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On Orthodox Christian Principles of Child Rearing: Principle #4: Separate Feelings from Behaviors

Note: This series of blog posts will focus on principles important to Orthodox Christians who are raising children. The series will feature a closer look at Dr. Philip Mamalakis’ book, Parenting Toward the Kingdom: Orthodox Christian Principles of Child Rearing. Each week we will take a closer look at one section of the book, which is divided into 6 basic principles of child rearing. Find an overview blog post about the book here. We thank Dr. Mamalakis and Ancient Faith Publishing for giving us permission to share his wisdom with you in this way. Purchase your own copy of his book here.

Principle #4: Separate Feelings from Behaviors

Dr. Mamalakis encourages parents to separate feelings from behaviors in principle 4 of Principle #4: Separate Feelings from Behaviors. This is a very important principle, as demonstrated by the fact that it takes almost one-third of the book to speak to it. He addresses this principle across seven chapters: Take the Side of Feelings, Set Limits to Behaviors, Strategies for Setting Limits, Setting Limits With Your Child, Responding to Pushback, Understanding Consequences, and Giving Consequences.

Dr. Mamalakis begins by encouraging parents to take the side of feelings. Our children’s feelings and behaviors require different responses, and as always, our children are learning by how we respond to them. It is thus important that we stand with our children and help them learn to manage their feelings, so that they are not controlled by them. When we help our children learn to manage their feelings, they learn to behave correctly even when they don’t feel like doing so. When we name our children’s feelings, we can nurture connection by also empathizing; but all the while holding steadfast to our expectation for right behavior. Sticking firmly to limits while helping our children learn to manage their emotions nurtures a respectful culture in our home.

Dr. Mamalakis continues by commending parents to set limits to behaviors. He says that children learn best when their parents have done well at setting limits. The limits that parents set will be good ones if they are clear and non-negotiable, shaped by God and His Own limits for His Church. These limits must be respectful and effective, and should work towards the family’s long-term goals. While the limits are being established and enforced, parents need to be careful to connect with their children.

Dr. Mamalakis next offers strategies for setting limits. He acknowledges that there are many ways to set limits, the best limits are clear and consistent, and steadfastly enforced. While “no” is simple and firm, it can often lead to a power struggle, so it is not necessarily the best way to begin to set a limit: instead, Dr. Mamalakis recommends “not yet.” Another option is to offer the child a pathway to getting a “yes!” (ie: “Yes, after you have done x [thing that needs to be done] you may do y [that thing you just asked if you could do].”) Giving directions and instructions is another way to set limits, but we must be careful not to misuse or overuse it. Along the way, sharing information with our children, directing them to the kind of behavior we want to see, breaking tasks into smaller ones, and incorporating fun into the directions/instructions makes easier for our children to understand and complete them. Giving directions straight up (not disguised as questions) and giving five-minute warnings for transitions are among other effective strategies. Above all, parents need to allow their children to struggle with the limits, not rescuing them or getting angry when they struggle; but lovingly supporting them in the struggle.

Dr. Mamalakis goes on to discuss setting limits with your child. Because a parent’s goal is for their children to grow up to make their own decisions and live within the limitations of the Faith, it makes sense for the children to gradually help to set their limits; to make choices and be responsible as is appropriate for their age. As parents set limits together with their children, Dr. Mamalakis suggests the following strategies: give choices, collaborate, brainstorm solutions, prepare your children beforehand, and follow up with them later.

Dr. Mamalakis gives ideas of ways that parents can respond to pushback. He tells his readers that it is normal for children to resist/argue/protest limits; and it is how they test to see if the rules really are firm. He suggests that, in response to pushback, we check in with our children; stand firmly by our rules; describe the process; walk away to give our children time to pull it together; apply the parenting strategies we know; reinforce any positive effort we notice; only explain our reasoning behind the rules once; give a “pull yourself together” time out (not as a punishment); and set limits to the pushback. If our children push beyond the limits that we have set, we will need to respond with consequences; but consequences are not the first response to pushback.

