Raising well-behaved kids is as easy as one, two, three
People generally resist a formula for something as complex as parenting. I hate oversimplifications too. But this formula really works.
The other day I saw the connection between my garden and my kids. Cultivating our lawn and constantly battling against its slow progression toward overgrown unwieldiness, is a lot like cultivating the behavior of our kids.
Now, I know there’s more to parenting than merely shaping their behavior – like helping them feel loved, facilitating their holistic development, and sorting out your own ‘stuff’ that negatively affects our parenting. But surely shaping their behavior so that they can become happy, contributing members of society is still a big aspect of our job as parents.
So back to the analogy of gardening. There are three main aspects to the work of turning an unattractive garden into something wonderful.
There’s weeding – taking out the stuff that shouldn’t be there.
There’s seeding – planting stuff that should be there.
There’s feeding – creating a system that causes what’s growing to flourish.
And those are the three big ideas, or categories when it comes to shaping a child’s behavior…
- Weed. When you see something in your kid that is not good, pull it out there and then -before it spreads even more. This is parenting by correction.
- Seed. When you don’t see something in your child that should be there but isn’t, sow it. Speak to them about it. Show them through your example. This is parenting by direction.
- Feed. When you see something in your kid that is good, water it with praise and reward. This is parenting by affirmation.
It’s as simple as one, two, three: 1. Pull out a Weed. 2. Sow a Seed. 3. Feed what’s green.
Allow me to push this analogy a little bit more:
- Gardening, like parenting is flipping hard work. Ask any parent of a little child and they will tell you of blood, sweat and tears. Just today, a mother ran past me at a coffee shop after her 2-year-old, gasping, ‘When will this end?’
- Gardening, like parenting is constant work. We used to hire a gardener weekly, then to save money we reduced this to bi-weekly. What a mistake – weeds have attacked our yard with Amazonian strength. You can’t parent for 10 minutes here, then for ten minutes tomorrow, or an hour this week, and an hour next week and think your kid will turn out fine. To parent well is to pull out a weed, sow a seed, and feed what’s green everyday, usually every few hours, sometimes several times an hour.
- Gardening, like parenting requires a multi-disciplined approach. I’m not an avid gardener, but even I know that you’re not going to get anywhere if you only ever feed (and fail to weed or seed too). It’s the same with our parenting. Too often, weary parents only have one tool in their parenting toolkit. It may be corrective parenting (only highlighting what our kids are getting wrong), it may be directive parenting (harping on what we want to see more of in their lives, without providing a mix of constructive correction or encouragement too), or it may be affirmative parenting (over-feeding our kids with praise and encouragement whilst never kneeling down to weed out bad habits or seed better ones in their place).
- Gardening, like parenting is never complete. A garden is a becoming thing – as is our kids (and for that matter, our marriages). Kids and loved ones under our care are either evolving into something more beautiful or devolving into something scary. Getting it right for a few days doesn’t let us off the hook. And getting it right for a few years doesn’t mean we can disengage for a few years. (I will never forget the tears of a successful business man who said to me, ‘My dad. He loved my brother and I until we were ten. Then one day he simply disengaged, thinking his job was done. And my heart has ached ever since.’)
In all four points, I make the point that parenting is work. And the enemy of hard, constant and never-complete work is weariness and discouragement.
So, to the weary gardener / parent I offer these two motivations…
First, a negative motivation: Neglect your garden or child and you will work much harder than you needed to. A neglected garden is much, much harder to repair than simply maintaining a loved garden. That is exponentially true when it comes to raising human beings. It will cost you more tears and time than you can believe to try reclaim a life that never needed to be lost. And the work you put into pro-actively weeding, seeding and feeding will save you from much more work if you fail to do it while you can.
Second, a positive motivation: Generations to come may thank you. Since nothing shapes us more than our parents, the work we do in the lives of our offspring is what they will live with for the rest of their lives, and what they will one day pass onto their own kids. Generations far beyond what you can comprehend in your parenting-induced sleepless stress just may honour your tiring, tireless efforts one day.
So, what are you waiting for?
Pull out a weed.
Then sow a seed.
Then feed what’s green.
Then do it again. And again. And again.
What do you think?
- In future blogs I’d love to explore the specific knowledge and skills required for each of these three dimensions to shaping your child’s behavior.
Also published on Medium.