Signet’s CEO, Jay Bacrania, speaks with a parenting coach, Cindy Kaplan, about the ways parents and children interact, understanding the difference between soft and hard boundaries, and reframing responses to deepen parent-child connections.
Your view of parenting seems a bit different from conventional views. How do you define the role of a parent?
Most parents I work with believe that their job is to shape and guide their children. Instead, I encourage parents to recognize that their children come into the world as fully intact souls and beings. Our job is actually to learn from our children and let them be our teachers.
That’s not to say that we let them make the rules. As parents, we do need to set clear boundaries. Parents are the ones who first enroll their children in dance class or music lessons, but they need to be able to step back after that. It’s important see which activities really light children up and go from there.
Under what circumstances do parents come to you for coaching?
On some level, all the parents I work with have the feeling that they are failing their children, and that’s something I want to help them with. My goal is to have both parent and child feel successful by their own standards.
The way I do that is by helping parents clarify the values they want to see in their families. We explore the boundaries that are set in stone and the ones that are set in sand. Very often, it’s a parent’s lack of clarity that contributes to their negative feelings; so much of it is not about the kids at all. Understanding which values are important allows parents to sidestep being over-controlling or wishy-washy with boundaries.
An important element to this work is being able to look past a child’s behavior to see what’s really going on. Parents need to be able to recognize which elements of our children’s behavior may have to do with our own issues. Even if our own parents did the best they could, we all carry the wounds of places where our parents unintentionally missed the mark. Those are the places we need to bring more awareness in order to let our children be free to be themselves.
If a parent calls you because they’re facing a challenge, what happens next?
The first thing I do is invite the parent in for a conversation. Before I even offer coaching, I need to understand what they want to work on, the changes they hope to see, and what’s currently in the way of making those changes happen. If a parent is ready to dive into the process, we’ll typically work together for about three months. My sessions are either face-to-face, in person or via video chat, or over the phone. Although we typically meet weekly, I’m also available by email and can jump on the phone in an emergency situation.
Do you set up a specific goal during your time together or try to give them a broader perspective on how to look at things?
Our work can encompass many different things depending on what the parents are looking for. During our time together, my goal is to help them find solid ground so they can feel good about their parenting. That might mean doing crisis management for a specific challenge, such as struggling with bedtime, or we might be broadly learning to interact with children differently.
What are the types of concerns parents bring to you, particularly for teens and pre-teens?
One common issue is a teenager who has distanced themself from the parents and doesn’t want to spend time with or really even talk to them.
I also frequently talk with parents whose children are struggling in school. In that instance, we are not only looking for strategies to help the children but also examining parents’ high expectations. Parents may need strategies around the college process as well: how to be helpful without nagging, what happens if a child doesn’t want to go to college, etc..
Is there anything you don’t feel comfortable managing?
The only time I send people elsewhere is when it looks like we’re dealing with mental illness that would require more therapy and a different kind of professional help.
How do you see parents playing a role in the behavior their children are exhibiting vs. children acting of their own accord?
Most of the time, parents do play a role in their teens’ behavior. When there’s alcohol abuse by a teen, for example, there might be an obvious connection to alcohol abuse in the home. But even when that’s not the case, the root cause of acting out like this is usually children’s desire to be seen, heard, and accepted by their parents.
It’s hard to believe sometimes that our teens want our approval and acceptance, but they do. Even as adults, whether our parents are living or not, most of us still have a sense of wanting to please them or make them proud. Those dynamics never really go away.
All human beings crave this kind of connection. If a child is not getting that connection at home, they may seek it outside the family in a peer group.
Teens also believe what we as parents tell them, as well as what we demonstrate through our behavior. So if our speech or behavior shows our children that we don’t believe in them or that they can’t be trusted, they will grow up to embody those identities that we’ve prescribed for them.
Parenting is the hardest job. We don’t usually bring children into the world for the sake of our own personal growth. But our kids are our mirrors, and if we’re open to that, they show us everything we need to work on. It’s a matter of being willing to see it.
Most of us are walking around with these layers of “shoulds” and “what ifs” that we’ve taken on from cultural, religious, and familial backgrounds. That means we’re parenting from a place of fear, which makes it really hard to establish connection.
Where does the idea come from that kids always want to do well?
It’s a core philosophy of the Think Kids program based out of Mass General. Kids want to do well; when they don’t, the problem is skill, not will. Keep in mind that doing well or being successful is defined by an individual’s sense of self. It doesn’t mean getting into Harvard.
What kinds of changes do you bring about in a parents mindset or behavior?
