These are some parenting tips/tricks/techniques that I’m capturing for a friend. I’m not pretending that the ideas are good or unique or will help anyone other that me, but… maybe?
My frame of reference: I have one 8-year-old son, healthy and neurotypical. He’s basically well-behaved now, but we had a lot of behavioural troubles (hitting other kids, etc.) until recently. I’ll probably be using “he” a lot, as this is basically a personal account.
Much of this stuff is based on books or articles I have read along the way. I’m going to make zero effort to figure out the sources, or else I’ll never write any of it.
## Carve your brain (and your child’s): Do what you want to be
“You are what you do”, for good or ill. Repeated actions or thoughts build pathways and structures in your brain that enable or ease those actions. This is unfortunately most often true with negative behaviours (like constant cell phone checking), but can be used with intentional effort to propel yourself along the path you’d like to be traveling.
This is a pretty abstract “tip”, but it’s going up top because it applies to so many of the tips below. Even if a particular repeated parental behaviour is ostensibly about guiding or providing something to the child, it will still result in carving paths in your own brain. And often this is part of the point.
A concrete example: My first year or so of being a father was very hard for me. I didn’t know that paternal post-partum depression was a thing (affecting 10-25% of fathers!), but I’m quite sure I suffered from it (I wrote a bit more here). During that time I read some advice about “fake it till you make it” and I decided to take that to heart. One way I did that was to say “You’re my special little guy and I love you” to my son often – at every nap time, at least. It felt false (I was in a bad place), but I wanted it to be true. I tried to say it as convincingly as possible (I also wanted him to believe it), I said it regularly, and I said it repeatedly. And eventually it became the most true thing I’ve ever uttered.
Yes, this is some N=1 sample size bullshit. Maybe I was already on the way out of the depression and this did literally nothing. I believe that it helped.
Say the words that you want to be true. Act the way you know you should be acting. Force yourself until it becomes natural.
## Always offer low-friction reconciliation
The time I have most clearly felt “oh, this is a parenting win” was when my (pretty little) kid was angry and hitting, and I was angry, and then I dropped to my knees and opened my arms and he just fell in, curled into a ball, instantly calmed down, and started crying a bit.
This didn’t work every time, but for years it allowed us to defuse a lot of bad situations, and in a way that plainly felt like a gain in love and attachment.
I decided that the lesson from the success of this tactic is that my child was often desperate for a low-friction path to reconciliation and that I should always offer it. By “low-friction” I mean not requiring an admission of guilt or an apology or any other loss of face – just zero steps from “angry” to “unconditional love”.
I’m also using the word “reconciliation” somewhat carefully. The behaviour that led to the conflict might be unacceptable (e.g., hitting other kids) and still need to be addressed – this isn’t necessarily “forgive and forget”. But nothing can be “addressed” while everyone is freaking out, so it’s essential to re-establish love and acceptance.
Brain-carving: It will be very hard to offer this reconciliation when you’re angry, but the more you do it, the easier and more automatic it will become. Just as importantly, you will be carving your child’s brain at the same time – you’ll be teaching them to look for the opportunity for reconciliation, and to take it. This will serve them well forever.
Bonus tip: I found kneeling was often effective in many situations. I think there’s a psychological effect on the kid when the parent is at their level – I think I felt more accessible to him. It’s also a nicer position for hugging a little guy.
Another bonus tip: When my son started hitting, I often found it effective to really obviously not defend myself. If I put my arms up to absorb the blows, I think he took that as meaning that it was more okay to hit me, because I wouldn’t really get hurt. But if I kneeled and opened my arms and offered him my face (i.e., offered him my throat), then he wouldn’t be as easily able to hit me without hurting me and often would stop. But not always. If he hadn’t completely lost his shit, then great, but if he was absolutely out of his mind then I’d have to realize that really quickly. (And then do a “safety hold” right on the busy sidewalk and oh god those were some bad days.)
Relationship tip: “Always offer low-friction reconciliation” is just obviously a good idea in all settings, with everyone, but especially your spouse. I’m pretty bad for holding grudges, and this is something I’m still working on.
## Emotional bookending and bridging
(To be clear, I’m making up bullshit terms that vaguely evoke what I’m trying to get at. I need some kind of section header, right?)
