Cue flashback music. It’s 7:59 a.m. and I’m sitting in the car getting anxious. Our kids agreed to be here and ready to go by 8:00, but there’s no sign of them. In one minute, we’ll be late for school, no matter how fast I drive.
I am tempted to run back into the house to “encourage” the kids to hurry up. Then I think … how encouraging would that be? I decide to try one of the strategies I’ve learned through classes at the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) in Kensington, Maryland: I act as if my kids will succeed.
Why “Acting As If” helps kids succeed
“Acting as if” – as PEP calls it – is a very clever parenting strategy. Why? Because it’s an invitation for parents to believe their kids can succeed. But more than that, it invites parents to stop directing their kids and observe what their kids do next. You stay out of their way. You stop the kind of “encouraging” like directing and nagging – that isn’t encouraging at all.
I’ll be the first to admit, it’s hard to stop nagging kids. Why? Because we badly want our kids to succeed. So badly that we imagine it’s best to direct them continuously. And that constant involvement prevents the key step in learning: kids must take the first crack at new tasks on their own to become capable. What if they fail? Failure is essential to learning! And kids can handle failure!
That morning I decided to act as if my kids would manage themselves and make it to school on time. 8 o’clock arrives. So does our 14-year-old, then our 11-year-old. Because the kids manage themselves (without my nagging them), their success belongs to them. That day, we are on time. And the way we get there is encouraging.
The path to “Acting As If”
My wife Kakki and I were unfamiliar with Acting As If when we learned of PEP nine years ago. We were out of ideas to help our 5-year-old stay in bed and get to sleep. A very talented PEP educator offered kind and firm bedtime solutions: the kid’s bedroom light must go off and Daddy and Mommy must go “off duty.” The 5-year-old will do the rest.
To our delight, without directing our 5-year-old, the wandering and sleeping both gradually improved. We realized we couldn’t control our children’s sleep (or eating, peeing or pooping), but we could easily set firm limits on the bedroom lights and going “off duty.” We had learned the PEP secret: control yourself rather than trying to control your child. That lesson and Acting As If were just two of the many gifts PEP gave our family.
Now, many helpful PEP classes later, my wife and I continue our journey as volunteer PEP-certified parent educators. The kids are in middle school. Kakki and I enjoy weekday evening dates leading core curriculum classes. We learn how encouragement (the middle name of PEP) gives kids and parents the courage to take chances, try new things and become capable and resilient.
Kakki’s PEP journey led her to a new experience in her professional journalism career: a five-year adventure researching and writing a book explaining how kids’ discipline is radically worse than ever. Her book, “The Good News about Bad Behavior,” explains how parents can restore kids’ lost discipline. The whole family celebrated the book’s launch in 2018.
My PEP journey with dads
Several years ago, a handful of other leaders and I introduced new workshops tailored specifically to dads. They have been a huge success. Many dads grew up in authoritarian homes and want new tools to set kind and firm limits. It’s been a treat to witness dads learning to Act As If and control themselves, rather than trying to control their kids.
It’s also taken me into more complex issues, such as co-parenting. In our dads’ workshops, participants often express a yearning to elevate their parenting. They want to be capable and confident and avoid becoming second fiddle. My closest PEP co-leader and friend, David Drazen, says, “I think it’s sad that we tend to think of moms as ‘parenting’ and dads as ‘babysitting.’ We need to figure out how best to parent as a team.”
I think David is on to something. But what is holding dads back from becoming fully capable and confident co-parents? Could dads be holding themselves back? Are moms holding them back? What is the solution?
Give dad a chance
Consider a dad who develops a parenting skill later than Mom. Not uncommon, right? It might be easier and faster for Mom to get things done herself. But over time, relying more on Mom could become habitual and counterproductive. It could undermine dad’s opportunities to learn.
What’s the solution? Moms and dads both need to become advocates for dads taking the first crack. Dads need to speak up to ensure they get the opportunities. And moms need to resist the temptation to do for dads what dads can do for themselves. If mom simply takes over, dad loses essential opportunities to become capable and confident.
The simple fact is that dads respond to encouragement and discouragement the same way kids do. Think, for instance, about the time dad forgot to pack diapers the day he was in charge. I’ve done that. Would it have been encouraging to receive the text “Did you remember to pack diapers?” What I found most encouraging was managing (including muddling through) on my own. A forgotten diaper taught me to figure out where to find diapers in public. And finding diapers on the fly is a very good survival skill for dads to master.
Look before you leap
One of my favorite parenting authors, Vicki Hoefle, says: “[S]top using anything that interferes with the relationship you have with your children and their ability to become independent, responsible, respectful and resilient people. If the kids are doing something that’s physically or morally dangerous, step in. If the kids are very young, simply watch your tendency to jump in, maneuver, help or direct the child.” The same goes for dads. Moms, please step in to help if Dad is doing something dangerous. Beyond that, stand back and let him figure things out in his own way and time.
What do dads and kids wish mom knew? Simple! Everyone in the family needs active encouragement – encouragement to take the first crack, to risk failure and to become fully capable.
Want more info from the perspective of a Dad? PEP’s on-demand video, Dads Share Advice, feature useful tools and strategies to navigate power struggles, improve communication, and gain cooperation.
Live in the DC Metropolitan region? Consider a PEP in-person class. Whether you’re parenting a preschooler or a teen, we have a program for you!
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 edition of Washington Parent Magazine and is reposted with permission.