3. How to move from a should to could mentality

Before we move on to more practical aspects of your conversations, we need to discuss a little bit more about purpose and attitude.

The old-time upbringing was much more straightforward. The child was to obey the adult. The adults decided everything from what to eat to what to think and often even the future occupation of the children. Indeed, children often worked from an early age, and most left school before their teens. Well, we didn’t have “teenagers” until the middle of the 20th century.

My how times have changed, especially as the industrial age progressed and after the anti-democratic movements in Asia and Europe that led to the second world war. Slowly but surely, we became more in tune with what our children thought and wanted.

My parents rarely asked me what I wanted to eat. My mother made the food, and we ate it. However, with three boys in the 70s and early 80s, I found myself suddenly asking them what they wanted for dinner almost daily. It became very complicated. I dieted in one way, my wife in another, the oldest son only “dined” on black Swedish blood pudding (yuk), the next son decided he was a vegetarian, and the youngest, well, he was mostly just confused.           

A generation later, I picked up my youngest son’s two kids (before they had twins later that year) at their daycare. That is always an adventure. It was a winter day, and when they came through the door to their home, I reached for the two-year-old’s winter cap and pulled it off as a first step to helping him off with his winter jacket and pants. His four-year-old sister stops me and tells me that I have to ask her brother first if it’s OK to take off his cap. 

What??!! I took off the cap anyway, but big sister was not pleased. Later, as I made dinner for them, I set the table, and before I am to serve the youngest, he told me he doesn’t want that plate. He points and says No. So I change it for another. Again, No. I change it for a third. No. I take out the first one again. OK, that was alright. He simply wanted to be in on the decision-making – at the age of 2 ½. 

What the heck is going on here? Reading between the lines, I am sure you can tell that I am a “softie” and have never been a tough, rigid, or authoritarian type, with my “be nice” humanistic values. I have to admit, however, that I was more than flabbergasted. As an educational psychologist studying the art of leadership in the classroom, I know there need to be norms, rules, consequences, boundaries, and routines.    

How bringing up kids has changed – not for all, but for many parents – in this era of involvement, democracy, and respect for individuality. 

What to do? How do you find the right balance between the adult setting the rules and norms and the children having their say? But, of course, the adult has to set the rules, you say, and I counter and say, well, yes, but all the rules? Which rules? At what age can the child contribute to the rules or have a say in family routines? 

Suddenly it is a bit complicated, much like any democracy. Democracies are messy, and so is family life sometimes.

One way of looking at the changes in attitudes towards bringing up children and building a positive relationship with teenagers and young adults is to see the difference between what we can call “should” upbringing and “could” upbringing.

“Should” upbringing is the old pattern of telling, regulating, controlling, and sometimes shaming, threatening, or punishing. You should do this. You should do that. We always do it this way. Here’s what you have to do. These are the rules, and there is nothing you can do about it. If you don’t do that, then…

“Could” upbringing is more based on the idea of finding strengths, talents, and potential. What could you do? What are the alternatives? What is your thinking? What are the advantages and disadvantages? What skills are involved? How can you be more of what you can be? Where are you going with this?

This is not a course on upbringing, so I shall spare you a detailed discussion about upbringing ideology or methods through the generations. I am simply saying that modern upbringing has moved from “telling” to “communicating,” and communicating means respecting, sharing, discussing, and the give and take we assume happens if we believe in democratic ideals, even for children. When you use communication instead of telling, you need to understand that the result may be a whole lot different from what you had hoped for, planned for, or expected. However, you may be bringing up a “constructive, active citizen and contributor” in the long run. That’s not bad, but it may take its toll on everyday life! Yes, democracy and communication can be messy and still be extremely precious in the big picture of life’s and society’s potential. The methods I will soon describe in this course are built on the “could” concept and the “communicating” concept. You need to understand that to be open to my approach here.

This approach has many of the following underlying assumptions:

Each child is unique.

Each child has strengths.

Each child has individual rights.

Each child has opinions that need to be respected and heard, if not always followed.

Each child can take responsibility when cooperation is a family norm.

Each child can learn.

Each child will develop their own patterns of likes and dislikes.

Each child will grow within an atmosphere of acceptance and warmth.

A “could” mentality instead of a “should” mentality stands for your ability to communicate, see potential, encourage and accept the uniqueness of each child.

Now, get me right – this does not mean that everything has to be negotiated. If you recall some of your best teachers or bosses, you’ll most likely see that they had a good balance between their hard side and soft side. Too hard, and people become resentful. Too soft, and very often, nothing gets done with a lot of talk and no action. 

It’s the same as a parent for these new generations of kids who expect to have their say. Too hard, restrictive, or authoritarian does not breed loyalty and willing cooperation. Too soft, and the norms, rules, routines, and roles become uncertain. 

The balance is tricky.

Let us explore one way to make this shift from should to could and the balance between hard and soft – through the art of a good conversation.

Homework: Write three examples of should. This is a list of non-negotiable norms for your family life. For example, about the use of foul language, norms for family dinners, or routines that you absolutely want to stick to. To function effectively, every household (classroom or organization) needs a few clear non-negotiable statements of expected behavior.

Write three examples of could. One approach is to think of three things you could do more of together with your children. Would it be more play? More outdoor time? More time to talk before bedtime? What are at least three examples?

What would it take to communicate more clearly your three non-negotiable norms? If you were to do more of one of the things on your list, how can you make that happen this week?