Parenting is an awesome experience. And, it’s a challenge. Sometimes, your kids are amazing. Sometimes, it feels like you’re raising wild animals and every step forward is like pulling teeth. Or nailing jello to a wall.
One of the challenges is that as you’re raising them, they are literally building up an internal map of what the world is, how it works, and how they fit into it all. And what they are internalizing is a mixture of what you say, what you do, how you act and react to their actions (or inactions!)… and, just for fun, let’s just throw in the reality that you’re a work in progress too. Yay team!
Communicating with your kids, getting your point across, can literally be a full-contact sport! When they don’t listen to your words, sometimes you have to use your body to make your meaning clear. I don’t necessarily mean spanking or swats or anything like that. Ever notice that your kids kinda ignore what you’re saying unless you’re standing very close, using a specific tone of voice… and it drives you CRAZY that THIS is what it takes for them to take you seriously.
First, I feel your pain. I’ve been there, too. Second, there is a way to make things different and better.
See, either you’re training your kids, or they are training you. And that’s good news because it means you can start today and shift your standards – for yourself and your kids – higher with just a few key ideas that are easy to apply.
With this in mind, today, let’s go into the two “modes” of children so we can more clearly set expectations. I’ve been working with kids of all ages from as young as 3 to as experienced as 94 since 1995 and among the many things I’ve discovered, is that there are really only just two “modes” in which people operate. Using the wild animal metaphor, I call these two modes “cat training mode” and “dog training mode.”
While both cats and dogs are mammals, they operate along very different lines in terms of motivational strategies, group identification, understanding of expectation and more.
While cats CAN be social, they tend to be more emotionally self-sufficient (or self-contained), focused on their own safety/security, motivated by food, and do not take kindly to negative reinforcement. You’ll get more out of a cat with praise and admiration than you will with a loud voice and punishment.
Dogs, on the other hand, are VERY socially driven – a puppy without a pack is a miserable creature – they constantly want to be part of the group, act and react based on the needs of the pack, motivated by food and praise and belly scratches and more, and dogs do respond to negative feedback. Because of their social drive, dogs can be “shamed” into a different action.
So, what does this have to do with your kids and communication and expectation?
Glad you asked.
When kids are born to about 4 or 5 years old they run more in “cat training mode” than in dog training mode: They are more interested in their own priorities and interests, more motivated by what is meaningful to them, they don’t really have a strong need to be part of the group, and they don’t like or respond much to negative reinforcement. Positional authority – in other words, “because I said so” – doesn’t work very well with this mode.
Around 4 or 5 kids start to develop empathy in a real sense instead of mimicry. With empathy, kids shift more into “dog training mode” – they want to be part of the pack/tribe, they want to be a “good boy” or “good girl,” isolation or negative reinforcement makes a very big impact, and you can start to use positional authority to motivate action.
Around 11 to 12 years old – generally 5th to 6th grade in the US – kids switch back mostly towards “cat training mode” with parents and “dog training mode” with friends and stay there as they mature into adults. Positional, because I said so, leadership starts to cause problems again.
With this information, we can start to interact with our kids in a different way, with different expectations of them.
Kids that are younger than 5 and older than 12, in “cat training mode,” here’s a few tips:
- They tend to be focused on their own priorities
- If you offer them a choice of two options (and you can live with both options) you’ll find them more interested in making choices and being involved with you.
For my 3-year-old daughter, Evie, we give her a choice of clothes, A or B. Autumn, my wife, put a very smart strategy in place – all Evie’s clothes match, tops and bottoms, so whatever clothes we offer match.
With the older kids, “you can clean your room now, or after dinner.” Things still need to get done, but choosing when tends to make the task more palatable.
Suppressing their preferences is more energy than simply redirecting their focus
When Evie is focused/fixated on something she wants to do, Autumn and I often redirect her by telling her, “It’s not time for X, we have to do Y and Z, then we can do X.” If Evie stays focused/fixated on what she wants to do and starts to melt down, she’s generally hungry. It’s a 3-year-old thing.
With older kids, “I would love for you to X, what needs to happen first?” This is a “yes, and” type of answer instead of no. It helps focus your older child on procedural or process thinking, plus increases awareness instead of telling them what to do.
- They don’t necessarily want to be part of your group
- Asking them to be helpful, then rewarding the effort goes a long way toward motivating your child to be part of your team, pack, tribe, or group.
With Evie, she likes to be helpful because she gets high-fives, applause, we tell her how proud we are and how helpful she is. These ways of rewarding her behavior goes a long way toward motivating her to contribute to others.
With other kids, I often see parents struggle because there is an expectation of performance on the kids. It’s as if the parents are operating out of a mindset of, “I’ve told you enough, you should do it on your own.” If your child isn’t doing things on their own to match your expectations, you need to better communicate your expectations AND increase your praise when they DO attempt the tasks you want completed. We can talk about being right or being in love another time.
- Ask yourself – whatever your kids do – when do they get the most energy out of you?
If they do what you want, first time and you’re hum-drum about it, how much energy are they getting? If they mess up or forget something and you go ballistic, how much energy are they getting?
Notice, I’m asking about energy in an absolute value, not positive or negative. This is because we’re all energy addicts and we’ll get our energy quantity needs met FIRST, quality needs second. The unconscious thinking goes, “If I can’t get love from you, I’ll pick a fight because at least you care enough to get mad at me.”
- They respond pretty negatively to being told what to do
If you put a cat on your lap, it will bolt. If you put a dog on your lap, it will generally stay.
Just ask yourself – do you like being told what to do, or being requested to do something? Works with your kids, too.
Your “cat training mode” child will respond best if you consider their autonomy first. While you might want, need, or expect them to do what you say, when you say, how you say… they just aren’t there. Build up your ability to influence them by figuring out what’s in it for them, and your life AND their life will be easier, more rewarding, and more fun.
Give it a whirl and let me know how it goes for you. I’m always curious about feedback and how my strategies work for other parents. There’s a LOT more to share about influence, expectations, and the chasm in communication… and I’m looking forward to sharing more as we go! Game on, yo!