CHAPTER SEVEN: Duct Tape for the Mouth: Keeping Your Mind Open and Your Mouth Closed Is a Solution – Duct Tape Parenting: A Less is More Approach to Raising Respectful, Responsible, and Resilient Kids

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Duct Tape for the Mouth: Keeping Your Mind Open and Your Mouth Closed Is a Solution

Wise men, when in doubt whether to speak or to keep quiet, give themselves the benefit of the doubt, and remain silent.

—Napoleon Hill

Parenting wisdom comes when you shut your mouth, open your ears, and observe with your eyes. Until then, it’s all guessing games.

—Vicki Hoefle

In section 1, I dissected all the ways parents end up over-involved, over-reactive, and over-directive. Out of a need to keep things moving with as little friction as possible, parents become the feeders of the “weeds” and the “doers of too much.” You’ve likely been here—your two-year-old is noodling and you begin to coax her along. Your three-year-old won’t get dressed, even though he can, so you start nagging. Your four-year-old won’t stay at the table and eat her breakfast, so you start lecturing and bribing her. Your five-year-old refuses to brush his teeth unless you remind him a dozen times before he leaves for school. Your six-year-old leaves his stuff scattered around the house and you make it your job to nag, remind, lecture, count, and then do it yourself, in order to make it to work on time. Your seven-year-old refuses to get up with his alarm clock, so you wake him up every morning even though you swear you won’t do it again the following day. Your eight- and six-year-olds tease and fight, and you are counting, time-outing, and punishing to get them to stop.

In the process of micromanaging your kids’ lives, you have also created a set of assumptions about what would happen if you stopped your hands-on, over-involved, fix-it style of parenting. And those assumptions are generally packed with fear about how out of control your kids, your family, and your life would be if you stopped doing what you are currently doing to maintain order.

And once a set of assumptions has been created, parents begin using them to make the majority of their parenting decisions (including choosing not to do things differently), and those decisions create the environment in your home and the dynamic between you and your kids. Enter, interfering discipline strategies, Band-Aid tactics, and a cycle of discord that can last for years! It’s these assumptions that account for a parent’s resistance to letting go and making the changes necessary to bring a little balance, order, and fun back to parenting.

Parents’ Assumptions Are Based on Existing Information (Pssst, It’s Time to Get New Information)

If you’ve spent more than two or three years stepping in and helping out and directing and reminding, it’s understandable that you might have developed a set of assumptions that include: without my constant involvement my kids will fall apart, fight incessantly, leave their stuff all over the house, treat us with disregard, break every rule, and turn into little beasts who take over the house.

With this set of assumptions driving our parenting decisions and supporting a hands-on, micromanaging approach, there is no room for the kids to do anything but take a backseat attitude to life.

Duct Tape Moment

Use the sticky stuff to cover the mirror you’ve been looking in. There is nothing that says you have to look perfect, be perfect, and keep your family in perfect order to be a good mother. Your kids’ behaviors are not a walking reflection on whether or not you are good parents. Kids’ behaviors are based on their drive to find themselves, and to fit in and be part of something. If they screw up, it certainly doesn’t mean you’ve been neglecting your job as a mother or father. Stop and think, will any of this matter in twenty minutes? Two days? Two weeks? The answer is most often no, so it’s fine to let things go.

Look around, today more than ever, kids are disconnected from their everyday lives and don’t seem to be paying much attention to what’s happening around them. Honestly, though, why would they? Parents are so proficient at managing and directing them that the kids aren’t required to pay attention and plug into their own lives. These kids don’t have to worry about getting up with an alarm clock because mom comes in six times every morning to ensure they are up. These kids don’t have to worry about weather-appropriate clothes, because mom and dad tell them what is acceptable to wear and what isn’t. These kids don’t have to manage their time, because their parents have every minute of the day calculated and the child merely goes from one task to the other with prompts from mom and dad. These kids aren’t required to problem solve, because mom and dad step in whenever there is any disruption in the house. Kids don’t help around the house until mom or dad starts in with lecturing and threatening.

