Proactive Parenting

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Dear Dr T.,

I see that you call your new column ‘Proactive Parenting’, but I am not exactly sure what you mean. I am familiar with the word proactive from Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, but I don’t know how it applies here. All I know is that I have a hard time managing my children and would like any help I can get.

Confused Parent

Dear Confused Parent,

Proactive means having a plan in place, knowing what you are going to do even before something goes down. Before you make any move, you give it careful consideration and thought, and only then decide it’s the best move for you and/or your family.

Being reactive is a gut-level response that is triggered by what happens at the time. It’s when we don’t have a clue and just have an emotional, but not considered response.

Consider this: The Reactive Parent

Miri, age five, is coloring on the table and walls and with non-washable markers, no less. You love how she is creative, but she does know better! You are just beside yourself, and start yelling. You angrily take away her markers and say she won’t have a Shabbos party this week. Miri starts crying hysterically and won’t calm down. You feel bad about “losing it,” so you relent, give her back the markers, and make her promise not to color on the walls again. You sigh in resignation when she colors on the walls two days later.

Or this: The Proactive Parent

Miri, age five, is coloring on the table and walls — with non-washable markers, no less. You love how creative she is, and she keeps really busy when coloring, but she does know better! You quietly walk over to her and ask, “Miri, what is the rule about coloring?” Miri claims not to remember, so you remind her about the rule you have discussed before. “We color on paper, not on tables or walls.” Then, you calmly take away her markers, despite Miri’s protests that she will stop. You confidently walk away, feeling comfortable with this interchange because you know it is fair; Miri has been forewarned. You make a mental note to have another discussion about the “marker rule” before allowing Miri to color again.

Here is the difference between the two scenarios. In the first, Mom is reactive and in that moment unsure about how to react. Because she has not thought this through, she strikes out wildly and impulsively, confusing the child, who learns nothing other than tears and loud protestation work!

In the second case, Mom has been proactive and has armed herself with natural consequences. She feels equipped to deal with the situation and does so in a matter-of-fact manner. And what has Miri learned? Not to color on the walls or table.

Parents who yell or threaten their children are acting reactively, and are usually disciplining their children when they have “had enough.” Though at first, this style of parenting seems low maintenance, it will eventually backfire. You will always be fed up, so, you will always be disciplining in an unpleasant manner. When your child sees that you handle your frustration by yelling and screaming, she learns to handle her frustration in the same way — with siblings, friends, and you.

Reactive parenting encourages manipulative behavior. Your child will not learn right from wrong, but rather how much she can get away with before you’ve had enough. This is probably not the kind of person you want your child to become.

Proactive parenting is based on consistency. As a proactive parent, you must decide what the rules are and what the consequences are for breaking those rules. You must then share this information so that your children know what is expected of them and can act accordingly. The key to making this work is your level of consistency and self-control.

You can’t wait until you’ve had enough bad behavior before you implement consequences, nor can you yell or threaten. Initially, this kind of parenting is intense and time-consuming and it will stay this way until your child gets the message. But with constant repetition, she will develop positive behavior. She will know right from wrong, and choose the right thing out of the force of habit.

Another strength of proactive parenting lies in its power to prevent tantrums or power struggles. As any wise parent knows, once a tantrum starts, it is difficult to stop. And, once you are in a power struggle with your child, you are in a lose-lose position. If he wins, you lose, but if you win, you have a defeated child. However, by establishing the rules beforehand, you are far less likely to even begin having a standoff with your child.

Try this: The Reactive Parent

Sixteen-year-old Yossi has been begging to get his driver’s license — just like his eighteen-year-old sister Laya did two years before. However, while Laya is very mature for her age, well, Yossi is what we might call a very young sixteen. But Mom does not feel she can say that to Yossi and compare him negatively to his sister, so she gives in. On the first trip out, Yossi returns the car late — so late that Mom misses her dentist appointment. Mom delivers her “responsibility lecture,” and Yossi does well for the next two weeks. Then, he leaves the lights on overnight, and after calling AAA, Mom is late for work.
By now, Mom is pretty annoyed and lets Yossi know it. He becomes all angry and defensive, and everyone feels bad that day. Three weeks later, he gets into the most minor of fender benders, but he totally loses it and starts yelling at the other driver. By now, Mom has had it — and she loses no time in letting Yossi know it. Yossi is restricted from driving for the next month, but, even more important, he alternates between feeling like a loser or that his Mom is out to get him.

Or this: The Proactive Parent

Sixteen-year-old Yossi has been begging to get his driver’s license — just like his eighteen-year- old sister Laya did two years before. However, while Laya is very mature for her age, well, Yossi is what we might call a very young sixteen. Mom has a discussion with Yossi where she explains her view that different people are ready for different steps at different times. She tells Yossi that she does not feel he is ready to drive yet, but would reconsider in six months if he meets certain conditions that indicate that he is ready for this grave responsibility. Yossi does not like this, but he knows that his Mom has a history of keeping her word. Whenever he does bring up the topic, Mom asks him to repeat the steps he needs to take that show readiness and reminds him that they will renegotiate at the end of six months. Though Yossi tries to argue his case, he knows that his Mom does not change her mind about such things, so he eventually gives up.
The point is that you cannot afford to simply react to your child’s behavior. You must teach him how to behave by providing consistent structure in a calm manner. No matter how hard this is at first, it will make discipline that much easier and will help develop your child into the kind of person who will do the right thing calmly, even in the face of frustration.

Recommended Reading:

The Discipline Book by Dr. William Sears and Martha Sears, R.N. This book focuses on not only managing behavior, but also preventing it as well. Check out the other books written by these two renowned parenting experts.

Sara Teichman, Psy D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles and Clinical Director of ETTA, LA’s largest Jewish agency for adults with special needs. To submit a question or comment, email DrT@jewishhomela.com.