Every night the last thing I say to my son is, “I love you, monkey. I’ll see you in the morning.” Both parts are intentional: the first is pretty obvious (and was part of my own brain-carving, back when I needed it at that level), and the second is to reassure him that I’ll be there the next day. I want that to give him comfort as he falls asleep and if he wakes up in the night.
Every morning as soon as I seem him I beeline to him and give him a kiss. This is the fulfillment of the previous night’s promise. For many hundreds of nights, I have communicated as clearly as I can: Our separation is temporary and my love is always with you.
I do this with almost all our separations, especially school. I always say, “I love you, buddy. I’ll see you after [school or whatever activity].” And then make sure I clearly communicate that I’m happy to see him afterwards. (For a long time I would explicitly say “I’m happy to see you.”)
This isn’t just about trying to be a loving parent. I want him to not call for us during the night. I wanted him to not feel anxious at daycare or school, because I suspected that it was contributing to behaviour problems. But, yeah, also for his own sake I want him to feel absolutely sure that he’s loved and that his parents will return to him, even when we’re separated.
(Personal psychological insight: I always dreaded my dad coming home from work. I really, REALLY never want my son to feel like that. I want to be a goddamn beacon of love and comfort. “Don’t be like my father” is not the healthiest guiding principle, but we all just work with what we got.)
## Turn towards
I got the term from a relationship article, but it applies equally to parenting. The idea is that when your partner wants or needs your attention (or affection, or help, or whatever), you “turn towards” them, literally and figuratively. Physically turn towards them and give them your full focus and attention. You don’t keep looking at your phone or the TV or whatever. This is a clear act and message of love and respect and commitment.
This idea applies equally to your child, but is much harder. Kids want so much attention, and they talk so much, and they are so fucking boring. It is impossible to turn towards them as much as they want. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
When my son wants my attention, I try to turn toward him immediately. If I can’t, I’ll communicate to him why I can’t and give him the option of talking anyway or waiting until I’m free. When I lose time or patience in this attention-giving I’ll say, “Monkey, I can’t keep paying attention right now, but you can keep talking if you want.”
So, I treat him with respect (attention, truth, etc.) and give him what he needs for as long as I can. This might seem obvious, but, like many of the things here, I think it’s good to do it deliberately and with intention.
For lots of us, this kind of attention isn’t easy to do, and especially not for any amount of time. Again, kids are tedious. But, as with everything, you are what you do – the more you do it, the more you can do it.
Also, yeah, do this with your spouse.
## Ambient affection
For a long time (less lately), I would lightly and briefly touch my son almost every time I walked by – hand-on-head, hand-on-shoulder, that kind of thing. I intended it as a non-intrusive reminder of the proximity of love and affection. (And, as always, carving my own brain.)
I sometimes think in terms of physical stress factors: hormones, heart rate, etc. I want to keep those factors low in my son, and I think of any show of affection as bringing them down. (It’s also why I try to get him into nature often, as there’s actual evidence of efficacy.)
## Tell them when you’re cranky
I always tell my son when I’m in a bad mood (usually due to poor sleep). I tell him that I might be short-tempered and cranky, but that it isn’t – and won’t be – his fault, and that I don’t love him any less.
I’m not sure that the information actually changes his pain-in-the-ass behaviour, but that’s not the point. I only want him to feel… well, exactly what I said – that it’s not his fault and I don’t love him any less. And, really, kids are (or some are, or sometimes, or something) capable of empathy, even towards their parents.
Saying these words is also a reminder to myself to try to not be an jerk to my son just because I had a shit sleep.
## Show resolution after a fight
If (ha!) you get into a fight with your spouse in front of your kid, try your very best to model good behaviour during and after. It can be very hard to stay respectful during a bad fight, but try. Also try to let your kid see the resolution of the fight – partly so that they can see it is resolved, and partly so that they learn a bit about resolving the fights that they themselves inevitably have and will have.
This is so much harder than it sounds.
## Don’t lie
Don’t lie to your kid. Ever. You can certainly omit things, but don’t lie to them. And remind them explicitly that you’ll never lie to them. You want them to believe you as quickly and with as little doubt as possible.
(I take this to include not making my son believe in Santa or the Easter Bunny. It’s up to you if you want to follow me that far, but I haven’t regretted it even a little.)
