Bonnie Harris: What you focus on grows

There is no question that there is not parent alive who hasn’t been annoyed, angered, and disappointed in their children at one time or another. We all know the feeling of failure when our hopes for future brilliance are dashed in a nano second when a child does exactly what he was told not to do. Suddenly we catastrophize to jail-time and a life of no friends, no employment, no responsible behavior.

Our own parenting failures provoke over-controlling reactions in our attempts to finally get it right — so they will get it right. We yell, threaten, punish, and bribe, believing that our negative reactions will motivate our children to do what we want. Unless our children live in fear of what we are going to do or say, they have their own agendas fueled by what is in their best interest — getting what they want — like all of us.

Recently, New York Times columnist David Brooks commented on the now viral letter of “bitter disappointment” written by Nick Crews to his adult children — known in Britain as the Crews Missile. Whether Crews is simply blowing off years of pent up steam with no care about how his message lands or whether he truly believes his words will inspire his children to change, his letter berating their failures has shocked many and emboldened others who support his indignation.

Imagine saying to your children, “It is obvious that none of you has the faintest notion of the bitter disappointment each of you has in your own way dished out to us.” We are all guilty of losing it—of blaming and criticizing our children—but this goes beyond the pale.

As Brooks says, “The way to get someone out of a negative cascade is not…to attack their bad behavior. It’s to go on offense and try to maximize some alternative good behavior. There’s a trove of research suggesting that it’s best to tackle negative behaviors obliquely, by redirecting attention toward different, positive ones.”

In my book, “Confident Parents Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With,” the sixth principle is, “What I Focus On Grows.” Whether the focus is positive or negative, a parent’s attention becomes a magnet for the child’s attention but not in the way parents assume.

If a parent complains, “Why do you always have to hit your sister?” or “How many times do I have to remind you before you do anything?” the child’s focus turns to being a hitter and incapable of following direction. The child learns, this is who I am.

Why is it effortless to highlight what our children do wrong instead of what they do right?

We must focus on what we want to increase, not on what we don’t. With Christmas and Hanukah around the corner our children are likely to behave in ways we may find disappointing — demanding, begging, craving material “junk” when we hope for and expect signs of appreciation and thoughtfulness.

How to grow appreciation may seem counter-intuitive. We need to excavate the potential in the demanding behavior.

“I have to have that game. Everyone has it. You have to get it for me!” may sound rude and presumptuous. The temptation is to counter with, “I don’t have to get you anything, and I’m certainly not likely to if you keep this up.”

Instead try, “You know what I really admire about you? You set your mind on something and your determination doesn’t let up. That’s a good quality to have. It’s going to get you far one day.”

You’re not giving in to the demand; you’re highlighting a positive quality in your child — one you have even acknowledged will be great one day. It’s simply being expressed in an immature way — because he’s a child.

When unpleasant behavior starts to get under your skin, instead of criticizing it, uncover your child’s resolve, perseverance, spunk, and stead-fastness. Find ways to admire their desires, hopes, and dreams, and soon your children will be following those dreams.

A parent’s disappointment may be the single most damaging effect on a child. It says to the child, you are not who I want you to be, which translates to you are not good enough; I can’t love you. You would never intentionally say that to your child, so take responsibility for the messages they receive.

You may be disappointed by certain behavior. But behavior does not define your child. A child’s job is to get what he wants when he wants it. That is to be expected. A parent’s job is to support the desire under the behavior if not the object of desire.

Parent Wise Columnist Bonnie Harris, M.S.Ed,. is the director of Connective Parenting. She founded The Parent Guidance Center, now The River Center, in Peterborough, where she continues to teach. Email questions or topic requests to bh@bonnie

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