sifting through contradictory parenting advice

There's certainly no shortage of both solicited and unsolicited parenting advice these days, much of it contradictory:

Spare the rod and spoil the child.
Never hit a child.
Set more limits and boundaries.
Let go of more control.
Loosen the reins.
Tighten the reins.


How is a well-intentioned parent supposed to sort through all of this discrepancy?

This question feels especially important to me given the recent deaths of several people during a sweat lodge ceremony. We will never know the whole story, but emerging details seem to suggest that the leader of the ceremony positioned himself as an authority, and some folks may have willingly handed their personal responsibility over to him, at least temporarily.

I wasn't there, so I have no idea what actually happened. Heck, I wouldn't know what was going on inside anyone but myself even if I had been there. But it makes me think about how eager, maybe even desperate, for help we humans can become when we are faced with a problem that deeply rankles us. Sometimes it seems like a huge relief to just hand our problem over to someone else to solve.

For many of us, parenting qualifies as deeply rankling. So we seek help. We read books, we talk to friends, we attend therapy, and we google. Which might even be how you made your way to this very article!

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: You are the expert on your child. The most any professional, friend, or family member can give you is additional ideas for your consideration. It is your job to run those ideas through your own filter and clean out what does not resonate with you before you act.

So I hope no one ever blindly implements my advice. In fact, if I thought any of you were going to do that, I'd stop writing and speaking immediately! It is never my intention to tell you what to do. (Granted, I do get very passionate about this stuff sometimes, and I often neglect to mention that whole 'I am trusting you to run this through your own filter' thing. That's why I posted that permanent disclaimer over there on the sidebar ...)

What I love most is when someone writes to me and says something like, "In my heart of hearts, I have known what my child really and truly needed for years. Many people told me I was wrong. After reading your article, I finally found the courage to try it. And it works!"

It is my intention to share strategies and concepts with you that have worked for me or others. I trust that you will not swallow them whole, but will chew them, savor them, roll them around in your mouth a while to see how they taste, and spit out whatever you find indigestible.

When I am doing this advice-sorting process for myself, there are a few things I tune into. For one, I'll run the idea through my common sense filter. Does it make sense to me? Do I have any past experiences that suggest this might or might not be a viable option in my current situation?

Then, I'll run it through my heart to see if I feel expansion or contraction when I think about implementing the advice. I check for feelings of warmth or coolness, connection or disconnection.

Then it gets the gut check. For me, it's sort of a basic uh-huh or nuh-uh feeling. Yes feels like outward motion, no feels like bumping up against a wall. No feels sort of stubborn and stuck, while Yes feels like a flowing stream.

It's challenging to put these feelings into words, and the feelings will be different for each person, but my hope is that when you read about my signals, it will help you become more aware of your own.

If the suggestion or advice passes all these tests, I start to experiment with it. I remind myself of my goal, and take stock of whether I seem to be getting closer to it or farther from it when I implement the advice.

If the advice doesn't work where the rubber hits the road, I don't care how good it sounded in theory. And conversely, if the advice takes me where I want to go, I don't really care about the age, credentials, personal habits, or hypocrisy of the person who gave it to me. I just take the info and go my own way with it.

So if you decide to give anything I suggest a try, please also pay attention to how you feel while doing it, and whether it is taking your relationship with your child where you want it to go.

There's a tremendous variety of parenting options out there. I hope you'll keep sampling until you find a model that works for both you and your child.

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit

What should I do when my kids hit or pester each other?

Q: Sometimes my son gets ornery, and just won't leave his sister alone. He'll poke or hit or verbally harass her, and it drives both me and his sister crazy! I tell him over and over again to stop, but he just keeps going until I get really angry and blow up at him. There's got to be a better way!

A: My hunch is that when your son is hitting, his cortex is probably not online. The cortex is the part of the brain that is responsible for compliance, self-restraint, logic, and reasoning, and it is not well developed enough in children to act as a consistently reliable behavior inhibitor.

what to do when your child yells at you

Q: When my child yells at me, I tell her she can't talk to me that way, and that I won't listen until she can be sweet. But rather than calming down, she often just becomes more upset at me. What is going on? I don't want to reward her lack of self-control by responding to her when she is yelling, but I don't think what I am doing is working, either.

A: What an insightful question! A little bit of brain science might illuminate what is happening.

don't overreact to teenage drama!!!!!!!!!!!