If we want to raise thinking kids with the mental muscle to navigate an ever-changing world, then we have to provide them with daily opportunities to learn to construct a meaningful and satisfying life and teach them the skills necessary to manage that life. What better place for children to practice than in their own home with the guidance of loving and wise parents?

But unfortunately, even parents who want to raise thinking kids are trapped by faulty assumptions and generalized fears that make it difficult to take a hands-off approach to parenting. Until those assumptions are put under the spotlight and flushed out with accurate information, nothing is going to change for long. It takes a serious jolt for parents to rethink and reframe their assumptions, but this jolt allows them to become masters of a more hands-off (for the good of the child) approach to parenting.

Here’s a list of actions based on existing information and the assumptions that they reveal:

It’s clear that in most cases a child would be physically and intellectually capable of handling every task or making every choice detailed here. This chart, or the version you create for yourself, will expose your own faulty assumptions. When it does, you will be in a position to replace them with facts that will guide your parenting decisions in the future!

Claire’s Thinking Is Based on What If Instead of What Is

“I will admit it,” Claire said. “I nag, remind, lecture, count, micromanage, threaten, bribe, and save my kids, and I know now that all of those so-called strategies are interfering in the relationship I have with my kids and their chance at becoming independent, self-sufficient, and resilient. See, I have been listening. But I am telling you right now, Vicki, that if I don’t do all of those things, my kids will not do one thing they are supposed to do in the morning or any other time of day.”

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“Because, I know my kids,” Claire answered.

“Tell me what you think they will do,” I said.

“I think they will stay in bed all day, sleep through their alarms, get up when they feel like it, come downstairs and blame me because I didn’t wake them up, sit at the counter and demand I feed them, then start to cry because they don’t know how to get dressed without help, and then, finally, sit on the couch and ask me to turn the television on for them so they can watch a show.”

“You really don’t believe they will do anything without your assistance?”

“Well, they might try to do a few things, but they will either leave a mess or they will fight with each other, or they will just give up, or they will eat a candy bar for breakfast. It will be a disaster.”

“And you know all of this will happen—how? Have you ever left them alone in the morning?”

“No. Never. I just told you, I can’t.”

“Okay, so what you are telling me is that you think you know what your kids will do if you aren’t nagging, reminding, lecturing, and so on, but that you don’t really know for a fact what will happen because you’ve never stepped back and watched.”

“Yes.”

“And is there an age at which your children will suddenly be able to do all these things on their own, perfectly, or will you continue to nag, remind, and lecture until they leave home at eighteen?”

Silence.

“Would you like to find out what will really happen if you take a more hands-off approach to your parenting and give up all those Band-Aid tactics and ineffective discipline strategies you’re using now? Do you really want to know what will happen when you stop feeding the weeds and give the kids a chance to plug back into life?”

“Yes!”

My Kids Won’t Do Anything on Their Own (Or Will They? It’s Time to Find Out)

Even when parents are 100 percent committed to shifting to a relationship-focused, hands-off approach to parenting, replacing the assumptions with facts is tough. They have to be willing to set aside nagging, reminding, interfering, micromanaging (refer to the list in chapter 1), and their other assortment of Band-Aid tactics for a few days to gather accurate information about what’s really going on under their roofs. I developed the Do Nothing, Say Nothing Exercise, which uses, yes, duct tape (on you, not your kid), for just this purpose.

This one exercise consistently, for more than twenty years, has revealed to parents what their kids are really capable of when they step back and give the kids some space and a chance to play a more active role in their own lives. By the time they finish, everything they thought they knew about themselves, their kids, and their family is turned upside down. When that happens, we can begin working together to create the family of their dreams. Nothing is as powerful and eye opening as this one simple exercise. So be ready, because things are about to change!

Exercise: Do Nothing, Say Nothing: The Five-Day Duct Tape Challenge

For the next five days, I challenge you to throw your assumptions out the door along with the reminding, nagging, lecturing, and any other Band-Aid tactics you may be using. Grab the duct tape for your mouths and actually observe what happens when you stop talking, start watching, and leave your kids alone long enough for them to show you how capable they are. As Doug Larson says: Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk.

Because I never ask my students to do anything I haven’t done myself, I share my own experience the first time I did this exercise and elicited the help of duct tape.

