Critical Incidents in Parenting
Sample dialogues and key principles.
Posted Mar 07, 2019
Even with a typical child, parenting is hard and important. It’s ironic that schools prefer to teach geometry, foreign language, and chemistry but not parenting.
Here are thoughts and sample dialogues on common critical incidents in parenting. After, I list some undergirding principles.
Your baby won’t stop crying
Play detective: Are there signs that the crying's cause is fatigue, wet diaper, hunger, illness, or an indiscernible cause. Alas, the latter often occurs. In such cases, it can't hurt to try consoling the baby with a hug, perhaps while rocking or walking with the baby. If that doesn’t work, you may just have to accept—easier said than done— that inexplicable crying is one of parenting’s realities.
Of course, if the crying persists, try another tactic, whether hugging, feeding, rocking the baby to sleep, lowering the lights, playing music, or contacting your baby’s health care provider. Hitting, let alone shaking, however, should never be an option. It may seem like the baby is spiting you, but no! Or you may think shaking or hitting is acceptable. But, no! Nearly every expert agrees that corporal punishment is wrong. At best, it yields short-term compliance but contributes to long-term defiance and conveys the message that violence is an appropriate response to annoyance.
Use your intuition to decide whether this crying jag is normal for your child or a sign of illness that’s worth an email or call to your health care provider. I wish I could be more specific regarding how long to wait before changing tactics but children, indeed all of us, are so variable that it seems wise to simply ask you to rely on your judgment, which will get better as you're observant of your child’s behavior patterns.
Getting your child to do homework...well!
The classic fight between parent and school-age child is about homework:
“No, you can’t play video games until you get your homework done!”
“Aw please, just a half hour!”
The child then slops through the homework and says, “Done!,” waves it in front of the parent and starts playing Fortnite if not Grand Theft Auto.
It’s usually better to treat the cause rather than the symptom. So if you haven’t already, it may be time for an age-appropriate chat about why it’s worth doing homework carefully. Of course, word it as is appropriate for your child. Here’s a sample dialogue with a middle-school child.
Parent: I suspect you’ll hate this conversation but it’s important.
Parent: It’s not that bad. Most kids dislike doing homework yet teachers keep giving it, so there must be reasons. I’ll tick ‘em off one at a time and you tell me if you think it makes sense. First, homework gives you more learning time, so you learn more. Make sense?
Child: I already learn plenty.
Parent rolls eyes with an impish smile. The goal is to plant seeds, not expect an “Oh, you’re so right, mom!”
Parent: You need to develop the habit of working on your own without the teacher or parent staring at you. As an adult, you’ll have to do that all the time.
Child. It’s a long time 'til I’m an adult.
Parent: True but if you get into the habit of not working without supervision, by the time you’re adult, it will be really hard to change. Much better to start now.
Child: Can I go now?
Parent: Yes (with that impish smile)...to do your homework.
Of course, a preemptive conversation won’t always prevent your child wanting to avoid homework, but having given your child reasonable reasons (perhaps multiple times), the fight over homework can be briefer and less contentious.
For example, as soon as Junior returned from school, he dropped off his books and, basketball, under arm, yells back, “I’ll be back by 6, dinner time!”
Parent: I guess you have no homework. (A pleasantly delivered sarcastic joke takes the edge off and reduces opposition.)
Child: I’ll do it when I get home.
Parent: Okay, I can understand that after sitting in school all day, you need to get out (Reasonableness trumps sticking to your guns) but if you wait to do it until after dinner, you’ll have food coma and be less likely to do it, let alone do it well. How much homework do you have if you were to do it well?
Child: About an hour, I guess.
Parent: Okay, be back by 5. Do your homework and then you can have dinner guilt-free and afterward, be free to do what you want.
Child: Come on, Ma!
Parent (with a pleasant, roll-the-eyes grin): See you at 5!
The child returns at 5:20.
Parent: (with the impish grin) Your watch is slow?
Child: Gimme a break.
Parent: Now you’ve made us wait for dinner until you’ve finished the homework. (Invoking guilt is potent and an often appropriate inculcation of intrinsic motivation.) It’s usually less wise to, for example, say, “Okay, work until 6 and do the other 20 minutes after dinner.” That rewards the tardiness and punishes the rest of the family. Of course, we’re all human and such a response isn't a mortal sin.
