Recognizing Our Default Settings
Sometimes we forget that parenting, like love, is a verb. It takes effort and work to yield positive returns. There is an incredible amount of self-awareness involved in being a good parent. It requires us to look at what we do when we are tired and stressed and stretched to our limits. These actions are called our “default settings.” Our default settings are the actions and reactions we have when we are too tired to choose a better way.
Most of our default settings are inherited from our own parents. They are ingrained and programmed into us like a motherboard on a computer. They are the factory settings we return to when we are at our wit’s end and not thinking; they have been installed in us by our upbringing. It’s when we hear ourselves saying things we don’t really want to be saying. It’s when we act and react in ways we aren’t sure we want to be acting and reacting. It’s when we feel bad because deep down we know there is a better way to get results from our kids, but we aren’t sure what it is. Anyone who has kids is familiar with this feeling.
That’s why it is so important to look at your default settings, study them, and understand them. What do you like about how you act and react with your children? What don’t you like? What are you doing that is just a repeat from your own upbringing? What would you like to change? Only when you see what your natural inclinations as a parent—your default settings—are can you decide how you want to change them for the better.
Using the easy-to-remember acronym PARENT—play, authenticity, reframing, empathy, no ultimatums, and togetherness—we’ll examine some of the tried-and-true methods that have been working for parents in Denmark for more than forty years.
P Is for Play
- Turn it off
Turn off the TV and the electronics! Imagination is an essential ingredient for play to have its positive effects.
- Create an enriching environment
Studies show that a sensory-rich environment coupled with play facilitates cortical growth in the brain. Having a variety of materials around that can stimulate all of the senses—visual, auditory, tactile, and so on—enhances brain development during play.
- Use art
Children’s brains grow when they make art. Therefore, don’t show them how to do it—just put out the art supplies and let them create spontaneously.
- Let them explore outside
Get them outside as much as possible to play in nature—the woods, the park, the beach, wherever. Try to find safe areas where you aren’t afraid to let them be free and explore the environment. These are places they can really use their imaginations and have fun.
- Mix children of different ages
Try to mix your children with children of different ages. This enhances the zone of proximal development, allowing one to facilitate the other’s learning, helping each get to a new level naturally. In this way, children learn to both star in the game as well as cooperate with the older ones. They learn to participate as well as challenge the game. This is teaching the self-control and negotiation skills so necessary in life.
A Is for Authenticity
- Root out self-deception
Be honest with yourself first and foremost. Learn how to look at your own life authentically. Being able to detect and define your own emotions and how you truly feel is a huge milestone. Teaching emotional honesty to your kids and preventing them from becoming self-deceptive is a great gift. Listening to and expressing one’s own true thoughts and feelings is what keeps us on the right track to going after what makes us happy in life. Being honest with ourselves is how we calibrate our internal compasses to set ourselves in the right direction.
- Answer with honesty
If your kids ask a question, give them an honest answer. Of course, your answer has to be age appropriate and commensurate with their level of understanding. Being sincere in your responses is important in all aspects of life, even the difficult ones. By not being authentic, you undermine your child’s ability to sense what is true and false. Kids are incredible lie detectors, and they can feel unstable if you are being fake.
- Use examples from your own childhood
Whether it’s the doctor’s office or a difficult situation or just a fun time, kids like to hear about your experiences and how you felt when you were little, particularly when it’s true and heartfelt. This gives them a better understanding of who you are and lets them know that their situation is normal even if they are scared, happy, or sad.
- Teach honesty
Talk with your children about how important honesty is in your family. Make it a value. Let them know you put more emphasis on honesty than on the punishment for bad behavior. If you confront your kids accusingly with anger or threats and are punitive when they misbehave, they might become afraid to tell the truth. If you make it safe for them, they will be honest. Remember, it takes a lot to confess or tell the truth for anyone at any age. It doesn’t always come naturally. It’s up to us to teach them to be courageous enough to be honest and vulnerable and confess when necessary. Be nonjudgmental. This kind of honest relationship, if fostered well, will be paramount during the teenage years.
- Read stories that encompass all emotions
Read all kinds of stories to your child. Don’t be afraid if they don’t all have happy endings. Actively choose stories that have difficult topics too, and stories that don’t conclude in a “storybook” way. Children learn a lot from sadness and tragedy (being age appropriate, of course), and they open up honest communication between you about different aspects of life that are just as important as the prince getting the princess. Being exposed to peaks and valleys of life encourages empathy, resilience, and feelings of meaningfulness and gratitude for our own lives.
R Is for Reframing
- Pay attention to your negativity
Practice noticing when you have a negative thought pattern. Just try to notice it and see how often you are using negativity to view a situation. Try to come up with different ways of looking at things that upset you, such as fears or worries, as an exercise. Try taking a step back in perspective and see if you can find understanding and another way to see things or a way to focus on a more positive aspect.
