I have never been a fan of lofty New Year’s resolutions, only to be broken and forgotten, or later used to beat myself up for not sticking to them. There is a powerful parenting alternative, however, which is key to how I discipline my kids.
First, let’s look at an adult example. I may decide that I don’t want to yell at the kids, and I can give you a dozen reasons why I don’t want to. What is meant to temper our impulses is our good intentions: I’m frustrated with my kids, but I know yelling doesn’t help, and I want to be kind and respectful in my parenting. This mix of feelings—on the one hand, frustration, and on the other hand, my parenting values I care deeply about—is the key to self-control. With this mix I can hold my tongue most of the time, but when I’m worn down and exhausted, I may try not to yell, but out it comes. If I can feel my sadness and disappointment at not being the kind of parent I want to be in that moment, I can find my resilience and resolve to keep trying. This gives me the best chance at parenting in line with my values.
Soliciting good intentions can also be a very powerful parenting tool for discipline, getting the child’s hands on the steering wheel of life and giving them a sense of responsibility. If a child isn’t aiming for something, they’ll have a hard time getting there–whether it’s to clean up their room, get good marks, not hit their sister, get dressed by themselves or get to bed on time. Working with good intentions gets them pointing in the right direction, and sets the stage for change to begin from the inside out.
It is crucial that you choose a time of good connection with the child to solicit good intentions. This is not something to use in the middle of an incident! You want to be in a position of influence, where they are following your lead. Then you can ask them, “Can I count on you to do this? To call for help when you feel like hitting your sister?” Even if you get a yes, it doesn’t mean they’ll be able to do it right away or every time. Some parents will get frustrated with this, and say they are concerned with results – and that good intentions are not enough. This is a powerful parenting practice but this kind of development requires patience! Your job is as a coach. You can find out what’s getting in the way of them following through with their intentions—are they like the adult who was too tired and too frustrated? We all fall short of our intentions sometimes! This is when we can prime their mixed feelings—the key to impulse control—about how they didn’t want to hit their sister, but they were so frustrated they forgot to call you. Ideally, we want to draw out their sadness about falling short of what they wanted to do, which will also help them build their resilience.
Be aware that very young children may promise you the moon, but won’t be able to deliver until they are at least 5-7 years old. Soliciting good intentions does not yield immediate results, but it is usually much more effective than nagging, and delivers more lasting and fruitful results.