How Do You Ask Nicely?

“A kind man benefits himself, but a cruel man brings trouble on himself” 
Proverbs 11:17

I live in a house with three sweaty, stinky, rough and tumble boys.  They love to wrestle, play in the mud, eat lots of food, and make funny noises.  Being an older and hopefully more mature version of these creatures I have sometimes found it difficult to know the appropriate level of manners to require of them.  I am thankful for the high standard that their mother has helped me to set and the lessons our boys have learned from it.

Early on in our parenting experiment my wife began to require our children to say please and thank you at the appropriate times.  We had never really discussed this expectation but since she was from the south it was something that had been stressed in her home as a child.  At first I thought it was a little over board, “come on, the kid can’t even talk and we are teaching him signs for please and thank you?”  Being the laid back person that I am I followed her lead and persisted in this expectation.

As the years have rolled by and the children have multiplied I have fully embraced the expectation set in those early days.  I regularly find myself saying, “how do you ask nicely” as a way to remind my children of there appropriate manners.  They always know how to respond and more and more lately they have not needed the reminder.

It seems today that manners are less and less of a priority.  I have met 5 year olds that say words not even adults should utter out loud.  Many times people are surprised to here children speaking with respect.

I may be a little idealistic but I firmly believe the above scripture, “A kind man benefits himself.”  I am not teaching my children to say please and thank you to  get them a better job, or more money.  I think the scripture could just as easily say, a kind man respects himself, controls himself, befriends himself.  When we set high expectations for our children’s manners and behavior they begin to see a picture of who they can be.  They can’t be perfect but they can be self-controlled, respectful, kind, generous, and a good friend.  These are qualities that I hope my children learn from saying there please and thank yous.

The Secret of Power and Control

My wife and I are in serious trouble! Today my five year old discovered the most well kept and important secret of the parenting world.  I was hopeful that my boys would not discover this secret for several more years.  Now that the middle child has figured it out however, it will not be long before the other three catch on.

He has discovered that when it really comes down to it, I cannot MAKE him do anything.

We stopped at a local restaurant to grab dinner following his soccer game.  I was rushing home to pick up his older brother so that I could take him to his cub scout meeting.  As we left the restaurant he stopped, just outside the door.  I was walking ahead of him and looked back to see him propped up against the wall scraping his soccer cleats on the ground.  I said, “come on buddy, let’s go” He said, “No” and just stood there.  He looked at me with a knowing smirk; he saw that my hands were full, I was in a hurry, and that I had few parenting “tools” at my disposal.

Thankfully, I had gotten off work a little early today so I was in a pretty patient frame of mind.  I remained calm and began racking my brain for the best way to handle this situation.  We stood there looking at one another for nearly a minute.   It began to feel like the stand off at the OK corral, whoever moved first, was doomed to lose.  After searching for the most helpful tool in my bag for this situation, I came up empty.  I was unable to think of a logical or enforceable statement to convince him that he should move on his own.  So, I walked back to where he stood, took his arm and walked him to the car.  Eventually he decided to walk on his own, and climbed into his seat.

As I reflect on this situation I am struck by the simple truth, I CANNOT MAKE HIM DO ANYTHING.  At this point he is only five, I am bigger than he and I can take him by the arm and walk him to the car.  In ten years if he decides to take a similar approach about going to school things will be different.  I will not be able to physically move a fifteen year old as I did my five year old today.

This was a power struggle, he realized that I was in a hurry and short handed; he decided he was going to exercise his personal will.  I am reminded of how important it is for parents to admit and be OK with the fact that we cannot MAKE our children do anything.  All we can do is state what we are going to do.  We cannot control our children, instead we must explain the expectations or limit and then manage our own responses accordingly.  When the child does not meet the expectation the parent can let go of forcing him to “do” something and provide a logical consequence for the decision.  If the child meets the expectation he learns a lesson about responsibility, if the child does not meet the expectation and experiences a consequence, he learns a lesson about responsibility.  Either way the lesson is learned and the parent maintains sanity by understanding, “I don’t have to control my child, only my self.”

Over what has your child power struggled?
What are your favorite enforceable statements?
What are your “go to” phrases for enforcing limits?

Where Does it Hurt?

“Who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth? He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap.” Psalm 113:6-7

Before I had children I thought I knew a lot about being a parent.  I had been working with teens for years, read many parenting books, and observed (judged) parents for countless hours.  In my arrogance I thought that I was well prepared to raise the “perfect” child.

When my first child was born I was halfway through my graduate program studying marriage and family therapy.   I had so much to learn.  At this point in my life I thought it important to raise a son who did not over-react when he got hurt.  So, I set about under-reacting to my son’s needs.  I thought that if I was calm and collected and acted like nothing was wrong he would learn to respond the same way.  When he falls down he will get up and dust himself off.  When we drop him at the baby sitter he won’t shed a tear.  He will be strong and he will be independent.