The parent peeks in at 5:45 and sees Junior on the phone, and he’s not talking about homework. The parent needn’t say anything. The child knows what you’ll say. Looking him in the eye with that impish grin, or perhaps a more serious one, is usually all that’s required. The parent doesn’t leave until he’s off the phone, whereupon...
Child: Homework is boring!
Parent: I understand, but part of being a responsible person is doing things we find boring.
Child: Also, it’s hard.
Parent: Honestly, do you think it’s wise to try to figure it out yourself or do you really need a minute’s help to get you over the hump?
Give only that bit of help needed for the child to move on by him or herself. Doing homework for the child teaches all the wrong lessons.
Ensuring your child has good friends
Some parents have a child who’s attracted to “the wrong crowd.” If so, here’s a sample preemptive conversation:
Parent: I’m guessing you know why I don’t like Anthony.
Parent: You’re smart. Why?
Child: Because he dresses weird?
Parent: That’s only a symptom of the larger problem. Why do you think he worries me?
Child: Because you think I’ll be a weed-smoking goof-off like him. I won’t! I like him—He’s funny and he has guts.
Parent: I gotta tell you I’d be worried if you spent much time with him and his look-alike, act-alike buddies. Are there any kids in your class whom you like, think I’d like, and is a good influence on you?
Child: I dunno.
Parent: There’s got to be someone.
Child: David, maybe.
Parent: I don’t know him but would you like him to come over and play with you after school or on the weekend, maybe a video game?
Child: He doesn't play video games.
Parent: Any idea of what he and you might enjoy doing together?
Child: He’s into his telescope. He’s always talking about the stars and planets.
Parent: Maybe he could bring it over one evening and we all could try it.
Child: I’ll think about it.
Stemming substance abuse
Few behaviors scare parents more than the thought that their child is abusing drugs. Especially because the teen brain is still developing, substance abuse at that age can have long-lasting, difficult-to-reverse consequences.
Because of space limitations, I won’t offer a sample preemptive talk but rather, one when there's evidence of abuse.
The parent should choose a time when both parent and child are likely to be in a good mood and not distracted, perhaps a Saturday morning.
Parent: This is kind of serious, so we need to talk. Want to sit down or take a walk? (Giving two choices, both acceptable to the parent, is helpful.)
Child: Take a walk, I guess.
Parent: I won’t keep you in suspense. It seems pretty clear to me you’ve got a substance abuse problem. I understand why you might want to deny it—It’s scary to admit it to yourself let alone to me, but I’d be a bad parent if I didn’t address it with you.
Child. I don’t do drugs. Yeah, I tried a little weed but I do not have a problem.
Parent: I’m not going to press you but, for now, I want you to know I’m worried, okay, quite worried, and if and when you want to talk about it or see a counselor about it, that would be great.
Child. I don’t do drugs. (The child runs away.)
The parent has planted the seed and hopefully the child will, when feeling brave or scared about the problem, come to talk with the parent. Of course, that doesn’t always occur. So, if further signs of substance abuse appear and it’s beyond what you feel you can address, it’s time to consult a specialist.
Dealing with ticklish sex topics
Even though it can feel awkward, candid parent-teen communication about sexuality is usually wise. Here’s a common ticklish scenario and how a parent with fairly liberal sexual values might handle it:
Parent: You’ve been spending a lot of time with Jeff.
Parent: Typical worry-wart parent that I am, I feel it’s time to have one of those awkward parent-child sex talks.
Child: Do we really have to?
Parent: Let’s give it a shot. Sometimes, both romantic partners want the same thing, for example, to enjoy going to first or second base but not all the way. In those cases, no problem. But often, only one partner wants to get more intimate, or one partner views deep physical intimacy as merely a sexual act while the other partner gives it deeper emotional significance. Are you and Jeff in sync?
Of course, it’s possible the child won’t want to talk about it in which case, as in the previous examples, you’ve planted a seed, this time by saying, “I’m here if and when you want to talk.” But let’s assume the child is willing to talk.
Child: Well, to be honest, Jeff wants to go all the way and I’m not ready but I feel a little guilty and also, I don’t want to feel like a prude. Most of my friends are, let’s just say, not prudes.
