A Secret to Helping Our Kids Achieve (Advice for the New Year)

(Transcript includes an updated response from the parent who requested Janet’s advice.) As parents, we are prone to worry, and a common concern is that our kids don’t seem motivated enough. Perhaps they aren’t mastering certain skills as quickly as we think they should or could—physically, cognitively, creatively, or socially. They might seem disinterested in doing things that we feel certain they’re capable of, even when we’ve gently encouraged them. Naturally, this confuses us. We wonder what we can do to help. In this premiere episode for 2024, Janet offers a counterintuitive suggestion for what we might be missing and how our good intentions can backfire.

Transcript of “A Secret to Helping Our Kids Achieve (Advice for the New Year)”

Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.

Today I’m going to be talking about this running thread that’s through many of the issues that parents share with me. It’s actually maybe not so much in the issues themselves, but in my thoughts about how to address these issues. These are the concerns that we have with our children’s development of skills of all kinds. Could be social skills, cognitive or motor skills, manners, character traits. We worry about those, right? Especially when kids are seemingly unmotivated, they’re not making progress, or they seem disinterested in doing things that we know that they’re capable of.

Could be a lot of things like getting dressed, building with blocks, drawing, not being welcoming to our friends and family, seeming too shy or too bossy with peers, not using good manners as we wish them to. Not interested in learning letters or numbers or learning to read. Seeming unfocused when they play, moving from one thing to another, or seeming to focus too much on this one mundane task with a toy. And even motor skill development, like when our child is still not walking at a year-and-a-half or even before that, we worry and we wonder what we can do to help.

Often the problem, or at least one element of the problem, stems from this spot-on comment that my mom used to make as a grandma. She was an excellent grandma, so into it. And I remember her saying, with her great sense of humor, when she would maybe make overtures to a child or she would be in the room when someone else was doing it, Oh, come on, give me a hug! She’d say, “Ah, I know. Oops. I want it too much, right?” Or to the other person, “I think you want it too much.” When we want it too much, our children feel that. Even when we want it a lot, our children feel that. And that can be pressurizing. Just as with all of us, or maybe just most of us, pressure can be uncomfortable. It’s nerve-wracking, unsettling, and it doesn’t set us up to learn or perform at our best.

So yes, there are exceptions for sure, but for most children, at least in this impressionable time of their life, this more open-to-us, this sensitive time from infancy right through their early teens, they need us, they need to please us. It’s a basic survival instinct that they have. So that pressure, that expectation that we have makes everything harder for them and can even delay learning, affect self-confidence and sense of self. When children know they’re not quite pleasing us, it doesn’t feel good.

The other element that goes hand-in-hand with this is our children’s healthy development of autonomy. Wanting to be their own person, especially as they start to become toddlers, and then all the way through the teenage years. They’re driven to feel autonomous, to feel a little independent of us. Of course, they still want us desperately and they want to be the ones to decide when to be independent of us. But that can get in the way of what we want, right? Because when we want our child to be able to do this thing and our child will likely feel that coming from us, it can make this side of them that wants to be autonomous say, No, they’re not going to do it. And that’s why the toddler years can be so challenging for us as parents because all of a sudden something that our child can do or usually wants, and now they’re saying no to it. What’s that about? It’s about growing up, it’s about being their own person. And it’s very, very healthy. And ideally we can try to remember to see it that way, that sort of rejecting us or things that we want for them is really integral to their healthy development.

But this is why it can be a very hard time when we’re directing our child’s toilet learning or wanting them to do things socially or all these other skills. The need for autonomy can show up there and cause children to naturally want to resist. Sort of holding themselves back from things that they could do to unconsciously make this stand as themselves, as their own separate person from us. If you want it, then I have to say no to it. That’s why children, beginning as toddlers, seem to say no a lot. They’re asserting self in this—hopefully we can see it as positive—way.

So, wanting things too much, wanting our child to do this specific thing, focusing our attention on it, worrying about it, maybe. That doesn’t help our children or help us to get what we want. And so what do our kids want? What do they need from us to be able to flourish?

It’s actually pretty simple because if we think about it, it’s what we all want from our loved ones. We want others to not only accept us as we are wherever we are in our journey, we want to be accepted wholly and loved for that. Rather than our loved ones or especially our parents wishing for more or different or the next thing in our development. So this is very simple, but it can be hard. It can be hard as parents to trust where our child is right now.