What a mess!  I was parenting from my own needs rather than my son’s.  I needed a son who did not bother me, did not whine, and allowed me to stay disconnected from others.  What my son needed was a father who was attuned to his needs.  He needed a father that responded with compassion and grace.  He needed a father that said, “Where does it hurt?”

I am so thankful for the difficult and challenging lessons that followed those first nine months of parenting.  As I gained experience as a counselor and parent, the Lord was busy refining me into the father my son needed.  I learned that my parenting approach was actually starving my child of compassion, nurture, and love.  The more I closed my heart to his hurt the harder he cried out for me.  The more I said, “suck it up, boys don’t cry” the more abandoned he felt.  Paradoxically my plan to make him tough was actually making him emotionally fragile.

 I was privileged to attend a professional training as a counselor that revolutionized my approach as a parent.  I found in this training that compassion and nurture are vital to a child’s normal development.  I discovered that children who are not touched, held, or cuddled would actually die.  I learned that if a parent is attuned to their child’s needs and provides the appropriate level of nurture and compassion, their child would not have to ask for it.  This child is then free to grow, play, explore, and laugh rather than having to worry about being nurtured, loved, and protected.

It was a slow process, but I found that when I asked, “where does it hurt?” my heart began to soften and my son began to relax.  He finally knew, “my dad will protect me, I am safe from being harmed”

I strongly believe that our sons need fathers that will respond with compassion rather than dismissal.  Ignoring a child’s hurts and saying “boys don’t cry” does not make them stronger, it makes them emotionally fragile.  It is when fathers (and mothers) respond with empathy, compassion, and care that boys learn to manage their hurts and control their changing emotions.  I challenge fathers to  “stoop down to look upon your boys and girls, raise your poor son from the dust and lift his bloody knee from the ash heap.” Paraphrase Psalm 113:6-7

How do you show compassion to your child?
What valuable lessons have you learned as a parent?

How have you witnessed the harm of a “boys don’t cry” culture?

Control Issues 1

I have many discussions with parents that center around the issue of control.  The surprising part for many of them is that I emphasize giving up control rather than maintaining control.  It seems to me that parenting is a life-long exercise in gradually giving over more and more control to our very precious children.  This process can be a very scary, or even painful, endeavor for many parents, especially when it is done either too quickly or too slowly.  Many parents wonder, “If I give up control to my child, then how will he learn what is right?” or “Won’t they end up being wild children who are continually in trouble?”

Though it is tempting for some parents to believe that gradually giving control over to their children will result in ineffective or poor behavior, the truth is that giving age-appropriate control to our children is actually in their best interest.  In reality, giving more control to your children as they mature will help develop a confident, internal moral compass from which they will make better decisions on their own.

            Let’s make the distinction between being “in control” and being “controlling.”  In his book, “In Defense of Childhood Protecting Kid’s Inner Wildness Chris Mercogliano, describes being “in control” as “establishing age appropriate limits, while at the same time supporting children’s growing sense of autonomy by allowing them to make choices and learn from their mistakes” (pg. 9).  Being “in control” is setting very clear limits for children and enforcing those limits consistently.  However, if a child is moving within those limits, he is free to be in control of his decisions and behavior.  The approach of the “in control” parent allows children to practice making choices that meet their needs or desires, but provides appropriate limitations to that freedom.   Alternatively, Mercogliano describes “controlling” as  “placing high value on obedience, shepherding children toward specific outcomes, and discouraging verbal give and take” (pg. 9).  A controlling parent is not only setting limits, but is active within those limits, making choices and decisions for a child that he could have easily made on his own.  A controlling parent who is focused “toward specified outcomes” has his own ideas for the child and is out to make them happen.  This parent does not consider the child’s desires, interests, or skills.  Instead, this parent’s focus is on meeting his or her own needs.

            The key is to gradually give age-appropriate control to our children, which is given in the form of choices.  For example, you may ask your young child, “Would you like to wear shorts or blue jeans today?” or “Would you like to drink milk or water?” or “Do you want to read books or play outside?”  All of these choices are opportunities for parents to give children control over the moments of their lives without allowing them to be in control of the household.  We have all seen the three year old who is clearly in control of the parent-child relationship.  Instead of being given choices chosen by the parent, this child is dictating the agenda for the entire household.  Giving a young child too much control is not only unhealthy, but is also harmful for future development.  On the other hand, giving age-appropriate choices to our children boosts their healthy development.

