First, a few years into working with children with behavior problems stemming from trauma, I began to notice how some kids developed a sense of hopelessness in very rigid homes/group homes. The more difficult a child’s behaviors were, the more restrictive the consequences would become; and eventually, the child would have no privileges and no areas of success. Once this happened, they had nothing left to lose and their behaviors would often escalate.
Second, shortly after this realization, I heard a speaker talk about a group home where they started giving kids one outdoor activity every day that was not dependent on their behavior. Even if a kid was on the lowest level, they could participate in that daily outdoor activity. The group home began to see children’s behavior improve dramatically. They attributed this to an increase in a sense of hope from the kids.
And third, I attended a baby shower where a guest shared a piece of advice, “Delight in your child.” One of her adult children had been making life decisions that she did not agree with and every time she interacted with him, she was so focused on the negative that she would react badly to him. She purposely began to think about all the things she appreciated about her son before she would see him. This helped her to react positively to him and maintain a good relationship in spite of their disagreements.
I am a parent who believes in discipline and consistency but the above lessons have reinforced the importance of love and hope in raising a successful child. Along with consequences for poor behavior choices, children need a sense of love and hope as fuel for change. Below are some tried and true parenting practices that marry love and hope with discipline and consistency.
1. Consistant, unconditional, positive time with your child is POWERFUL. Bedtime is the most natural time of day to connect with a child in this way. It can be done by reading a story, brushing hair, giving a hand message or drawing pictures on your child’s back. No matter how horrible your child’s behavior has been, try to preserve this 20 minutes for uninterrupted connection because relationships are the best motivators for change. With older children, a once or twice a week activity or meal might work better. Sometimes you may feel you are rewarding bad behavior but instead think of it as showing your child that they have the hope to try again tomorrow.
2. Foster success. Children are sensitive, even (and probably especially) the tough ones. They are still forming their sense of identity, so children who get in lots of trouble will label themselves as troublemakers. Success, on the other hand, builds on success. Create opportunities for success in baby steps by setting small realistic goals for them to achieve, celebrating what was accomplished, and then moving to greater areas of challenge and trust.
3. Time limit consequences. We need to be consistent, not militant, to be effective in discipline. Lots of small, consistent consequences will have a cumulative effect that will be more effective than one long and drastic consequence. Each time you follow through on the small consequences, you are teaching your child that you are trustworthy (and in charge). Give the consequence, follow through, and then move on, being patient for that long-term effect.
4. Delight, delight, delight! When your child is being difficult, it’s easy to get caught up in the negativity of your own anger towards them. Instead, focus on delighting in your child and recognize ways that their difficulties may also be strengths. You may be surprised at how this practice changes your gut reactions.
Parents, love and hope starts with you! Remember the words of Tertullian, “hope is patience with the lamp lit.” Grace and forgiveness to try again tomorrow is something parents need too. Practice it each day for yourself and your children. Let love and hope go with you into the hardest, most discouraging days of parenting and you will not regret it.