The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome: Your Thinking Is the Problem
Your own best thinking got you here.
—Bill Wilson, Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve-Step Program
The problem with any parenting strategy isn’t necessarily the strategy itself, but the thinking a parent applies to implementing the strategy.
By now, you understand that feeding the weed, using Band-Aid tactics, doing too much for your kids, and fearing an investment in the relationship has you going round and round in a parenting cul-de-sac. You’ve discovered that, even though you know you aren’t going anywhere, you stay with your foot on the pedal, driving by the same scenario over and over and over again, scratching your head and wondering what to do. And once you’re at the end of your rope, you set off to find another strategy to get your kids to behave, be nice, be good, be respectful, be responsible, pick up their toys, hang up their jackets, clear their plates, keep their hands off their brother, drop the sass, do their homework, and so on.
You’ve witnessed firsthand that the strategy you employed on Monday to combat those big, beefy misbehaviors fizzled out by Wednesday because it just didn’t “fix” the problem. You may take a step forward but then there are always a few steps back. Instead of life with the kids getting easier and more enjoyable, life seems to get more complicated, hostile, micromanaged, and uncooperative. It’s not at all what you envisioned but there’s no clear path to the right direction.
Despite a rotation of strategies and techniques, reactions and plans, there is one constant in this round and round commotion: your thinking. If you’re not willing to rethink your thinking then it won’t matter how many strategies you employ. You’re set on a course for more of the same. From now on, it’s important to remember this key point: a new strategy is not new thinking.
The Thinking That Keeps Us Going Around and Around
Let’s take a moment to reflect on where you, as well meaning and caring parents, tend to get snagged and set in a cycle of ineffective parenting. To do this, we’ll review briefly some of what we covered in chapters 1 through 4.
In chapter 1, we identified that your thinking was grounded in getting rid of all those pesky behaviors your children exhibit in any given situation. You didn’t realize your laser focus and constant attention to the problem were the fertilizer that fed the very weeds you were trying to eradicate from your garden.
Your thinking, which had a goal of “making it stop,” resulted in micromanaging, nagging, reminding, lecturing, yelling, punishing, bribing, and saving your kids in an attempt to put a stop to behaviors ranging from naughty to annoying to inconvenient. But no matter how much focus you put on trying to get rid of those behaviors, nothing changed. Why? Because your thinking was always the same: the more effort I put into getting this behavior to stop, the faster it will stop!
The result of this “feed the weed” cycle? Your focus was misplaced and you were actually feeding the very behaviors and attitudes in your children that were driving you crazy! In your attempt to find a reprieve from the weeds, you let them take over your daily life. You thought the behavior was the focus, not the relationship, and you got more of what you did not want.
In chapter 2, your thinking landed you in reactive mode, using Band-Aid tactics with a short-sighted view and a desire to just keep the family moving forward through the day, no matter what the cost, and with no thought for the long-term damage.
Your thinking had you giving in, making concessions, using scare tactics, and jumping from one confusing strategy to another in the hope that you could get some traction in your day and make it till bedtime without blowing a gasket. You found yourself in a back-and-forth approach to discipline, rules, routines, and so forth. You perpetuated this power shifting because your thinking about what was most important never changed. There has got to be a strategy to deal with this and I will find it if it kills me!
The result? Your use of Band-Aid tactics and ping-pong approaches to parenting had everyone in the family confused, frustrated, and working against each other. You discovered that there is very little cooperation within the family and that your tactics headed everyone further into discouragement rather than making things better.
In chapter 3, your thinking landed you in a thankless, nonstop job as maid because it was easier, faster, you could do the tasks better, and the kids don’t really care about helping out anyway. Unfortunately, your role as a parent took a backseat and the family began to suffer.
Your thinking had you either doing everything for the kids or devising complicated systems for coaxing their cooperation, micromanaging them to ensure things were done correctly and to your liking, or threatening them with loss of privileges if they didn’t get with the program and pull their weight. Your thinking had you believing that it was your job to make sure everyone was doing everything correctly and on time, all the time, and that the kids couldn’t or wouldn’t help out in a consistent manner even if you asked them. You voluntarily kept all the balls juggled in the air so that life could run more smoothly. Your thinking about what good moms do and what good families look like didn’t change—only your approach changed. You stayed in that uniform because your thinking never changed: the kids won’t help, and if they do help it will be a mess so I will take care of it and everyone will be happy.
