PEP Blog


Power Paths for Parenting

By Maureen McElroy, PEP Parent Educator

  • “If you help clean the garage, I will give you 10 dollars!”
  • “Avery, your room is a hot mess! If you don’t clean it up, I’m going to toss all your junk out the window!”
  • “If I catch you sneaking candy again, you won’t get any dessert for two weeks!”
  • “Isabella, you will wear that jacket to school whether you like it or not! It’s cold out there!”

If these phrases sound familiar, you’re not alone. Parents never expect to sound so much like their own parents, but we often do (as a popular series of insurance commercials tell us)! A collection of bribes, threats, punishments and yelling are often the tools we were raised with and the only tools we know. However, these tactics – part of an authoritarian system of parenting – often create an unnecessary divide between parent and child. It doesn’t feel good to the child to be chided and threatened and manipulated, nor is it any fun for the parent to be the “bad guy/gal.” In addition, these tactics often have the unintended consequence of training the child to focus on ways to manipulate, test limits even more and find ways not to get caught.

The good news is that there are power paths that parents can take in order to lead and guide their children, rather than threaten and bribe them. These approaches can result in greater cooperation and peace in the family.

Use a team approach

Assume there will be cooperation. For example, rather than begin with the assumption that you need to bribe your child to help with cleaning, involve her in the decision of whether to clean the garage or the basement. Which is more important to her? How would either make life better? Allow your child to provide input on what role she would like to take on. If given a choice about her role, a child is more likely to engage in it. Notice contribution. Comment on the fact that your 8 year old has swept a large pile of debris off the basement floor, not on the fact that he missed a corner.

Take time for training

Rather than threaten to toss out items that are not put away in your child’s bedroom, offer to help clean out a space for them. Start small. Often, children find the belongings in their room rather overwhelming, and they don’t know where to start when told to “clean their room.” Working side by side with you can be a treat. By working with them, you let them know that you believe they are capable of cleaning their room. You may share your own process for how you declutter and clean a nightstand, and they may share with you how they like to do it. You can be the helper, rather than the director. Decluttering the dresser together on another day might be something you both look forward to!

Solve problems together

If you are concerned about the number of unhealthy treats your child is having, invite a discussion. Let them know your concern: “I’ve noticed you’re having more treats than might be healthy. What do you say we have a conversation about this after school?” If they agree, ask what ideas they have about limiting their treats. You might be surprised at the creative responses you receive when you show trust in your child.

If you find yourself yelling at your child because they’ve been running late and not getting their tasks done in the morning, let them know. “Hey, honey, I’ve noticed that we’ve been having a hard time in the mornings before school. I know that you probably don’t like me bugging you all the time to get ready faster, and I don’t like doing that bugging, either. I wonder what ideas you might have to help the mornings go better so that we both feel good as we start our day.” Brainstorm ideas without any judgment. Then review together, asking what they think about each one. Narrow down the choices together, and then decide what idea you are both willing to try for a week. Decide when to come back together to evaluate how the plan worked (or didn’t). Come up with a new solution if needed.

Allow natural consequences to occur

On a cold spring morning, if your child doesn’t want to take the jacket to school that you think they need, consider letting the natural consequences occur. Many children learn best from experiencing natural consequences. As long as there is not a safety threat or the natural consequences are too far in the future for a child to appreciate, they provide valuable opportunities to learn. For example, a young child might find that they don’t want to participate in a fun activity on the playground if they are too cold. That experience may help them to remember next time that it is a good idea to take a jacket to school when it is suggested. Keep in mind, however, that the powerful learning goes right out the window if a parent uses the “I told you so” response after the natural consequences occur. That precious learning is lost, and the relationship suffers as well.

Walk these power paths

By adopting a team approach, taking time for training, solving problems together and allowing natural consequences to occur, you will lead and guide your child toward cooperation, contribution, connection and independence. And you will grow your relationship with him along the way. Let’s face it: most parents would rather be in the role of guide and instructor than in the role of punishment officer! It’s a whole lot more fun and rewarding for everyone on the adventure.

Maureen McElroy LCMFT (maureenmcelroy.com) is a Certified Parent Educator with The Parent Encouragement Program (pepparent.org), which offers online classes, webinars and on-demand videos for parents of children ages 2 ½-18. She is also a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who sees individuals, couples and families in her Bethesda, Md. practice.

This article was originally featured on Washington Parent Magazine.


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