And there’s not a lot of help around us, usually. We live in a society that’s achievement-oriented rather than process-oriented, which is the arguably much healthier way that our kids are naturally, as innately gifted learners and explorers. So most of us, we’re not prone to being comfortable with the status quo. When we’re dating somebody, everybody asks, “Oh, how’s it going? When are you going to get married?” Then we get married. “When are you going to have a baby?” We have a baby. “When are you going to have another one? Are you going to have another one?”

And even a lot of parenting advice that’s out there these days is achievement-oriented. If you say these five words, your child’s going to feel better. Or, play a silly game with your child, not because you’re in a fun, loving mood that you want to share with them, but to get them to brush their teeth. Recently there was a popular post going around that said something to the effect of, The best thing you can say to your kids is that whatever grades you get in school, I’m going to love and accept you just as much. Now, there’s nothing really wrong with this, but I couldn’t help but see this from a child’s perspective. And I believe to a child, this would come off as this very kind of surface and late-in-the-game kind of message. Why is my parent saying this? Why does this need to be said? They’ve been giving me this message, or the opposite of it, through all their actions for years and years ever since I was small. Are they saying it to try to convince themselves? Are they saying it because this is kind of a band-aid that they hope will fix the years of subliminal messages that they’ve been giving me? Like when they interrupted my play to quiz me, Where’s your nose? Tell me the numbers, the alphabet song. Or when they got way more excited with my interest in reading than they ever did when I made mud pies or just played in the mud without making anything.

Children need us to show rather than tell these messages, because everything we’ve done with them has been showing them how we feel. If we really do take an interest in where they’re at, if we feel that that’s not only enough, but cool. So it’s not that we were wrong to do or say those kinds of things, but if we want our kids to be motivated in a healthy manner, from a place of confidence and comfort in their skin, knowing that they are enough because we’re making a point to show them that. And we won’t be perfect at this, we’ll need to keep reminding ourselves that actions speak louder than words. They always have, they always will.

So what do we do? Let’s say we realize that we’ve unintentionally given our child a lot of achievement messaging or that we’ve been subtly pressuring them to develop a certain skill. How do we change? Where do we begin? First of all, always, with self-compassion. With forgiving ourselves for doing something normal that almost everyone does at least a little bit, because we don’t have support to do otherwise, really. And knowing that really we’ve only been hurting ourselves, in a way, by buying into what’s encouraged around us by the greater society, by our family and friends. Isn’t your child doing this enrichment yet? Oh, they like that? You’d better give them a lesson so they’ll get better at it. We have a lot against us when it comes to trying to trust and wholly accept our children as they are. A lot against us. We don’t have encouragement, and we need it. So that’s where the self-compassion comes.

And then I recommend taking a look at some of the particulars, these things that we want so much for our child. It can be different for all of us. It’s worth exploring, right? Because, really, these things that we want a lot, that maybe we want too much, they’re a window into ourselves. They’re things that we want that we didn’t get, that weren’t encouraged in us, or that maybe we were scolded or rejected around. With that kind of self-reflection, there’s a lot we can learn about what matters to us. That’s where the healing begins. And that’s where we can start to differentiate between our child’s path—which we really don’t control at all. We can only encourage and support and hold boundaries around as needed, but we can’t decide who they’re going to be, what kind of things they’re going to like, what they’re going to want to do with their lives. So that’s where we get a clearer view of our child’s path and our own feelings, our wishes, our self-criticisms, etc.

So just as an example, and actually this note that I received from a parent is part of what stimulated me to want to talk about this today. This question kind of exemplifies what I’m talking about:

Hello, Janet-

Your guidance has fallen in line with the way my ex-wife has shared parenting with me. This framework/philosophy has not only improved the entirety of my daughter’s remaining life, but has also made my life better.

In regards to your recent episode about assertiveness, I found it, ironically, lacking in assertiveness. I’ve been in martial arts since high school, so I’m familiar with assertiveness, and I’ve “trusted the process” while trying to encourage my daughter—who’s eight—to speak up and stand up for herself. The issue is her lack of proper assertion is now starting to result in negative outcomes from interactions in her life. There has been non-zero progress, but nearly as much backsliding. I’m concerned that trusting the process is, in this case, too lackadaisical and will be harder to correct as she gets older.