Parent: Well, how does Jeff react when you tell or show him that you want to set limits?
Child: He’s not a jerk. I mean he doesn’t push himself on me or guilt-trip me with crap like, “If you loved me, you would.” He just says lovemaking is a beautiful thing and that we’re missing out.
Parent. It can be a beautiful thing but for it to be, you both need to feel good about it. You probably are right in waiting until it feels right.
Child: I’m afraid I might lose him if I keep waiting.
Parent: It’s possible. I guess you have to decide if and when it’s worth doing it. Of course, even if you did and later regretted it, it’s not the end of the world. It might help to rehearse that possibility in your mind, so if it happens, you’re not devastated for a long time.
Child: That’s rational but I’m afraid that if we did it and then he broke up with me, it would hurt for a long time.
Parent: I understand.
Parent: Have you thought about birth control, both to prevent pregnancy and STDs?
Child: I’m not there yet.
Parent: I know that but, in the moment, if you decide to have intercourse, it could be hard to say, "Hold on, I need to go to Planned Parenthood for birth control." So even if there's a small chance you might want to do it, should you at least visit the Planned Parenthood website and read up?
Child. I guess.
Parent: Anything else you want to say or ask for now?
Child: I think it’s enough for one session. More than enough!
Parent hugs child.
Helping with your child’s college and career planning
Your child’s workspan will likely see increased automation, off-shoring, part-timing and temping, the so-called gig economy. That raises the stakes for your child’s career planning or lack thereof. If you’re lucky, you have a child who has it all together, for example, has been learning artificial intelligence software engineering from parturition. Here’s a more common situation:
Parent: I hate nagging you but...
Child. Yeah, I know. How come I’m not working on my college applications?
Parent: You don’t even know which colleges you want to apply to yet.
Child: I do know. I’ll apply to State U and I don’t get in, I’ll go to community college.
Parent: Sometimes, when a kid procrastinates the college process, it’s because he’s not sure he wants to go or why he should go.
Child: I’m going because that’s what you do if you want a decent job.
Parent: It’s true that, on average, college grads make more money but you’ve struggled to Bs and Cs in high school, so in college, you could end up as one of the many kids who drop out, with a mountain of debt, bad self-esteem, and no employable skill when you could have saved the money, built your self-esteem, and be more employable if you did an apprenticeship program.
Child: Only really dumb kids don’t go to college.
Parents. That’s not true. Kids who do apprenticeships are generally people who learn better in a practical, real-world setting than in a classroom.
Child: I do hate sitting in a classroom. I’ve been doing it for 12 years!
Parent: Would I be a pushy parent if I said let’s go to the computer and look, yes at the State U website and community college website to see what they offer, but also to google “California apprenticeships” to see if you might be interested in that?” And who knows, if you don’t kill me for suggesting it, I hear there’s a cool website, mynextmove.org that helps teens find well-suited careers and then links you to schools that train for you that.
The following principles are embedded above. Not surprisingly, they can be applied to other situations.
Maintain an experimental mindset. People and situations are too variable to have many definitive parenting rules. Short of corporal punishment or any severe punishment for that matter, try different approaches to see what works.
Focus on building intrinsic motivation. Before resorting to extrinsics (rewards and punishments"), try to encourage good behavior by explaining rather than ordering and, as needed, by Invoking guilt, for example, “I’m a little surprised. You usually have such good judgment." Invoking guilt has an undeserved bad reputation. Framed more properly, invoking guilt is instilling a sense of responsibility.
Set moderate limits. Overly restrictive, risk-averse parents increase the risk of the child rebelling dangerously, feeling long-term anger toward and lack of trust of the parent, and can reduce the child’s sense of self-efficacy, But conversely, children, even adults, need and welcome moderate limits. Of course, kids with good judgment need fewer restrictions; others need more. Parenting doesn’t come in one-size-fits-all.
With problems, be focused but not mean. Your child needs to feel you’re on the same side of the table, that your concerns and actions are about trying to help the child, not to arbitrarily get your way. Being focused but not mean typically manifests in crisp requests or orders presented concisely, often explaining the reason for the request, all usually leavened by humor, a lilt in your voice, and perhaps ending with a hug.