Merriam-Webster defines a transaction as an exchange of goods, services, or funds and transacting as to carry to completion.
Historically, this has been the way individuals’ parent, transacting praise and punishments for good and bad behaviors.
Praise and punishment, both powerful behavioral forces, create a core problem in the parent–child relationship. Consider this example: A father says to his son, “If you don’t stop screaming during bath time, then no cartoons.”
The measure of success is the cessation of the child’s screaming. The problem is, of course, the father has no real idea why the son is regularly screaming during bath time.
There’s a deeper problem still.
When an intimate relationship is evaluated on behavioral outcomes, it’s not a relationship; it’s a transaction.
Every time, we say to our children, “If you keep quiet, I’ll give you a cookie.” Or “If you don’t stop hitting your sister, I will take the phone away” you don’t create intimacy; you create a transaction.
Rewards and punishment are themselves the evidence of transactional systems. It is only in a transactional context where stickers for submission, praise for obedience, food for docility, and punishment for noncompliance make any sense at all.
For a better bond with your child, you must return to the relationship.
Nowhere in your life is your leadership as powerful as it is in your relationship with your children.
The parent–child relationship is the most powerful relationship on the planet. All the time, I have parents asking: How can this relationship be so sacred and yet feel so bad? How can I love this child so much while feeling so much frustration?
So much tension.
So much pain.
To understand where you stand, you must look where you’ve been.
Most of us come from family systems that placed a premium on our behavior. From the earliest of ages, we were coded to know precisely how a good girl behaves. What a bad boy does. Why Mommy likes this, and Daddy hates that.
The truth of your child’s behavior is that it’s not aggravating on purpose.
They are using it to communicate.
What your child says to you and where she does it, how she looks at you and why she doesn’t—she’s already telling you what you’ve been trying to figure out. Like a code waiting to be cracked, it’s her behavior that offers you the clearest path to her heart.
Parents often complain that their children are “causing problems.” For example, imagine you say: “My kid causes problems every morning. I have to drag him out of bed. When he finally comes down, he’s all disheveled and ignores everyone at the table!”
What you really mean is that your child is causing you problems. This distinction is not petty, but vital.
It’s your desire to get out of the house, your vision of what shirt is appropriate and what pants aren’t, and your preference about the way in which another person eats food that’s at the core of this conflict.
Note how this child would tell an entirely different story. Perhaps he would say: “My mother upsets me every morning. She comes into my room and immediately begins speaking harshly. I open my eyes and she’s already telling me what I’m doing wrong. I feel attacked and I haven’t even woken up. I don’t want to make her angrier, so I throw on clothes and then try to avoid any conflict at the table.”
Now you might say: “Well, yes, but I have to get to work!”
This may very well be true.
And so what you truly desire is a collaborative relationship with your child—a relationship that flows because both parties are attuned to and trust each other. Command-and-control-do-it-or-else models of leadership are flawed, not just ethically, but practically. As any parent will tell you, there are copious times when you simply cannot get your child to comply.
The most certain strategy to get anyone to follow you, to listen to you, to care about you is to work to see that they want to.
Why wouldn’t my child want to be led by me—to listen to me, follow me, care about me?
You can reasonably expect your child to care about your needs to the extent they feel you care about theirs. Your behavior has already signaled to your child, over and over again, the degree to which they should care about other people’s preferences, including yours.
Consider your own childhood. How often was your behavior used against you instead of used as a sign to check in with you? How often did you act according to what your parents liked instead of what was most authentic to you?
Your child’s behavior is hardly ever on purpose; it’s mostly reactive or just hard to regulate. Learn to work with them, not against them, and your relationship will improve.
Let’s say you’re frustrated because your child went into your bathroom without permission, grabbed all of your makeup products, and started spilling them everywhere. By the time you notice, your child is covered in sparkles and denting the hairs in your blending brushes.
To you, your child is a nightmare! They don’t respect you enough to ask for permission, they’re not grateful for the toys they already have, and they’re not careful with other people’s things.
Before letting your emotions get the best of you and dealing out a transactional consequence, pause and think. Locking them up in their room or canceling an upcoming playdate won’t help them understand the correlated consequences of their actions.
Your child may recount the incident by saying, “I went to find Mommy, but she wasn’t in her bathroom. I started playing with her makeup because it looked so cool and fun, and I know she plays with it every day. I hope she can teach me to do it as well as her someday!”
When you meet your child with yelling and blaming before they even knew what they were doing, it can damage the relationship you have together. It creates mistrust and deters your child from coming to you for help out of fear of being attacked.
It also teaches them to mirror your response to other people’s feelings. If you never consider their feelings before speaking to them, why would they change their behavior to consider yours?
If you only speak to your child about their behaviors, it shows you’re not interested in the thoughts (read: the person) behind them.
“Be quiet in the store and I’ll buy you candy,” is a transaction between two parties, not an educational tool on what culturally appropriate behavior looks like. You immediately teach your child that they owe you something in exchange for freedom to be themselves.
Adults criticize each other for hiding the truth by sugarcoating it or simply neglecting to share something important. Children are new here. They haven’t learned the crafty social skills you assume they use against you.
Instead, pay attention and be curious about their behaviors.
If they’re crying at a family picnic, show an interest in their frustration instead of isolating them from the family until they can get it together. Tears are a sign that children need help to process powerful emotions. Sending them away to fix it on their own just worsens their ability to self-regulate healthily.
Don’t think about grace as something for which your children need to work. Give it to them out of an abundance of love, and always assume positive intent.
If you want them to pick up the dog droppings in the backyard, but know their favorite show is on tonight, you can remind them gently, without assuming they explicitly want to disobey you.
Try, “I know your favorite show is on tonight, but it looks like the backyard still needs to be done. Do you want to do that now, over lunch, or right before your show? I’m here to help you figure it out.”
There are four freedoms we can offer our children (and each other) if we want to create grace-based environments and be parents that are known by grace.
➤ The freedom to be different.
All of our children are unique. If you’re a parent of more than one child, you know how amazingly different they can be! Grace gives them the freedom to be themselves.
➤ The freedom to be vulnerable.
Our children need to know they can be open with their emotions… joy, pain, fears etc. and that those emotions are safe with us. Grace makes it safe to be vulnerable.
➤ The freedom to be honest.
Honest with us about their frustrations and disappointments without fear that they are risking our relationship. None of us are perfect parents. Are we willing to hear this from our children?
➤ The freedom to make mistakes.
Even though there are consequences for their choices made, our love for them is secure and is not determined by their behavior and won’t change.