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RHR: How to Connect with Your Kids, with Bonnie Harris


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In this episode of RHR, I talk with Bonnie Harris about how to use connective parenting to weather changes and build strong relationships with our kids.

Revolution Health Radio podcast, Chris Kresser

In this episode, we discuss:

  • Bonnie’s background
  • When kids push your buttons
  • How to deal with your feelings
  • Choosing how you want to react
  • Remember: your child wants to be successful
  • Why connection is the foundation for your relationship with your child

Show notes:

Hey, everybody, Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. As we move into the fall here, I know many of you are at home with your kids because your kids are not going to school at all. Maybe they’re doing online learning or they are doing some combination of online and in-person learning. Maybe you’re not going to your job as you typically would. And so many of us who are parents find ourselves in situations where stress levels can be pretty high because we’re maybe trying to work from home, [and] our kids are trying to do school from home. Perhaps our partners are also working from home and that’s a unique situation for many of us that may cause a lot of tension and strife.

So I’m really excited to welcome this week’s guest, Bonnie Harris, to discuss how to navigate this challenging terrain during the pandemic. Bonnie is the Director of Connective Parenting and the author of When Your Kids Push Your Buttons and Confident Parents Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With. She’s been an international speaker, trainer, teacher, and parent counselor for over 30 years. She founded a community resource center in New Hampshire, and her most recent endeavor is a podcast titled Tell Me About Your Kids, in which she conducts one-on-one coaching sessions with parents. Bonnie has two adult children and three grandchildren and lives with her husband in New Hampshire.

So I have known about Bonnie’s work for some time. I think she has a really effective approach and one that I want to share with you because I think it may be helpful as we continue to move through this really challenging time. So, without further ado, I bring you Bonnie Harris.

Chris Kresser:  Bonnie, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show. Welcome.

Bonnie Harris:  Thank you, Chris. Nice to be here.

Bonnie’s Background

Chris Kresser:  So I always love to start with a little bit of background. How did you become interested in being a parenting educator and therapist?

Bonnie Harris:  Well, this could be a long answer.

Chris Kresser:  Anyone who’s been a parent, probably at some point had this thought, but you took it a lot further than most other people did.

Bonnie Harris:  Yeah. I used to be an actress in New York City. And when I had kids, when I was going to have my first child, I thought, well, if Meryl Streep can do it, I can do it. And I found out very quickly that I’m not Meryl Streep. And so I was kind of forced with ah, what else am I going to do. And so I went back to school in a specialization in early childhood development and parent child development, and I just, I loved, loved, loved talking about all of this. And I had this really easy kid. I had, I just thought it was me. I thought obviously, I know everything there is to know about parenting because we’re really happy.

So, hey, I love talking about this. And so I was enrolled in school when I got pregnant with my second child who cut me off at the knees, and I had to start all over again. And what I learned from her was so much more than anything I learned in graduate school. So I did all that, I did my work, I got my graduate degree. Then we moved to New Hampshire and I started teaching. Well, I started talking at birthing classes at the hospital and then I developed a course curriculum and started teaching parenting groups, and I just love[d] talking about it all. I just love[d] talking to other parents and hearing where they were coming from, and I’ve never, this was over 30 years ago, and I haven’t tired of it since yet.

Chris Kresser:  Fantastic, so that’s interesting. You actually moved into it when the coast was clear and things [were] going great.

Bonnie Harris:  Yeah.

Chris Kresser:  Whereas some other people sometimes choose the path like me, for example, I went into Functional Medicine because I was struggling and that’s what made a big difference for me. But for you, [it was] more, “Hey, this is easy.”

Bonnie Harris:  This is fun. Yeah.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah. And then you found out that that’s not always the case.

Bonnie Harris:  Yeah.

Chris Kresser:  With your second child.

Bonnie Harris:  And I call my second child my teacher because who’s going to listen to somebody who doesn’t know the problem of teaching children?

Chris Kresser:  Of course. That’s what I was getting to. That could be very irritating.

Bonnie Harris:  Exactly.

Chris Kresser:  You’re sitting there going, “What’s the problem? It’s so easy.”

Bonnie Harris:  What’s wrong with you?

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, that’s not going to work very well. So, of course, as we know, a lot of parents are at home with their kids, and many are juggling work and at least partially supervising their children’s education, often unwillingly. Of course, some parents voluntarily homeschool their kids, but many parents have been thrust into that role whether they like it or not, and sometimes on a full-time basis.

And sometimes, partially if their kids are doing a hybrid online and in-person learning. And then often, if there’s a partner in the home, the partner is home from work, as well. And so you’ve got this whole family quarantining together in the home all juggling these both familiar and unfamiliar roles. And it just seems to me that this is a very potent and potentially toxic mix.

Bonnie Harris:  Yes, it absolutely is.

When Kids Push Your Buttons

Chris Kresser:  One of your books, When Kids Push Your Buttons, seems to be very apropos for the current times, which is one of the reasons I wanted to have you on the show. That book seems to really get right to the heart of this. So what can parents do during these times to stay sane and not let their buttons get pushed or at least to respond differently when their buttons do get pushed?

Bonnie Harris:  Well, the thing that I think is so important these days is that parents learn to give themselves [and their kids] a huge break. Because this is tough on everybody, and the parents that I work with, that I experience, for the most part are very hard on themselves because they want to get it right. They wouldn’t contact me or do a group or do private coaching or anything like that if they didn’t want to get it right and do a better job. And so a lot of them put extremely high expectations on themselves to sometimes [become a] perfect parent.

