Parenting Is a Contact Sport

Parenting presents the greatest challenges you’ll ever face, but it also offers the greatest rewards.

It’s the hardest and most important job you’ll ever have, and yet the one for which we’re all, most likely, least prepared.

On some level, it’s simple. But it’s never easy. Because you never know what’s coming. Some days are blissful and joyful. But others just knock the wind right out of you.

I wouldn’t wish any of this on you, but…

What would you do if your 16-year-old fell down drunk at a party and broke her nose on the keg? Or if your 14-year-old announced she was ready to have sex with her boyfriend?

How would you deal with your adolescent son being rude and insolent to you, accusing you and blaming you for everything that’s wrong in his life? Or with your 6-year-old getting suspended from school for his bad behavior?

These are the kinds of things that happen in families. It’s not a question of whether your kids will ever screw up. It’s a question of how you’ll react when they do.

It’s an important question, because what you do right then and there, on the spot —not two weeks later, after you’ve had time to think, read a couple of books, see a therapist, or talk with a friend — is what will make or break your relationship with your child. Because that’s when you’ll have to give your first response. He’ll learn whether you’re open and compassionate or judgmental and critical. And that’s when he’ll decide whether he can trust you with the difficult stuff in his life.

The Goal of Parenting

Whether your children are toddlers, teens, or adults, they need someone they can trust: a parent who will always support them, even in the midst of their failures. As children, they need an advocate — someone who will stand up for, and even fight for, them. As adults, they still value a coach and mentor.

That’s why I decided many years ago, when my two daughters were very young, that I wanted to build a relationship with them that was so strong, nothing could ever sever it. That was my goal as their mom.

I knew I could never control them — not really. We never have absolute control over our kids. Not when they’re 2 years old throwing a tantrum. Not when they’re teenagers trying out their grown-up wings. And certainly not when they’re adults with families of their own. I figured that if I tried going that route, with a harsh or heavy hand, they would rebel and I would lose them.

What I really wanted was to be the one they talked to and listened to most – even during the tough times. Not because I thought I knew best. In fact, sometimes, I felt like I knew nothing at all. But I knew I loved them, knew them better, and cared more about what would happen to them than anyone else.

So I decided to build a strong, trusting relationship to guide me through everything I did with them, a relationship that would give me real contact with them. Not just hugging them but spending time with them, doing activities with them, and, most of all, talking with them. I began to realize that effective parenting is all about sticking close and staying connected.

It’s a contact sport.

It was not a lot to remember. Not a lot of how-to steps, because in the midst of a big emotional issue, it’s difficult to remember a long list of things you’re supposed to do. Remembering and focusing on one thing — our relationship — was much simpler.

It’s paid off more than I could ever have imagined. Now that my daughters are parents with children of their own, I still honor our relationship as one of the most valuable things in my life. I still talk with them about their challenges as well as their victories. I’m still an integral part of their lives. And I think that’s the best it can get!

The Nugget

This principle of building and maintaining a relationship not only helped me through the labyrinth of my own parenting, but it has also been the principle I’ve relied upon in working with parents and families throughout my career.

Here’s the nugget: When a problem arises, don’t panic. Don’t react. First and foremost, secure your relationship. Make sure you don’t damage the connection with your kids. Maintain and even increase your contact with them, in spite of the fact that there’s a crisis or a difficult dilemma. There’s plenty of time to solve the problem once they know you understand, you care, and you’re on their side.

I once had a client whose teenage son called in a bomb threat to his school. That’s a potential felony charge. He did it not because he was a bad kid but because he had severe ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder). He was impulsive and didn’t think things through. He felt like a nobody and wanted desperately to feel like a somebody and be noticed.

Indeed, he got noticed! Both the school and the law imposed punishment. His mom was called to the school to hear the potential charges for her son. She could have thrown a fit and railed at him to add further punishment and let him know how foolish he had been. But she wisely decided to stay calm and stay connected to her son. She knew he needed her to help him feel like a somebody and to help him learn to make better decisions in the future. So she created a safe haven for him and a trusting environment for them to talk and explore his actions.

She told me sometime after this event that she is sure that if she had not stayed close to him when he was growing up, he would be either in jail or dead. Instead, today, he is happily married, and he and his mom still have a strong, trusting relationship.

Begin Early

Here’s why I call parenting a contact sport. It’s not only physical contact. It’s getting involved in the nitty-gritty of their lives.

It’s not like tennis, croquet, or lawn bowling — each player on his own side taking turns, never bumping into each other. It’s more like football, hockey, or soccer! You’re down and dirty, in the field together, side by side — going through it with them.

You can’t delegate your parenting to a nanny, an aunt, or a close friend. I don’t mean you can’t have help, but you cannot give away your responsibility to parent your kids. That’s your job.

You begin laying the groundwork when they’re very young, setting the patterns and practicing communication. And you get very serious about creating trust so that everything is in place when they get older and the issues get more complicated.

No matter how old or how young your children are, you should make it a habit to:

  • Treat their problems like they’re real, even if they seem petty to you.
  • Put down what you’re doing and look at them when they talk to you.
  • Talk with them, not at them.
  • Treat them with respect.
  • Listen carefully and sensitively to their feelings.
  • Set aside time to be alone with them.
  • Tell them how valuable and important they are to you.

