Jul 15, 2009

You Get What You Give

The idea that "you get what you give" may not be more applicable in life than when it comes to parenting. If there's anything I've learned in my four years of being a dad, and especially since it became my full time gig, it's that you get out exactly what you put in. Love, respect, attentiveness, empathy, you name it -- what you get from your kids is a direct reflection of what you give them. I'd love to blame other things when my kids are driving me nuts, but usually a little reflection reveals that I'm the root cause. Parenting is a full time job with few, if any, off hours. If I'm putting forth a C- dad effort, I immediately get C- behavior from my kids. The benefit of this phenomenon is the immediate feedback. The drawback is you always have to bring your A game. There's no downtime. The kids perpetually feed off your vibe. They're like dogs. Cesar Millan might as well be the Rug Rat Whisperer.

Take right now for instance. While I'm typing this post the kids are playing in the sandbox. If one of them were to come over here right now looking for me I could ignore them or blow them off by saying something like, "go play in the sandbox, dad is pretending he has something important to say." If I do that, I will of course get a similar reaction from them when the tables are turned. When that same kid picks up a pile of sand to throw in their sibling's face, if I fire a warning in their direction it will fall on deaf ears. I've set the tone for unresponsiveness and I'll never get to finish this post because I'll be cleaning sand out of a crying child's eyes.

Unfortunately, it's not always easy to recognize this cause and effect in the heat of the moment. It's easy to focus on the desired outcome and the reaction of the child rather than recognize my own approach and motivations. Sometimes it's not until later that I realize lazy parenting on my part ultimately caused me a huge headache that could have been easily avoided.

For example, moving a child from one activity to another, especially from a desirable activity to an undesirable one, can be a challenge. Let's say Jameson is contentedly playing with Legos in his room when it's time for him to brush his teeth. It is very easy for me to slip from parenting into "bossing" and walk into his room and simply order him to put the Legos down and go brush his teeth. Nothing mean spirited about it. I'm the parent, I make the demands, the child obeys. Sometimes that actually works. But often it leads to protests. At that point I'm probably in some kind of hurry, a fact of which Jameson would likely have been unaware. But now I want to see immediate action on his part, so this likely leads to sterner demands from me and of course more digging in from him. But I'm the parent, so I'm going to win this one and even if it leads to threats and tantrums, he'll be brushing his teeth. Simply ordering him to brush his teeth seemed like the logical, parental thing to do when I walked in there, but if think about it, it's low effort parenting and it gets me a low effort response. He's brushing his teeth, but what did it cost me? Now I have an upset kid that feels like teeth brushing is a punishment. Worse than that, I've just rewarded his good behavior -- quietly playing with his toys in his room -- by fighting with him. And to top it all off, I get the opposite of what I originally wanted by making teeth brushing time take five times as long as it should have. Nice job, idiot.

Alternatively, a few small changes on my part and that whole scenario plays out completely differently. If I'm respectful, which is how I would want to be treated in that situation, I'll be one thousand times more likely to get a respectful response. If I had even given him a one minute heads up I'm probably going to get a different response. Maybe I should have even acknowledged that I'm glad he's playing quietly in his room. Maybe a better entrance would be, "Hey Jameson, it looks like you're building a pretty cool ship there. Way better than anything George Lucas ever thought of. Put a few more pieces on and then it's time to come brush your teeth. Then you can come back and finish up that bad ass cruiser. Oh, and thanks for staying so quiet while I put your hellion brother and sister to bed." That approach would require me to actually use my brain for a moment, but there's a pretty good chance it would give Jameson a second to disengage from what he was doing and decide to come brush his teeth. The extra few seconds of thought and effort would probably save me six minutes of struggling. Of course I should have known this from the beginning. Just ask Julie how I respond when she walks in and says I have to stop playing Call of Duty. Duh.

Maybe this was a weak, made-up example, but hopefully you get the idea. This concept always applies and seems to be relevant in all aspects of parenting, not just getting things done. Even when kids are just plain tired and hungry and pretty much seem like spawns of Satan, it still makes a difference. It takes effort to get the results you want. I don't know why I'm acting like this is a revelation. I mean, if parenting were easy everyone would be doing it and doing it well. Maybe it's obvious to everyone else and I'm just a moron. That's a distinct possibility. But whatever. I've been a parent for almost four years so that like makes me an expert. Luckily for this kid that's coming in a few weeks I'll kinda have my shit together so he or she won't be as messed up as the first three.


Anonymous said...

You've got it down! It's the exact same thing in teaching!! And it's EASY to see which kids have parents who treat them like YOU are treating your children and which parents do the ignoring, bossing, "do as I say" thing. We LOVE parents like you!!

my name is Amanda said...

This is so well written, with both the structure, and especially the message, that I think you should be getting paid for it. (Not that that was your point, but I honestly think you could subsidize your income doing a freelance version of many of the stories you write in this blog.) Anyway, maybe it's obvious to other parents, but I can attest to the fact that childless adults (as I am one) don't think about those situations (and cause/effect), ever. But it makes sense, and I hope that I remember information like this and have the presence of mind to implement it, if I'm lucky enough to become a parent in the future.

James said...

Jules - I don't know how you teachers do it. It's hard enough being patient with my own kids.

Amanda - Thanks for the compliment, especially considering as much as you apparently read. I figured I should make a meaningful post once in a while and not just try and scare people's uteruses.

Trike said...

You have become the thoughtful, enlightened and contemplative adult we all knew you would. Apparently all those beatings paid off.