I’m stuck. I can’t persuade him.
She won’t listen. She just doesn’t care.
As parents, we want to do our absolute best to help our kids. We want them to learn how to get along with others, and make the most of their opportunities. Unfortunately, that can be an uphill battle, especially as kids get older.
We try to promise and persuade, we try to pressure and warn. We bargain, we insist, and we set boundaries. When you have tried the “carrot and the stick” and you’re running out of carrots, and you’ve already used the biggest stick allowed by local law, you need a different approach.
We’re way past stickers and time-outs now.
In a previous blog post, we talked about how removing privileges can backfire.
This might sound strange from me, because I’m a behaviour therapist. We’re supposed to be all about the rewards and punishments, right? However, as you already know without being told, we don’t simply make decisions based on the immediate consequences. Sure, we all react in little ways to maximize pleasure and avoid discomfort, and we do learn from experience, but what about those behaviours we choose that have nothing to do with a pleasant outcome?
For example, why do you make your bed? Why do you stop at a stop sign, even when there are no cars around? Why do you write thank you notes? Why do you take vitamins? Why do you take the time to help your child with all that homework? Most likely, you do these things because these behaviours are connected with an important value.
Maybe you make your bed because you like the sense of order. You stop at the stop sign, because it’s only fair to follow the rules. You write thank you notes because you appreciate gratitude. You take vitamins because you value your health. You slog through the homework with your child because you believe in the importance of education. These aren’t immediate pay-offs. These are values, and they help to connect your short-term decisions with important long-term consequences. They help you stick with unrewarding situations. They help you appreciate little moments.
“Why the heck would you do that?” a.k.a when values collide
However, values can have surprising drawbacks. Have you ever found yourself in a frustrating argument with a friend who supports a different political party? A relative who keeps asking you what you paid for your clothes? A boss who hired a relative? Chances are, these people are acting in line with their own values. Maybe your friend believes strongly in justice, even if that means less money in the budget for the arts. Maybe your relative grew up having to know the value of a dollar. Maybe your boss wants to honour a favour made by kind uncle. These values are in conflict with yours, and now everyone is in an unpleasant situation.
You know what will happen if you try to stand your ground. You can argue until you are blue in the face (God knows, you’ve tried.) You have your values, and you accept that other people have their own set of values. Now it’s time to get flexible.
Research shows that the ability to think in a flexible way is a key part of staying mentally healthy and living a meaningful life. For example, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a field based in both psychology and behaviour analysis, and it’s all about how to have a meaningful life that is in line with our values. Wait, you may ask, does this have anything to do with creative, connected parenting? Sure it does.
First, let’s practice by looking at your behaviour and how it matches with what you care about most.
Your values: what drives you
Take a moment, and think about what values are most important to you:
If you have a minute, jump over to the Facebook group, and share the word that means the most to you.
What do you hope people will say about you?
Now imagine that you have lived a good many years, and someone is writing your life story.
What do you hope they will say about you?
Stop and picture it.
I’ll take a swing at this, as an example:
I hope they write that I was genuinely and fearlessly affectionate. I hope they write that I was open to living life and savouring new experiences. I hope they say nice things about my art, my clinical expertise, and my writing, but mostly, I hope they say that I did some good on this planet.
Now, let’s have a look at your child.
Who does your child most want to become?
If you simply ask your child what they want to be, what would they say? A ninja. A princess. A professional candy-taster. A bump on a log. It’s not that easy, right?
Our kids are so colourful, impulsive, ridiculous, emotional… a whirling storm of activity. What’s underneath it all? Do they really care about anything except how many more minutes of tv/games they are allowed to play? Fortunately, yes.
Start by observing what your child loves to do. Remember, be flexible…
A child who loves to ride bikes may value courage and independence.
A child who loves to draw may value creativity and self-expression.
A child who loves to play video games may value discovery and mastery.
Values where you least expect them
Even behaviour struggles can be a clue, because you could be seeing what your child is willing to take a stand for.
A child who talks back to Grandma may value independence or honesty, even in the face of disapproval.
A child who ignores bedtime may value those extra few minutes with you, or may have more they want to discover about the world.
A child who clowns around in class may value the admiration of friends, even at the risk of looking foolish or getting in trouble with the teacher.
Our values are what drive us. We will resist short-term rewards and go through hard times to stay true to our values. This can be noble and essential in creating meaningful lives. Values can help us survive unexpected setbacks and cope with painful experiences. However, if your child’s values are expressed in a way that hurts others or keeps them stuck in unhelpful behaviour patterns, then it’s time to look for a better way to honour those values (we will certainly explore that in a future post.)
Before we take this any further, let’s just explore this idea, and play around with it. I’ve created some activities to help you and your child look for those patterns and talk about those deeper values.