The result was that you found yourself doing too much for the kids. You realized that acting more like maid than mom left you emotionally depleted, exhausted, and resentful from doing too much, and the kids were becoming more demanding and discouraged with each passing day.
In chapter 4, your fears that investing in relationship strategies would lead to chaos and permissive parenting had you on the prowl for more creative and punitive discipline strategies, which only caused further fractures in the family atmosphere.
This thinking had you believing that you had to keep a firm hold, maintain control, and teach a hard lesson or everything would fall apart. You didn’t trust yourself to invest in your relationship with your kids because it would mean you were a permissive parent, and everyone knows what happens in a permissive home. You steered clear of relationship-building strategies because your thinking made it impossible to even consider them. You don’t think there is any way you can raise kids using relationship strategies.
The result? Your fears that investing in relationship strategies would turn you into a pushover parent and your uncertainty about what really qualified as a relationship strategy wouldn’t let you consider them as viable parenting options. You found yourself caught up in the drive to “do something,” so you paid attention to everything, which led to more discord, not less.
Parents stay in these cycles because they don’t know how or where to get new information that will lead them in the right direction. They don’t know that if they step out of the drama or ignore certain behaviors, the relationship will improve. If our thinking is influenced by idealism, limited by expectation, filled with worst-case scenarios, or overly focused on what others think, our ability to parent with intention and clarity is impaired. We blindly resort to an over-parenting style that only complicates our efforts to achieve a happy, cooperative family.
New Information, New Thinking
If what you really want is a loving, cooperative, and trusting relationship with your children and a warm, loving atmosphere to raise them in, then the first thing you have to do is get accurate information about what’s really going on in your home. That new information is what changes our thinking and, in turn, changes the family.
This means we have to be honest and ask ourselves, Do I really believe that:
• A child who says “shut up” will grow up to be a delinquent who is disrespectful to everyone?
• Keeping a clean house is an indication of how much I love my kids?
• A child will become a problem child if I don’t correct every misbehavior?
• It’s critically important to have a “good” kid who never loses his temper or raises his voice?
• Daily sibling spats add up to obnoxious, out-of-control, and rude teens?
In all cases, the answer is no, none of this nonsense is as horrible as we tend to make it. Our rational selves understand that the only thing that really matters is our relationship with our children. But if we let limited thinking about discipline determine and dictate the daily interactions with our children, we lose our ability to step outside the moment and recognize the big picture.
To change our thinking, we have to have the courage to admit that it needs changing:
• My child’s attitude is not the problem. My demanding that it change is the problem.
• The whining is not the problem. My focus on it is the problem.
• The tantrums are not the problem. My participation in them is the problem.
• The morning chaos is not the problem. Lack of training is the problem.
• My child acting out is not the problem. Thinking her naughty behavior makes me look bad is the problem.
• My child’s lack of cooperation is not the problem. My criticizing and correcting him is the problem.
• My child not listening isn’t the problem. My demands are the problem.
• My child’s bad habits aren’t the problem. My judgment of them is the problem.
And following up on this change in thinking with some strong, rational affirmations can make all the difference in your success:
• I will let go of what’s not working.
• Change happens over time.
• Focus on the progress and improvement and forget the rest.
• I am hung up on details I won’t remember in ten years.
• I am investing in my child’s emotional health.
• A three-year-old’s tantrum doesn’t define me as a parent.
• I have what it takes to wait this out.
• If I wait five minutes and show some faith, this will blow over.
• I know what won’t work in the long run, and I choose not to do it.
• I am going to trust my child with that outfit, decision, preference, or emotion.
• I’m not interested in getting involved anymore.
• If it’s not morally or physically dangerous, I’m willing to stay out.
• I might not like it but I’ll let him try it.
• The goal is to say yes.
• I believe my kids can do more than I let them try.
• How they act does not make me a good or bad mother.
• Thinking, curious kids are messy.
• Engaged kids take reasonable risks.
• Confident kids reach out.
• Resilient kids overcome frustrations, embarrassment, rejection, and failure.
All of this might seem overwhelming (or even crazy at first read), but trust me, if you can take a minute and let this information settle in, I promise that as you read the next section of solutions you will open up to what is possible for you as a parent and a person, and for what is possible for your family.
