November 27, 2023
Do you wish you had fewer conflicts with your children involving screen time, homework, and chores? Would you like to eliminate the sense that you’re nagging by instilling some sensible and effective habits in your kids? What about shoring up your children’s confidence and resilience in this age of anxiety and depression? Then I’ve got the book for you!
Sheri Glucoft Wong, a nationally recognized family therapist, has developed practical tools for parents who want to be more effective in setting behavioral expectations at home. She recently published a book with Olaf Jorgenson, a head of school in California, called Raising Kids: Your Essential Guide to Everyday Parenting.
I spoke with Glucoft Wong by phone to learn more about the concepts she presents in her book. Her answers to my questions provide practical advice for setting expectations and establishing boundaries at home. Her strategies also build children’s confidence, resilience, and independence. The interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
- You define self-esteem in a paradoxical way: writing that it comes from kids knowing they are simultaneously special and just like everybody else. Can you explain that?
It’s important that kids feel seen and heard as individuals. At the same time, kids need to feel a sense of connection and belonging. In middle school, it’s especially important to kids that they are connected to their peers. Kids gain confidence when they know they are like other kids. They know that they are not the only ones who have experienced rejection or who have been left out. Those are the moments when they need company.
- Throughout your book, you use the metaphor of “being on your spot” when instructing parents on how to effectively set expectations for their children. Will you unpack that metaphor?
Whenever parents have come up to me throughout my career, they’ve told me this “spot concept” has changed their lives. When parents don’t feel competent, I tell them to remember all of the highly effective areas in their parenting. Perhaps they have forgotten to give themselves credit for their children’s manners or confidence. They’ve been clear about those areas. When parents are “on their spot,” their mental convictions and hearts are in alignment. You are “on your spot” when expectations or boundaries are not negotiable. I would never presume to bring about something in a parent that isn’t already there. I simply summon it. I remind them that they have it in them to be on their spot about what’s important to them in the realm of parenting.
- Why are punishments for kids rarely effective?
Punishments are likely to make kids feel resentful, ashamed, or humiliated and they may not change their behavior. Feelings of shame don’t help kids grow, change, or further their relationship with the person administering the punishment. You punish at the cost of the relationship, of understanding, and of compassion. That’s a big cost. So instead, I’d want to understand. Misbehavior is the result of a kid trying to figure out how the world works. Get curious, rather than furious. The student may not be a stakeholder in the policy or understand it. The student who takes two desserts at lunch may just want more of a good thing without realizing that taking two results in other students with none. Explain the policy to help the student consider themselves and others in its application. That builds self-esteem.
- What do you mean when you say that feelings are not events?
The idea is that parents need to distinguish between what’s a big deal and a little deal. A kid with a big feeling over a little deal warrants compassion, but when parents align with this big feeling, they can easily make it into an event when it’s not. If a parent learns that a child’s classmate was unkind and focuses on how horrible this was that makes matters worse. Instead, they could encourage their child to focus on how that unkindness says something about the other kid and very little about their child. This helps kids keep things in perspective.
- Why should parents exercise a child’s “disappointment muscle”?
Disappointment is just a fact of life. The idea that a parent can protect a child from it is impossible. Parents should help kids manage small ones to build a child’s disappointment muscle and prepare them for handling bigger disappointments in the future. That way, hearing “no” won’t result in drama. Don’t avoid driving past the ice cream shop on the way home from school because you are afraid of saying “no.” We torture kids when we create an illusion of a world without disappointment.
- How can parents support students who struggle in school, without doing their homework for them?
One telltale sign that a parent has overstepped the line is if they spend time helping and it creates a pattern of them repeatedly prompting and cueing their child through homework. Sometimes parents don’t understand that it’s their kids’ work to do. Parents have been through middle school, so they need to let their kids have a turn.
Also, the teacher wants to know if the student understands the homework and can do it independently. Homework isn’t about performing; it indicates what students know. If a student doesn’t understand how to do the work, the teacher can take a different approach when teaching it again. Homework is between students and their teacher. When a kid doesn’t understand it, parents should encourage them to speak with the teacher and get the help they need.
- How is home a training ground for school?
Because kids think that their parents are rational, they assume that the structure of home life is intentional. They expect the outside world to look like that too. If home is always contoured to kids’ needs, then school is a rude awakening for kids. They won’t always be first; they will have to take turns. At the very least, they won’t be prepared and at the very worst, they won’t know how to get with the program. Home life needs to prepare kids for how the world works. Ask your child if the way they are speaking to you would work for their teacher. Ask them if the way they are interacting with a sibling would work for a classmate at school.
- You state in the book that “oh” is the most powerful word in being a good listener as a parent. Why is that?
Well, for one thing, you don’t have to do something about the feelings your kid has. You don’t have to address the issue. If your kid says, “Math class was awful today,” just say, “Oh.” Don’t editorialize on their feelings by saying, “That’s terrible.” A simple “Oh” will encourage them to talk. They might say, “Yep, we had a sub” and the parent could say “Oh” again. The child might go on to say, “Yeah, she didn’t know what we knew so everything was a review.” Parents who don’t jump in hear more of the story.
At the end of the conversation, I told Glucoft Wong that I admired how she always seemed to assume the best intentions of everyone involved when discussing the mediation between home life and school life. She told me that to build positive relationships people “need to include one another when looking at a situation and not just their own reaction.”
As a therapist, Glucoft Wong finds things that go wrong to be interesting rather than threatening; instead of judging, she leans in with curiosity and compassion to gain understanding so that wrongs might be made right.
In short, Glucoft Wong doesn’t just keep the promise of her book’s title by offering keen insights on raising kids. She also raises up the adults: honoring what they do well as parents, suggesting how they might do better, and underscoring how all of us might rise up and stand tall when we approach the world with the sort of curiosity that allows us to see it and our kids anew.
You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Elaine Griffin for Intrepid Ed News.