Thank you for your work, and I hope you can offer some type of more specific action.

I wrote back: “Hi, thanks for your support. Can you explain your situation? Your question is too general for me to understand what you are getting at.”

And he wrote back:

Yes, sorry for being vague. I view it as a broad issue. I noticed this morning you have an episode about a strong-willed child. My daughter is strong-willed. She’s often bossy and wants to lead play on the playground. I joke she’s going to be the activities director for cruises. Paradoxically, her speaking up for herself is a skill I’ve tried to work on for most of her life. If she’s feeling cold, if there’s something she’d like to get or do, etc., it’s been some effort to get her to express herself.

It came to a head recently on the playground. A boy hugged her from behind. It was an unwelcome hug. She did nothing. Later that day, he hit her. She did nothing. This has also resulted in her grabbing things out of the hands of others, and she’s lost her cool with me once. It seems so strange, such a smart, strong-willed little girl not being able to express herself and set boundaries when appropriate.

I’ve talked with her and she agrees that sometimes her not speaking up leads to her being frustrated with people or situations, so she lashes out. Her daily behavior is phenomenal. I don’t want to misrepresent her. It’s that this is unusual behavior and increasing in frequency. I’m doing my best to get her to recognize the times she speaks up and it makes things better. I’m also flat-out having talks about why it’s an important skill. But I’m wondering if there’s a particular thing that can help me get her more secure in asserting herself.

Hopefully this better explains things.

I love this note. I love the love that this parent has for their child and their deep interest in them, and it seems like he sees his daughter very, very clearly. And this is so interesting, right? Because here’s a strong-willed girl, he describes her as, who’s very strong, can be bossy, bright, and she’s not standing up for herself. And as he says, this is unusual behavior. So I guess like other mysteries that we’re trying to solve, when something’s unusual, that means something, right?

This dad says, “Her speaking up for herself is a skill I’ve tried to work on for most of her life.” So there’s a clue, right? There’s the first clue. This is a really important skill to this parent. I don’t know how it’s looked that he’s tried to work on this for most of her life, but she knows it’s important to him and he’s focusing on it. We could say maybe he wants it too much. So she knows that, and she’s probably feeling both of these elements that I brought up earlier. She’s feeling the pressure of that. Oh, I know he wants me to assert myself when this child does this with me. And I’m feeling that vibration from him. He’s talked about this with me a lot. It’s a big message. It’s a big learning he wants me to do. Uh oh, the spotlight’s on. I can’t do it. So there’s that.

And also the other. I think especially because this is a strong child. He wants me to do this so much, I have to say no. And I don’t think this is conscious at all. I just can’t do it. I can’t give him what he wants here because I am my own person and I’m not going to let him decide just because he wants something that I’m going to do it. So again, not a conscious process inside our child’s mind, but that’s the impulse. That’s what we set up when we want it too much.

And he notices this. He says, “It seems so strange, such a smart, strong-willed little girl not being able to express herself and set boundaries when appropriate.” The thing is, she’s sort of expressing herself and setting boundaries with him, in a way, in these situations. You’re not going to decide how I handle this. I’m not going to do something that I know pleases you even though it would please me as well. And then the frustration that comes from that resistant mode that she goes into and feeling the pressure, both, that makes her later want to lash out. It’s frustrating, I wanted to do this, but I couldn’t do it.

He says, “I’ve talked with her and she agrees that sometimes her not speaking up leads to her being frustrated with people or situations, so she lashes out.” He says, “I’m wondering if there’s a particular thing that can help me get her more secure in asserting herself.” Yes, I believe there is, and it’s what we all want. You didn’t feel like asserting yourself there. Interesting. And, So what. That attitude. And I would dial all the way back his talks with her about how important this is, the teaching that he’s doing. All of that has sunk in, but now it’s holding her back, I believe. And when he backs off and becomes totally accepting of where she is right now and what she’s doing and taking an interest in that. Interesting. This very strong-willed girl doesn’t want to confront in the moment with some of these behaviors. That’s interesting. It’s not a bad sign. It’s not an endgame. It’s not a direction we need to worry about. It makes sense when we understand the way children think and feel and how perceptive they are when it comes to what we want. And how they’re, in this very subtle way, maybe training us to want the child we have, where they are.

