Band-Aids on Bullet Wounds: Your Strategy Is the Problem
You need to fix what’s broken first, before you put something else on top of it.
When it comes to parenting, there are only two problems, lack of training or a fractured relationship, both of which are worth fixing.
In chapter 1, we exposed the cornucopia of strategies, techniques, and tools employed by parents to deal with the bad, annoying, irresponsible, undesirable, and otherwise pesky behaviors their children present, and the list is extensive. Not only do these ineffective and confusing strategies become the focus (the fertilizer) that anchors the negative behaviors (the weeds), they are also responsible for making things worse because they are used so haphazardly.
It’s hard work for moms and dads to stay on top of all the scripts, carrots, action–reaction rehearsals, and do-this-not-that advice they’ve picked up from the web, television, books, friends, and their own parents. It’s also hard for them to figure out when to use them, how to use them, and how often to use them. This confusion leads to what I call the “Band-Aid” approach to parenting. The kids are yelling, so you use a Band-Aid tactic to get them to stop, so you can get to the car on time. The yelling might stop for a minute, but before long it pops its head back up, and then it’s back to the box of Band-Aids again. I find the Band-Aid tactics parents employ fall into two categories.
1. Recognized parenting strategies
• Naughty chair
• Sending to room
• Taking away screen time
• Taking away privileges
These Band-Aid tactics might be easily recognizable, popular, and accepted, but they do little to create long-term change and do a great deal to fracture relationships.
2. Default parenting strategies
• Yelling: “Get your shoes on! Let’s go! Let’s go!”
• Convincing: “Hey, you should really bring an umbrella. Yes, it’s going to rain, you don’t want to get wet.”
• Talking through: “Okay, guys, when we get there, how should we behave?” Play by play, “Say thank you, now do this, now do that.”
• Saving: “Well, okay, this time I’ll bring your homework to you.”
• Reminding: “Remember your uniform. Don’t forget your cleats.” (Day after day after day.)
• Intervening: “You two stop that.” Repeat.
• Threatening: “If you don’t stop, I will send you to your room when we get home.”
These tactics are used in a haphazard way when parents feel they must do something to deal with a behavior or rectify a situation. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to their use, and they almost always make things worse.
Whether a parent uses a recognized or a default Band-Aid tactic the results are the same. The tactics amplify power struggles, leave parents and children feeling confused and defeated, fracture their relationship further, and rarely bring any lasting or substantial change to the situation or to the behavior the parent is trying to eliminate.
This reality was one of the driving forces behind my finding a better way than Band-Aiding the behavior problems that presented themselves throughout the day. If I wanted my kids to get to bed on time, without a thirty-minute meltdown that led to screaming and tears, it didn’t make sense for me to “fix” the routine with one-hit-wonder tactics that might prove gold for a moment but would fade into a blur by the next evening. The same thing went for getting out of the door in the morning or dining out as a family. I wasn’t organized enough to use a time-out at home (five different ways with five kids) and a bribery trick at dinner and “just one more story tonight” to keep things running smoothly at bedtime.
Peel-and-stick Band-Aid tactics are used to “stop the bleeding” of the moment and get life moving, but they do not deliver long-term, sustainable change, and they don’t establish order, harmony, respect, or cooperation between family members. The bottom line is that if a strategy doesn’t deliver lasting change and make the job of parenting fun and exciting, I’m not doing it. What would your life be like if parenting was fun and exciting and life with your kids was full of peace, harmony, cooperation, and respect?
Here’s the story of Mary, a mother I worked with who went through this cycle. Maybe you can identify with her.
Just for Today? Yeah, Right!
On Monday morning, after a particularly enjoyable weekend during which all the kids got along and their actions suggested that everyone in the family was in a really good place, Mary had high hopes that she and the kids would make it through their morning, into the car, and off to school with no problems. Mary was certain that they could all continue riding the high they were feeling and leverage it into a scream-free morning.