I thought I could be trusted to stay quiet and watch my kids for a week, but I wasn’t willing to bet the bank on it. So I put little strips of duct tape along my kitchen counter in case I needed help staying quiet. Although I promised that I would keep my mouth shut for the day and simply observe my kids in action, my mouth was so accustomed to yapping without restraint that I was grabbing for the duct tape after only five minutes in the room with the kids. Each time I was tempted to prompt my kids, I grabbed a piece of duct tape and slapped it over my lips. The first few times I ripped the duct tape off, I found that it not only kept me from interfering with the kids, but it also removed my facial hair above my lip—an added bonus, I thought. Unfortunately, by day two when I took the tape off it was ripping the skin off my lip, which hurt—a lot—and it was then that I realized just how much free rein I was giving myself in terms of directing my kids’ lives. I got serious then, and although I left the duct tape on the counter as a reminder, I found the discipline to keep quiet.

Now, before you blow a gasket and start yelling that I have no idea how awful things will be in your home if you try this, let me first say that I have been using this same exercise for twenty years because it works, and I have heard all the horror stories and all the stories of success. I’ve seen the pictures and read the notes kids send in with their parents that chastise me for suggesting to their mom and dad that they stop waiting on their kids. Never once, in all these years, has anything bad ever happened. The fact that parents are genuinely upset and concerned about this exercise says a lot about the overall atmosphere in their homes.

Common Sense or Literal Interpretation?

Whenever I introduce this exercise, I’m certain to hear a concern that sounds something like this:

“I’m struggling here. I am a very literal person. Are you saying I have to Do Nothing and Say Nothing while my kids run wild?”

“No.” I explain. “That’s not what I am saying. I’m saying to parent without using any of those old interfering, micromanaging, Band-Aid tactics you normally use and to watch and document what happens when you do that. You may use any other parenting strategies you have in your arsenal, including common sense.”

Then I get a look of “aha.” I wait and watch as they run this statement through their minds, searching and cataloging any parenting strategies they have stored away that do not fall into the category of interfering. Sometimes they light up with the creative challenge; other times, I hear a sigh. Either way, parents realize that the one thing they cannot do is use the strategies that are so clearly not working.

To offer a bit of encouragement to a large group of stunned parents, one mom offered her insight after having done the exercise the year before:

Common sense can be a strategy in and of itself to get you through the exercise. My five-year-old daughter left the food out after helping me make her smoothie this morning. I opened my mouth to say something. Shut it again. Opened it again. Shut it again. I must’ve looked like a fish on a hook that morning, all the while telling myself, It’s only food. It’s only money. I can go buy more if it goes bad.

Finally, I realized that my daughter didn’t know that she was supposed to put the things away since I got them out for her. So, I opened my mouth again and said, “Honey, when we make your breakfast together, I’m putting you in charge of putting things away.” “Oh,” she said, and immediately put all of the food back in the fridge, even the stuff that usually goes on the top shelf. She found a place for the fruits, yogurt, and the milk on another shelf that was within her reach. And, despite its precarious and questionable position, I did not go in and move the milk carton that was certain to crash and make a mess all over my floor (even though I really wanted to say, “Honey, the milk carton looks like it’s going to spill!” I didn’t). If it fell, well, she was in charge and she’d see that wasn’t a good location. I had to just bite my tongue. Guess what? The milk carton survived and if it had fallen, it would have only been spilled milk!

What do I know now that I didn’t know before? I know my child will help if I take the time to teach her. I know that I use my assumptions to make a quick parenting decision and that almost always causes trouble down the line, and I learned that it is really hard to throw all those awful gimmicks out the window when you realize you don’t know what else to do. This was an eye-opening five days, to say the least.

Now, It’s Your Turn

Set yourself up for success. Try these tips for “smooth” chaos:

1. Take some time to really note the interfering strategies you’re using, what you are “doing for” your kids, and what your assumptions are. Have your list of interfering or Band-Aid tactics nearby so you can refer to the list when you really feel the need to jump in and do damage control.

2. Decide how many days you will engage in this exercise (I recommend five; any fewer and the kids can hold out until you jump back to your old ways.)