Angry Parents


Why does a person get angry?  What is it about a child’s behavior that can cause a parent to lose control?  Parents get angry and lose control with their children when they experience stress or anxiety above their levels of tolerance.  Typically, when parents experience this level of stress, one of their four core fears—danger, failure, loss of love, and loss of control— has been triggered by their children’s behavior.  Often, the end result of this fear is the parent’s extreme emotional response to the situation.  Learning to identify and better understand the impact of these fears in our parenting helps us learn to maintain better personal control with our children.


The fear of their child being seriously hurt, emotionally or physically.  Parents who experience this core fear feel anxious when their child takes risks or is out of their sight.  The most common way of relieving this anxiety is to protect.  These parents have a hard time maintaining personal control when their efforts to protect are being avoided by the child.


The fear of failing as a parent, or their child failing as an adult.  Parents who experience this core fear work hard to make their child a success and have a hard time maintaining personal control when their child’s behavior seems to work against them

Loss of love:

The fear of losing their child’s love.  Parents who experience this core fear may rely on their child for feelings of affirmation and value.  In times of trial they feel abandoned, alone, and betrayed by their child and may struggle to maintain personal control.

Loss of control:

The fear of losing control of their child or the situation.  Parents who experience this core fear see misbehavior as a sign of things to come.  They are afraid that if they don’t get things under control, their child will grow up to be a hardened criminal or worse.

We all lose our cool from time to time.  Being aware of our buttons, and what underlying fears trigger us to lose control can be very helpful.  spend some time reflecting on the last time that you lost your cool.  What was your child doing?  What were you doing?  Which one of the four core parenting fears triggered you?  Spending a few minutes in self reflection can help you to maintain control the next time your core fear is triggered.

Portions of this post are excerpts from my parenting workbook entitled “Parenting Peace”.

Read Angry Art

Read The Angry Growl


The Best Toy Ever!!

What is your child’s favorite toy?  Maybe it’s a video game, hot wheels car, dump truck, cardboard box or YOU.  I would guess that you are their favorite toy hands down.  If you were to have them choose between playing some sort of interactive fun game with you or any one of their toys, I think they would choose YOU.

Authors Howard Glasser and Jennifer Easley agree that parents are the most exciting playthings available for their children.  They imagine that even the most elaborate, bright colored, and well-designed toys cannot compete with the millions of different responses that parents are capable of making.  A child can press 10 buttons on a toy and the toy will make a few different sounds.  Maybe it will play some music and some different colored lights will turn on.  But a parent’s buttons if pushed in just the right manner can elicit a wonderful variety of responses full of varied emotion, volume, body language, facial expression, and vocabulary.

The difficult part for parents is that we tend to provide a more exciting and interesting response to our children when they are doing something wrong.  We use very sharp tones, and increased volume when correcting misbehavior.  We speak quickly and energetically when they are dawdling around getting ready for school.  We spend lots of time lecturing about why “such and such” was a bad choice, and why we must follow the rules.  How excited do we get when they do something desirable?  Usually our responses to the desired behaviors are much more reserved.  Maybe we give a “thank you” for putting the dish on the counter, or possibly a “way to go” when they are ready for school on time.   If they are lucky they might get a “high five” and a “way to go” for picking up their toys.

The very important question is, at what times do you provide the most energy to your child?  When are you most animated in your responses, when he is doing right or wrong?  Some parents get stuck in a rut of only providing feedback when their children are misbehaving.  But noticing when a child is behaving in a desirable manner and then responding with energy, excitement, and joy is a very powerful tool.  This tool can be used to encourage honesty, kindness, sharing, helpfulness, listening, impulse control, and many other desirable traits.

I challenge parents to intentionally spend more energy celebrating their children’s successes than disciplining mistakes.  As you begin to celebrate positive behavior your children will begin to display more of that behavior.  Children are very good at learning which buttons get the most exciting responses from their parents.  The more exciting response they get, the more they will push the button.  Be sure that your buttons are programmed for celebrating successes rather than failures.

The Fortress of Solitude

Several years ago I read the book and watched the movie “Into the Wild”.    It is a true story about an upper middle class boy.   After graduating from college he gave away what was left of his college fund and wandered around the United States.  He told no one where he was going and ended up starving to death in the Alaskan wilderness.  My favorite quote from the movie goes like this, “It is not as important that a man be strong, as it is that he feel strong.

Iknew a boy recently who did not feel strong.  If you looked at him you would not think it. He was a football player, confident, and bigger than most.  Despite outward appearances however he believed that he was weak.  The worst part was not that his strength was being stolen, but that he was giving it away.  A recurring theme from our conversations was how he would beat up anyone who said something bad about his mom.  He was constantly talking about how tough he was.  He listed off the number of fights he had been in and the times he had been suspended from school.  I really liked this boy but was becoming frustrated with his need to portray himself as tough and “manly”.

