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To Reach Your True Parenting Superpower, Stop Transacting

Stop rewards and punishments; start using the most powerful motivator.

Key points

  • The parent–child relationship is the most powerful relationship on the planet.
  • Too often parents rely on rewards and punishment.
  • The relationship works better when we start to let go of transactions.
 Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
What really influences your child?
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

Nowhere in your life is your leadership as powerful as it is in your relationship with your children.

The parent–child relationship is the most powerful relationship on the planet. All the time, I have parents asking: How can this relationship be so sacred and yet feel so bad? How can I love this child so much while feeling so much frustration?

So much tension.

So much pain.

To understand where you stand, you must look where you’ve been.

Most of us come from family systems that placed a premium on our behavior. From the earliest of ages, we were coded to know precisely how a good girl behaves. What a bad boy does. Why Mommy likes this, and Daddy hates that.

I became a neuropsychologist, an expert in brain–behavior relationships, because the wisdom of our biology always tells the truth about our lives.

The truth of your child’s behavior is that it’s on purpose.

You cannot not communicate.

Communication Through Behavior

What your child says to you and where she does it, how she looks at you and why she doesn’t—she’s already telling you what you’ve been trying to figure out. Like a code waiting to be cracked, it’s her behavior that offers you the clearest path to her heart.

Parents often complain that their children are “causing problems.” For example, imagine you say: “My kid causes problems every morning. I have to drag him out of bed. When he finally comes down, he’s all disheveled and ignores everyone at the table!”

What you really mean is that your child is causing you problems. This distinction is not petty, but vital.

It’s your desire to get out of the house, your vision of what shirt is appropriate and what pants aren’t, and your preference about the way in which another person eats food that’s at the core of this conflict.


Note how this child would tell an entirely different story. Perhaps he would say: “My mother upsets me every morning. She comes into my room and immediately begins speaking harshly. I open my eyes and she’s already telling me what I’m doing wrong. I feel attacked and I haven’t even woken up. I don’t want to make her angrier, so I throw on clothes and then try to avoid any conflict at the table.”

Now you might say: “Well, yes, but I have to get to work!”

This may very well be true.

And so what you truly desire is a collaborative relationship with your child—a relationship that flows because both parties are attuned to and trust each other. Command-and-control-do-it-or-else models of leadership are flawed, not just ethically, but practically. As any parent will tell you, there are copious times when you simply cannot get your child to comply.

The most certain strategy to get anyone to follow you, to listen to you, to care about you is to work to see that they want to.

Why wouldn’t my child want to be led by me—to listen to me, follow me, care about me?

Take a breath; go deeper.

You can reasonably expect your child to care about your needs to the extent they feel you care about theirs. Your behavior has already signaled to your child, over and over again, the degree to which they should care about other people’s preferences, including yours.

There is a deeper truth yet still. Take a breath; go deeper.

Praise and Punishment

How we show up for our children has much to do with how our parents showed up for us. Most of us knew things were OK—and when they weren’t—based on how our parents praised us versus how much they punished us.

Praise and punishment, both powerful behavioral forces, create a core problem in the parent–child relationship. Consider this example: A father says to his son, “If you don’t stop screaming during bath time, then no cartoons.”

The measure of success is the cessation of the child’s screaming. The problem is, of course, the father has no real idea why the son is regularly screaming during bath time.

There’s a deeper problem still.

When an intimate relationship is evaluated on behavioral outcomes, it’s not a relationship; it’s a transaction.

Every time, we say to our children, “If you keep quiet, I’ll give you a cookie.” Or “If you don’t stop hitting your sister, I will take the phone away” you don’t create intimacy; you create a transaction.

Go deeper.

For some of us, the idea of reducing the profundity of our unwavering connection to our children can seem inaccurate—offensive, even—but there is a math to behavior. If you don’t stop doing X, then I won’t give you Y is a very specific logic, a companion that shows up in most of our homes.

Rewards and punishment are themselves the evidence of transactional systems. It is only in a transactional context where stickers for submission, praise for obedience, food for docility, and punishment for noncompliance make any sense at all.

For a better bond with your child, you must return to the relationship.

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