And from that place we can learn to walk this very fine line of balance between where children need our support and help and where it’s getting in their way. And it’s kind of a lifelong journey that we’re on, trying to figure this out. We’ll never be perfect at it, but it’s sort of what takes raising children to another level for us mentally. That we can engage in this really interesting challenge of supporting without wanting it too much and without taking over in a way that doesn’t help our child.

And what I would say to her if I was this parent or any parent who realizes they’ve been maybe pressuring their child in some way or creating that resistance without meaning to, besides dialing it back and just not doing that and really accepting our interesting child where they are right now, I would put it forward. Because she knows and we know that she knows and she knows that we know that she knows. So I would put it out there: “You know what, I’ve talked to you a lot about standing up for yourself and how important that is and how much I want you to do that. And I realized you’re going to do it when you want to, when you feel ready. And that’s really nothing to do with me. I trust you. You know what you’re doing. You’re totally capable. And when you want to do that, when you’re ready, you’ll do it. If you ever want my support or my ideas around it, just ask.” She’s eight years old, so we can definitely have a conversation like that. But I would have one even with a one- or two-year-old. Maybe a little bit simpler, but I would offer up, You know I’ve been doing this. I know I’ve been doing this. Whether it’s around potty training or whatever. “I’m going to trust you when you’re ready.”

But we have to believe it first. We have to get there first before saying those words. We have to mean it. This is where what I used to do a long time ago, acting, and parenting are similar. It’s not good unless you believe it. In that moment, you believe it. So this is real life and we can believe it, right? It should be easier to believe in this child that he says “her daily behavior is phenomenal,” whatever that means. Wouldn’t we all love a parent who feels like that about us? So there’s no reason not to trust this child.

I remember an example from my class with this adorable girl. She was in my class from the time she was a very young infant until around three years old. And her parents were amazing and they really got the trust thing, and they saw how capable she was from quite young. I mean, we all saw it, we see it with all the children in different ways. And there was no reason not to trust her. But one day she—and I can’t remember how old she was, but I think it was after she had turned one, some months after—she took a few steps, she started walking it seemed. But then, she went back to walking on her knees. I guess crawling, but not on her hands and knees, just on her knees, like straight up. I haven’t seen that many children do this. And of course the parents were a little worried. What’s going on? Why is she doing this instead of walking now? We know that she can do it. They didn’t want it too much, but they were naturally curious.

One thing I was able to point out to them, and that’s what these classes are about, and the gift of them really, is that we can point out to parents what she is doing and give them all the encouragement they need to keep trusting. I said, “Well, this is still working for her, on her knees. And look at the muscles she’s building here. And look how speedy she is, getting around on her knees. When she sees the reason that she really would rather be walking, she’ll be doing that again.” And sure enough, I don’t know, it was maybe like three or four weeks went by, and she was up and walking. Very solidly, because she had all the confidence, all the motivation, all the muscle development and balance that she needed. She’d worked on it, on her knees.

So for the next year and the next and the next and the next, let’s give our children an empowering, life-giving message: You know your journey better than I do. You’re enough as you are, not because I say these words to you, but because you know that I really believe it. And to help us believe it, maybe we can work on a message from—and now I’m really dating myself—John and Ken. They had a talk radio show for years. My mother listened to it, so it’s got to be ancient. They used to say at the end of every show, EGBOK. And EGBOK is an acronym for “Everything’s Gonna Be OK.” One of my children and I always end our messages and calls with EGBOK. So, EGBOK to you, it’s gonna be okay.

And I have an idea for you for starting the new year right. My No Bad Kids Master Course will help you to fully absorb and internalize my relationship-centered approach. You can check it all out at nobadkidscourse.com. And my books have both been bestsellers on Amazon for years: No Bad Kids and Elevating Child Care.

Happy New Year. We can do this.

UPDATE: The parent who sent me the email kindly responded to this podcast:

Hello again Janet,

I just heard the episode in which you addressed my email. Thank you so much for giving such an insightful and thoughtful response. 

I can absolutely see either scenario fitting with what’s going on inside her. But beyond that, you’re of course right about her doing things on her own time. 

She took slightly longer than normal to walk. She took so long to talk, we began to wonder when we should become concerned. She regularly is chill, and then surpasses any expectations. 

I do trust her, and I think your advice was great. 

Thank you again. I look forward to future episodes, and I wish the best for you and yours.

Thank you!

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