Sometimes parents want to understand why kids do what they do. Sometimes we just want someone to say: When the kids whine, say this. When they throw food, say that.
That handy parent cheat sheet is now in print. Betsy Brown Braun's new book, Just Tell Me What to Say: Sensible Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents, lays out instructions on how to deal with everyday crises from temper tantrums to questions like "What's a terrorist?" Braun, a parent educator in the Los Angeles area and mother of three grown triplets, gave me the scoop on the book.
Your book gives parents short lists of tips for handling common problem situations. How'd you come up with the idea?
Parents come to me all the time and say, "Just tell me what to say." We don't have a lot of really confident parents out there. So I give scripts. It gives you a starting point, a place from which to begin to craft your own response to your kid.
So you give choices of things to say, and I can pick the one that sounds most like me?
Yes. For instance, if you're somebody who has tremendous issues with food, you may be totally unable to say to your child, "If you don't come to the table right now, you're not having dinner." That may not be your choice. Your choice may be, "If you don't come right now, you're going to be eating in the kitchen. You're not going to be eating with the family." But most parents don't know where to start.
It's hard to come up with a wise-parent response when the kid's in the midst of bad behavior. What do you do when you've just totally lost it?
The first thing is you forgive yourself. Everyone yells. Everyone blows it. When you allow yourself to blow it, that means your child can blow it too, sometimes.
You say that parents can have a do-over, which you call a "revisit." I could use one of those! How does it work?
You can say, "Steven, last night I was so hungry and crabby that I yelled in a way I don't feel good about. I'm going to try hard not to use that voice, because it was scary for you and it was also scary for me." When you do that, not only are you cleaning up your mess, but you're saying everyone makes mistakes, and this is what you do when you make mistakes. You own up. You clean up.
Your children are almost 30. How have things changed since they were small?
Development hasn't changed. Children are still going to go through a series of predictable changes. But technology has so exploded that our children are exposed to things that are very different. If you don't talk to your child about where babies come from, he's liable to go online and Google it. At the same time, all this technology is separating our children and drawing our children away from us. The other day I saw three children, ages 5, 7, and 9, sitting on a bench outside a restaurant, waiting for a table. They should have been sitting there bugging each other, giving each other noogies. But each of them was wearing an iPod and totally isolated from each other.
I do not think children need cellphones. I do not think anyone under the age of middle school should have one. Children above that age can have a cellphone, but they need to be helping to pay for it. It should not be a given. It should be like the mom who says, "I will buy tennis shoes that cost 50 bucks, and anything beyond that you pay for." Each family has to figure out a way to make it work. You can say, "If you feel like you have to have a cellphone and you'll be a pariah without it, let's figure out how to make it work for our family." Yes, there should be rules.
A lot of parents struggle with when to impose rules and when to discipline.
The word discipline comes from the Latin root word that means knowledge. What we're trying to do with our kids is to teach them. The word discipline does not equate with punish, humiliate, make hurt, make cry. It equates to teach. For a child to be in a position to learn, the punishment has to make sense. When your 3-year-old heaves a firetruck across the room, the response can't be, "Now you're not watching television!" Your response has to be: "Wow. Balls are for throwing. Firetrucks are not." You're giving information, you're teaching. Then you take the firetruck and put it up on the shelf where he can see it and can't reach it. You say: "When you learn that we throw balls, we don't throw firetrucks, then you can have it back." We're trying to get our kids to internalize learning, not punishment.
That might work for the little ones. What about teenagers?
When you're talking about 13-year-olds, 14-year-olds, that's a different kettle of fish. I do very much subscribe to Wendy Mogel's approach in The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Give them responsibilities. When you meet your responsibilities, treating people with respect, being kind, whatever you decide his responsibilities are as a human being, then he can have the extras. The kid is involved, too, in setting those goals. There needs to be a meeting of the minds. When we include our older kids on the goals, they're much more likely to reach them.