3. Make a list of your worst-case scenarios and specific fears (similar to assumptions, but this time to help you accept what might happen—write them in an affirmative way, so that you can accept truth!) Print it and hang it on your fridge or on your mirror.

It could read like this:

• Yes, the house will be messy. But we will live.

• Yes, the laundry may pile up everywhere, but this is good information.

• No, you do not need to wake the kids up, even if they sleep through the alarm.

• Just because the kids might forget their homework, it doesn’t mean you’re not doing your job as a parent.

• The five days will end and I will have new information that gets my family back on track and moving in a more positive and productive direction.

4. Sit the kids down and tell them the following. Keep it matter of fact; you’re not judging or “grading them,” you’re just interested in stopping your nagging and so on: “We don’t like the fact that we are nagging, reminding, lecturing (whatever it is you do on a regular basis with your kids) you every day and we want to stop doing it. That means that starting tomorrow, we are going to stay quiet and watch what happens if we aren’t telling you what to do.”

Make a verbal list of the hang-ups and worst-case scenarios together: What will the day look like? What happens in the morning? (Go through the day very quickly just to get a feel for where the kids might actually require your assistance, but refrain from giving them last-minute notes on what to do.) Affirm with them the same thoughts:

Now, things could be really messy. You might be late for school and that’s okay. You might go to school without your lunch, and that’s okay. You might forget a coat or your homework or your backpack and that’s okay. The house might be really messy and we might run out of dishes and that’s okay. Or, things might go great. Without us in your way, maybe you will show us that we were worried for nothing. That you can get up on your own and get dressed and make breakfast and clean up and remember your stuff. Whatever happens is fine. This is a time for us to step back and to watch what you can do all on your own without any help from us. At the end of the five days, we are going to talk about how we can make our family work better for everyone.

5. Get your duct tape out and put it where you can access it easily.

6. Understand that things will be messy, really messy, and that your kids could be angry, frustrated, confused, elated, or liberated. Use the stories in this chapter to help get through the tough spots. Also, check out these blogs from parents who have completed my parenting program:

flockmother.wordpress.com

parentingontracktales.wordpress.com

7. If you mess up and find yourself feeding the weeds, using Band-Aid tactics, or making assumptions, take a deep breath and start again.

8. At the end of the five days you will have information that will change the way you parent and the way you view your kids. And remember, keep track of the information and write notes. Blog about your experience. Take pictures. Make a chart in your office—keep quiet yet be active in cataloging your mental reflections.

PLEASE NOTE: I am not suggesting that you stop parenting. All I am suggesting is that you stop using anything that interferes with the relationship you have with your children and their ability to become independent, responsible, respectful, and resilient people.

If the kids are doing something that’s physically or morally dangerous, step in. If the kids are very young, simply watch your tendency to jump in, maneuver, help, or direct the child.

Use your own common sense.

Let’s Get Real about Your Assumptions and Your Realities

Here is a table that will make it easier for you to document what’s really going on in your homes so that you can:

• Calm your fears

• Gather information for future use

• Refer to it as needed

The first two blocks are filled in as examples; use the rest of the blocks to chart your own set of actions, assumptions, and results.

Excerpts from the Do Nothing, Say Nothing Diaries

Below are true stories from real parents who completed the Do Nothing, Say Nothing exercise. Maybe you will find some comic relief and inspiration and gather a bit of courage as you embark on your own personal journey.

Coming Undone

My kids seemed untethered a bit over the last few days. They pitched big, over-the-top tantrums over relatively small things. It’s like they are missing the boundaries that have been set for them with all the prompting, reminding, and directing I was doing. Truthfully, I thought I would breeze through this week because I wasn’t screaming and yelling and threatening. But I can see now that trying to corral my kids is just as dangerous to the relationship I have with them and their ability to develop what Vicki calls their “mental muscle.” In the long run, I’m understanding that having the freedom to make their own choices—good, bad, or indifferent—will result in them being more confident, independent, and functional adults.

