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Parents Change First

Air Date: 01/18/11 Cheryl can be reached at 775-331-6723 or at I was at the gym, working away on the elliptical trainer and watching a rerun of "The Dog Whisperer" on my personal TV monitor when I heard Cesar Milan make his trademark statement: "I rehabilitate dogs; I train owners." There are more parallels between me and ol' Cesar than I care to go into at the moment, but his point about where to start in creating change (and who really needs the training) is well taken.             I couldn't tell you how often parents or teachers come to me with a desperate plea to "please change this kid." And certainly, living and working with children can pose challenges. While we often forget it, children are not, in fact, small adults. They do not perceive or experience the world the way adults do; their brains do not function in the same way. Children and teenagers process emotions, make decisions, and experience life very differently than their befuddled parents and teachers-and we adults (who, believe it or not, were once children and teens ourselves) often forget that it takes years to acquire the skills and maturity to function as an independent, responsible person. In the meantime, of course, adults wind up dealing with the challenges of defiance, tantrums, sibling fighting, chores, homework, and-well, you know all that.             There's another issue here as well. Even if a professional could "fix" kids, the repaired and improved child would have to return home to....well, you. And chances are that whatever battles you've been fighting would start all over again sooner or later. Truth is, children will only change when adults change first.             It's important to recognize why this is true. For better or worse, children learn everything about the world from their parents. From the moment of their birth, your child watches you to discover how the world is organized, what he must do to be valuable, loved, and included, and how to respond to the challenges of life. He doesn't automatically know that the family next door has an entirely different set of rules: as far as he can tell, whatever you're doing is the way things "should" be done. This is one of the reasons that raising a child is such an overwhelming responsibility. We fragile, all-too-human parents have a powerful influence on how a child sees his or her world-and on how that child decides to approach life.             Take yelling, for instance. In my humble opinion, yelling may be the single least effective and most counterproductive parenting strategy ever invented. It never solves a problem, makes everyone in the family feel irritated and unhappy, and breeds more and more arguments and conflict. In fact, parents who yell tend to have children who yell back. I have yet to hear a single story about the positive results of yelling at children.             So guess how I respond when a parent asks me how to stop a child from yelling? Yup-you got it. The only way to stop yelling in a family is for the parents to stop first. There are no guarantees, of course, but if you stop yelling, your child no longer has someone to copy-and that's a very important first step. In fact, if you're really serious about this, let your child know that you're working on not yelling and ask for his help. Invite him to let you know-respectfully, of course-when you begin to raise your voice. If you're open to suggestions and determined to stop raising your voice, I'm willing to bet you that the yelling in your family decreases significantly. But it will take time; positive change always takes time.             I have a colleague who often says, "Change is good; change is hard." And honestly, even the most important and necessary changes can be difficult to make-and difficult to stick with. Stop and think for a moment about how you want your child to change. Now ask yourself what you could do to make that change easier and more logical. Your child will follow your lead. If you decide that your family should be a calmer, more respectful and encouraging place, your child will follow your example-at least, most of the time.             Take a moment to think about the sort of parent you've always wanted to be. Perhaps you would be more patient; perhaps you'd be kinder and laugh more often. Maybe you'd like to be more affectionate, more tuned in to your child, or more involved in her activities. What if you simply decided to be the parent you've always wanted to be, starting right now? Yes, this would require changing comfortable routines and possibly learning new skills (I'm a firm believer in parenting classes, by the way), but the atmosphere in your family might change dramatically.             Most important, by becoming a better parent you would help your child become a better child. Chances are that both of you would enjoy each other's company a whole lot more, and your family might become a more welcoming place. I can't promise you it will be easy, but I can promise you that changing yourself first is the surest way to raise a happier, healthier child. For KUNR, this is Cheryl Erwin.