Four Parenting Hacks to Create the Family Culture You Want

mom dad and daughter in the kitchen cooking

The other day, I received this text: “Your kids are awesome! I’ve got to study your parenting.”

Who, me? My kids?! What a compliment! It came from one of my oldest friends after my three kids (ages 16, 14 and 3) went over to meet her 1-year-old.

My first reaction was to give all the credit to my husband. Not a huge humility leap for me, as he is a former head of a Montessori program and “patient” is basically his middle name. Over the years, I have really learned a lot of tricks from him—his generally stable behavior and the way he sets clear expectations are cornerstones of what works about our family culture.

But that text got me thinking: If we are seen as role models of parenting, should we try to “bottle” it? I decided to come up with our four best parenting hacks, hacks that work for everyone—those with kids, those without, those with grown kids and those whose kids are “not speaking to you right now.” (We’ve all been there.)

These hacks are designed around “creating your family culture” because, as The Handel Method has taught me, designing your life is much more efficient than making changes after the “tantrum” begins. These are the pre-tantrum hacks so that, perhaps, the tantrums never occur—or occur less frequently. (I have a 3-year-old for goodness sake!) I’ve learned that the more you put into the design of something, the more likely it is to succeed. Humans get tripped up when we think something should “come naturally” rather than put some thought, time and heart into it.

Hack #1: Build Independence

Assume the child can do more than you think they can, and give them opportunities to try. Model the behavior you wish to see, and then let the child approximate until they get it, too. Give choices and empower your child to design their own life rather than living a life dictated by you. (Me? A dictator? Never!)

I remember I used to get so frustrated by the tone in which my kids talked to me when they wanted something. I would roll my eyes, make sarcastic remarks and scowl at them in response. Is everyone getting the irony here? Handel Group’s “two peas in a pod” principle fits nicely. I was acting just like they were (modeling what I didn’t want) and expecting kids to be more mature. (*Cue eye roll at myself.*)

Then I watched my husband literally model what he wanted them to say: “If you want me to do that for you, try that again like this: ‘Dad, would you please get me some water?’”

He wasn’t chastising them, he was giving them a choice—holding the line and making it easy for them to win at being civilized people. He wasn’t taking their behavior personally, he was being responsible for creating a different dynamic with them. Soon after, I started to use that same tactic (mostly anyway) and not just with my kids. I found it worked with co-workers, too, though I couldn’t “feed them lines” the same way. The transferable point is that building independence and modeling the behavior you want to see always turns out better in the long run. It’s way better than judging, getting frustrated and scowling.

Hack #2: Pick Your Highest Ideals

Narrow down what is most important to you and your family. Hold a family meeting and have everyone put their most important values down on paper in order of importance. Then have a discussion in which each person gets to explain why and, maybe, some people’s order will change. One of the parents can track the themes everyone agrees on and lead a conversation about how the family actually embodies, or could embody, those values.

In my coaching practice, I see a lot of families that are overwhelmed by many conflicting ideals. These values include academic achievement, hobbies, peace, family time, tradition, fun, honesty, fitness, cleanliness, etc. It’s just too much on any one given day or in any given season. Life becomes about handling all the checkboxes versus living with, and enjoying, the benefits of the most important ones.

But when you narrow the focus to what’s most important, you tend to feel really great! Then you can create rituals around what’s most important to everyone. In one family, “family gratitude” was high on the list, so they created a ritual that at every family dinner, each person says what they are grateful for. In our family, “being together” is of high value, so we eat dinner together every night at exactly 6:30. “Expressing ourselves” is also an important value we all have, so before we go to a party or gathering outside our home, we do a ritual called a “feelings party”—this is our version of the purge exercise we have in The Handel Method. Everyone gets to say how they feel while the others listen, with no judgment. Sure, the teens sometimes roll their eyes but not when they have something to express! And the 3-year-old’s turn is pretty darn cute!

Hack #3: Practice Listening

Listening is pretty obvious for every relationship, right? Yet we barely practice it. It’s one of those things that we expect to come naturally to us because we know it’s the right thing to do—but we literally don’t practice. We’d never think learning to play guitar would come naturally; we know we have to practice. I dare say listening is an even harder skill because it requires subjugating one’s ego and overriding the mind’s propensity to think about what it wants to say! (For more on the art of listening, check out this link.)

I remember the harrowing moment in coaching when I discovered I never listened to an entire story my husband wanted to tell me. Unless I could repeat back what I heard, I realized that I had better assume I was not listening. This works wonders with kids. First off, if they think they do not have your full attention, they pull out the stops to get it (crying, yelling, fits … you know the drill). However, if they think they have your full attention: No struggle. They relax and usually need way less of it! MAJOR HACK! Second benefit: It feels really good to be generous enough to give your full attention to someone. About two years ago, I stopped multitasking at work and it had a similarly amazing effect. People relaxed around me, and I felt way better about myself.

With anyone, the more you listen, the more they’ll tell you the truth and the more close you’ll feel. On that foundation, much more can be built.

Hack #4: Coptuitiveness

This is a noun Lauren Zander’s husband, David, made up and we love!

Admitting you’re wrong makes you pretty extraordinary! And guess what? Kids are never too young to understand the concept. My husband and I have a practice of circling back to the kids if we think we did something wrong and admitting it, discussing it and processing any impact. And to boot, they know we’re working on improving our own weaknesses.

It would be foolish to think I could always subjugate my ego as a parent. Kids seemed literally designed to test every boundary and trigger every bad trait in us. So of course, I mess up. I overreact, I lash out, and sometimes I say or do things I really regret. Please remember that’s true of every human and that you do nobody any favors by trying to act as if you are superhuman. (Although, I do look pretty good in a cape.)

Even my 3-year-old understands that WE, too, have consequences for bad behavior. If I’m late for dinner, I owe the kids money. If my husband raises his voice, he loses his booze for a week. We’ve both been pretty great at sticking to the rules, and that has allowed us to uphold our values—in part because we want to avoid the artificial (and purposefully annoying) consequences we’ve designed for ourselves.

We find pre-defined, non-punitive consequences work well for our kids, too. If they don’t do their chores, they lose their phone. If the 3-year-old doesn’t stop with the iPad at dinnertime, she loses it the next day. If she acts too uncooperatively after dessert, she loses her next dessert. The same exact method we use to discipline ourselves (modeling again) we use to help our children self-discipline.

It’s a little funny to keep comparing love relationships and co-worker dynamics to parenting, but if the shoe fits! These hacks work amazingly in all relationships!

It’s too convenient to assume people are just naturally good at things (like parenting, relationships, empowering others) when maybe we are not. My friend had it right when she said she should “study it”—she wanted to observe, learn and take some time to practice. I wanted to study it, too! Because the more you understand WHY something works, the more capacity you have to make it work, keep it working and to make it even better. Try it. Pick a relationship to improve based on these four hacks. Give yourself a grade (scale of 1 to 10 usually works) on how well you employ them. Any hack in which you find a lack, try something different and report back!

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Photo credit: Le Creuset, Unsplash