The parenting phrases I can’t stand

Hannah Dickson spends an hour with Diane Levy

With most things, we’re programmed to read the label before using. But forget that with parenting, says Diane Levy. Often, putting labels on our children’s behaviour takes away our power to do anything about children who need direction and issues that need resolving. Diane lets Hannah Dickson in on the phrases she simply can’t stand.

1. “Don’t sweat the small stuff”

First of all a disclaimer – Richard Carlson coined this phrase and I really love his books, but I don’t think it works in parenting. What I have found from a behavioural point of view is that the small stuff is often the big stuff. Parents often say something to me like, “What do I do with a child who runs away from me in the supermarket?” That’s a non-compliance issue. It’s worth winding it back and asking, “What is the first non-compliance in the morning?” It will usually be something like you say, “Go to the toilet” and they say, “I don’t need to”, or you tell them it’s time to get dressed and they muck about forever.

If you tackle the small stuff, the first three small non-compliances of the day, you will start the day as the boss and the other issues will take care of themselves. We know that it’s the little things that make a big difference. It’s like losing your car keys, putting them in the right place is a very small thing, but my goodness it makes a difference! So I believe in parenting it’s ‘do sweat the small stuff’. I think sometimes the small stuff is the big stuff.

2. “If you increase their self-esteem they will behave better”

I think this is a phrase we need to turn right around. Often parents come to see me and explain how a teacher has told them their child has low self-esteem and something needs to be done to boost it. Usually what that means is they are being ‘a pain’ in the classroom. But I think in order to have good self-esteem, you have to be able to make yourself do things you find quite difficult so you can be proud of yourself. So if we think our child is acting out because of low self-esteem, it’s our job as parents to teach them self-restraint and make sure they know how to behave.

The act of not doing naughty stuff does more for their self-esteem than hollow words. They will think they are wonderful when they can do something they found really hard. It reminds me of when our children learned to ride bikes. Our son just hopped straight on and rode perfectly straight away. I don’t think that increased his self-esteem much. Our daughters both struggled to ride a bike. But when they mastered it they felt really good.

What we need to do is develop the parenting skills that help us understand our strong-willed child.

3. “Sibling rivalry”

I hate this term! It’s a phrase we use to try and explain and excuse siblings fighting, being competitive, and being unkind to each other. I dislike it because it implies the rivalry is for parental attention, when most of our kids get more than enough parental attention. I prefer to think of it in terms of ‘sibling stuff’ or ‘sibling mayhem’. The reality is where there are siblings there is bound to be some scrapping. If we call it sibling rivalry we disempower ourselves by thinking this is the way it has to be between our children because they are siblings. So instead of stopping the hitting/biting/spitting we simply give it a label and let it go on.

The best fix I know for most sibling stuff is setting up fair and transparent systems. Whether it is a system for who goes first today or who gets to make the choices of the day (a name on the fridge that gets changed every day works perfectly) the point is we need to set up systems rather than give up. When there is conflict, we need to ask is there a system that can make this fair? If it’s a system the children can operate then so much the better.

4. “The terrible two’s”

What we’re talking about when we say terrible two’s is when our toddlers get stroppy and bad tempered and have a mind of their own. Actually it’s a very important developmental stage. If we refer to this stage as the ‘terrible two’s’ it means we can ignore all resistant behaviour and hope that somehow or other on their third birthday this behaviour will magically disappear. That simply won’t happen. Yes, they have discovered the joy of the power of ‘no’. And yes it’s really important that they individuate from their parents and see themselves as separate, independent little people. But if we want our children to grow up to be self-disciplined, it is essential they learn to follow simple household rules (for our peace and their well-being) and accept their parents as the grown-ups with appropriate authority.

5. “Terrible teens”

It’s highly likely that the same people who warn you about the terrible two’s will say, “Just wait until the terrible teens”. That label doesn’t help. Yes, there will be challenges and sleepless nights and despair and dread and all those things during this stage, but mostly teens are marvellous. They are developing independence, trying out new skills and becoming more and more civilised (even though they have to go through a rather uncivilised phase). They are growing and learning and developing – it’s a wonderful stage. You have a choice. You can tear your hair out and worry they are going to be driving soon, or you can say, “How amazing they can take on these great skills and be so competent”.

6. “That child needs anger management”

I often get parents phoning up asking if I do anger management for children. Usually it is because there has been an outburst – either verbal or physical. My first question is whether the child is strong-willed. If a child is strong-willed their natural response when something is not going well is going to be anger. Saying they need ‘anger management’ implies that they need to be ‘taken’ to someone who will help them not to be angry. This takes all the power away from the parent! What we need to do is develop the parenting skills that help us understand our strong-willed child, help them handle their strong feelings and insist on compliance to reasonable parental requests.

There are some things they should be angry about – the world is changed by people who become angry about things that are wrong. What we need to do as parents is help them build the resilience and self-restraint to use that energy appropriately. They need to be able to do what they are told, and behave appropriately. We need to be able to take action about their behaviour and we don’t need to be disempowered by the fact they are angry.

You can tear your hair out and worry they are going to be driving soon, or you can say, “How amazing they can take on these great skills and be so competent”.

If we are going to truly enjoy our children and be their guides, we need to be able celebrate their temperaments – whatever that may be – and help them enjoy the strengths and minimise the weakness of their own personalities. The real issue with these labels is that they make us helpless, or excuse us from doing anything about the behaviours. If we are not careful they become excuses for not acting.