To many a new year signifies a new beginning — a fresh start — for our work and personal lives.

Why not consider this for our families and how we raise our children?

Parenting with a vision in mind can be difficult and in the long run has great benefits.

We all see behavior in our children that can raise our tempers — whining, disrespect, excessive screen use, defiance, not following directions and so on. It can be helpful to ask ourselves whether our strategies for working with these behaviors are effective. In other words, do we see the behavior diminishing? If the answer is no, it is often a sign that what we are doing isn’t working.

(As I say this, I want to acknowledge that there are times when parents feel like they are barely surviving and behaviors may develop from factors they have little control over, such as social isolation, homeschooling during a pandemic and stressful times like we are now experiencing).

In this new year I invite you to try the following exercise as a means of being intentional in getting more of what you want in your family life.

First, start with who you want your children to be. For example, you might hope your children develop into a kind, responsible people who have strong self-esteem and know how to take care of themselves. Keeping in mind that we can’t force our children into anything — we can only guide and influence — make a list of the qualities you would like to see in your children and how they match your values.

Second, given that “discipline” actually means to teach, ask yourself what it is you want to teach your children. The qualities you hope your children develop and what you hope you are teaching are often similar. For example, you might want your children to learn to make good decisions, to not interrupt when you are doing something important, to think about the consequences of their actions, to pick up after themselves, to manage their own bedtime and morning routines, or whatever small thing it is in the moment of a particular interaction. Make this list, too.

Now put yourself in your children’s shoes. Do you think they are learning what you want to teach them? Are your responses truly teaching your children what you want them to learn? Make a third list of how you tend to respond to your children during times of “misbehavior,” when your blood is about to boil or when your kids aren’t doing what you want.

Looking at this list, you might find that you have positive strategies of connecting, empathizing, working through problems or ignoring the pesky behaviors. If you are like most of us, myself included, you might also have strategies that aren’t so constructive. Often we turn to some of our go-to strategies because we don’t know what else to do, because we are tired or rushed or frustrated, or because we just want the behavior to stop. This is all normal — especially during challenging times such as these.

When your reserves feel strong and you feel up to the task, ask yourself if strategies such as bribing, threatening, yelling, punishing, nagging, reminding or criticizing actually get you where you want to be. Are these strategies teaching what you want to teach or develop, the qualities in your children you hope for? Do they work for the long term? Are you seeing a change in behavior, or does the behavior only temporarily stop and then come back again in a day or two?

For example: Can we teach a child not to hit if we hit them? Are we teaching a child how to manage anger if we yell? If our child whines or interrupts and we give them attention by telling them to stop whining or interrupting, are we teaching them to stop those behaviors?

Last, using author Vicki Hoefle’s exercise, think about who you want to be as a parent and how you want your children to describe you when they are 30 years old. Would your current interactions with your kids during challenging times get them to your ideals? You can think about this in terms of how you were raised and how you would describe your parents to a close friend. While parents describe their own parents to me with love, affection and appreciation, they also talk about their parents as being critical, perfectionistic, not present, needing control, worrying too much or disregarding their opinions.

I encourage you to sit down and write out these lists. The idea is to consider whether what you are doing is getting you and your family to where you want to be. Is it getting you to more of what you want — the strong relationship, the ease of getting along and the ability to compromise, to see the other side and solve problems cooperatively — in other words more harmony?

Over my next several columns, which come in six-week intervals, I’ll be talking about changing things so you can get more of what you want. The first step is to start defining what you want. So get out paper or poster board and start your visioning process.

I’ll start from ground zero — the hows and whys of child behavior: Where does a child’s behavior come from? How does it develop? What do children and teens need in order to develop into thriving adults?

Then we will discuss what this looks like in daily interactions using real life examples (please send me your questions and scenarios). I’ll give you ideas and exercises along the way. What I plan on discussing is applicable for parents of children of all ages — toddler through teen.

I invite you to join me in a monthly Zoom discussion group. Topics will parallel those of my column, and you’ll be able to get insights into how these ideas apply to your personal family dynamics. Find details at GrowingGreatFamilies.org.

Rachel thanks Amy Lew, Ph.D., and the books she has co-authored from Connections Press for inspiration for this column. Find her at GrowingGreatFamilies.org or email her at growinggreatfamilies@gmail.com.

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