Core Values: Challenging Behavior and the Healing Power of Kindness

By Jeanne Riether

Every mother has dreams for her kids – it seems to be hardwired into us. It’s good to dream and good to encourage our children to be the best they can be. Developing a good work ethic, a love of learning and healthy relationships with others are foundational skills first learned at home.

However, motivating the kinds of behavior and attitudes we want to see our children develop can be challenging, especially when we are frustrated, tired, late for work, and our kids just aren’t cooperating. And parenting a child who is dealing with complex emotional issues – a difficult medical condition, emotional loss or traumatic events – only increases the pressure. We often don’t know if we are expecting too much or too little. We may turn a blind eye to negative behavior simply because we don’t know what else to do.

What single, tried and proven parenting skill can we call on during the tough times when everything seems to be going wrong? When we’re exhausted from all the demands of parenting a child who is facing emotional challenges, what tool can we utilize to help us make sense of it all? Surprisingly, the secret weapon that can re-energize us is kindness.

The quality of kindness is a type of oil that helps lubricate the machinery of everyday life. It has a healing effect that can restore our emotional balance. A simple act of kindness can melt anger – both our own and that of others. When we are kind to those around us, it has the magical quality of restoring our own spiritual equilibrium in the process.

Being kind is empowering. Treating others with kindness – elements of which include tolerance, patience and understanding – sends a powerful message. It teaches children they are worthy of respect, and when we respect our children, they learn to model such behavior and are more likely to respect us in return. And what parent doesn’t crave more respect from kids?

Respecting a child does not mean becoming a permissive and indulgent parent who puts up with intolerable behavior with a grin. Kindness is the parenting skill of brave heroes, not passive cowards. Children facing emotional challenges need clear and involved parental guidance more than ever. When they face difficult illnesses or traumatic life events, they often end up in an emotional stew that causes them to act out in frustration, anger or fear. Aggression towards others or themselves, tantrums, and destructive behavior, are all common behavioral problems. Caregivers may find their patience tried to the limit, wanting to help their child but not knowing how.

Unfortunately, many mothers and fathers oscillate between abdicating parental control out of pity for the child, (“He’s been through so much I don’t want to make it even harder on him…”) and fury once their patience has reached the limit ( “That’s it! I’ve had enough of you!”) Gentle and firm consistency is important. When confronted with unacceptable behavior, respect knows when to put her foot down and say, “Sorry, I love you too much to allow you to hurt yourself or others”.

Setting behavioral limits is, in itself, an act of kindness because it restores order to the child’s world. It sets him on the path of normalcy, and stops treating him like someone incapable of doing the right thing. Letting a child know that there are acceptable ways of expressing anger, fear and frustration is like placing a tool in his hands; it gives him a way to cope with his overwhelming feelings in healthy ways.

Modeling your own behavior when you are frustrated or angry is a great way to show him how to handle his own intense emotions. Don’t keep it in until you’re ready to explode. It’s fine to firmly tell a child, “I feel very angry when you do that” because it teaches that his actions affect others and that anger can be controlled in healthy ways. It pinpoints his behavior as being unacceptable and unwelcome (“What you are doing makes me angry”) rather than the child himself being unacceptable and rejected (“You make me so angry!”).

Kindness and respect is a tangible quality that can be sensed in the way we speak and interact with others, and the way we expect others to speak and interact with us. Respect keeps the gears from grinding in our relationships; it’s easier to guide a child through troubled emotional waters when we’ve established a trusting, respectful relationship with him. Kindness provides stability when his world is turned upside down. It lets him know he is valued, and teaches him to how to value others. Building warm supportive relationships is a key factor in helping children develop emotional resilience.

Kindness is the sweet coating that we put on the bitter pill of life that our children are often forced to swallow. It can motivate them to keep trying, even in the face of monumental challenges. Perhaps it is best summed up in the words of the wonderful educator, Leo Buscaglia, who once said: “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

Yet, despite our best efforts and good intentions, all too often a harsh word flies from our lips. Discouraged, we despair that we will never be the type of parent we know should be. When you are tempted to feel that way, it’s time to practice being kind to yourself. Remember, nobody is perfect. The myth of the perfect parent is just that: a myth.

Skills do not come naturally, they have to be learned. Like any other skill, we can become better at being kind the more we practice it. We can start making a conscious effort to choose words and actions that will uplift our children. We can make the decision to try again, and hone our skills as we go.

And when we make mistakes? Well, we can always apologize to our kids, and let them know how much we love them, even when we goof.

After all, it’s the kindest thing to do…

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Finding the ‘Ability’ in Disability:

Help Your Child Avoid the Snare of ‘Learned Helplessness’

By Jeanne Riether

Raising a child with disabilities can be a challenging task, not only physically but emotionally. When a child realizes he faces circumstances that set him apart from others, his attitude towards his lot in life will largely determine the degree of happiness and success he achieves. While there are many things a child with a disability cannot do, there are countless things your child can and must be encouraged to do, and the earlier he learns to major on what he can accomplish, rather than on what he can’t, the happier and more fulfilled he will be.