Besides being fundamentally respectful, this is also very much about laying the groundwork for your future relationship. Even if there aren’t times right now when you desperately need your child to believe you utterly and implicitly, you can bet your ass there will be important times in the future.
Which leads us to…
## Lay the groundwork for the teenage years
Being a teenager is hard. It was hard for us and it’ll be hard for our kids. They’ll be faced with risky decisions and bad situations, and the probability of not getting pregnant or dropping out or dying is much, much better if your kid knows deeply that you are on their side. They need to be able to trust you to love them no matter what, help the best you can, forgive them, not freak out on them, and so on.
Honestly, I think this is the big goal that we should be working towards. Doing your best for your kid at 5 is excellent and necessary, but setting your relationship up for success at 15 is the real goal. Luckily, the former serves the latter.
## Think hard about saying “no”
My knee-jerk reaction is – or was? – to say “no” to a lot of stuff. Silly stuff, irresponsible stuff, stuff we don’t have time for. Also, I’m just kind of a dick sometimes. But I don’t like being like that, and I don’t think it’s good for the kid or our relationship.
One reason is that you don’t want your child to come to think of you as someone who says “no” all the time. You want them to keep talking to you (see the “teenage years” section) and asking you for and about iffy things. You want them to know that you’re on their side and that you generally want them to have what they want to have. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you can always acquiesce, but you’ll always seriously consider it, give them reasons why not (if you’re still going to say no), and work with them to find some kind of compromise when possible.
Another reason is that allowing them the feeling of autonomy is important. Everyone wants to feel like they are the masters of themselves, even very little kids. The feeling of powerlessness can be terrible, cause bad backlash, and carve their brains in ways you don’t want. Saying “no” takes autonomy away from them. Obviously, you can’t let them be autonomous always (they’re dumbasses and won’t survive a day), but you can try hard to give them as much as you can when you can, to balance when you can’t.
Another big reason to avoid saying “no” quickly is so that we don’t allow ourselves to be beaten down by our child and then give in. I think it’s much better to say “yes” (or something like it) immediately than it is to teach the child that if they wheedle and cajole us hard enough they’ll get their way. None of us wants to incentivize that kind of shit.
Related to this, I think we should try to avoid asking for the child’s opinion when the only answer we intend to accept is compliance. So, don’t say “do you want to go to the library?” (or “how do you feel about going to the library?”) when you intend to make the kid go no matter what. Saying “we’re going to the library” might not be giving the child autonomy, but at least it’s not pretending to give them some and then ripping it away from. That’s much worse, and disrespectful. It’s not really free will if you only have one choice.
## Give your parenting partner a break
This is probably too obvious to mention, but: Parenting is hard and we all get tired. Take your kid away from your spouse sometimes, and pretty often.
You don’t need to come up with some heroic activity – it doesn’t need to be long or elaborate. I mean, if it is, great, but it’s more important that you do something, anything. Make it as easy on yourself as possible, so you don’t burn out while trying to prevent your partner from burning out.
## Don’t get carried away by your spouse’s emotions
When my partner gets angry at our son, my gut reaction is usually to lose my shit. I hate seeing her upset. Which is the very wrong response.
The emotional onslaught of two parents is too much. Even from one parent it’s really a lot. You need to try to defuse the situation. Help your spouse regain composure. Let your child know that they are still loved and supported.
Sometimes this can mean directly opposing your spouse in defense of your kid, in front of your kid. I don’t know if this is great or not, but it usually feels okay and helps to calm things down. Be respectful and gentle to your spouse and the child will learn the right lesson.
## Emotional satiation
If your kid needs a hug (or other comfort), give it to them until they pull away first. Let them drink as much comfort from you as they need, and give them no sense that you’re pulling away while they need more.
This is harder than it sounds, and is sometimes beyond our emotional reserves and time. Remind yourself that it’ll be very rare after about age 6.
## Be wary of your intoxicated self
I quickly realized that I couldn’t have even one drink until after my son was asleep. When I drink even a little my patience drops like a rock, and that makes even the smallest difficulty bad.
It’s not like that for everyone, though. Know thy tipsy self. If, like me, you realize that you just can’t drink at all during the day, make peace with it and know that you won’t need to do it forever.
