Question: How do I change . . .? (Part 1 of 3)

Thes is actually my definition of freedom.
Thes is actually my definition of freedom.

Question: “How do I interrupt my pattern of saying “Be careful” to my son all the time? I am aware I’m saying it an awful lot.” As usual, I suspect that my answer will be useful to many, so I’m addressing it as part of my general postings. Again, I am splitting my answer over several days (3 parts_.

The general principles of what I am going to discuss are:

  • Understand the emotional basis of the difficulty.
  • Understand how you yourself function at the emotional level.
  • Manage the difficulty. If at all possible, be playful with yourself.

First of all, I suspect that there are actually two questions here, one obvious and the other unstated (and subtly phrased as a should — “I’m saying it an awful lot,” a criticism of self). So what follows are my reflections on these questions. (Please note that I never have an intention to tell people what they should do — it is not effective.)

To discuss the possibility of human beings changing patterns, either of themselves or others, in any fashion requires a brief digression to understand the nature of the triune brain. The brain (mind) is organize in three levels: the brain stem, orientated to safety; the limbic system, orientated to energetic experience (energy); and the cerebral cortex, orientated to choice. It is a bottom-up processor — safety takes precedence over energy, which takes precedence over choice. As example, think of what happens with New Year’s Eve resolutions — generally they do not work, because the individual tries to make him- or herself do certain behaviours (stop smoking, etc.) that usually they do not really want to do (top-down imposition from the internal critic). If you really want to stop a behaviour, decide what you want to do instead (choice), and make the process fun (energy) while being safe (safety).

That said, child discipline is not discipline of the child — it is discipline of the parent so as to provide an optimal environment for the growth of the child. All human beings, especially children, need these three qualities in life: safety, energy, and choice. The manner in which they gain these qualities is age-dependent. Up until approximately late teenage years, it is the job of the parent to provide age-dependent safety — prior to age 2, I suggest this is an absolute requirement. After age 2, there is a conflict that parents well know, beginning with what is called “the terrible two’s.” It is a conflict because the child wants energetic experience (energy), and is not yet safe as to making healthy choices — and needs also to learn the consequences of making choices.

The job of parents is to provide:

  • age-dependent safety always (negotiable with older teens),
  • the learning of age-dependent choice after approximately age 2, and
  • negotiable energetic experience up to approximately age 16 – 18.

— with full release of the child somewhere after age 16 so that the child may become an interdependent human being, in relationship with life.

Without going into a lot of detail, there are two systems of “child discipline” that I advocate. First is the work of Tom Phelan called 1-2-3-Magic. Phelan’s work attempts to manage the energy of the child, providing positive experience as reward for healthy choices, and no experience for negative experience. Here it is important to remember what I call the Laws of Experience: 1) we want positive experience, 2) it is easier to get negative, and 3) negative is better than none. Phelan recognizes that negative experience, in this case too much explanation and/or criticism, acts as a reward for the undesired behaviour to continue. (In my opinion, Phelan’s video is more effective than his book.)

The second system, that of Barbara Colorosa’s Winning At Parenting, seeks to manage choice. Colorosa is a master of providing options for the child so as to have age-appropriate choice. For example, it is bed-time, and you want the child in pyjamas. You say to the child: “We’re going to bed. Do you want to wear your blue pyjamas or your red ones?” (Note: no option of no pyjamas, or fighting about pyjamas, or not going to bed. And in order to process the pyjama choice, the child has to accept the first statement of going to bed.) Then, if the kid wants blue top with red bottom, that is fine — age-appropriate choice.

To be continued.


Colorosa, B. (1989). Winning At Parenting…Without Beating Your Kids. Littleton, CO: Pannonia International Film.

Phelan, T. W. (1996). 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12 (Videotape and Booklet) Glen Ellyn, IL: Child Management.

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