Behave: What to Do When Your Child Won’t by Val Mullally (2015)

“Each child is so unique that if they were to come with an instruction manual it would need to be titled ‘The Never Ending Story.’”

This title is a self-published parenting book written by the friend of one of my fellow Book Lovers Book Club members. She asked if I would be willing to read and review it on Mullally’s behalf. Always happy to help out a fellow writer, I started reading Behave right away.

As the mother of three children, the oldest who is turning thirteen, I have read my fair share of parenting books, in fact I read heaps and heaps of them when my oldest was small. However, while reading Behave I realized that many years have past since I last picked one up and it occurred to me that as parents it is nice to be reminded of some parenting “best practices” now and again. I felt glad that I took the time to read Behave today, it never hurts to brush up.

“The bottom line is it’s not possible to manage anyone else’s behavior. Not even your child’s. The only person’s behavior you can ever manage is your own.”

Some of the earliest, and most influential, parenting advice my husband and I received was in a parenting class when the teacher told us to “make it hard for your child to misbehave.” That bit of wisdom has guided us for more than a decade and I hear reverberations of it throughout Behave. We have made it our goal as parents to keep our kids well-fed, well-rested, well-exercised; we give them our full focus as attention whenever possible and listen to what they have to say about life; and we limit the time they must spend in rigid or overly adult-situations. As a result, when they are expected to behave in a certain way — at school, when we are dealing with a sibling’s needs, or on an airplane — it is easier for them to do so.

As Mullally points out, it is a myth that we can manage our children’s behavior. The truth is that only control we can exert in any parenting situation is over the way we handle our actions and our responses to their misbehavior. If we shout, make demands, rush around, fail to give our kids time and autonomy we will find that our own bad behavior results in their corresponding bad behavior. Mullally advises us to be aware of an overly full “adult agenda.” If we rush them around for hours of errands or outings, we cannot be surprised when they end up squirming and tantruming; fitting in time to run around at the park might slow us down but it might also keep the peace.

Parents also need to keep in mind that we can anticipate misbehavior by monitoring how are children are feeling. After all bad behavior is a form of communication for children, it one way that they can show us that their needs are not being met. “All behavior has a cause and intention.” It could be hunger, boredom, anger, or even exhaustion that they are trying to communicate to us and it is important to train ourselves to look for clues that bad behavior is on the horizon. The more we take their feelings into consideration, the better we can help them make good behavioral decisions.

Another point made in Behave  — one that some parenting books can overlook — is to remind us that if we do not take care of ourselves, we cannot be the best, most attentive and patient parents that we can be. This is another of my own family’s fundamental parenting rules! Our needs — for rest, time alone, adult company, and time with our partners – are every bit as important as our children’s needs. (See two blog posts I wrote months ago about managing our energy here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1I and here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1K )

Another wonderful take away from Mullally’s book is how much children want to have value within their families and how much they want to feel that they have a specific and important role to perform. For my younger son, that means being assigned chores to complete while his older brothers do theirs — he hates to feel that he is too much of a baby to contribute. When we assign small tasks — like collecting stuffed animals — he feels an enormous sense of pride and belonging. For our teenager, he needs to feel that his opinions are valid and that he can contribute to discussions and decisions. Lately he has taken to listening to the evening news with us and sharing his thoughts on current events, when we respond to his contributions he feels part of the “grown ups” in the house.

In the course of my thirteen years parenting I have come to believe that a fundamental cornerstone of peaceful, calm family life is that we — as adults — must not allow life to become too hectic for ourselves or for the other people in our family. Rushing around, frantic and ill-prepared — dragging your little ones in and out of car seats; or forcing your older children to sit through hours of errands and meetings — means that we have no emotional reserves left for emergencies. We end up depleted and angry and our children end up bored, frustrated, and brimming with unused energy …and that is a recipe for parenting disasters.

I understand completely that life is full of days in which there are many things to accomplish but my husband and I have found that keeping the number of “must do” items to the bare minimum means we have more time to notice our children and their needs. When we were both working parents, we knew that our evenings and weekends must be as free from volunteer obligations and endless youth sports events as possible or we would all end up miserable and exhausted; only to return to work Monday feelings as it the weekend never happened.

SOME OTHER TIPS and HIGHLIGHTS:

  • The author’s straight-forward reminder that only control we can exert in any parenting situation is over our role in contributing to the bad behaviors (did we let everyone get starving and then insist on one more errand?) and our responses to the misbehavior when it happens (did we scream and shout or calmly get to the bottom of the fight?)
  • Informing parents that bad behavior is a form of communication for children. It is critical to learn the reasons why our child is misbehaving and then formulate ways to prevent it (avoiding hunger, over-tiredness, etc.) whenever possible.
  • In order to be the best parents we can be, we must take care of ourselves as well as our children. Just like little ones, if we are hungry, exhausted and stressed out, we cannot make good choices and maintain calm and patience.
  • Children want to have value within their families and want have their perspectives — referred to Mullally as their “alternate agendas” — recognized. “Kids want to express what they need and be heard” — even if as parents we cannot grant their every wish immediately, we can at least acknowledge what is important to our child. “Being heard and feeling felt affects our sense of well-being.”
  • When your child is upset, attempt to be “approachable:” calm, responsive, and considerate of her perspective.
  • Attempting to control your child will almost certainly backfire. Rather that use shouting, threats, punishments, or ignoring it is best to set clear rules about behavior when everyone is calm and then give your child gentle reminders of expected behavior. (Example given: talk ahead of time about what is expected at a nice restaurant or exactly when homework needs to be completed each day.)
  • Use a simple system to explain to your child what the choices, limitations, and consequences are of a given behavior and let him decide how to proceed. (No running in the house. You can run outside or play quietly inside, what do you choose?) This can “give your child a sense of agency in the outcome.”
  • “Children need adequate opportunity to release play energy.” Make sure you are not asking for stillness and silence from a child who has been cooped up or otherwise restricted from play.
  • “When you give your child even small choices you give him some measure of control over the situation.”
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