How can you counteract the frustration and discouragement your youngster feels at being different from the rest? How can you help him learn problem solving skills that will insulate him from the temptation to give up in defeat when physical, intellectual or social obstacles block his way? One way is to avoid falling into the trap of ‘learned helplessness’ as you raise him at home.

What is learned helplessness?  A simple definition would be that it is the automatic assumption that you can’t do something when you actually can. However, learned helplessness is also a technical term used in psychology for a condition in which people learn to behave helplessly through behavioral and social conditioning, though they possess the ability to avoid or change unpleasant or harmful circumstances.

How does a child adopt a mindset of learned helplessness? While no one would intentionally teach a child to develop such an attitude, it is nevertheless an easy snare to fall into when raising a child with a disability. If he is surrounded by eager and loving hands who constantly try to make life as painless as possible for him, you may unintentionally stifle his drive for independence and rob him of the opportunity to cultivate self-worth. If you fear he already has enough to contend with in life, and try to relieve him of the burden of struggling with tasks that you can do for him in faster, better or neater ways, you may be unintentionally doing him more harm than good.

Children with disabilities typically experience a great deal of frustration when confronted with challenging tasks. Your attitude as a parent can, however, make a huge difference in teaching him to rise to the challenge. There is a delicate balance between knowing when not to abandon a despairing child to fend for himself, and knowing when it is necessary to let him struggle through until he experiences the thrill of accomplishment and self-reliance. This is what elevates good parenting to an art form rather than a black and white set of rules and instructions. It is the essence of love to give your child what he needs, when he needs it. Sometimes, however, figuring out just what he needs at the time can be a mind boggling task.

So what can you do? A wise parent watches, observes, and learns to understand their child. Without this understanding, it is difficult to know just when to step in and when to step back. Parenting skills are honed through trial and error, the same way your child develops his own life skills. You can learn to sense when your child needs to you to intervene. Praise and encouragement are powerful motivational tools that you can utilize when his inspiration is lagging. However, it is not your job to shield and protect him from all of life’s struggles and it will only harm him if you attempt to do so. Your child needs to experience the frustration of trial and error, for this is how he learns that he has control over himself and his environment.

When people perceive life to be uncontrollable and unpredictable, they generally lose hope that what they do or don’t do matters. Children who adopt such attitudes of learned helplessness typically struggle academically, are unmotivated to perform physical tasks that require problem solving skills, and are at risk of depression and social anxiety. With such an attitude, a child is beaten before he begins.

Your child’s disability is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, it has handed him a heavy burden to carry in life, but on the other it has given him a chance to excel in ways few people are privileged to know. His unique life circumstances offer an unparalleled opportunity to develop independence, character and courage. He cannot be pushed into self-reliance, and his training must be tempered with compassion and understanding of his abilities and fears. He needs a cheerleader, not a slave driver.  But if you realize that your child is one of the gifted few who can learn first-hand that obstacles can be turned into opportunities if he is willing to embrace the challenge, you will release your child from a self-imposed cage of defeat.

From the earliest age, all children can be taught social and emotional skills that will foster positive attitudes towards self-care and problem solving. The following excerpts on the importance of teaching children self-care skills are from our book, ‘Foundations for Excellence’: A Rainbow of Social and Emotional Skills From Birth to Three” (Riether and de Gaalon)

Foundations for Excellence

“There is a folk-tale about a rich and mighty emperor who once lived in great splendor, attended by many servants. When his kingdom was besieged by enemies, however, all his servants fled in fear. The helpless monarch, who had never before dressed himself, could not escape. He was captured by his adversaries, who found him naked in his chambers, struggling with the laces of his shoes.

“Unlike the hapless emperor, most children are eager to become independent at a young age and love to learn skills that will help them achieve that goal. Children learn to master their environment by practicing newly discovered skills for independence. Your child derives great satisfaction from discovering how to care for himself and his things. Learning self-care and practical life skills instills him with a sense of order, respect and value for himself and others. He should not be pushed into independence, but neither should he be held back when he shows a desire to explore and learn.

“Most home environments are set up in ways that make it difficult for children to become independent easily. A child who is not provided with opportunities to practice and master skills for independence tends to adopt a passive role towards life. He becomes a spectator, rather than an active participant. He learns to expect to be waited on by adults, because that is the role they have always assumed in his life. When bored, he expects others to entertain him, because he is unsure of how to occupy himself. He may become demanding and whiney when others are not constantly at his beck and call, because he doesn’t know how to help himself.

“When a child senses that others perceive him as helpless and incapable, he tends to believe them. If he doubts his ability to learn new skills, he learns to be dependent on others. This type of ‘learned helplessness’ can cause him to wait on others to do things for him rather than risk making a mistake by doing it himself. The mindset of helplessness can extinguish confidence and curiosity, and render him incapable, even though he has the ability to learn.  He assumes he is unable and, in the words of inventor Henry Ford, “Whether you think that you can or you can’t, you are usually right.”

