Unintentional Parenting Patterns That Lead Down the Road to Nowhere — By Bart Theriot

Over 20 years of working with parents in Montessori, teachers come across recurring patterns in both child and parent behavior.  Some of these patterns lead to such challenging situations that we end up spending a great deal of time and effort helping to reverse them.  Sometimes we are successful, sometimes we are not.

One thing we know for certain, is that we cannot be successful alone.  The result depends heavily upon the parent\’s level of \”buy-in.\”  Acheiving this means overcoming two distinct barriers.

  1.  Agreeing that the child\’s behavior is not  developmentally or behaviorally appropriate and needs to be addressed.
  2.  Parents are the ones who most often need to change before the teacher or the child.

We\’ve talked about the importance of Being Versus Doing (but feel free to read this short blog post I wrote a while back for more on the subject) when supporting your child, but this also sets the best conditions for a strong parent/teacher partnership.  The simple fact is that when we call specific behaviors to your attention, it is because we know they are important for your child\’s unique growth and must be addressed.  We are also asking for your help. We are trained to assess children on very granular levels across a wide range of physical, social, emotional and cognitive development.  We also understand parenting not only from experience as teachers, but also as parents ourselves.  So we know how intstrumental a parent\’s inovlement can be and how detrimental when patterns at home are ignored and allowed to continue.  You are the key.

But let\’s say you haven\’t heard from your teacher about your child\’s behavior.  The essence of Montessori education is that students need not wait for the adult to do their own research and draw their own conclusions.  So within that spirit, I\’ve written this blog post to discuss how to identify possible patterns at home and what to do when you find one.  As always, the subjects of these posts are great topics to discuss with your child\’s teachers, who are the true experts.

The individual moments of parenting mistakes are easy to catch. Usually, because you have no choice but to wallow in your own blunder. They happen when you\’re in a hurry. They happen when you\’ve got all the time in the world. Some are predictable like during mealtime, bedtime, daily transitions in and out of the house. Sometimes they materialize from thin air. The most common practice of pattern-setting involves repetitive behaviors that seem completely benign in isolation. Like immediately responding to your child\’s every whim when yelled from another room in the house. \”Mom, I want water!\” Or when you know he\’s watched too much TV, but he didn\’t sleep well last night or you just feel too tired to engage him in another activity. Failing to correct your child when he or she speaks disrespectfully or inappropriately. Casually allowing your child to tell you what to do and when or to control moments of transition.  Cleaning up behind them.  Remembering for them and carrying their belongings, when you already have your hands full.  Saying \”No\” too often and then changing your mind later on…to name a few.

These, often enabling behaviors, lead to a pattern and create reciprocal habits in both you and your child. The carousel spins faster and faster until suddenly you cannot get off. These may not be \”unfixable\” situations, especially in the big picture, long term view, but you may find that they are not fixable by you, alone.  The point to remember is that identifying and assessing the situation are the first steps.  These are complex skills unto themselves.

Here\’s an example of a common pattern that we see quite often in children as young as 2 years old.  Note how things progress gradually, building upon each other, but also that each stage offers its own challenges. Some of what you\’re about to read below may seem so familiar that you might think I\’m writing about you. Please let me assure you that any resemblance to you and your child is merely coincidence since all of these scenarios have been occuring in families long before Montessori was even originated…but then again, this could also be about you, too.

1. \”Rule setting\”

    The child has difficulty accepting rules and you have difficulty setting them:

At home this starts out innocently enough and COVID conditions took this whole thing to another level for most parents. When parents play with young children, the child makes the rules or at least is allowed to bend and break them, even when those rules (such as Candyland or checkers) already exist in writing.  In day-to-day life, parents are busy.\”Rules\” of behavior are half-heartedly or inconsistently enforced.  With practice, the child begins to consider how to make up their own rules at times when the choice should be entirely up to the parent. Practice makes perfect, and eventually they gain enough control to put things out of balance and every rule becomes optional.

2. \”Negotiation\”

    Child resists choosing between options given by adults:

Given the choice between A and B, the child chooses option C (and sometimes D,E and F)
Once all rules become optional, children recognize the opportunity to negotiate. For some children, every direction from a parent is a chance to refine the art of the deal. The more parents allow option C, the less important A and B become. Eventually, some children will develop a habit of automatically seeking an alternative option regardless of the choices given. At times, this may mask itself as developing independence or creative thinking. Most of the time, however, it is merely a deteriorating situation created by the parent.