But when Mary heard the first nasally whine come from her four-year-old, followed by an exasperated “Shut up” from her six-year-old, followed by a contemptuous “Who used the toilet without flushing?” from her nine-year-old, she knew the honeymoon was over. That good weekend could’ve come down to luck, weather patterns, and a good night’s sleep. Who knows what it was, but it didn’t, as Mary had daydreamed, carry over to Monday.
Like many parents, Mary let her wishful thinking and reliance on Band-Aid tactics (instead of an intentional parenting plan) lead the way. She woke up to face the day with a belief in miracles and a deep sense of hope that things would be different, and when they weren’t, she was right back to, “Knock it off! Be nice, don’t say shut up. Seriously? Someone go flush. Do you have your stuff? Did you brush your teeth? Stop fighting!” and on and on until she swung through the minivan drop-off line, shooing her children out as they continued to squabble.
Duct Tape Moment
Tape your tush to the chair, secure a cup of coffee in your hand, toss two pieces of tape over your ears, and stick one over your mouth. Sit, sip (lift the tape to sip!), and do not exercise the urge to jump in and fan the wildfire! These kids know they ought to flush and brush their teeth but the song and dance is part of the routine—you don’t need to listen to it or participate in playing along, and they can do it without all the jumping in and flipping out! So, pretend you don’t even hear it and take the “quiet time” to make a plan that will work in the long term.
Once the kids were gone and the car was quiet, Mary let out a huge sigh, but within the hour she began to dread the pickup and the afternoon she would spend in the same trap. That fresh start she dreamed about earlier that morning was now a streaked, stained mess.
Even though, deep down, Mary didn’t really believe life would be different after one relaxing weekend, she went for the wish and inadvertently signed herself up for another day parenting from a “quick fix” mentality. Let’s face it, if she had to wager, she’d have bet on the morning breaking down, but she gambled with her morning instead. She’d agreed to the “I’ll deal with it when it happens” approach.
But this Band-Aid story doesn’t stop here. Like so many parents, Mary went to bed feeling lousy about her day as a parent, frustrated with the kids for being such jerks (her word), and promising herself, Tomorrow it’s going to be different. Without a solid plan in place, Mary hits the desperation mode, and desperation mode brings out even more Band-Aid tactics.
The next morning, Mary sounded like this:
“Tommy, I will help you get dressed today, but tomorrow you have to do this on your own. I know you know how to get dressed by yourself.”
“Adam, I’m going to help you get your homework organized and into your backpack today, but tomorrow you’re going to have to take care of this all by yourself. I know you know how to do this and it’s time for you to start getting organized by yourself in the morning.”
“Emma, I will make you some toast with peanut butter this morning, because I know you’re running late, but from now on you will have to take care of this yourself in the morning.”
Mary made these same kinds of parenting decisions, better described as concessions, with her kids throughout the day: “I’ll carry your coat today, but tomorrow you’ll have to be a big boy and carry it yourself.”
“Adam, I’ll bring you your soccer shoes to practice today, but this is the last time I’m going to do this.”
“Emma, I will run to the store to get you what you need for your project, but from now on you are going to have to be more organized.”
This continued on all day long.
Mary knew that she switched her tactics from harsh and demanding on Monday to maid service on Tuesday, and that on Wednesday, she would probably pull out a completely different set of Band-Aid tactics. The most frustrating part of this cycle for Mary was that she knew her kids were capable of so much more and that in spite of this knowledge, she had no idea what to do to change things.
Mary was caught in a trap, and she had no idea how to get out of it. In the back of her mind she knew she was raising her children with more strain, stress, frustration, and anxiety than was necessary or enjoyable for anybody! When the dictating and prompting and reminding did not work, she bribed the kids to do what she wanted in the moment or, depending upon her mood, she might just give in and do it for them. As she tired of that strategy or found she hadn’t slept well the night before, it was just as likely that she would threaten them into doing what she wanted. The only thing consistent with her parenting was that she would work very hard to make tomorrow better because today, frankly, stunk. Not only was she jumping from one Band-Aid tactic to another, she was also feeding the weed with all her focus on the negative.
