Every child is a delight, a joy, a perfect diamond. They are perfect in every way from the moment of their birth until the moment they leave the nest, and even after.
Except when they’re not.
A few months ago, I sat in the car line waiting to pick up my 5-year-old son from kindergarten. My phone buzzed with a message from his teacher. And then another. And another.
My son had thrown blocks at a student. When confronted by the teacher, he yelled at her. Eventually, it escalated all the way into him punching one of the other students.
There are many messages parents dread. Our children’s safety is always the chief fear. School shootings are an unfortunate constant in American life. We worry that someone might bully our child. Had I received that call, that message would’ve been far easier for me to digest than this one. After all, I’d been bullied through much of school, and my son is like me, right?
I read the messages again. My son wasn’t bullied. He was the bully.
A sense of emptiness settled into my stomach. Not pure anger or sadness, but something between the two, coupled with a deep, deep sense of disappointment.
The first D-word I had feared as a parent. Yes, I admit I felt disappointed.
And the only way to deal with it was the second D-word, one I’ve always struggled with: discipline.
All kids need discipline, of course. They need to be taught the rules and norms of society. They have to function in school, and not throw blocks or hit. My wife and I don’t believe in spanking. There are plenty of studies that prove — despite what earlier generations have done — striking children does not modify their behavior. We also found minimal success with timeouts and other traditional forms of discipline.
What then? What could we do?
Nurtured Heart Approach changes his life
The incident mentioned wasn’t isolated. In fact, we started hearing from his teacher at least once a week. We had meetings with the principal. We began to suspect the root of his problem was boredom. My son would practice multiplication, division, and even simple exponents in the car, before hopping out to a class whose full-year math curriculum involved counting to a hundred. But knowing the cause didn’t excuse the behavior. Again, that disappointment sank in. My son is brilliant, kind and such a wonderful person. How could we encourage him to choose kindness and compassion? How could we discipline him and avoid disappointment?
My aunt introduced us to “The Nurtured Heart Approach,” a radically different method of behavior modification. Developed by Howard Glasser, and codified in the book Transforming the Difficult Child, the Nurtured Heart Approach relies on three “stands.” The first stand is to not give any energy at all to negative behavior. Timeouts and other discipline often fail to truly transform highly energetic kids because they thrive on negative attention. The second stand awards TONS of positive energy to good behavior. This, even more than the first stand, was transformational for us.
I started noticing interactions between my son and daughter. They’d be happy and content until one would start to bug the other. At that moment, I’d intervene, throwing my energy into trying to resolve the conflict. Nurtured Heart Approach reversed this approach. I started praising the good interactions between my kids and joining them more thoroughly while they were content.
Then, when something went amiss, all I needed was the third stand: the “reset.”
At its heart, the reset is essentially a five-second timeout. It’s a pause where the energy is redirected. Think of Daniel Tiger’s song “Give a squeeze, nice and slow, take a deep breath … and let it go …” Same idea. Tell the kid who’s breaking a rule to reset, and pull all your attention away. That’s it. If they don’t reset, say it again. Might take a hundred resets, but that’s it — no punishments, no lectures about what they did wrong (dumping energy into the behavior you’re modifying). Instead, send energy back into what they’re doing right as soon as they start acting right again.
The above description of Nurtured Heart Approach is a boiled-down oversimplification, of course. It’s worth checking out the book, but be warned — it’s not easy. Not at all. Yet now, months later, the notes we get from the teacher are filled with praise for his behavior. The way he acts with his sister makes me smile.
We still have rough moments. These are the times when he needs to reset. And then we move forward. Because our son has learned that empathy and kindness and compassion are far more important to life than rule-breaking or aggression.
It’s OK, as a parent, to feel those moments of disappointment. It’s OK to recognize that discipline is part of parenting. Let that emotion sink into you and allow yourself to reset your own expectations.
Remember, your kid is still a delight, a joy, a perfect diamond. They are perfect in every way from the moment of their birth until the moment they leave the nest, and even after.
Because even diamonds need polishing. And that’s what parents are for.
Nurtured Heart Approach photo: © natali_mis / Adobe Stock.
This is a wonderful article Chris. Thanks for sharing your story and breaking down NHA so clearly. I can really relate with your experience. My husband and I started using NHA last year with our four-year-old son and it has been incredibly helpful. I highly recommend it for any parents who are struggling.