(hee hee hee - did you like all those exclamation points in the title up there? that's my idea of a real funny joke...)

But seriously, folks. Teenagers can be SO dramatic. All the parts of their brain are not yet reliably wired together for optimal synergistic functioning. The brainstem, which is in charge of the instinctive fight/flight response; the limbic system, which governs emotions; and the cortex, which is responsible for logic, reason, and learning, sometimes operate together as a well oiled machine.

When all the parts are communicating well, the cortex can settle the emotions and instincts down, thus inhibiting emotional outbursts and random running or punching. But since the lines of communication are rather tenuous in a teenage brain, they can become disorganized under stress, at which point logical reasoning loses its influence over the emotional or reactive default responses.

When that happens, big feelings can head right out your teenager's mouth without passing through a filter first. They don't think about how people might react to what they say. They just blurt it out raw. It's sort of like when I bit into a moldy date once. It tasted so nasty that I instinctively spit it out immediately - there was no time to consider how disgusting that must have looked to my unsuspecting dinner companions.

Sometime in our mid 20's, if all goes as planned, the connections between the various parts of our brain become pretty consistently reliable, and we become more able to make rational decisions about how to express our intense feelings. On a good day, that is. On bad days, unfiltered things sometimes slip through our adult lips, too.

So when your teenage daughter wails, "I am so humiliated that I want to DIE!" please don't call the suicide hotline right away. What she means is, "I can hardly tolerate this feeling of shame and I wish I could jump out of my skin to avoid feeling it one second longer!"

And when your teenage son mutters, "This world would be better off without some people in it," please don't treat him as if he is violent and dangerous. What he really means is, "I am extremely frustrated about something that happened, and I feel powerless to do anything about it, and I just want this feeling to go away."

When the brains of our teens are disconnected, it's doubly important for ours to be connected. We may be the only ones in the room at the moment who are capable of thinking rationally. We know that no matter how intense their feelings are, they too shall pass.

If we take their words at face value the first time we hear them, rather than seeing them as unfiltered emotional puke (pardon the gross metaphor, but it's just so true) then we run the risk of overreacting and adding fuel to their emotional fire rather than helping to extinguish it.

(a gigantic, important caveat: If your gut tells you that you need some help distinguishing your teenager's emotional puke from a sincerely suicidal cry for help, then please do not hesitate to contact a mental health professional for assistance.)

Often our kids and teens become even more upset when we respond with anger, worry, or fear to their outbursts, because they were hoping that our rational brain would stick around to toss them a lifeline and help them settle down.

So when your teen is hot, try to stay cool. Listen closely between the lines for the feeling that is driving them crazy, and speak to that rather than the specific words they said.

Simply acknowledge those intense feelings without judging them or trying to make them go away. We might say to our daughter who was so humiliated she wanted to die : Wow, something must have happened that you really wish didn't happen. And to our son: Holy smokes do you sound frustrated!

Don't bother trying to make them become rational right then and there by saying something like, "Now you know that's not true, honey. You have a lot to live for." Or, "You have no right to decide who should be here and who shouldn't. "

Emotions need to be acknowledged and released before the rational part of their brain can come back online. Take a breath, feel the weight of your feet on the ground, and stay calm. Let them know you understand that they are having strong feelings.

Later, after the storm has passed, they are calm, and feeling good again like you knew they would, it's time to talk about their word choice. That's when you say, "Honey, I knew that you didn't really want to kill yourself or anyone else because I know you so well. But sometime there might be someone around who hears you say that and doesn't know you well, and they might get scared and call 911 or the teacher or a counselor because they think you mean it literally. So I wonder if there's a way to express your feelings that is less likely to create some unpleasant fallout for you. What do you think you could say instead?"

Keep brainstorming together. It might take a few rounds to hit on a workable alternative. If they don't come up with anything, feel free to contribute things like, "Well, perhaps if you bookended it with, I almost feel like I could ____(kill myself)______ but of course I wouldn't ever do that, that would let people know you are just blowing off steam."

When you give your teens this kind of feedback when they are calm, cool, and collected, their cortex can make use of it. When you try to educate them in the heat of the moment, the cortex is not online to learn the lesson. To have the most impact and influence on your teen, wait for a connected moment, share the information and feedback they need to recalibrate their behavior, and offer your encouragement, love, and support.

For more information about Karen's parenting consultations, click here or visit