The most valuable parenting phrase after “I love you”

June 3, 2011 · 62 comments

effective discipline takes thought

effective discipline takes thought

I won’t let you . . .

As in, I won’t let you hit your friend. I won’t let you throw food on the floor. I won’t let you fall off the stairs. I won’t let you run around in the grocery store.

This phrase (which I learned from the wise Janet Lansbury), has helped me become the disciplinarian I want to be: in charge, but not controlling; gentle, but firm; honest; clear; and direct.

It makes me own what I tell my children.

What I used to say were things like, “Stop hitting your brother!” or “We don’t throw food on the floor!”. I was giving orders, but no one responds well to being screamed at. When I say, “I won’t let you hit your brother”, I can’t scream it. I have to get down on the floor next to my children, and put my arm up to block the swat. I have to look in their eyes, and show them why I’m asking them to stop.

I have to get involved in their discipline, so they can see what I’m asking of them. I won’t let my boys hit each other because it hurts, and it makes other people unhappy. It’s not an arbitrary rule I made up, and when I own it, my children learn why a rule exists, and why it’s important to me. It becomes part of their intrinsic morality — not a command they have to follow arbitrarily.

It makes me think about why I create a boundary.

If you’ve ever asked your child to do something just because, and they balked, did you think about whether it was a reasonable request? When you tell your child you won’t let them do something, it invites questioning. Not just from them, but from you.

“I won’t let you jump off the couch.” “Why not?”

Are they going to get hurt? Are they going to get something dirty? Will they break something?

These are good reasons to not let a child do something. Saying that we are the reason we don’t allow something forces us to think hard about the boundaries we create. Do they make sense? Is it worth the effort? Is it something I really care about?

Not every rule needs to pass the logic test — sometimes we feel strongly about things just because, and that’s ok. But if you use the phrase “I’m not going to let you . . . .”, you’ll likely reduce the arbitrary rules and find you can distill your discipline efforts to the things that really matter.

It cultivates confidence.

Children test boundaries because they don’t have impulse control and they’re experimenting, and it’s part of growing up. When they test limits set by their parents, they don’t worry they’re breaking the rules of the universe, or angering a bogeyman, or anything equally devastating. They can grow within a safe place, building their confidence and keeping their creative limit-testing healthily intact.

It builds trust.

The absolute best benefit of owning the boundaries we set is that it helps build a relationship with our children. There is no question about where the rules are coming from.

Sometimes the rules may seem burdensome, but children appreciate boundaries. They know they need someone bigger, wiser, and more experienced to keep them safe. When your child knows that you’re the one looking out for them, they trust you. And when you see your children respecting the rules you set, you trust them.

Children need us to be leaders, and the first step is owning our decisions, including the boundaries we set. Saying “I won’t let you” completely transformed my discipline, and the relationship I have with my children.

Do you think it will work for you?

Photo credit: limaoscarjuliet on Flickr

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