## Pay attention to your tone; aim for neutrality
It’s very easy to convey more than you mean to in your tone of voice and even facial expressions. Even if what might be conveyed is still “true”, it’s often not the message that you actually want to send.
The obvious case for this is when you’re providing negative feedback – when your kid did something wrong and you’re telling them so. What you want to do is have them understand that what they did was undesirable, why, how they should improve in the future, and maybe how they should make amends now. What you don’t want to convey is anything like this:
- You’re hurt
- You’re whining
- Your happiness is dependent on their better behaviour
- You’re flying off the handle
- Or anything that generally indicates that your love has been partially withdrawn
Those kinds of things freak kids right out, make it hard for them to take a positive lesson from what just happened, and over time can make them hesitant to come to you for emotional safety.
But it’s really hard to not convey that extra information! We do it all the time! And we’re also often in a state where independent shitty factors – being tired, frustration with work, etc. – amplify and exacerbate everything. No matter how much you really do love your child, you’re going to have a really hard time communicating that in bad moments.
The less obvious times when tone neutrality is important is when giving positive feedback. There’s a risk that you overdo it and your kid starts behaving just to get that effusive praise reward from you. Now the reward is problematically extrinsic.
I recommend the Hidden Brain podcast episode about clicker training for dogs, dolphins, and… humans. I didn’t actually do it with my son, but I sure thought about it.
So, try to make a habit of paying attention to what your secondary communication channels – tone of voice, facial expressions, body posture – are communicating, and how strong that communication is. Think about how it might be making your child feel and how they’ll respond to it. Think about what sort of patterns might be getting established by repeated exposure to it.
And consider keeping your tone generally more moderate. Avoid sending your child on an emotional rollercoaster.
## Never make your child responsible for your emotions
(This point ties into the previous one but deserves its own spotlight.)
Your child cannot handle the responsibility for your happiness; do not put it upon them. You’re their parent – their emotional foundation, their bedrock, their safety. Additionally, they need to be allowed to be little and silly and tempestuous, and to grow up naturally, as they are neurologically and endocrinologically able to. Putting the weight of your happiness on them compromises both of those things.
Sometimes you might reverse this responsibility implicitly – tone of voice, etc. Sometimes you’ll do it explicitly – “you’re scaring me”, “you’re making me sad”, etc.
Be aware and beware of this power and responsibility reversal.
## Do the opposite of being angry
Your child is fooling around and knocks over a plant. You are, quite reasonably, some combination of displeased, disappointed, and angry. That suggests some obvious negative responses.
But. Your child knows they’ve done something wrong. They’re probably also upset. Yelling at them will achieve nothing positive. Saying, “Be more careful next time!” communicates and teaches nothing useful (I say that all the time, and it is garbage). Your child is already in a state of emotional distress – piling more on top will only ensure that they are lost in a haze of fear and shame and sadness, beyond the possibility of taking away any possible positive lesson.
So, your knee-jerk negative responses aren’t great. Then what?
Give them a hug. Say nothing for a bit. Hug until you feel your anger start to bleed away, which will also be around when they start to calm down. If there’s something constructive to say, you’ll think of it and be able to say it then. You’ll be able to say it in a voice that can be heard, and they will have the ability to hear it.
If you can’t think of any words of wisdom or guidance that aren’t just “be more careful next time”, then that’s okay – they have already learned something about the physics of mayhem. Just say “let’s clean this up together”.
You just turned a potentially really bad thing into a bunch of good things:
- Your child trusts you to be calm and loving and helpful when things are tough. They won’t feel the need to hide such things for you. (Refer to the section on planning for teenagerhood.)
- Your child did not have their brain bathed in stress hormones for an extended period. (Which, if it happens regularly, can have longer-term effects.)
- You didn’t have your brain bathed in stress hormones for an extended period.
- You don’t have to lay in bed awake because you know you fucked up and were pointlessly shitty to your little kid whom you love more than anything.
It’s so hard to do this, but so satisfying. You feel the rage coming on, you keep your mouth shut and hug.
