shoulders, it put us in the perfect position to set the tone of our days. Those days, with God’s strength, will turn into the happy years of a childhood secure in their parents’ love and appreciation of the boundaries that keep them safe.

This new mindset has freed us up to concentrate on our most important job: loving our kids. We LOVE to love our kids. We love being their parents. We take the charge to raise them to be responsible adults seriously.

And this one, simple mentality change has brought such peace and joy to our home. We are free to enjoy our kids and our kids are free to enjoy being children, all within the safety of our home’s boundaries.

And when they go rogue, as children will always be prone to do, we are able to guide them back with love, while not taking offense from their choice. Not that we’ve got it all figured out or see ourselves as experts – nothing could be farther from the truth!

But we feel equipped now, like a good tool in your toolbox, to face the task of helping these amazing kiddos grow into adults. It’s a whole new, beautiful world that has brought such blessings to our family! We pray it does for yours, as well.

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Update June 2019: It still works!

I know this sounds silly, but when I wrote this nearly two years ago I was nervous that it wouldn’t continue to work with children of different personalities or ages. We’ve actually discovered the complete opposite – it seems to be a little bit of a magic formula for getting you and your kids on the same page.

We have an (almost) 4th grader who is very independent and wants to have the freedom to make her own choices regardless of how equipped she may be to do that. This method has helped us parent her through the latter years of single digits and we will continue to learn and adapt with her as she grows.

We also have had the opportunity to test on different personalities seeing as no two of our kids are alike. We are currently in the trenches with a very strong-willed toddler and, although it’s not always pleasant or easy, this stuff works.

At the end of the day I may still be exhausted, emotionally and physically – I don’t think you can raise a toddler without being worn to the bone! But I am no longer in despair. We have a method and it’s working, even with different children in all their uniqueness and individuality. It’s an incredible thing to see!

Let me know if you decide to try out any of these methods! We’d love to hear your experiences.

jmsignature


 

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