One Day at a Time

This is hard. And I realize I have to take it one day—heck, one situation—at a time because otherwise I just may give up. I have seen a side of my daughter that I had not seen before. Her noncompliance is usually minor, comparatively. It takes the form of noodling or minor “fits” that are easily “controlled.” I do not want to control my daughter. If I can control her, so can someone else, and that’s the last thing I want. Much of what she did and said this week has taken on an air of challenge, which is normally absent. It occurs to me that she doesn’t trust herself to make choices because we haven’t shown her that we trust her to make them. The challenge in her voice and attitude tells me that she wants to play a major role in her life and my job is to step out of the way and help her figure out how to do that.

Dishes Pile Up in the Sink

Wowie, Wow, Wow. I just came back from staring at a day’s worth of dishes piled up around my daughter’s placemat (she is responsible for taking her dishes to the counter and she knows it). She sat and ate dinner surrounded by old, icky food. I keep telling myself “You need this information.” Pass the duct tape! Not quite sure how this is going to go down when hubby gets home. He will not like the dishes/food left out...I’m just trying to see how far she’ll let it go. Wish me luck! Well, isn’t this something. My daughter knew what to do with the dishes, but without all my direction, prompting, and reminding, she was paralyzed. I interpreted her paralysis and reliance on my prompting as her being uncooperative, lazy, etc. On day four she got up from the table, told me she couldn’t wait for me to tell her what to do, and slowly started to clear her spot. I tried to jump in and “help,” but she shooed me away—with some force, I might add—and said she would do it herself. Two hours, a cup and a half of Dawn dish soap, and one very wet and happy kid later, I understand just how dangerous assumptions are. I recognize that it doesn’t really matter whether the house is messy or the kids stink or they eat crummy food and stay up too late for a few days, nothing “bad” will happen if I step back and reevaluate what’s going on in the family. I know now that I can truly create a home environment that is based on mutual respect, cooperation, personal responsibility, joy, fun, connection, and love.

Love the Legos

My son has been into Legos for a while now, and got some for his birthday, so he and I were taking the time to put them together yesterday. I was really just sitting with him drinking my coffee and chatting. Every now and then I would walk away to do something, while he just plugged along building the toy and following the directions. When he got stuck on the directions the first time, I resisted my urge to tell him what to do and I just sat quietly and watched as he figured it out on his own, and so it went. It was a completely peaceful and joyful experience with him—over Legos! As I sat there watching him figure out all the little bits on his own, it occurred to me that this is a very basic example of how the Do Nothing, Say Nothing week works.

Here We Go!

We are in day four of Do Nothing, Say Nothing with two sons, ages eight and six. This week has proved very interesting so far, with immediately less stress in the house, dramatic decrease in fighting between kids, kids seem to know the basics of what needs to get done in the morning and evening routines, but they get easily sidetracked with the computer or television and then decide to “just skip it,” like breakfast, homework, bathing, and cleanup. We have noticed that at bedtime there is too much television or computer and the older son is just determined to stay up as late as possible and to take over all electronic devices, and the younger son is trying to keep up (although he made his own choice to go to bed earlier last night). I am sensing that my older son is enjoying the feeling of being up later with the adults and maybe needs to have a different bedtime expectation from my younger son? We are noticing that my older son is ready for more responsibilities/privileges than my younger son and that he needs us to recognize that.

We have definitely been impressed by our sons’ abilities and also recognize areas to improve in. I feel truly empowered and supported in the way I would like to parent for probably the first time since my kids were born!

Emily Is at Choice

And finally, here is the conclusion to our story about Emily, the whiner we were introduced to in chapter 1, as told to me by her mom:

When Emily arrived at her first day of first grade, she brought out her best whiney voice—again. After all, it worked so well in kindergarten, and there was no reason to think that it wouldn’t work just as well in the first grade to keep the teacher’s attention focused firmly in her direction.

“Mrs. Koehler, my mom says that I should ask you...”

Before Emily could finish her sentence, Mrs. Koehler walked by her and greeted another student.

“Hello, Henry,” Mrs. Koehler said, shaking his hand. “Welcome to first grade. See if you can find your name and then you can sit down and organize your desk.”

Emily was confused. Why wasn’t Mrs. Koehler talking to her? She tried again, only this time she whined in a more convincing tone and a louder voice.

