THE BLOG

The 5 Most Important Words In Parenting

07/07/2014 01:43 pm ET | Updated Sep 06, 2014
Thanasis Zovoilis via Getty Images

If you're anything like the hundreds of families I've worked with, you've surely found yourself throwing your arms in the air, perhaps more often than you'd like to admit, asking your child some variation of the following question, "Why can't you just do what I ask you to do?" (Expletives deleted.)

Here's the funny, hard to swallow truth: He can. He's just choosing not to. (Note: In this article, I use all male pronouns for ease and consistency, but all examples apply equally to boys and girls).

Why? Because there's no compelling reason for him to do so. This doesn't mean you haven't asked him 500 times. It doesn't mean you wouldn't REALLY, REALLY, REALLY like him to do it. It typically means that he doesn't mind getting read the riot act, because when push comes to shove, he knows he'll be able to get away with what he really wants anyhow. Kids usually know the real limits of the house with much greater accuracy and consistency than their parents do.

So I want to recommend this simple, five-word saying that I hope all parents will internalize at a deep, instinctive level: whatever you permit, you promote.

Simply put: Any time you allow a child to get away with a certain behavior, the message you're sending is that the behavior is OK. If there are no real consequences to his actions, all he can assume is that what he did is OK and he can get away with it.

So if your child raises his voice at you, or tries to emotionally twist your arm or calls you names to draw you into a shouting match AND you engage in his games, you are reinforcing that behavior. You're teaching him that this is an effective way to get your attention. By permitting this behavior, you are promoting it.

In many respects, this is like training a dog. If your dog keeps getting up on the couch and you don't want it to, you must use more than mere words. You must SHOW the dog that it cannot be on the couch. Now, of course, I'm not suggesting you use physical force with your child, but the rules and expectations of your house must be decisive and clear. Yes has to mean yes, and no has to mean no. Maybe it's a certain look, posture or tone that communicates you mean business. There are dog owners around the world who have been telling their dog to get off the couch for 10 years. It shouldn't have to happen more than a few times.

The same basic theory applies to children. Funny enough, I've advised parents I coach to watch episodes of Cesar Millan's Dog Whisperer TV series. The "calm assertive" state of mind he teaches dog owners to use is so effective with children as well -- especially when their behavior is careening off course.

Never saying no and not setting proper limits is the perfect formula for spoiling a child and giving him a sense of entitlement. It might keep a fight or tantrum at bay in the short term, but it won't serve him in the long term. It will distort what he looks for in relationships and in the workplace -- and not for the better.

I've learned over and over again that these five simple words -- whatever you permit, you promote -- can have such a potent impact. Get in the habit of cross-checking against them whenever you have decisions -- both big and small -- to make with your kids. If you give in and say yes to the coveted Kit Kat bar during a grocery store checkout meltdown, what behavior are you inadvertently "promoting" next time you're shopping? If your teenager takes the car without permission and there are no meaningful consequences, how might you be teaching him to do it again?

Whatever you permit, you promote. It's the ultimate teaching framework for our children. You can be sure they're ALWAYS learning -- especially from you -- so be certain to impart the lessons you most want them to get.

It truly will last them a lifetime.