Raising children is a joy, except when it’s absolutely maddening. And it may be more frustrating today than it’s ever been, says Katherine Reynolds Lewis, author of the new book The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever – And What to Do About It. The Globe and Mail’s Dave McGinn spoke to Lewis about how to avoid yelling matches and the frustrations of trying to discipline kids.
Is there an epidemic of misbehaviour? Are kids really worse now than they used to be?
Kids are definitely worse now than they have been. It’s impossible to prove 100 per cent why this is the case, but I think there is very compelling evidence. There’s three factors that really align with the timing of the change in kids. The dramatic decline in play in children today compared with a generation or two ago. Kids are pretty much constantly supervised from the time they are born until they’re maybe 18 when they leave home, so they never learn to manage their own behaviour. The second big factor is media and the growth of so much media that’s bombarding us with information and ideas about who we should be and what we should want. Forty years ago kids figured out who they should be and what they should want, mostly by thinking about themselves. We’ve seen clinical research that this external focus is associated with anxiety and depression. The third big factor is just the decline in our communities and connection in our families. Maybe a generation ago a child would be in charge of a younger sibling, or they would have had a job of putting dinner on the table, and now their job is to get straight A’s and be a super star.
Why are chores linked to a kid’s happiness?
Household chores are one of the biggest links to happiness because when you do a chore you immediately see how your family benefits, or you benefit or your home is neater, and you get that immediate feedback and positive reinforcement.
Do you think parents are too controlling these days?
We have this impulse to make our kids do things as if that is our job. Actually, our job is to help them figure out how to control themselves. When we are controlling or critical it doesn’t teach our children anything. The more that children have independence, the less they fight with you, because they feel empowered.
Describe what you call the apprenticeship model of parenting?
The first and most important element is connection with the child. Without that connection, nothing can happen – no discipline, or learning or co-operation will happen. The second is communicating with the child about what is going on with what you’re willing to do and what they’re willing to do, and where you can compromise. The third is capability building, and I think that’s the one that parents are not as focused on. The more you and your child both can recognize and acknowledge the growth in their skills – maybe two months ago your kid was always leaving their backpack and having to run back in for it and now they’ve started to remember it – the more you can help your child recognize they are growing. Eventually that little person will become self-sufficient and independent.
You say in the book that harsh verbal discipline is so counterproductive. Why is that?
The problem is that we as parents are the source of self-regulation for our children. They don’t yet have all of the ability to manage their executive function and to manage their emotions. So we, just by our presence, our physical touch and our own calm physiology, help them to self-regulate. If we’re calm, they will be, too. If we’re yelling, they’ll be agitated and in that fight or flight stage.
But we’re all going to yell at our kids once and a while, aren’t we?
None of us is perfect. When I yell at my kids in the heat of the moment I try as quickly as possible to say, “I’m really sorry, I lost my temper.” And if next time you can catch yourself before you yell and say out loud, “I feel that I am about to yell. I am going to go outside and just go around the block until I cool down,” that’s giving your child another strategy of how to calm down and how to help them manage their strong feelings.