3. \”Control\”

    Child uses crying, tantrums, dilatory or defiant behavior to communicate disappointment when words would work just fine:

When parents acquiesce in the face of tantrums/crying or intentional stalling, it establishes a precedent. This is often a child\’s only means of communication as an infant, but once language has been developed, tantrums can become a conscious choice. Relying upon skills learned in stage 2, children quickly understand the effectiveness of the behavioral display in receiving what they want (which sometimes is simply control). When control or satisfaction is gained through these tactics at home, similar results may be expected everywhere else (including school). Rather than following what is right for the child, parents become motivated to avoid conflict or tantrums, which leads to further bad decisions.

4. \”Checkmate\”

    Child escalates disruptive behavior to guarantee adult attention reducing your options to respond successfully:

When tantrums/crying or dilatory tactics prove effective in gaining control (and sometimes even when they don\’t), some children may escalate the severity of their behavior to acheive their desired result more quickly. Repeated pleas or statements of displeasure can be ignored or tollerated by parents. However, ear-shattering screams, unsafe, overly disruptive or physical behavior demand immediate parent reactions, which are almost never ideal. Where disappointment used to gradually ramp up, children jump immediately to the point of maximum result. In this stage, it is common for parents to avoid outtings like restaurants, grocery stores, long-distance travel and build up accommodations for the child\’s behavior without recognizing things do not have to be this way.

5. \”The Complete Package\”

    Child attempts to \”order\” peers and adults around either with words or behavior and the balance of control has flipped completely:

When all of the above issues 1 through 4 occur frequently at home, children find success by pro-actively ordering others to behave however they see fit, while simultaneously avoiding even basic struggle or challenges in their own lives. This type of behavior rarely makes it into school, but it can be quite pervasive in parent/child interactions at home. Obviously, the long term implications may be drastic even into adulthood.

\”The Complete Package\” represents an advanced unintentional pattern.  Unfortunately, that places us well beyond the capabilities of a short blog post. If you find yourself in number 5, contact your teacher or send me an email at bartrtheriot@gmail.com and we\’ll setup a meeting.

For the rest of you in scnearios 1-4, if you\’re still with me at this point in the blog, I think we can make some headway right now. Although the offer to meet in my office stands for everyone. ***Spoiler alert*** What you\’ll read below is not a case-by-case set of instructions so much as the introduction of the type of mindset and analysis that should put you and your child on a path toward success and stronger partnership.

In \”Checkmate\” your child may be just beginning to experiment with telling you what to do and continues to fine-tune the effort/time to satisfaction ratios. The first thing to do, and this applies to all levels 1-4, is to fully consider your role. Ask yourself these questions:
1. What did you do to contribute to this situation? Was it a few big moments or the accumulation of many little moments? For repetitive behaviors, it is usually the latter. However, sometimes one supreme, well-timed parenting error can be all it takes.
2. For which behaviors are you most responsible? These will be the easiest ones to fix because you\’re the one who needs to change the most and you certainly have more control over yourself than your child (especially if you find yourself in Checkmate). I\’ve said it before, but when we seek to \”train\” our children, we must realize that we are actually training ourselves. Thankfully, adults should be able to compromise and adjust more easily than children.
3. Does any of this behavior originate from a point outside of my child\’s control? Very important, because if the answer is yes, it may be the case that your child lacks the ability to change. That means initially, you\’re the one who must change for him. Paradoxically, you may already have changed to accommodate and enable the behavior, rather than to help him learn.
4. What should I say and/or do differently next time? Once you have figured out which behaviors you want to address, premeditate your actions paying attention to when you\’ll step in and what you\’ll do and say before, during and after.
5. Where is the back door? Recognize that in most of the recurring conflicts you experience with your child there is very little chance to correct the situation in the moment. Understanding this will save you a whole lot of wasted time and effort. If you\’ve noticed, the common thread in these scenarios is the gradual shifting of control. For more on this common parenting predicament, read this short post I wrote called \”Balancing Control\”.
6. What\’s going on inside my child right now? His or her interests and habits usually correspond to developmental needs. Use this information to create teachable moments that address these needs with intent. Understanding the Montessori planes of development can help.

Though elusive in some cases, nearly all of your solutions may be found within the answers to these questions.  Practice these steps as often as possible and you\’ll find they become an integral part of your own parenting patterns.  With enough time, you\’ll also notice that you\’ll ask yourself these questions less and less.  Not because they lose their effectiveness, but because your child no longer exhibits the behaviors that required them in the first place.

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