PARENTAL CROSS-TRAINING — One Dad Shares How He “Wires” His Kids

By Philip Sassano

By no means do I consider myself an expert on parenting. In fact, I believe my parenting style can best be described as Don Corleone meets Dom Deluise. A strange combination of Midwestern Italian, soft-spoken threatening persuasion … meets blunt yet comical illustrations of behavioral ridicule. And all of this designed to keep my kids grounded, but loving every minute of it.

We’ve all heard the saying, “Calling a spade a spade.” Well, it’s basically the foundation of my parenting posture. And, when combined with genuine affection, and a little bit of humor, this overall strategy has helped me drive home important life lessons with my kids. I call it “wiring” them.

Early in my parenting experiment, I believed I had a window of opportunity in which I had a fighting chance of wiring core behavioral traits in my kids. And after that window closed, I would have to do the unbelievably difficult job of rewiring them. Generally speaking, I believe a parent’s “wiring window” is the ages 6 to 11. After the age of 11, I am seeing way too many of my relatives and friends struggle to correct bad basic behavior they have tolerated for way too long. I knew then, and still know today I will have some of that to do regardless of the success of my strategy. All I can say is thus far, my approach of wiring my kids seems to be working. Maybe this approach will help you as well.

From the ages 6 to 11 my kids are like insect larva. Growing, very emotionally messy, and eventually looking to become beautiful, well-adjusted young adult butterflies. My wife and I provide the safe cocoon, nourish the construction of solid wings, and wire them emotionally as well as intellectually to handle situations they will encounter during their flight through life. The way I see it, the valuable time I spend, during those vulnerable years, actively managing the construction of those wings and wiring them for flight is critical. I’ve been able to break my evolving strategy down to three key components.

An Increased Focus on Preparation: My strategy always begins with my willingness to be parentally “awake.” Life’s routines can put us emotionally and intellectually to sleep from time to time. Those mindless routines can cause me to be a complacent parent, focusing on daily family logistics rather than behavior specifics.

I have learned that getting my child to an activity is LESS important than how we approach actually preparing for the activity.

If I’m focused on taking the time to help them properly prepare, they feel more confident, appear more focused and we’re naturally on time. This attention to the “details of the day” helps me foster an environment less concerned with the “To-Do List” and more focused on the “How Am I doing/What I’m doing List.” It has also helped me show my kids that forward thinking pays dividends, and that preparation is directly related to how much effort they are able to put forward. I don’t expect them to be the best at an activity. Natural talent plays a large role in their success. But if they’re always prepared, I find this can have a very positive effect on other aspects of their life.

For example, my daughter, and youngest child, had a tendency to procrastinate when getting ready for school which led to drama-filled mornings that disrupted the entire family. So, my wife and I decided to prepare her for the next school the night before as a part of her bedtime ritual. Soon, she started to prepare herself independently for things like cheerleading, choir and other activities. In the end, we realized that each of our kids had different styles of preparation that led to an overall feeling of confidence and security.

Explaining the Consequences of Selfish Behavior: As the situations with my kids become more complex, I find breaking down the history of the drama really helps. It’s like diagnosing the wrong turn during a trip. The exercise typically accomplishes two things: First, I have the chance to determine how they made a decision or were affected by a series of decisions that had a negative outcome in their lives. And second, I have the opportunity to talk to them about how every situation has a valuable perspective to offer. It’s about helping them with situational recognition and formulating appropriate responses.

I also find that the root cause of most complex situations is selfish behavior, either on their part, the part of someone else … or both. My approach with these situations is important.

I don’t ask them if they want to talk about it. I don’t need their permission to have a discussion about a life under my stewardship. Rather, I assume they WANT to talk about it, but don’t know how to organize their thoughts around the mess of emotions.

I take a conversational and empathetic tone that appears to REMOVE JUDGMENT  for the time being. The approach tends to help them understand why and how people, especially kids, use irrational or misguided self-interest as an emotional weapon. Then we talk about the decisions that either encouraged or discouraged the use of the weapon. When my daughter found herself in the middle of a dispute between two girls at school, we were puzzled. To our knowledge she had always gotten along with both of these girls in the past. What we came to discover is that she was intentionally putting herself in the middle of their drama. In essence, she was gaining a strange sense of self-importance by acting as a mediator and gossip power broker. After much discussion, we were able to show her how her selfish need to be at the center of the action actually contributed to the difficulty between her classmates.

Helping my kids identify and manage selfish behavior in their world is a huge priority for my wife and me. It opens doors for us to talk about how forgiveness and redemption has healed relationships in our lives … as well as the importance of owning their selfish tendencies.

Engaging in Behavioral Cross-Training: In an attempt to build well-rounded individuals, I like to keep my kids “off balance” from time to time. All too often I find myself offering advice or enrichment opportunities that reinforce existing talents or good behaviors. So, every now and again I will focus on a weakness I have identified in my child. Then, I put them in a situation or an activity that helps them develop that weakness. For example, my son thinks he isn’t particularly creative. It’s more accurate to say that he avoids creative activities because he has to work harder than others to find his creative groove. So, I try to put him into situations that will help him confront the weakness. My daughters have some nasty selfish streaks. So, if I’m seeing something that needs calibrating, I put them into the position of having to plan fun activities for others.

This concept also works for household chores. Traditionally, my son was responsible for taking out the garbage. So from time to time, I like to switch it up a bit to address the whole “That’s Not My Job” excuse. In our family, we’re trying to drive home that we ALL own the work that needs to be done to make the household function. Plus, it’s a blast watching the girls carry garbage bags 100 yards to the curb across our 10-acre property. My son gets a kick out of it too.

Cross-training is the most difficult and rewarding thing we do to help wire our kids. Partly because I know I’m in for a fight. But it’s so worth the effort when they begin to realize that getting out of their comfort zones pays off. They surprise themselves and seem to be more open to trying new things.

Obviously, I can’t tell you we have all of the answers. I can only share what has worked for us thus far. But I do know this: Our kids seem to thrive when given structure that is well-defined and laced with purpose. They seem to respond well to clear communication that is tempered with love, humor and objective self-evaluation.  And I know they benefit every day from the individual attention that focuses on meaningful interaction and honest dialogue.

You don’t have to plan a big vacation to connect with your kids. Magic can happen on a random trip to the grocery store. Looking ahead, if we’ve taken the time to wire our kids appropriately, we’re looking forward to watching them prepare for life’s great flight. Even if it means they crash to the ground from time to time. Even more than enjoying their successes as young adults, I will be praising them for how fast they get up when they fall. Because as parents we shouldn’t always expect perfection, but progress should be a given.

Philip Sassano is an Artist and Creative Entrepreneur in the Chicago Metropolitan Area. His Interior design business, retail gallery and creative workshops have helped thousands of people apply innovative creative thought to their everyday lives. You can see more of his work at www.refinedrustic.com and www.philipsassanodesign.com.

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