Here’s where I jumped in with a little commentary. I explained to Mary that she was making the majority of her parenting decisions based on external forces and flip-flopping quick fixes depending on her own mood and stress level. She cared more about getting things done and being prepared and on time than she did about training the kids on how to take care of their own morning routines. She cared more about the hairy eyeball she got from the grocery clerk than she did about teaching her kids how to actually help her at the grocery store. She cared more about the “tsk-tsks” she received from teachers and coaches when her kids came to school or their sporting events unprepared than she did about taking the time to teach her kids how to prepare for their own lives.
When I suggested to Mary that her reactions could be compared to putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound, I saw the “aha” in her eyes, and she smiled for the first time in the forty-five minutes she’d been explaining her dilemma to me.
Mary admitted, “That is exactly what it feels like to me. I can see myself opening the Band-Aid box, reaching in, getting a small Band-Aid for a big problem, and thinking to myself, Oh, what difference does it make if I do it today? I’ll get serious about solving the problem tomorrow. I put the Band-Aid on the bullet wound, just like you said, and four hours later it’s gushing blood all over again. This visual is going to help me hold myself accountable when I am tempted to go for the quick fix.”
This visual may be helpful to you as well. In order to break the habit of sticking Band-Aids on bullet wounds, you first have to be clear about what the bullet wounds are. After twenty years as a parent educator, I can tell you that, just as there are two categories of Band-Aid tactics, recognized and default, most challenges in the home fall into two distinct categories: lack of training and fractured relationship challenges (otherwise known as bullet wounds).
Training Bullet Wound
With this type of bullet wound, the kids aren’t trained to take care of all the things they could be handling in their daily lives, which means that you are micromanaging, nagging, reminding, saving, bribing, and so on, just to get through the day. Until the kids are trained and are cooperating on a regular basis within the family, you will continue to use Band-Aid tactics just to get through the day.
For Mary, many of the daily challenges with the kids could have been avoided had she taken the time to train the kids to take on more responsibility in their lives. Instead, she did things for the kids that they could have done for themselves. Like many parents, she believed that by doing things for her kids, she could avoid power struggles, make life easier for everyone, and limit conflicts. Unfortunately, the opposite occurred. Because the kids weren’t trained and no systems were in place, Mary was forced to micromanage, nag, remind, punish, bribe, and save just to get through the day.
Most parents get into this untrained-kid, reaction-strategy cycle without noticing at first, because it’s tolerable and the day eventually (usually) balances out. Parents often are willing to trade a moment of chaos for a moment of quiet. It’s not fun or ideal, but it doesn’t leave them feeling like total failures. However, over time parents become exhausted and resentful. As the ebb and flow starts to crash and tip, it becomes obvious that the fixes are not working and the parents are working way too hard implementing Band-Aid tactics that just don’t work.
Repairing the training bullet wound takes patience and creativity, consistency, and yes, more patience. It’s linear, built on a system that grows over time. At first, the kids learn how to fold their own laundry, then put it away, then wash it, then dry it, and so forth, until you don’t have the sock meltdown because your eight-year-old is doing his own laundry and knows exactly where his socks are. Suddenly, you don’t need a Band-Aid for that.
What else? Well, the kids won’t have time to mess around and squabble with each other if they’re making lunches or feeding the fish or packing their sports bags or calling the teacher to find out about extra credit. It’s a system that steers parents and kids away from the back-and-forth to a more solid, united style of moving forward together as a family.
When the kids know how to manage their lives and are doing so on a regular basis, the game changes. Not only is the house running smoothly and mom can take time to enjoy life, but the kids develop confidence, because they are participating in and making decisions about their own lives.
As we saw with Mary, the kids were disconnected from their lives. Mary was in charge of everything, including maintaining the schedule, managing the fights, remembering belongings, and keeping everyone happy. The kids couldn’t have cared less. They weren’t feeling downtrodden or belittled as they hopped out of the minivan, they were merely on to the next part of the day’s schedule; mom took care of it all and the kids created mischief.
