“Children equate being loved with the reality of when we are there for them – when we really show up. But traditional methods have us showing up so much more when there are problems. Conventional wisdom tells parents that the time to emit more energy – that is, more emotion, more facial expression, more volume, and more intense relationship – is when things are going wrong. That’s a mistake, and a big one, because it puts our powerful parental energy to work growing more of the behaviors we actually want to see less of. Why water weeds?” —  Howard Glasser

Kids are a bit like little geiger counters. They live for our emotional energy — positive or negative. So why, as parents, do we give most of our energy to what’s going wrong? Even when we do catch our child doing something right, look at the amount of energy that’s behind our responses to bad behavior (“How many times do I have to tell you?!“) versus our positive acknowledgments (“Good job, dear.”)

And we rarely give ourselves strokes for the hundreds of things we do right as parents. Instead, we berate ourselves for those times when we lose patience. But feeling bad inside doesn’t help us feel emotionally generous toward our children; it just makes us more likely to come unglued next time.

I know, it’s hard not to react negatively when you’re upset. But if you can stop watering weeds, and start watering flowers, you can transform your home into a garden. After all, what we focus on grows.

Try this experiment for three days:

Day 1.

Your goal today is to replenish your ability to be emotionally generous. Enthusiastically acknowledge everything you do right. Be your own cheerleader. When you miss your goal, offer yourself encouragement to get back on track.

Why are we starting with you? Because you can only give your child what you have inside. Fill your own cup first! And, of course, continue this practice on Day 2, as you focus more on your child.

Day 2.

Your goal today is to build connection with your child. Make sure he doesn’t have to “act out” to get your full attention. Show up with presence and respond with excited energy to every positive thing your child does. Set the bar low — make it easy for him to succeed by encouraging any progress in the right direction with positive feedback.

Give her a big hug when she wakes up in the morning… If he dawdles, move him along with connection and enthusiasm…. See if you can make breakfast calm and connected so you’re sending out positive energy… Thank her for handling the morning routine so beautifully, even though she does it every day… Tell him before school how much you’re looking forward to seeing him at the end of the day… When you’re reunited at the end of the day, spend some time laughing and roughhousing together…. Listen at dinner as she regales you with tales about her day…. Tell him you noticed how much effort he put into his homework… Tell her you noticed her being nice to her brother (even if the rest of the evening she wasn’t so nice) … Thank him for taking his bath with only one reminder… Tell them how lucky you are that you’re blessed to be their parent.

Can’t find anything good in what he’s doing? Even the most badly behaved child has moments of good behavior. Your job is to find them and give them positive energy.

You can also share positive memories:

  • “I was just remembering that time when you were so brave and…”
  • “Remember that time when your teacher was so impressed that you…?”
  • “You’ve always been the best at making your little sister smile. Why, I remember when…..”

By the end of the day, you should see your child blossoming — warming up to you and trying to cooperate. Not working? Maybe your child needs another day to believe you mean it.  Keep this up tomorrow, as you also begin changing your approach to transgressions.

Day 3.

Your goal today is to stop giving your emotional energy to your child’s challenging behavior. Of course she doesn’t always behave; she’s a child and still learning self-regulation. When she “misbehaves,” acknowledge her perspective as you set appropriate limits. Use a calm, warm, energetic tone in which your child can hear your engagement, even as you set limits. Connect before you correct. Remember to tell your child what they CAN do, not just what they can’t.

  • “It looks like you wanted your sister to move, so you pushed her. No pushing; pushing hurts. Say ‘Move please!'”
  • “Are you trying to tell your brother that you want to play, so you’re driving your car into his game? Your brother is saying he doesn’t want to play right now. Why don’t you drive your car over here to help me with this instead?”

Notice that you’re setting the limits that need to be set. But you aren’t giving negative energy to them. Instead, you’re using the opportunity to give your child the positive energy of loving guidance and redirection.

By the end of the week, if you keep up these three habits, you’ll see lots more of the behavior you’re giving energy to, and lots less of the behavior you aren’t giving energy to. You’ll notice more cooperation and affection from your child. You’ll feel more confident and energized as a parent.

And before you know it, your home will be blooming.

Dr. Laura Markham, founder of AhaParenting.com and author of The Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids Workbook, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting and Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life.


Image courtesy of Ketut Subiyanto.