Parenting and coaching are two very distinct skill sets, and they are both necessary to raise healthy, self-aware children. How often do we inhibit our children’s learning because we confuse when to parent and when to coach? As a parent, our job is not to stop our children from hurting, it’s to help them be resilient and teach them how to manage the painful moments in life.
Recently, a friend had given her child my children’s books, all containing stories of Flipman and Pitman; helping children through tough topics in life. The 8-year-old boy really related to the books, and they helped in discussions with his mum. One day, he said, “Oh, Mum, I think I’m being a Pitman today.” She replied slightly panicked, “Oh no, I hope you’re not going to be for too long. I hope Stickman comes out soon.” This is an example of parenting: being in control and not wanting our children to suffer or hurt. If she had her coaching hat on, she would have acknowledged him for noticing his emotions: “Wow, how clever of you to recognize that you’re feeling a bit like Pitman right now.” The conversation may then have led to “Where do you think it might have come from?” with a little discussion following.
As parents, we comfort, we soothe, we control. We’re disciplinarians. We give advice.
As a coach, we let them find their own answers, which can be challenging for many parents. Socrates says: “I am so far like the midwife that I cannot myself give birth to wisdom, … I can myself bring nothing to light because there is no wisdom in me. … It is clear that they have never learned anything from me. The many admirable truths they bring to birth have been discovered by themselves from within.” So as a coach, we help them find the answer, we don’t give it to them. It’s a process of discovery.
When parenting, we can commonly experience a lot of emotion; we parent based on how we’re feeling and how we feel about our children at that point in time. Coaching has a specific strategy, a process that guides through discussion. When we parent, we’ve also got all of our own “stuff” that we bring to the table; emotions from our own childhood and how we’ve been parented. It happened to me just recently with my own son. He was struggling with a couple of his subjects at school and I went into parent mode because I got frustrated. “Here we go again. It’s the same conversation. What are you going to do to get a different result?” The anxiety comes up in us as a parent because we want to save, to rescue – to make it better. I decided in that moment to switch and be a coach and as such, my whole tone changed. I pretended he wasn’t my son and I thought, “If I was coaching someone at work or I was coaching one of my colleagues, how would I go about this?” I sat down and I showed him the GROW model, which is a strategy that has been around for years. (Max Landsberg describes GROW in his book The Tao of Coaching.)
GROW stands for “Goals, Reality, Options and Way forward.” The central issue was his grades. We talked about how he felt; he started getting upset and his real issues came up. He shared his struggle between being popular and what he has to sacrifice in order to get good grades. Hearing his side was good for both of us, and we discovered his action plan without me dictating steps to him.
In the moment, yes, we become highly emotional and highly reactive, but if we could pull back and say, “What benefit would it be to my child right now if I actually disconnected from the emotion and became a guide for him?” The way we respond to our children is so important. Sometimes our frustrations and fear taint our words – that isn’t coaching; it’s emotion, which we all know isn’t always the best response for our children.
How can we step back and be a coach?
Being a coach takes awareness. Someone asked me recently, “Can you learn to be self-aware, to have that out-of-body experience and observe yourself objectively?” I think you can. I think when we’re stuck in emotion and we’re stuck in ego, it becomes a battle. Step back and consider the greatest good, and the best outcome you want. Maybe it’s simply: “I want a happy, well-adjusted child, a child that’s not going to be too stressed about school and feel like a failure because he’s not doing well in certain subjects. I want him to learn some really powerful strategies for life.”
I’m no guru with this, and I hate when parents act like they are! I think we all do the best we can. I say to my boys all the time, “Honey, I’m not perfect at this, either. I’m still practicing and learning.” If I let my heat come up and it comes out, I’ll apologize later. I try to have the out-of-body experience and as it hits my heart, I try to catch it and say to myself, “This is not helping.” My kids even call me on my own game. One of my sons said to me, “Do you really think calling me names is going to help me, Mum?” Put your ego in the bottom drawer and let them be the guru occasionally. I said to him, “You’re right. It certainly wouldn’t help me in the same situation, so I’ll pull my head in for a minute.”
When we are in a really emotional state, we need to walk away before addressing the subject so we can take a breath and focus on what we’re going to do next. As a coach, we’re coaching that child to make sure they do what’s right; but the challenge is also that the parent needs to do what’s right. If you’re parenting on emotion instead of coaching, forget about it. When you get angry, especially when a 13-year-old is not listening – walk away for a second. Take a moment to take a deep breath, and then parent-coach. This will also give our children a better example of how to react in certain situations. How often do we get mad at our children for reacting in a way they actually learned from us? We see ourselves in them and that’s why I think we get angry: because we’re not willing to accept that part in ourselves yet.
I think understanding the psyche of a child also helps a great deal; realizing that they’re not sitting there as a 2-year-old saying, “I think I’ll test the boundaries today,” but they probably are exploring the feelings in their body. Everything is new for them so they express their new feelings through so called “tantrums”, and throwing themselves on the floor.
I’ll never forget one time at home, when Harison, who was 3 at the time, had a “tantrum”, and his Dad and I decided, “We’ll throw ourselves on the floor with him.” Harison was on the floor screaming “Aaahhhh!” The two of us were on the rug, hitting the floor with him, “Aaaahhhh!” He stopped, looked at both of us, shook his head and walked off into his room.
When it’s not about you, you can play the game; but we have a tendency to make it about us as parents. When our kids get bad school grades, they are doing it to us. It’s almost like, “How dare you, after everything I’ve done and the money I’ve spent, and rah, rah, rah,” instead of, “Well, hang on a minute, they’re a separate person from us.” Even though it can pain you to spend a lot of money on your kids, they’re doing the best they can with what they know as well.
I think it’s important to also allow our children to learn how to express their emotions, rather than feel fearful for expressing them. The way they learn to manage their anger, frustrations etc. is through practice. When we force them to keep their feelings under “control”, they learn that they are only acceptable to us when they don’t react. Yes, we’ll be tested as parents and I believe the greatest coaching we can do is to help our kids understand their feelings, not lock them away. That’s how they feel safe in our homes – when they can express all their emotions without fear of shut down. The important comment there was “safe”. I’ve let my boys get angry with me. If they can be angry in front of me, we can talk through it; then it’s a safe place for them to express themselves. They learn how to recognize their emotions and how to operate in the world. I’d rather them practice on me, than feel fearful of being who they really are. One of my journeys was learning how to manage my anger after being raised in a very violent family. I have raised my voice, I have said things that were not appropriate, but I have also accepted responsibility for my actions and this is a far more powerful teaching than trying to be perfect. A child learns from an imperfect parent, not a perfect one! We teach each other and as I grow, they grow and as they grow, I grow.
Look for opportunities to praise yourself and your children- all they really want is to know that you adore them and think they are lovable, regardless. Give up the parent guilt. It doesn’t serve you or your children to live in the pain of “if only I had…” You’ve done a great job based on what you know right now, and I’m sure, with time, your children will agree. I remember someone saying to me, “The older I get, the wiser my parents get!” Never, ever doubt yourself, and if you do, just trust that the wisest part of them will always hear the wisest part of you.