Relationship Bullet Wound
Relationship wounds are more serious and manifest themselves as power struggles, bullying, fighting, talking back, sassing, lying, insulting, defying, blaming, and other negative interactions between parents and their children. Parents reserve the bigger, sturdier Band-Aids for this type of bullet wound, and because of the emotional intensity, parents are led to greater feelings of failure and frustration when the strategies they are using do not produce change.
If the relationship between you and your kids is fractured in some way, it’s probably reflected in one or all of these dynamics. We see power struggles, breakdowns in communication, snarky attitudes, fights, disrespect, disconnection, and cruelty all dealt with by punishing, lecturing, moralizing, bribing, reminding, and so on. Until the entire family learns to invest in healthy, respectful relationships, Mary will continue to use Band-Aid tactics to dole out punishment for “bad” behavior, use control to avoid explosive episodes, and threaten in order to get the kids to behave.
Parents who do resort to quick-fix strategies to cover, rather than repair, an injured relationship will soon find they are emotionally and mentally exhausted. Generally, parents in this cycle know it right away and they feel a much more critical need to make things better, or put out the fire, because everyone can end up miserable within minutes.
Over time, as parents, we notice these relationship-bullet-wound behaviors resurface over and over in the child’s life (remember how we said they don’t grow out of a behavior, they grow into it). For example, an angry toddler is an angry tween is an angry teen. Some of it can be attributed to personality, but once a cycle of behavior emerges without any resolution, parents often adopt feelings of hopelessness and anger and a strong desire to throw their hands in the air. Parents feel like giving up, because they haven’t been able to repair the fragile relationship with their child. A parent will never be able to use a time-out to remove the anger from a child; they could, however, learn to repair the relationship and watch the anger lift.
If you are experiencing this type of emotional turmoil when you force a Band-Aid on a problem, and if you are ready for a change, you must be willing to accept the problem for what it really is, an injury to the relationship. If you understand that the relationship has been injured, that Band-Aid tactics will only make it worse, and you are open to doing something different, you are on your way to enjoying your children and throwing your box of Band-Aids into the nearest garbage can.
This new thinking will help you make the shift into a more sustainable parenting practice. I know firsthand that parents raising kids in the twenty-first century are faced with enormous pressures, technological influences, and a whole new frontier of challenges never before navigated. The time and energy required to create intentional, thoughtful parenting strategies is more and more difficult for parents. It’s easy to find yourself in a cycle of quick-fix solutions without really comprehending what the long-term effects might be for you and your kids. I understand it’s easier to say, I will train them tomorrow because it’s too inconvenient right now. I don’t have the time. I also understand that if parents want to achieve smoother days, calmer nights, and more enjoyable time together in between, they have to commit to new thinking (which you’re learning here) and new approaches (which we’ll get to in the chapters ahead).
This chart illustrates what Band-Aids look like and why parents are even bothering to use them. In the solutions section of this book, we’ll talk more about what you can do that will help with training and what you can do to repair and deepen the relationship with your children. For our purposes here, we are just going to point out what parents do and why they go for the short-term, quick-fix, Band-Aid tactic. This awareness will help with understanding and implementation later on in the book.
Don’t feel badly. I have five children, and I understand sometimes we feel we just “have to” do something. I get that. I hate to be embarrassed as much as the next mom and I like to maintain a sense of peace and harmony in my life. However, I also know that with a constant source of fertilizer to help promote the growth of these pesky weeds, our little rascals are back to their mischief-making in short order. The cycle continues and parents end up discovering at a certain point that they’ve been taken hostage within the family.
Kids are bargaining, noodling, and eluding their responsibilities, and parents start to live a life they don’t enjoy and never envisioned with their children. And I have to tell you, it is not the kids’ fault. They did not get here by themselves. By focusing on the short term, using quick fixes, and taking a Band-Aid approach to parenting, parents are creating bad habits and training their kids in the wrong skills, which will continue to make life challenging. More importantly, all of this leads to children who have not had ample time to make mistakes, learn from them, become more independent, take on more responsibilities, work together cooperatively, and develop the mental muscle necessary to better navigate thier own lives and support the health and well-being of their family.