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Parenting with Backbone

Do you have a "wishbone" or "backbone" as a parent?

Over lunch today, I said to my colleague: "It's amazing how many parents call me, and say I can't get my son or daughter to (fill in the blank)_________(Brush Teeth, Comb Hair, Take Showers)." This opened up a deeper conversation. What's the real problem? Is it the children? Of course, the answer is no. The deeper issue is that parents across America tend to have a wishbone versus a backbone. Parents want things to be all "sweetness and light" but they can't be.

The Wishbone

One of my child clients, Kayla at age eight, already has an ipad, iphone, and host of live pets beyond most children's imagination (i.e. rabbit, dogs, goats, horses). Kayla's mom, Lizzie, brought her to me because she was a "challenging child" especially when it came to going to bed, brushing teeth, getting dressed and eating a healthy breakfast. It didn't take long to "get" that Lizzie is a great person but not an effective parent.

These parents have the "best of intentions" but don't do the things - like applying consistent discipline - that are necessary to be effective. Lizzie simply got into the routine of fighting with Kayla, and "wishing" for things to get better. I call this the "wishbone" parenting approach. Long story short, I helped Lizzie gain some parenting skills, provide her some tools and get her course-corrected from a pushover parent to one with a backbone. For example, Lizzie implemented a "morning checklist" to ease the morning routine, and by sticking to it - the fighting diminished and AM routine improved dramatically.

Parenting with Backbone

Parenting with backbone takes inner strength. There is no room for wish-washy rules but firmness. It means you are willing to be "positive and firm" for the good of your child. Many of us have been parented with incredible discipline, maybe even harsh discipline (i.e. spanking, wooden board) so we have swung the opposite way. We tend to be "too nice" and "too indulgent" with our kids because of how we were parented or we feel guilty about the situation today (i.e. got divorced, work too much).

The problem here is that children need to learn healthy boundaries, and appreciate the benefits of becoming a disciplined person. Listen, I am not necessary for the "Tiger Mom" but the idea that children can learn that with consistent effort and a disciplined approach they can do anything is a good lesson.

Nancy, a mother and busy lawyer, is raising her 18 month old but is having some problems. She called me up, and asked "How can I get Tommy to stop throwing food on the floor?" So I responded to Nancy, and explained how you take Tommy away from the table when this behavior starts and positively but firmly explain this is unacceptable. Her first response was "But this will ruin our peace and quiet at dinner" and yes that is true.

Parenting with a "backbone" means your dinner might not always be perfect. The goal after all isn't to have 100% perfect dinners but to raise a healthy and happy child. Research shows that well-adjusted, self-reliant and positively curious kids have grown up with parents that set rules, establish expectations and create healthy boundaries. These healthy boundaries allow a child to feel safe, too. There is an "emotional container" for the growing child.

Such effective parents also focus upon:

  • Clear Communications
  • Reasoning with Child
  • Establishing Clear Rules (and sticking to them!)
  • Letting their child experience consequences of behavior
  • Modeling appropriate behavior

There is no magic formula to make you a "positive but firm" parent but only practice. The more you set healthy rules, positive expectations and clear boundaries - your child grows up feeling stronger on the inside and more capable to succeed. The key to succeeding at disciplining your child for success lies within your ability to be consistent and predictable. Of course, praise is also a powerful motivator for behavioral change.

Next Steps

So what's next? The next step is to assess your parenting style. Then, you'll be able to decide if it is time for you to "loosen up" or "tighten up" regarding your parenting style. Of course, you may be in the minority of parents that are already doing everything right. My impression is that most of us (myself included) can always seek improvement. The goal is to strike a healthy balance of parenting in a positive manner yet also firm so your children can develop into the healthiest versions of themselves.

© 2011 by Growing Happy Kids
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Maureen Healy is a parenting author, speaker and teacher globally on the topics of parenting and children's emotional health. More information:

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