To be clear, this change in thinking does not mean you suddenly let your kids off the hook just because you can admit that what you are doing now might not be helping the situation. A better relationship is built on more accountability from both you and your child. What this does mean is that you can admit that what you’re doing isn’t working and that, perhaps, some of the mountains you make are nothing more than molehills.
Your Turn: Crack Open Your Thinking about Parenting
Now it’s your turn to see what you really think about parenting.
Part one: Get a pen and write down all the problem areas you are facing in your family. Make a list. This list could include anything from dinnertime meltdowns to homework difficulties to sibling rivalry. Write up a beefy list, so you have lots to think about.
Part two: Now describe these situations in more detail.
• Mornings—the kids aren’t getting up without four reminders each, they refuse to get dressed without me sitting with them or won’t wear the clothes I put out for them, they fuss over breakfast until we are all angry and frustrated, and then they noodle out to the car ensuring that we will all be late—again.
• Homework—the kids know they have to get their homework done before they watch TV, but they wait and stall and ask a hundred questions, give up until finally it’s time for bed. Then they are really mad because they didn’t get to watch their TV show, I am tired and ready for bed, and we still have another thirty minutes of spelling to get through.
• Bedtime—the kids start stalling just as it’s time to start the evening routine. The toothpaste is yucky, they don’t want to wear the pajamas, they didn’t get to watch their TV show, they want me to lay down with them or read another book, and thirty minutes later we are all fighting as we say goodnight.
• Chores—the kids know I need their help, yet every single time I ask them to do something they give me lip. If I threaten them they will help out, but only that once; if I bribe them, they help out, but only that once. They want me to do everything and still have time to read and play with them.
Part three: Now ask yourself, Why am I so upset about this problem? Write your answers down. You might get answers like:
• The kids won’t and can’t manage their morning without me, and if I don’t intervene we are going to be late for school every day and I will get the hairy eyeball from the ladies in the office.
• The kids won’t do their homework without constant supervision and direction, and if they don’t do their homework, they will fall behind and won’t get into a good college.
• The kids refuse to get ready for bed without my constant nagging and direction, and if I don’t go through the routine with them they say I don’t love them.
• The kids are lazy and if I don’t manipulate them or demand that they help me, they won’t do anything ever.
Now freeze and look at your list. You’ll start to see where your thinking can get you into trouble. This list will look different for every parent.
Part four: This is where your new thinking begins, and with new thinking comes new responses. If mornings aren’t going smoothly and you know you haven’t trained your children, then a smooth morning is as simple as stepping back and using your new thinking to guide you in creating morning routines that work for each child. You will need to base each child’s routine on her personality and preferences, fostering independence in each one and allowing the kids to try and fail until they develop the resilience to keep forging ahead. (It’s not that the kids are mischief-makers, it’s that they don’t have a system or know what to do or how to do it in the morning.) Notice this isn’t about getting your child to do anything differently, it’s about pausing and reevaluating your role in the “problem.” If you can begin to see exactly where you’re willing to change your parenting efforts, then this next section will crack the new thinking experience wide open.
Refer to your list as you begin to work toward change.
Changing Your Thinking Is the Most Difficult Part, but It’s Worth It!
After working with thousands of parents, I’ve realized that it’s difficult for them to recognize and admit they must change their perspective and allow for a totally new way of thinking. It’s even harder for parents who have been heading in the wrong direction to take ownership for their role in derailing the family dynamic. They often feel as if they’ve failed, and nothing could be further from the truth.
Changing our thinking and accepting that we may be contributing to the problems we are challenged with means we can now open up to a whole new perspective, one that will change our parenting approach and help us parent from a more intentional, thoughtful, creative, and optimistic place. That’s what I call POWER!
I’ve been doing this for twenty years, and I’ve heard story after story from discouraged parents who come to talk with me with their heads low and feeling that they have screwed up their kids and messed up their families, and that there are no more options for them. My heart goes out to them. I know how committed they are to their kids and to their roles as parents. I wish I could give them a do-over card, but I can’t. What I can do is share a thought I used to encourage myself while I was in the trenches of parenting my own five children.
We are all doing the best we can with the information we have. All we need is new information (thinking) to make a 360-degree change in ourselves and in our families.
Let’s do this.