“Mrs. Koehler. Um, well, my mom, she thinks that it would be a good idea if...”

Again, Mrs. Koehler walked by Emily and greeted another student in exactly the same way she had greeted Henry.

At this point, Emily became distressed. She counted on her whiney voice to engage the adults in her life, but it wasn’t working to engage Mrs. Koehler. If she couldn’t rely on her whining to get Mrs. Koehler to acknowledge her, what would she do? She watched as Mrs. Koehler greeted several other students. She stood quietly. Finally, without really thinking about what she was about to do, she looked at Mrs. Koehler and said, “Mrs. Koehler, my name is Emily and...”

Mrs. Koehler looked into Emily’s eyes, smiled, stuck out her hand, and said, “Emily, it is so nice to meet you. Welcome to your new classroom.”

For the first time in Emily’s life, she was at choice. Emily was in a position to decide for herself whether she wanted to be a child who whined as a way to engage people, or not. Because Mrs. Koehler ignored the whining, Emily was able to choose for herself who she would be.

When mom came to Emily’s first conference, she told Mrs. Koehler that she knew Emily was still whining like a baby and that they were working on this at home.

Mrs. Koehler’s replied, “I am surprised to hear you say that. Not once has Emily ever spoken in a voice other than what I expect any student to use in first grade. I have noticed that when you come to get Emily, she begins to whine. However, I don’t believe this is Emily’s problem, I believe it is yours.”

Huh? thought Emily’s mother, So at home, she puts on the annoying habit, but at school she doesn’t use it at all? This was the aha moment Emily’s mother needed to get beyond the weed-and-water cycle. She decided to act like the teacher and pay no attention to her daughter’s whining. It took all her will to zip it (duct tape came in handy) and refrain from the lecture, the commentary, the callouts. If Emily whined, she pretended she didn’t hear it. Within weeks, the behavior that had run their relationship evaporated. Emily didn’t need it anymore and mom wasn’t expecting her to be the whiner.

It didn’t happen overnight, but with new thinking and a revised strategy, Emily’s mother successfully banished the weed that was causing stress and distracting her from having a healthy, happy relationship with her daughter.

Ready. Set. Go!

These are just a few of the hundreds of stories from parents who found the courage to step back, tape their mouths, and use the time to watch, learn, and access what was really going on in their families. You might be surprised to find that you can take a hands-off approach to your parenting and things will not collapse as you first suspected. This, in and of itself, will help you find the courage necessary to invest in a radically new way of parenting that has you stepping back and your kids stepping up to life.

Remember, by committing to this exercise, you’ll join thousands of other parents and will have the chance to:

1. Recognize what you are doing to interfere with the relationship you have with your kids and how much you are impeding their ability to develop into independent, self-sufficient, cooperative, responsible, respectful, and resilient people.

2. Understand that your kids are listening to you and are willing to help out. They are paying attention to the life lessons you are trying to teach them. All they needed was a chance to show you, and staying quiet provided them the space to step up.

3. Accept that going back to this strategy again and again as your kids change and grow will provide you with facts that make it possible to maintain a hands-off approach to parenting.

4. Feel more optimistic about what’s possible for you and your family, and show more faith and trust in your kids. This creates a family atmosphere of trust, encouragement, and love.

5. Begin to reclaim your own life—and everyone knows a happy mom or dad makes for a happy family. Plus, you are modeling for your kids that life isn’t supposed to revolve around the kids.

6. Realize that your kids will begin to trust that they can talk to you without you going ballistic, jumping in, and trying to solve their problems for them.

The point of this week is to observe and to learn. A little craziness goes a long way in breaking through faulty assumptions and putting some perspective and balance back into our parenting. Eventually, mornings will be calmer, more fun, and more organized. Life will be easier and less stressed. You will smile more and yell less with each passing day. And you will watch in wonder as your small children slowly turn into amazingly cooperative, responsible, respectful, loving, relaxed kids.

If you are wondering about other parenting strategies you might employ, keep reading. The rest of this section offers alternatives that work in creating harmonious homes that foster independence, mutual respect, and cooperation, and that have you out the door on time most mornings without tantrums or tears.