Dr. Mamalakis writes that consequences should be the last resort when our children do not behave. They should help our children learn that our limits are firm, and teach our children about how life works. While we give consequences to our children for their behaviors, we need to be mindful of how we do so, in order to continue communicating that we love them unconditionally. We need to allow our children to experience natural consequences, demonstrate limiting behavior by limiting our own, and be prepared to give logical consequences when needed.

The final piece of principle 4 is that Dr. Mamalakis talks parents through giving consequences. He writes that logical consequences range from tightening the limits to asking forgiveness to removing privileges. He warns parents against using vague or empty threats, and encourages his readers to be willing to sometimes “lose the battle to win the war,” so to speak.

May God help us all to learn to separate feelings from behaviors!

Have a parenting question for Dr. Mamalakis? Ask him here (at the bottom of the page).

Here are a few gleanings from the chapters related to Principle #4:

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“Children typically know the right thing to do but misbehave because they can’t control their desires, impulses, or emotions. To help our children learn to manage their emotions and control their desires, we need to learn to respond to their emotions, not just their misbehaviors.” (p. 129; Parenting Toward the Kingdom by Dr. Philip Mamalakis)

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“Naming feelings, when done respectfully, communicates respect for our children. By taking an interest in their feelings, we communicate that we are interested in them. If we respect our children as equal to us as persons, as icons of Christ, we need to respect their emotional world. We name their feelings with statements like:

‘You seem overwhelmed.’

‘Are you mad?’

‘Are you sad the day is over?’

‘Do you miss your mother?’

‘Are you mad at me?’

Are you frustrated with your brother?’”

(p. 135; Parenting Toward the Kingdom by Dr. Philip Mamalakis)

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“Paying a little attention to our child’s inner world is far more effective at helping our children navigate the disappointments of life than saying something like, ‘Why are you in such a foul mood?’ or ‘What’s wrong with you?’ or making statements of fact, like ‘Life’s not fair.’ ‘Not everyone can make the team.’ Or worse yet, ‘Did you upset the coach?’ Nothing hurts more than when your parents seem to turn against you when you’re in pain… Parenting is not about always voicing the right answer but about communicating care and respect.” (p. 142; Parenting Toward the Kingdom by Dr. Philip Mamalakis)

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“When children misbehave, the temptation is to look for a consequence to stop the behavior… Parents need to use consequences, but that should not be the first or only thing we do when children misbehave. Consequences may stop their misbehaviors in the short term but undermine our long-term goals. Our goal is to raise kids who know how to set limits to their own behaviors and live their lives within God’s limits for salvation. We need to learn how to give consequences in ways that work toward these long-term goals for our children.” (pp. 152-153; Parenting Toward the Kingdom by Dr. Philip Mamalakis)

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“Rather than giving our children love and limits, we need to think in terms of love as limits. Setting appropriate limits communicates love to our children. Kids should be left neither alone nor in charge. They do best when they experience our love as unconditional and our limits as non-negotiable.” (p. 154; Parenting Toward the Kingdom by Dr. Philip Mamalakis)

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“Vague commands, instructions, and limits, inconsistently enforced or based on our mood at the time, are ineffective at helping children learn. Imagine playing tennis or volleyball and not being able to see the lines on the court… Imagine how confusing it would be if the rules of a game changed during the game, or if the referee was lazy on the rules when he was in a good mood but added rules arbitrarily when he was upset. In order to learn how to lay a sport, children need clear lines and rules, consistently enforced.” (p. 157; Parenting Toward the Kingdom by Dr. Philip Mamalakis)

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“If we correct, command, direct, or react to our children before connecting with them, it communicates that we are more concerned about where cleats and balls go than we are about who they are.” (p. 165; Parenting Toward the Kingdom by Dr. Philip Mamalakis)

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“The best way to teach our children to listen to our words is to accompany then with action. When I say something, I need to be prepared to act. The more my kids know that my words will be followed by action, the more quickly they will learn to listen when I speak.” (p. 174; Parenting Toward the Kingdom by Dr. Philip Mamalakis)