- Practice reframing
Think about how realistic your thoughts are and try changing the phrasing. Consider the following sentences: “I never have time to exercise. I am so fat.” “I am a terrible writer.” “My mother-in-law is so annoying.” Now try turning them into a different sentence. “I do manage to exercise at least once a week, and I am trying to eat salads for lunch, which feels good.” “I am a pretty decent writer once I get in the zone.” “I love my mother-in-law even if we have our differences. She is a great grandmother to the kids.” It can be challenging to do, but we know it makes a difference in our brain chemistry, and this affects our well-being. At first it can even feel silly to do it, but the better you get at reframing, the better you will feel. Everything we see and say negatively about ourselves, our family, and our anxieties and fears passes directly on to our kids, so give the gift of reframing to yourself and your children and help them become better at coping with life’s ups and downs.
- Use less limiting language
Try to eliminate the black-and-white, limiting language. I hate this, I love that, I always, I never, I should, I shouldn’t, I am like this, she is like that, and so on. Limiting language leaves little room to maneuver and is only viewing things from one’s own angle. Try to use more tempered, less severe language. Use less judgment and more acceptance, and you will find yourself in fewer power struggles with your kids and your partner.
E Is for Empathy
- Understand your own empathic style
Some questions to ask and discuss are:
- What does empathy mean for me?
- What does empathy mean for my partner?
- Where do we agree and disagree?
- What are our values to the core?
- How judgmental am I of myself and others? How judgmental is my partner of others?
- How does our language style reflect this?
How can I change my language style to reflect a more empathic style with less judgment? Remember, this isn’t easy, but with practice you will get better. Try listening to yourself first to see how much you talk about others, and then think of alternate ways to express yourself that involve more empathy. Remember, your children are mirroring you. Help your partner do the same.
- Understand others
Practice understanding others instead of shaming them. You will be amazed how often you are judging others and what a difference it makes to find a reason to defend them by putting yourself in their shoes. This is really putting empathy into practice.
- Notice and attempt to identify emotions
Help your child see others’ emotions as well as experiencing his own without imposing your judgment. “Sally was angry? Why was she angry? What happened? What do you think about what happened?” Not “She shouldn’t have been angry and done that.”
- Read, read, read
Studies show that reading to children markedly increases their empathy levels. And not just reading nice books but reading books that encompass all emotions, including negative and uncomfortable ones. Dealing with reality, even at the level kids can handle, is honest and authentic and is proven to significantly improve empathy.
- Improve meaningful relationships
Try using empathy to patch up some of your own relationships. Having fractured relationships has been proven to cause physical and psychological damage. Empathy and forgiveness activate the same region of the brain, which means the more you hone your empathy skills, the easier it is to forgive and be forgiven. Meaningful friend and family relationships are the most important factors determining true happiness, well above having a lot of money.
N Is for No Ultimatums
- Remember to distinguish the behavior from the child
There isn’t a bad child, just bad behavior. And there is also bad parenting.
- Avoid power struggles
If you don’t look for power struggles, you won’t find them. Always think win-win, not “How can I win?”
- Don’t blame the child
Take responsibility for yourself, and try to do better next time.
- Try to see that children are inherently good
Children are supposed to push boundaries and test the rules. They are not bad and manipulative. This is how they grow.
- Teach your children
Guide them, nurture them, and educate them. Don’t just punish them and see them as needing more discipline. Try finding ways to manage difficult behaviors. Don’t label them as “sneaky” or “manipulative” or “terrible.” Words matter. The behavior is the behavior; it’s not the child.
T Is for Togetherness and Hygge
- Be in the moment together
Everyone should agree to leave their daily stressors at the door. Don’t focus on the bad things in your or someone else’s life. Try not to dwell on negativity or speak negatively about others too much. Everyone must make an effort to be in that moment together. Keep it lively and jovial and non-accusatory. Kids mirror this behavior—and they feel safe and valued in doing so.
- Practice “preframing”
Prepare yourself and your family for a get-together so that you’ll get the most out of it without putting on your usual prescription glasses for the world or your family. Try to imagine what kind of experience you are about to have, and then think or talk about coping strategies that will help you remain calm while you are there. Remember that stress-free get-togethers with family greatly increase well-being. We are often stuck in our ways with different family members. Change it. Use empathy, reframing, and preframing to help.
- Have fun together
When the whole family spends time together, play games, inside and out, that everyone can take part in. Put your personal preferences aside and simply get out there and have fun.
- Make it cozy
Make the atmosphere cozy with warm lighting, homemade craft projects and decorations, and food and drinks you’ve prepared together.
- Take a break from complaining
Whenever you feel the urge to complain, instead see where you can help out. This alone, if everyone agrees to do it, makes a huge difference in the level of happiness you’ll share as a family.