“No parent would purposely teach their child to feel helpless, but it can happen unintentionally for a number of reasons.  A newborn is totally dependent on adult care, and sometimes parents automatically continue in that role much longer than necessary. Some mistakenly feel sad or guilty about encouraging their child towards independence. The physical care they provide for him is an expression of their love and devotion, and they are reluctant to see that phase of childhood end. Other busy parents simply dread the extra work of cleaning up after a child who attempts to feed, dress or wash himself, so they discourage him from trying.

“Whatever the reason, being too quick to do things for your child is not helping him. Though parental roles must change as children grow, children need their parents to guide and coach them. Providing your child with opportunities to learn self-care and practical life skills will ignite a fire of curiosity in his young mind, and lead him down the path of independence.

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Soaring Above the Challenges of Life

If You Want to Change the World, Love a Child

At the United Nations World Summit on Children, the ‘UN Convention of the Rights of the Child’ was created.  This treatise, signed by all U.N. member countries, protects children’s dignity as well as their moral, social, legal and cultural rights. Of the most basic rights included in the Charter, one interesting and thought provoking point is addressed: the child’s right “to be loved”.

Who is responsible to fulfill such an obligation? Is it a duty to fall only on biological parents, the government or the school system? Who is ultimately responsible to provide a child with needed emotional support and care?

Love is not a commodity, like rice or sugar, which can be mass marketed. It must be nurtured individually and passed on personally. In all our striving to provide superior education, health care and environment, let us not forget the most basic human need of all, the care and concern of another human heart. The power of love to heal is unparalleled. Opportunities to give that love abound.  What lies within our grasp is the chance to change the world, by changing the life of a child through love.

What difference will loving one child make? Such a question reminds us of the classic story by Loren Eisley, about the man, the boy and the starfish. After a fierce stormy night, the sea had washed thousands and thousands of starfish onto the inhospitable shore. As the morning sun arose high in the sky, a man walked along the coast and observed the situation, pitying the ill-fated creatures who would not survive for long out of the sea. He then noticed a small boy, diligently picking up the starfish nearest him and flinging them back into the surf.  Again and again the child repeated his efforts, tossing one starfish after another into the waves.

Approaching the child, the man shook his head , pointed to the desolate beach that was covered for miles with stranded starfish, and remarked that the boy’s efforts wouldn’t make any difference at all. Without pausing, the child bent down, picked up another starfish, and flung it as far as he could out into the sea.  The boy looked up at the man and wisely noted, “It sure made a difference to that one, didn’t it?”

Jeanne Riether and Hugues de Gaalon

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Are You Ready For Life’s Journey?

Keep an Eye on Your Most Important Valuables…

By Stephanie Riether

Have you thought about how much life resembles traveling at times?

Though travel can be both thrilling and nerve wracking, I personally love the adventure of experiencing new and exotic destinations. There is just something electrifying about sitting on a jet that is about to take off. The roar of the engine somehow thrills me just as much now as it did when I was a child.

I’ve traveled a lot over the last two years on trips to Japan, Hong Kong and the Philippines and my favorite souvenirs have been the memories of my escapades. Yet, as much as I love globe-trotting and exploring, all the preparation, planning, and packing that go into getting ready for a trip, added to the stress of dealing with airports, border crossings, customs and luggage, can all be pretty draining at times. And though I experienced some unforgettable moments, had loads of fun and made new friends each time, I also got myself into more than my share of trouble along the way.

Somehow on my travels I managed to encounter everything from delayed flights, rough seas and traffic jams, to rude people, food poisoning, and pickpockets.  I got hopelessly lost on more than one occasion and learned many lessons the hard way. However, each time I managed to make it home safely with a good story to tell afterwards, and hopefully a little bit wiser from the experience.

One important gem of practical wisdom that I picked up, however, prevented me from getting into even worse scrapes than the ones I routinely found myself in.

Whenever I managed to find myself in a difficult or unfamiliar situation, my priority shifted to ensuring that my passport and money remained safe and secure, tucked into a money belt I discretely wore beneath my clothes.

I figured as long as I kept that safe I wouldn’t have too many problems. On some adventures my hat, bags and other belongings took a scuffing or were even lost, but as long as I had my valuables, I was ok. Keeping them secure always got me safely home.

It’s easy to relate traveling to the many twists and turns we face along the journey of life. We unexpectedly encounter illness, loss of loved ones, and are presented with difficult questions and choices that hit us like a ton of bricks. Life, like traveling, can seem a long journey at times. As when arriving in an unfamiliar town or city, sometimes all we really long for is to make it home again safe and sound, with as little as possible lost along the way.

Yet, amidst the surprises and losses we face, there’s one thing we can’t afford to lose, an essential which you must keep with you, tucked safely and discretely out of harm’s way, where it won’t get lost: your hope.

Hope is one of your most valuable possessions.  Keep it tucked safely close to your heart, where no one can steal it. No matter if everything else gets scuffed up, mishandled or lost along the journey, keep your hope with you at all times. Don’t put it down or misplace it, for hope contains the power to see you to your destination.

It will get you safely home, despite the trouble you find yourself in now.  And boy, will you ever have a story to tell once you get there!

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