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“Setting limits with our children helps them learn to set limits to themselves as they grow. Working with our children around our limits helps them understand that we are on their side, that we care about them as we set and enforce the limits. The better you get at setting limits with your kids, the less you’ll have to tell them what to do.” (p. 180; Parenting Toward the Kingdom by Dr. Philip Mamalakis)

***

“Before you tell your child what to do, you might want to ask yourself if he already knows what to do. It’s common for parents to fall into the trap of constantly telling their children things they already know… By the time your child is old enough to think through limits with you he’s probably heard the limits many times before… There are hundreds of examples of things we say to our children that they already know. They know what they have to do but just don’t want to do it or don’t want to think about it. Asking them instead of telling them sends the message that we expect them to think and to already know.” (p. 184; Parenting Toward the Kingdom by Dr. Philip Mamalakis)

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“Patiently allowing children room to fail or misbehave while calmly setting limits communicates our expectations for good decision-making and respectful behavior. If we’re too afraid to give them autonomy or too critical of then when they fail, how can we expect em to learn? Of course, all parents make mistakes, being either too strict or too lenient or sometimes both, but we can adjust. Children will make mistakes, and they will adjust. The goal is to do this together.” (p. 193; Parenting Toward the Kingdom by Dr. Philip Mamalakis)

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“Parents are tempted to think they must give a child a consequence when he pushes back or the child won’t learn. ‘He can’t just get away with that!’ I hear. Actually, your child can still learn even if we don’t give a consequence for every pushback. Or we might believe that it is wrong for children to push back. Kids should just do what we say, the first time, without complaining, arguing, or getting upset, right? While that’s true, what’s more accurate is that our children are learning to live within our limits. In order to learn, they are going to push back. We need to resist the temptation to react and be prepared to respond in a variety of ways that work toward our long-term goals.” (p. 198; Parenting Toward the Kingdom by Dr. Philip Mamalakis)

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“I have found that the best response to... painful statements [from our children] is to ignore them in the moment and bring them up later when things are calm. We should take our kids’ frustrations seriously, but if we allow ourselves to react to these childish, angry statements, we give them more credence than they deserve. It is not okay for children to talk to parents like this, but reacting in the moment is not the best way to teach.

It’s also not okay to let this statement go without following up later. But we want to keep our focus on the person of our child rather than her crazy actions and words.” (p. 217; Parenting Toward the Kingdomby Dr. Philip Mamalakis)

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“Consequences work best when they are used to reinforce the limits rather than to stop kids from misbehaving. We want our children to develop good judgement and learn to live the path of life in Christ. Consequences alone cannot do this.

Speeding tickets do not teach people how to drive, and consequences are not enough to teach our children how to succeed. Because it’s so easy to focus on stopping bad behavior instead of teaching life skills, it is easy to misuse or overuse them…” (pp. 219 - 220; Parenting Toward the Kingdom by Dr. Philip Mamalakis)

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(with regard to natural consequences:) “Never make decisions for your children or tell them what to do when they can figure things out by themselves. Letting children experience the effects of their decisions respects their intelligence, their ability to learn, and their developing judgment and autonomy. Kids learn better from first-hand experience than from our telling them what to do, anyway.” (p. 227; Parenting Toward the Kingdom by Dr. Philip Mamalakis)

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“It’s tempting to look for more intense consequences when our children repeat the same misbehaviors so that ‘he never does that again!’ Parents need to resist the temptation of adding onto these consequences with a lecture, a lesson, or emotional intensity. Logical consequences work well when we implement them consistently as often as needed…. Children learn best from logical and natural consequences when we issue them the same way each time. They will learn, over time, that it is not worth it to disobey. More importantly, they will learn that we love and respect them. If we respect our children and want to teach them that their choices have effects, we simply issue the consequence patiently and consistently each time. Or, actually, as patiently and consistently as we can.” (p. 238; Parenting Toward the Kingdom by Dr. Philip Mamalakis)