I try to help parents shift the kinds of conversations they’re having with their students. Let’s go back to the example of teens and alcohol. First, parents need to acknowledge that lots of kids try drinking and smoking during high school. This is normal and even to be expected. Rather than having harsh punishments for any infraction, parents are better off saying something like, “I know you will be exposed to these things. What I ask is that you never get into a car with someone who has been drinking. You can always call us and we will always be there for you.”
If, rather than grounding a child who is caught drinking, the parent says, “You must have had a really good reason for doing what you did. What was it?” then there’s a conversation around the issue. Likewise, instead of implementing a harsh punishment for missing curfew, parents can express to their children that they are worried sick when they don’t come home on time.
Of course, there are certain safety issues, such as drinking and driving, that require immediate consequences, such as taking the keys away.
What it comes down to is that parents see their children as reflections of themselves. If you were the kid who followed the rules, it can be shocking to have a child who’s throwing snowballs at cars or biting other kindergarteners in the classroom. We have an ingrained belief that as parents, we are in charge. When things don’t follow that path, it’s alarming and upsetting.
Once we step back, we can see how much we make our children’s behavior about us. How we’re feeling usually has to do with how we fear we’ll be viewed by other people. When we can learn to separate ourselves from our children, and also take in the idea that every kid wants to please their parents, that allows us to respond differently. It’s a matter of saying, “My child is having a hard time,” instead of “My child is giving me a hard time.” Maladaptive behavior means that something is getting in a child’s way.
There’s an interesting interplay between soft boundaries and strong boundaries. When those strong boundaries are crossed, parents want to have strict and serious consequences for that. How do you balance that with open dialogue between parents and children?
My family has a rule around cell phones: no phones at the table. This is an example of a non-negotiable boundary. These are the life-affirming boundaries: hygiene, safety, respect for others, respect for ourselves, education. But there should be a limited number, and the rules around them should be clear and specific.
Let’s use an example of a child who is on the smartphone and not getting homework done. Instead of just taking the phone away, the parent could start a conversation. “Hey, I see you’re having some trouble finishing your homework. I’m wondering if your phone is getting in the way? Tell me more about that.”
Hopefully opening a line of communication allows the child to get to a place where they are co-creating a boundary around the phone usage. It’s important to be specific in these conversations rather than making broad assertions, and it’s also important to come to the table with a spirit of collaboration.
Also, keep in mind that many actions have natural consequences. Anytime parents are focusing on what the “right” consequence would be, they’re headed down the wrong path. A student who spends too much time on the phone and doesn’t complete their homework is already going to feel bad about that. It doesn’t feel good to not do well in school. The consequence is a natural outcome of the choices the student makes.
What can parents do to implement changes and hold the mirror up to themselves to shift their interactions with their children?
I love using the metaphor of a water balloon toss. If someone is tossing you a water balloon and you catch it stiffly, like a baseball, the balloon explodes. On the other hand, if you move your hands to match the path of the balloon, you catch it softly and the balloon stays intact. Good parental behavior doesn’t break the balloon.
Unless it’s an emergency, parents first need to take in what their child is doing, then notice what response that behavior is triggering in them, and finally, determine how to respond to their child. Too often, parents jump to wanting to fix things based on their own beliefs, standards, and fears. It’s completely normal to have those thoughts, but if parents don’t recognize them, the thoughts spiral out to the point where the response is not to the situation, but to the circumstances inside their heads.
The best thing parents can do is to become aware of all that stuff inside their heads, so they can separate that from the child in front of them and give that child the support they need. If parents learn to ask more intelligent questions, it becomes possible to address the problem’s root causes, which is the best way to solve it. Getting curious instead of judgmental goes a long way.
It sounds like more work on yourself than most parents expected to sign up for.
It’s hard at first and then it becomes quite fun. We are on a constantly evolving path, and who we are yesterday is not who we are today or who we will be tomorrow. The reason we have children is to break us out of our walls and tear down our expectations. If we resist that, parenting becomes really hard.
Parents also need to have compassion for themselves and recognize that they are doing the best they can with the tools they’ve been given. Hopefully, I’m able to offer some additional tools to make the journey a little easier.
Cindy Kaplan is a parent coach with a background in family and couples therapy. She is passionate about helping parents gain clarity, appreciation, and confidence in order to build stronger familial relationships. Cindy believes that as parents, the most important thing we can do to help our kids grow up well is to examine our own beliefs and shift the way we think about parenting. Although her office is located in Newton, MA, Cindy coaches parents all over the country.