The best parenting advice I’ve ever received was delivered by one of my besties, Amanda. We’re both psychology nerds and love to talk about totally fun and not boring stuff like internalized vs. externalized anxiety and the role of perception. Somehow the subject turned to Big A (who was probably just minding his own business, flapping his little arms and legs, laying on a blanket) and discipline.
Amanda was telling me that discipline wasn’t so much discipline in the very beginning, it was more redirection and distraction. She gave me the advice to not jump up or raise my voice when, say, getting Big A out of the baby wipes. Big reactions could be so exciting that he’d try to elicit more, maybe in ways I wouldn’t appreciate. Then she said,
In fact, don’t react to your kids. Try to let them see you only happy or neutral.
Are you feeling as confused as I looked upon hearing this advice? Let’s break it down.
My (my my my my my my my) Poker Face aka Non-Reactive Parenting
Amanda explained that I should be ridiculously upbeat when the kids are doing what I want and zombie-like in the face of negative behavior. Naw, I’m not staggering around with outstretched arms and demanding brains. When one of the boys hits or gets into a forbidden cabinet or whatever, my voice becomes completely toneless and my face expressionless as I say “no.” When they cease the prohibited behavior or turn away from the restricted area, my face becomes wreathed in smiles. My tone is immediately upbeat as I thank them for listening. Sometimes I even clap for them.
This non-reactive parenting tips serves two purposes: it makes non-engagement a punishment in and of itself and it tricks me into staying calm. There’s a landmark study that highlights the negative affects of infants faced with caregiver non-engagement. Developmentally, babies and toddlers are wired to encourage engagement from caregivers, positive or negative. Observing our reactions make our children feel more secure. Caregivers reacting means caregivers are paying attention. Therefore, babies and toddlers are highly motivated to turn a neutral expression into a happy one (or angry, anything but disengaged).
Providing our boys with that opportunity through following my instructions has struck a chord with them. My “discipline system” is barely a system at all. There’s no counting, or step sitting. There’s only a sudden lack of expression and tone in the midst of negative behavior. Of course, this may all change tomorrow. But if I do have to start counting or something, it’s important that I remain calm and emotionless while doing so.
Sometimes there is nothing I want more than to yell about whatever wreck or violence is before me. And sometimes I do. But it’s harder to yell, or react angrily, with a monotone voice and neutral face. Try it. It feels weird cuz it is weird. We’re simple creatures, really: when we smile, we feel happy; when our expressions are calm, we’re calm. Studies show that the physical act of smiling can boost test subjects’ reported feelings of happiness.
Does It Work?
Our kids act like kids. It’s not so much that negative behavior doesn’t exist, but rarely does it (or we) escalate. I think the best effect of Amanda’s non-reactive parenting advice is that it maintains an atmosphere of calm. Repeating to myself “happy or neutral” (sometime dozens of times a day), has trained me to find the calm first. To think before reacting.
Others often describe our children and home as “peaceful.” I wonder how much that would have been said, pre-advice.
I’m not sure exactly how non-reactive parenting is applied to older kids. Obviously, clapping wouldn’t have the same effect. I’ll continue to use this technique on the A Team as they age and let you know how it plays out.
But We’re All Human
I have failed at this. Spectacularly failed. Controlling my reactions is hard. I have yelled at the boys and I totally will again. Life is messy and hard and sometimes there’s yelling. This practice is about positive parenting, not Pollyanna parenting. We don’t have to pretend to be happy around our kids all the time. We shouldn’t and we can’t, anyway, life is messy and hard (did I mention that?). There is nothing wrong with our children seeing us falter in bad situations and the feelings that go with them.
As Amanda reminds me, blowing up is ok. I try to model the “correct” way to blow up, like talking about the feelings behind the outburst and apologizing afterwards. Or, in the best of situations, telling the boys I’m about to explode, so I’m taking a “time-out” instead. Now it’s their turn to yell. On the other side of the bathroom door.
Non-reactive techniques are simply tools (and great ones, if you ask me) for use in parenting difficulties. It’s a way to take control of a situation while modelling calm. Modelling calm enforces calm. And, nine times out of ten, a calm situation is a better situation.
What’s the best parenting advice you’ve ever received? Let me know in the comments below! I’d love to feature your answers. Stay calm and share this article (see what I did there?!?!).
Tune into my next article where I share the slightly controversial opinion of how and why a form of this technique works on difficult adults as well.
Happy deep breathing!