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Positive Discipline: What's In Your Parenting Toolbox?

Posted Feb 10 2009 11:28am
One of the interesting things about choosing to use a child-rearing approach that is quite different from the one my parents used on me (and is also different from what many of my parenting peers use), is that I've spent quite a bit of time introspecting, analyzing not only my ideas about parenting, but also my emotions and automatic reactions that I have in difficult parenting situations.

While I certainly wouldn't insist that everyone ought to want to be a parent, I know that I am a different--and better--person today because I did choose to be a parent. My kids have a way of bringing out my best and my worst--and since I really don't like me at my worst, and since I love my kids more than I can possibly come close to describing, I'm extremely motivated to improve.

An idea that I've seen in various Positive Discipline books, groups, articles, etc. is this notion of a toolbox. As a handyman or plumber or other kind of peopleguy has a toolbox full of the things he needs to do his job well, a parent needs a mental toolbox for the same reason. This Parenting Toolbox is full of tactics and strategies for dealing with these new little people and all of their needs and desires. Ideally, the toolbox is full of good tools that are aligned with your values and ideals. Parenting can be a very physical endeavor, especially when they are little and wrangling, wiping, carrying, changing, rocking, etc. needs to be done. But I'm finding that, as the kids get older and those cognitive functions really kick in, the hardest part of parenting is mental.

Because my parents raised me somewhat differently from the way I'm raising my kids, it's a challenge for me. I have ideas in my brain that are the complete opposite of what I'm trying to do here. These ideas and words were automatized when I was growing up--and are in my Parenting Toolbox. I have to work very consciously to A.) Identify them, and B.) Change them if necessary.

Ayn Rand called these "cognitive habits" psycho-epistemology, which, as Leonard Peikoff explains:

pertains not to the content of a man’s ideas, but to his method of awareness, i.e., the method by which his mind habitually deals with its content.
The Philosophy of Objectivism ” lecture series (1976), Lecture 6


There are tools in my Parenting Toolbox that were placed there by my parents. They are tactics and strategies used on me--but many of them are very different from the way in which I am trying to raise my own children.

In order to be the kind of parent I want to be, I'm constantly re-examining my responses to my kids, to make sure that they are in line with my values. And when they aren't, I try to change them. Many times if I'm feeling unhappy with the ways things have been going, it's a clue that I need to sit down and try to identify why I'M behaving the way I am, and think about a different way to behave that's more appropriate.

It's hard for me to put in words my automatic responses to parenting situations, but I'll try. An example of something that I learned in childhood and like and am trying to pass on to my kids might be when they have a question about something. "Let's look it up!" was something I heard a lot from my dad growing up. That is also an automatic response that I have. Honestly, I've sat here about 10 minutes trying to find more examples of things I do use from my childhood, and I can't. I'm not saying that to complain about my childhood, but that exercise was interesting to me. It speaks to how different my values are from those of my parents, I think.

Here are some things that are in my toolbox that I don't like--and the new responses I'm trying to automatize:

Kid says something rude to me.

Broken Tool:"Don't talk back to me!" "Enough!" "Be quiet!"

Better Tool:"I like to be spoken to politely." "Would you like another chance to ask me again without being rude?"


Two kids screaming at each other.

Broken Tool:"Shut up!" "Get out of my face!" "BLLLEAAAGGGGHHH!"

Better Tool:"Sounds like a problem. Can I help?" "Sean is trying to sleep. Can you discuss your problem quietly or should we go to another room?"


Kid questions something I'd like him to do. "Why?" says he (because it's usually Ryan).

Broken Tool:"Because I said so." "Just do it." "You need to do what I say because I'm your mother."

Better Tool: Provide brief explanation.


Any Stressful Situation

Broken Tool: I get bossy and hyper and bark out orders and sometimes yell. :o(

Better Tool: I say, "I'm feeling frustrated here and need to be by myself for two minutes!"


It's so hard for me to use my Better Tools, because some of them aren't quite solidly in my toolbox yet. Some things are almost second nature by now--how to handle standard toddler issues, for example. I have words to say and strategies to use in my toolbox, because I've used them so many times it's become automatic for me to say "No hitting. Hitting hurts." or "You seem like you're in the mood to scream. Would you like to do it outside?" or "Keep your spit in your mouth." Things like that.

But some things are not automatic. Not yet. It's hard for me to say "Sounds like a problem. Can I help?" when I've got my hands full of groceries or baby or we're heading out the door or I'm trying to balance the checkbook. Why? Because in moments of stress, I sometimes revert back to the Broken Tools in my toolbox, because the Better Tools haven't quite replaced them yet.

I have identified a few of my trigger stressful situations. For me, a typical Type A, task-oriented, goal-oriented person, I get really freaking irritated when I can't complete a task. Completing tasks, if you're familiar at all with small children, is really hard to do! (Amy of The Little Things wrote a great post about this particular parenting challenge last summer, that's really stayed with me.)

I know that no matter what I might be doing, I could and probably will be interrupted at any moment. I know this. I know this because it's been happening to me for going on 7 years now (will he really be 7 this spring?). Anything I do must be done as quickly as possible and/or worked around trips to the potty (mine or others), nursing, answering questions, spelling words out loud, changing the movie, picking up, the dishes, the laundry, diaper changing, hair brushing, costume redesign, toy-location, and snacks. And of course, I could be puked on at any time.

I know this--and yet, I still get REALLY annoyed when I get interrupted. Just yesterday, I told myself: "I'm just going to pay these 4 bills online before I move onto the next thing." No sooner did I think such a foolish thing when the baby started fussing and Morgan needed me and the pressure just built and built until I thought I would scream. (I didn't--yay for me.) But it was HARD. I kept telling myself, "Don't yell, don't yell." So what I said instead was "I'm feeling frustrated because I wanted to finish this on my computer!" And picked up the baby. Morgan stared at me wide-eyed for a second and then came to me. So we sat there for a minute and then I asked her, calmly, to play with Sean for a second so I could finish what I was doing. She agreed and I finished and we were all happy.

This, for me, is such a Big Thing. And it may seem silly, especially to you Type B types, but it really is frustrating for me not to be able to complete a 2 minute task. Especially when I thought that the 2 minute window I needed would be available. It's okay for me to be frustrated; it's not okay to yell (and by "yell," I mean lose your temper and scream--a heated voice is appropriate sometimes). I say that to kids all the time: "It's okay to be mad/frustrated/sad. It's not okay to hit/scream at me/walk away."

I struggle with this every day. How to identify my Broken Tools. How to find a way to develop a Better Tool according to my values. Practicing using my Better Tools when I'm calm, so that maybe I'll find the Better Tool poking out of my Parenting Toolbox the next time I'm stressed. And apologizing when I grabbed the wrong tool and said or did the wrong thing. It's a small consolation, but a consolation nonetheless, that at least my kids hear me apologize. (No adult apologized to any child when I was growing up.)

It's an ongoing project, this revising of my cognitive habits, and I'm working on areas of my life other than parenting. But I'm happy to say that I'm getting better all the time.
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