## Hold but don’t grasp
Have your hand that’s on the side where your child is walking available for holding. Switch your bag to the other hand. When they decide to take your hand, be thankful and mindful, but don’t comment on it. Hold their hand as tightly or as loosely as they hold yours. When they decide to release your hand, let them go. Be thankful for the time you had holding it, but don’t comment on it (do not manipulate them into holding more or longer). Continue to keep your hand available long after they need to take it, feeling the loss but being pleased that your child is strong and independent.
Generalize and metaphorize.
## Give credit when it’s due
It’s easy for little achievements – chores completed, thoughtful acts, good behaviour, effort on little tasks that aren’t inherently fun – to go unremarked upon. Especially when they’re more frequent, they’ll just slip by.
I think it’s important, at least every now and then, to let your child know that you see the effort they’re making and that you appreciate it. As argued above, I think the tone of the praise should be neutral, and nothing about it needs to be overly effusive – just an acknowledgement. Like, “I know that dinner last night with a bunch of adults you don’t know must have been pretty boring, but I saw that you stayed patient and polite and I appreciate it.” Or, “I noticed that this morning you opened your blinds and turned off your light and I appreciate it.”
These are little things that are – or will become – just “expected” behaviours, but never forget that your child has a weensy little prefrontal cortex and anything without flashing lights requires a bunch of effort. You don’t need to give this kind of praise all the time, but take reasonable opportunities.
Do this with your spouse as well. We all like our daily little efforts to be appreciated and acknowledged. It communicates love as strongly as anything else.
## Be mealy-mouthed, get ignored
Kids don’t hear sentences that begin with “I think” or “I don’t think”. If you say “I think it’s time to go”, your child immediately discards it and continues to play unabated. And, really, who can blame them? What does it even mean? It sounds like some kind of indeterminate interior rumination. It’s barely actionable for yourself, and certainly not for another person. And definitely not for a zero-self-control little kid who just wants to play.
Kids also don’t know what “minutes” are. They know it has something to do with time and is less than a day, but that’s it. If you say “we’re leaving in 5 minutes”, it will mean nothing to your child and they will ignore you. (Hell, even as an adult, “we’re leaving in 5 minutes” means only something like “we’re leaving in less than an hour, probably”.)
So how are we supposed to make “transitions” smoother for our fragile little babies if “I think” and “minutes” are pointless? Well: A) I don’t know, good luck; and B) try to use fixed counts of activities, like “5 more times down the slide and then we leave”, and then count down. It’s still not going to work great (and they’ll cheat like crazy), but at least it’s an objective measure.
## Mindfulness helps
Shortly after becoming a parent I started practicing mindfulness meditation. (For related reasons.) I read 10% Happier and started using meditation apps (10% Happier, Headspace, Waking Up). And… it has helped me a lot. I’m not going to blab on about it, but I’ll mention a few key things.
First, mindfulness meditation focuses strongly on teaching you to be aware of your physical and emotional state. You pay a lot of attention to how various emotions make your body feel (tight in the chest, knot in the stomach, etc.), and you get much better at recognizing those manifestations of stress, anger, etc. before they take you over (or not too long after they do). This is incredibly valuable when parenting.
Secondly, the act of being mindful helps wonderfully with appreciating the joys of parenthood as they happen. Mindfulness meditation intentionally carves your mind in such a way as to make it easier (or even possible) to fully focus and appreciate the current moment. And when you have a child who is changing all the time – and will never return to the way they are this moment – it’s wonderful to appreciate as many moments as possible. (And, yeah, it helps some with coping with the daily annoying behaviours that it seems they’ll never grow out of.)
Thirdly, via mindfulness you come to the Buddhist understanding of “suffering”, which is something like “undue fretting over things that have already passed or may never come to pass”1. Focusing on your actual experience, right now, helps reduce the fears that your kid is a psychopath, or will never read, or will forever be wearing diapers to bed.
## Do your best; be compassionate with yourself
A lot of the stuff I’ve written here can be very taxing as a parent. It is utterly impossible to do all of it all the time. As you do it, it will get somewhat easier to do it more of the time – as you carve your brain, and your child’s. But, again, it is not ever going to be possible to do it all the time. And that’s okay.
We do our best. We fuck up. We are kind to ourselves and we don’t beat ourselves up too much. We let go and begin again.
I don’t know shit about shit, so take that Buddhism lesson with a big grain of salt. I am avoiding the word “skilful”. ↩︎