When it comes to discipline, I honestly only have a few techniques in my back pocket. I’m a young mom, and I know that my parenting skills are limited. I’ve only been at this parenting thing for five years, and each year brings new experiences and new lessons to learn. My kids are changing all of the time. I have to learn to adapt, too, but it’s been much harder than I anticipated.
This couldn’t be more evident than when my two preschoolers get into it. When they fight, I feel overwhelmed and clueless. I holler over the top of their hysteria, separating flailing bodies, and angrily rebuking them. I try timeouts. I trying begging them to be kind to each other.
And none of it works.
In a recent chat with Dr. Brad Reedy, psychologist, and author of The Journey of The Heroic Parent, I came face-to-face with the real weakness in my parenting—I’m not the least bit curious about why my kids are acting out. Like a lot of parents, when my kids are acting out, I just want to restore the peace in my house, stop the screaming, and avoid a trip to the emergency room.
But Reedy suggests an alternative. He recommends that parents approach acting out with less judgment and more curiosity. In other words, he wants parents to slow down on our desire to modify our kid’s behavior, and instead focus on finding out what is driving our children to behave a certain way. He explains that children need their parents to be a safe place for them to sort out the wound, fear, or anger that may lie beneath their behaviors.
“Acting out behavior generally has it’s origin and roots in some kind of emotional distress, pain, or grief,” he says. “If a child comes to me and they’ve bullied someone and I’m more curious, and they don’t have an experience of ‘dad’s going to be upset, judgemental, angry, or frustrated,’…then it’s a safe place for them to begin to talk about what’s really going on.”
According to Reedy, allowing this curiosity about what is driving our children to respond or behave in certain ways opens the door for them to sort through the behaviors themselves. Additionally, it gives them a safe place to work through struggles, which is exactly what they need to be their whole selves.
Practically, parenting with curiosity is about leaning into the “why” of what is going on before attempting to correct or reward the behavior. Instead of responding by saying, “You shouldn’t be yelling at your sister!” you might gently separate the two kids, hang out until their emotions have subsided, and then make a non-judgemental inquiry about the situation. A simple, “I noticed you and your sister were arguing. Can you tell me about it?” will probably suffice.
According to Reedy, it isn’t just perceived negative behavior that is best responded to with objectiveness. Parents should also resist over-emphasizing the value of cooperation or positive behavior, as too much praise can create pressure for kids to please their parents at all costs. Instead, a quick “Thanks for that!” is enough, according to Reedy.
My quick talk with Reedy has really revolutionized how I am responding to my older children. While in the past, my focus has been to reinforce “good” behavior and hand out consequences for the “bad,” I see now that I have been oversimplifying my kids’ experiences. Placing too high of a value on their behavior over whatever is behind the behavior is a real temptation for me. I want to correct course, resolve conflict, and get on with our life. But raising healthy and whole children isn’t that simple.
Changing how I approach my children’s conflicts hasn’t been easy, and I can’t say that I’ve made an extreme 180. But approaching my children with more curiosity has been so helpful in shifting the way I relate to them.
For instance, when I hear my two oldest kids duking it out in their bedroom, I can see how searching out a reason for the conflict is the healthiest approach for their relationship over the long term. If I am curious about what is driving the fight, I can help my kids get to the root of the issue instead of just making the screaming stop. Recently, this new approach to their disagreements led to one confessing she “just needs some alone time,” something I previously hadn’t thought of scheduling into our weeks.
More importantly, perhaps, is that parenting with curiosity has been a reminder to me that my children are their own people apart from me or who I would like them to become. It is easy for me to become fixated on shaping them into who I want them to be, losing sight of knowing them as they already are. And knowing them and loving them unconditionally is the very core of what I hope for in our parent-child relationship.