That’s how you begin to build a foundation for connection and continued closeness. And you never sever the rope of relationship with them – so you can maintain the privilege of walking by their side, talking with them about the important issues, advising and counseling them through difficult times, and being their mentor, coach, and guide.

Debunking the Myths

Some parents are afraid to get too close to their kids for fear of becoming their friend. But there’s no conflict between being a parent and a friend. That’s a myth. A parent who is approachable, accessible, and has their kids’ best interests at heart develops a close bond with them. That’s called a friendship.

This special friendship is a caliber higher and a layer deeper than those they have with their peers. It’s a caliber higher because you bring your knowledge, your experience, your wisdom, and your mature decision making to the relationship. It’s a layer deeper because you don’t get jealous of or competitive with your child, and you never abandon or betray them, as often happens with peer friendships.

And yes, you can set boundaries and have effective discipline even though you have a close relationship. You know, kids grant you permission to have authority over them. They actually give you permission to discipline them. And why do they do that? Because they trust and respect you. Because you have proven to them through the consistency of your relationship with them over the years that you care about them, that you are fair, that you are not frivolous or capricious with them. Even though they may get temporarily angry with or disappointed in you, they allow you to discipline them. And if you think you don’t need that permission, you’re in for a horrific ride! It’s a ride filled with disobedience and rebellion, power struggles, chaos, and endless nightmares.

Keep the Boundaries

Of course, you don’t allow your friendship to dissolve into permissiveness. Effective parents set boundaries. Permissive ones erase them. You don’t hang out with them on Saturday night giggling about their boyfriends, using their slang, dressing like they do, and trying to be oh-so-hip and cool. You don’t share inappropriate and intimate details of your life just to try to get close to them. You don’t give in to them so they will like you. An effective parent keeps the boundaries crisp and clear, but you let them know and feel that you’re there for them for the long haul.

Some parents believe there’s no way to stay close to their kids when they go through adolescence. But that’s not true. Rebellion and teenager are not synonymous. Kids might be hardwired to separate and become independent. And that’s a good thing. But they’re not hardwired to rebel. If you want a teen who is distant, closed down, or rebellious, then treat her with disrespect, try to control and mandate her, judge and criticize her — and you will NOT be close to her.

Otherwise, just keep talking to her, stay involved, and tell her how important she is to you, and she’ll want to be close to you. And when she goes through the turbulence of her teen years, you’ll be glad you’re the one she’s talking to — and listening to — instead of cutting you off and taking advice only from her peers.

Stay Connected

There are eight ways to stay connected to your kids for life:

  1. Develop a relationship with your kids. Parenting offers no guarantees. You can’t control your children’s destinies, and you don’t have ultimate control over their choices. But by forming an unbreakable bond with them, you will have the opportunity to guide and counsel them in every phase of their lives.
  2. Communicate openly with your kids. It requires mutual trust, listening, and sharing. Communication doesn’t automatically solve every problem –nothing can. But it’s the greatest tool to fortify a positive relationship and maintain a close bond with your kids.
  3. Discipline with logic, sensitivity, and respect. When you use discipline only to protect and teach your children, and to help them learn to set internal limits and to think for themselves, you greatly increase the odds that they will grow up to become reliable, responsible, and independent adults.
  4. Talk about feelings. Helping your children become comfortable expressing their feelings appropriately will keep them emotionally healthy and give them the opportunity to have satisfying adult relationships.
  5. Give your kids a sense of belonging. When they feel there is a safe haven for them at home, with a team of family members behind them, kids feel a sense of importance, worth, and value. They realize: I fit, I matter, I’m part of a team, they care about me.
  6. Teach your kids honesty. It’s hard to tell the truth, but having the courage to be honest may be the most important characteristic you can help them to develop. Don’t ruin your opportunity by jumping too quickly to punishment. Be firm on honesty but tender with your kids.
  7. Talk with your children about sex, drugs, and alcohol. Begin talking early and talk often. Make it comfortable for them to ask questions. They will get their information from someone – better that it comes from you than from peers or people who don’t have the same values and goals you do.
  8. Boost your kids’ self-esteem. How they feel about themselves is a huge predictor of their success in life. The messages you give them have a very big impact on them, so find opportunities to give them consistent and truthful positive messages about themselves.

Raising a child can be like riding a very spirited horse. And raising a teenager is more like riding a bull in a rodeo. It’s important to realize that you can’t control the outcomes. But you do have the opportunity to have a very powerful and positive input. Give up power and control – it doesn’t work anyway, and it makes discipline a nightmare. Stick close and stay connected. Let them know how valuable and important they are to you. And become the person they talk to and listen to most. It’s the greatest gift you can give your kids.

For more detailed information on forming an unbreakable bond with your kids, please read my book, Parenting Is a Contact Sport: 8 Ways to Stay Connected to Your Kids for Life, Joanne Stern, PhD, Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2009. You can purchase a copy here.

© Joanne Stern, PhD. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Bonner & Partners Family Office Strategic Review, Volume 3, Issue 12, December 2015 •


About the Author:

Joanne K. Stern, PhD, is a family consultant with an extensive background in psychology. She helps families resolve the complex people problems that often tear families apart and destroy harmony, happiness, and sustained financial success. A frequent speaker, keynote presenter, and workshop leader, she has been a guest expert on more than 200 TV and radio shows and has contributed to various newspapers, magazines, and online media.
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