Do you wonder why your child doesn’t do what you ask? Do you feel guilty or blamed when your child misbehaves? Katherine Reynolds Lewis wants you to know you’re not alone.
Lewis is a journalist and the author of The Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever—And What to Do About It. This is the first read in the Understood Summer Book Club.
As a mother of three, Lewis understands the challenges of parenthood. As a certified parent educator, she also understands kids. And more kids than ever are having trouble with behavior and self-regulation. The way kids have changed in the past 20 years is addressed in her book, as well as the way we’re raising them.
Kids are spending more time with technology and in scheduled activities. They’re also spending less time in unstructured play and doing fewer “jobs” (like household chores) that teach them how to negotiate, take pride in their contributions and learn responsibility.
“The challenge of childhood is to learn to manage behavior, thoughts and emotions, which can be very messy,” Lewis explained to Understood. “But for kids to learn self-control, eventually we must stop controlling them.”
She knows doing it isn’t as simple as saying it. In her book Lewis calls this new take on control “The Apprenticeship Model.” This theory of discipline avoids power struggles with kids and helps parents find the courage to let their children fail.
We talked to Lewis about her book and how it can help parents of kids with learning and thinking differences. Here’s some of what she had to say. (The interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
How do you sort out when the behavior you’re seeing is part of something that’s temperamental (just part of who your child is) or tied to or and something that you can work with your child to manage?
As much as we can look at the behavior as just behavior and not something fixed that is unchangeable and tied to a diagnosis, that will help. In that sense, I think that it’s helpful to not pathologize and to just focus on the problem in front of us.
That’s one of the core messages in this book—that the sooner we can switch into detective mode and try to tease out what’s going on, the better we’ll be able to handle it. If we can be curious instead of angry or frustrated, we are better able to help our kids.
Teasing out whether it’s a temperament issue, whether it’s something specific about the situation, or if it’s just a new routine will help us. Figuring out which scenario it is helps us find a solution.
Even if it’s a temperament issue, then that can sometimes also lead to a solution. If your child just needs time to warm up to the situation, then you give them time to warm up. Or if your child needs more quiet time in the day than they have, then you try to build more of that in.
I was really struck by your use of the phrase “connect before you correct” in the book. How do parents who are temperamentally different from their kids create that connection?
Ultimately, I think this is the core challenge of parenting: To try to put yourself in your child’s shoes. To accept their feelings as valid. And to try to understand their perspective even though it may make no sense to you and may seem completely illogical.
When there’s a temperament mismatch, that perspective becomes very difficult. But really that’s what helps kids—when they feel understood.
That’s what will lead them to help find their ability to self-regulate. Because when we and our kids are in conflict, it distracts both of us from finding the solution. We the parents are focused on making them do something, when the kids are focused on resisting or on how mean their parents are.
If we can try to take the heat and the emotion out of that and sidestep that conflict, then, like some sort of parenting judo, we can use the energy from the situation to find a solution.
I really love the “mumble and walk away” technique you talk about as a way for a parent to take time to calm yourself down. What can parents do when they need time to regroup and self-regulate? And will taking that time away make it harder for their child to self-regulate?
I would just explicitly say, “I really want to solve this problem with you,” or “I really want to hear what you’re saying.” See if being honest about it and vulnerable is helpful. That also gives them a model that everyone needs to self-regulate. Even Mom needs a minute to calm down before having a conversation.
Ask them, “Can you wait for a minute (or five minutes or whatever) until I get back?” and see what they say. If you’re really honest and they can see it, they may be able to do that. But it’s hard. Some kids will need that parental presence to help them calm down.
In the book you talk about using the “four R’s” rule to determine if you’re providing a punishment or a consequence. Are there special considerations for using the four R’s for kids who have ADHD or other issues that affect their ability to self-regulate?
(The four R’s is a rule commonly used in discipline techniques. It says consequences should be related to the troublesome behavior, revealed ahead of time, reasonable in scope and respectful of your child.)
I think it actually makes it even more important to follow the four R’s because they’re going to need more time to learn, “When I’m impulsive, this is what happens. Oh, man, yeah! When I don’t control myself, this is what happens.”
Another kid using that model might learn from typical consequences on the third try. But a kid with ADHD might learn on the 20th try. So we as parents need to be patient and consistent and have faith that they will learn. And do a little more reflecting afterwards with them when they’re in a calm moment if they’re open to it.
To say something like, “I know you’re really missing your Fortnite today because of our screen rules. What do you think might work better next time or how are you feeling about it?”
I think that parents have to be that external for our kids until they develop their own. So for kids with ADHD that means a lot more planning, thinking ahead, talking through how things will be, reflecting and practicing afterwards, and helping them understand their emotions.
What advice do you have for parents who themselves struggle with executive function and self-regulation?
One of the big messages that I have in this book is that we all should have the courage to be imperfect, and not feel that because we have this “flaw” or diagnosis ourselves that we’re somehow less able to help our kids.
In fact, we may be better able to help our kids if we share some of the brain chemistry that’s challenging for them because we understand.
I say that more often with parents who have anxiety and whose kids have anxiety. I think parents with anxiety feel guilty that they raise their kids in a fearful environment and maybe that contributed. But I also say that those parents are best able to understand “What are the variety of things that I’ve tried to help me manage my anxiety?”
Some of those resources may be useful to your kids. It’s like we previewed the menu for them. Even if we only like these three things, they may use one of the other strategies that we rejected, such as checklists or visual reminders or reminders on the phone or whatever strategies we may have discarded that could be useful for them.
Read The Good News About Bad Behavior, then join the Understood Community for a Weekend Wisdom discussion July 13–15 with Lewis about self-regulation and behavior. (Feel free to join even if you haven’t read or finished the book!) Then continue the conversation about the book with other parents in the Understood Community.
While you’re reading the book, Lewis hopes you’ll remember that perspective matters when it comes to parenting. She says it’s helpful to think not about what matters now, but what will matter 20 years from now.
Learn more about Understood’s Summer Book Club, including upcoming books and more exclusive interviews.
Any opinions, views, information and other content contained in blogs on Understood.org are the sole responsibility of the writer of the blog, and do not necessarily reflect the views, values, opinions or beliefs of, and are not endorsed by, Understood.
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About the author
Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.