When kids run riot

Parenting expert Katherine Reynolds Lewis says people in nuclear families today are raising their children in a climate of fear. She shares five common mistakes that parents make

Demanding our children’s obedience is counter-productive, says parenting expert Katherine Reynolds Lewis.

It is a claim that may raise eyebrows but Lewis, an American author, journalist and certified parenting educator, knows a thing or two about how to motivate children to behave well.

Last year, the 45-year-old published her first book, The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever ?AndWhat to Do About It (Public Affairs).

In 2015, she wrote an article about school discipline, What If Everything You Knew About Disciplining Kids Was Wrong?, for American news magazine Mother Jones, which went viral.

Her mother, a retired university administrator, is a Singaporean- Chinese who moved to the United States for graduate school, where she met and married Lewis’ dad, now a retired university professor.

When we see them misbehaving, it’s really an opportunity for us to help lead them to the path that will be successful for them. Our goal is not for them to obey us, but for them to have a deep sense of right or wrong, which is more valuable than just obeying what we say. 

PARENT EXPERT KATHERINE REYNOLDS LEWIS

Her parents, both 74, live with Lewis and her family in the suburbs of Washington DC.

Lewis was in town recently to visit her relatives. She is married to a 59-year-old cardiologist and they have three children, aged 25, 14 and 12.

She shares with The Sunday Times the five most common mistakes that parents make.


FIVE MISTAKES PARENTS MAKE

1 Trying to control our children

“It’s a mistake to want your child to behave a certain way or make him have a certain outcome. It’s really about our kids discovering themselves. We are their coach and guide in that process.

Instead of thinking that we’re in control and wanting to control them, our goal should be to influence them. We need them to develop self-control. Every educator I interviewed for my book – all of whom had been teaching for more than 10 years – said that children enter kindergarten with less behavioural control.

They can’t sit still. They can’t keep their hands to themselves. They can’t resolve a dispute at the playground without running to a teacher.

Our kids need to learn to manage themselves. For instance, it’s important to have healthy limits. One 12-year-old I know uses only Snapchat because Instagram makes her too anxious.

Snapchat footage goes away after 24 hours so she doesn’t obsess about that photo of all the other kids at a party. It works for her.

She’s being coached by her mum to pay attention to what is healthy for her. That’s our ultimate goal for our kids – to help them understand themselves.”

2 Feeling like failures when kids make errors “

When we see our kids doing something they’re not supposed to, our reaction is that we’ve failed. We have failed to cultivate in them the obedience to do the right thing at all times.

Actually, kids are going to mess up.

So when we see them misbehaving, it’s really an opportunity for us to help lead them to the path that will be successful for them. Our goal is not for them to obey us, but for them to have a deep sense of right or wrong, which is more valuable than just obeying what we say.

Our world has changed so much from maybe, 40 years ago, when it was important to take orders for safety reasons, for example, in factories and assembly lines.

Now, entrepreneurship, innovation and collaboration are valued more. Obedience is no longer such a primary value.

If we, as parents, are always trying to give our children more independence, more autonomy, more responsibility, then they develop these skills that are so important in school and, later, in their career.

We make childhood about achievement, but it should be about character-building and learning social and life skills to manage their emotions and behaviour.

We don’t want our children to be little performers.

Doing household chores is an important way for kids to feel capable. So many things we ask them to do are difficult long-term goals involving academic achievement, for example.

But if we teach them to cook an egg and serve it for breakfast or sweep a room and make it clean, they have an immediate sense of accomplishment.”

3 Not letting children fail

“We jump in to stop our children from failing. It can be when they’re learning to walk and we don’t want them to fall.

The thinking is that the stakes are so high: ‘I cannot let my 12-year-old slack off or she won’t do well in her exams. She won’t get into a good secondary school.’

But the stakes are higher a few years later, when our children are studying for university. So we need to let them fail sooner and earlier.

Otherwise, we’ve pushed them all the way to university and suddenly, they don’t know where they want to go. They don’t have their own drive or interests.

We don’t want a 20- or 22-year old who’s lost. We want them from the age of five or six to be developing their own motivation, and study and work habits.

Most of that comes from life experience, from messing up, from deciding, ‘I guess I’d better straighten myself up’.”

4 We are afraid of our kids’ displeasure

“We try to keep our kids happy all the time and we’re so worried about them being upset or having conflict. This is partly because we are raising kids within a culture of fear. We will be blamed for anything that goes wrong with the child.

But it is actually important for kids to learn that they can have strong emotions and learn to manage them, and that neither they nor their parents will fall apart because of these feelings.

Otherwise, you’re sending your kids the message that such feelings should be shoved back down. That’s what leads to mental-health challenges such as depression.”

5 We try to parent on our own

“Parents try to do it alone, but we need to find our communities of support, other like-minded parents. Find your own groups where your kids can play with others so you can get a break or where you can get advice in a non-judgmental way.

We have all this guilt, which can be damaging to us and our kids because even when we’re with them, we feel like it’s not enough. Instead of being present for five minutes, reconnecting with your child after work and enjoying it, you’re thinking, ‘I should have picked him up 45 minutes earlier.’

My grandmother didn’t spend all her time with her kids. She was a college professor and my grandparents went out for cocktails all the time.

It’s a modern idea of the nuclear family, where we’re so devoted to our children and we have this intensive parenting culture. We have this ideal parent that we measure ourselves against – and it’s really a myth.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 06, 2019, with the headline 'When kids run riot'. Print Edition | Subscribe