I began to realize that although he was strong, athletic, and likeable-he did not feel strong, athletic, or likable.  It appeared to me that he felt weak, awkward, and hated.  His fragile view of self required that he project strength and aggression.  If he were to project what he really believed, that he was weak, awkward, and hated, people might agree with him, and he could not handle that.  So, he built the most “manly” façade he could come up with.  This façade was designed to convince others and himself that he was strong and not to be messed with.

Unfortunately, it is very common for boys to build a façade of “manliness” designed to keep people from knowing who they are on the inside.  In their book, “Raising Cain”, Dan Kindlon and Michael Thompson call this the fortress of solitude.  This façade begins, from a very young age, to isolate boys from emotionally connected relationships.  Boys grow up to be men who can hold long conversations about what is happening in the world of sports.  However, they have a very hard time identifying what is going on inside of themselves.

I hope that parents will teach their boys what it means to be a man.  We can teach our boys that being a man may include physical strength.  We can teach our boys that being a man also includes emotional strength.  A man of emotional strength is able to look inside himself to acknowledge the good and the bad.  He is also willing to include those he trusts in this inner life.  It is this vulnerability that is a great marker of “constrained power”(meekness).

Let’s hear it for the boys Part 2: Self-Control

“Encourage the young men to be self-controlled.  In everything set them an example by doing what is good.” Titus 2:6

My last post focused on meekness; defined as “constrained power”.    I proposed that the characteristics of boys that are sometimes viewed as weaknesses could be harnessed as strengths.  I continue to explore the topic in this post with a practical example of turning “out of control into self-control.”


A mom I know told me the story of a recent day in her household.   It was a day that all parents of boys experience periodically.  They seemed to wake-up with more energy than normal, from the moment the day began all three of her boys were moving at break neck speed.  She ushered them through breakfast, clothes, brushing teeth, combing hair, packing bags, and off to school.  As she ran her daily errands she thought, “The afternoon would be better”.  This being the first frigidly cold day of the year, the normal afternoon spent outside running off energy was not an option.  So, as the boys returned home from school and finished their snack, things were not looking up.  There continued to be a sense of craziness in their behavior.  Kids were running and screaming, toys were being thrown, doors slammed, and mom was getting frazzled.  Mom, and the boys, were getting out of control.

Mom took a few deep breaths, put aside the things she “needed to get done” and created a game.  “Come here boys, and stand in a line” she said.  “Run up the stairs!”  “Slide down the stairs!” “Skip through the kitchen!” “5 jumping jacks!” “Crab walk around the table!”  “5 sit-ups!”  “Up the stairs again!”  All three boys eagerly completed each set of instructions, laughing and giggling their way back to the living room for the next plan of action.  Finally, mom lined the boys up in front of her.  Bringing her voice to a calm whisper she said, “Now, go down stairs and play, while I get dinner started.” The boys played alone for 30 minutes and for another hour with mom close by and involved.

I was inspired by this mother’s creativity.  Rather than being overwhelmed with the emotion and stress of the situation, she was able to create an experience of self-control.  I was struck by 4 things that enabled her to move her boys from being out of control to self-control.

Stay Calm:

            This mom fought the urge to become angry, overwhelmed, or frustrated.  She was able to maintain her self-control and acted as an excellent example to her boys by “doing what was good.”  As she put aside the things she “needed to get done” she was able to reduce the stress caused by daily concerns.  She gave herself a time-out, taking a few calming breaths before deciding how to handle the situation.

Provide Structure:

            When boys are experiencing high levels of energy, their behavior can become chaotic.  This mother recognized that the problem was not the level of energy but its focus.  She provided a focus for their energy at a time when they were struggling to do it on their own.  Her focus, helped the boys experience their high energy as a positive rather than a negative.

Matched Energy Level:

            This mom was attuned to what her boys needed.  They needed a chance to burn off some energy.  It would take more than a “no” to harness these horses.  She met their high level of energy with an equally high-energy alternative.  The need of the parent is to have the children play quietly while dinner is prepared.  She was wise in realizing that they needed help getting prepared for that quieter play.

Be Playful:

            Being playful may be the most difficult part of what this mom did.  Sometimes the first response of a parent is to shut down this type of play.  It is too loud, makes a mess, or someone may get hurt.  She spoke firm instructions in a playful tone.  She took an unwanted behavior and made a wonderfully enjoyable game out of it.  Sometimes when a parent joins the chaos setting playful and engaging structure, high-energy play can be a lot of fun.

Now, here is the tough part.  If this mom tried this same thing the next day it may not work.  The point in my opinion is to remember the 4 principles.  Stay calm, Provide structure, Match energy level, and Be playful.  Keeping these things in mind could be helpful for parents in managing any type of behavior.  They can be especially helpful when bringing boys from out of control to self-control.

Please leave comments below sharing the best ways you have found to help your children move from out of control to self-control.