So there are a lot of very highly motivated parents. But that motivation often gets derailed because, first of all, perfection, as we know, is unattainable and really should not be a goal at all. But [these days], there is no way you can “get it right.” It’s so, nobody knows what they’re doing. Nobody knows what’s coming. And I also say to parents that when emotion, when your emotions are really high, when you’re feeling overwhelmed, anxious, worried, angry, instead of stuffing it and kind of gritting your teeth to stay calm for the sake of your child, to let it out, and we’ll talk about that in a minute. But for the sake of your child, [it] is a really important thing to look at because your children know you, they know your buttons better than you do.

They are the ones who push those buttons, right, until you figure out how to defuse them. As opposed to you trying to stop your kids from pushing them. So when it comes to your emotions, and you’re trying to put on a happy face and a good front, and I am going to stay calm no matter what, your children see right through that. And when they know you’re not being authentic, they get worried. And that’s when they start acting out. And so, I say to parents a lot, when you’re feeling overwhelmed, just drop down on the floor and cry if you have to, and just say, this is so hard. I don’t have the answers. I don’t know how to do this the best way. And to just [feel] whatever it is you’re feeling. I think that your kids will appreciate that so much more than when you try to hold it together and pretend that everything is going to be okay.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, there’s so much we could talk about there because I think that’s a pretty foreign concept in our culture.

Bonnie Harris:  It really is.

Chris Kresser:  First of all, just the idea of any kind of transparency or a parent actually sharing their internal process and how they feel with a child is, maybe that’s changed a little bit over time. Certainly, like in my parents’ generation and their parents’ generation, that was just verboten.

Bonnie Harris:  They didn’t even know what their feelings were.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, that didn’t happen at all.

Bonnie Harris:  Exactly.

As we adjust to our kids’ new schedules, stress levels can rise and conflicts can happen. In this episode of RHR, I talk with Bonnie Harris about using connective parenting to navigate challenges and build stronger relationships with our children. #chriskresser

How to Deal with Your Feelings

Chris Kresser:  But even now, I think that’s still an unfamiliar concept and maybe threatening. Like that there’s some idea that if we share our feelings and what’s going on with our kids, then we’ll lose some authority or credibility or something like that. So I think that’s one piece I’d like to explore more. And the other pieces, and you alluded to this, but I just want to maybe explore some other strategies, but I know you’re not saying let out your feelings in the form of shouting and berating your kid or hitting your kid or something like [that]. So let’s talk a little bit about both of those.

Bonnie Harris:  Exactly. And if you’re feeling really off the rails, that’s not the time to share feelings either. Because a lot of parents don’t want to share how they’re feeling because they’re afraid they’re going to scare their kids. And I’m saying if you’re just going to drop down on the floor and have some tears and just say, this is really hard, [and] I’m having a hard time, I think you’re going to get a child who’s going to come over and put [their] arms around you and say it’s going to be okay, mom. However, if you’re really freaking out, that is definitely not going to come out well.

Chris Kresser:  Right, because kids need to feel safe.

Bonnie Harris:  Kids do need to feel safe. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with sharing your feelings of frustration and anger with your children when you own it. Because what you’re doing is brilliant modeling for your children on how to do the same.

Chris Kresser:  Right. Yeah, you’re also modeling cutting yourself some slack, which I think everybody needs a little bit more of. And kids, especially depending on their age, might need to cut themselves some slack, as well.

Bonnie Harris:  Exactly. And you need to cut them some slack.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Bonnie Harris:  And so, if you say, you know what, I just, you’re really having a hard time, [and] I’m really having a hard time. Could we just have a hug and maybe just turn off the computer for a little bit and go for a walk or something? And there are so many situations where parents feel that they have to do what’s being presented. Right? And what the teacher is saying has to be done. You’re the most important person in your child’s life. If you’re about to crack, take a break. Really. I think this is a time. I mean, we could go on and on and on.

We could spend this whole time talking about all the terrible things that parents and children are facing during this. And there’s lots of stuff. Everybody’s got a different story. Somebody said, which I thought was brilliant, we’re all in the same storm together, but everybody’s in a different boat.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Bonnie Harris:  And I think that’s so true. But instead of all of that, I really want to focus on how can you reimagine this time? How can you create some silver linings? How can you think outside the box? And that’s easy for me to say, I know. And it’s really, really difficult when you’ve got two parents trying to work from home or one single parent trying to work from home. And kids trying to do their school on the computer, and you may not have good internet and all the other stuff going on. It’s not easy at all.

But what can you create that’s different and do it with your kids? Talk to your kids about let’s use this time to reimagine school. We’re going to do what we have set out to do; if you’re doing online virtual learning with, you’re streaming from a classroom, you do that. But let’s figure out what else we can do, too, and try to find some inventive ways of schooling.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, I think that’s really important. Just realigning expectations, stepping back and changing our ideas of what has to be done versus nice to haves. I mean, that’s definitely a theme for us as we explore this. There [are] certain things that just have to get done, or at least are very high priority. And yeah, bad things might happen if they don’t get done.

Bonnie Harris:  Yes.

Chris Kresser:  And then they’re, it’s interesting to look at how many other things are maybe [things] we think have to be done or habitually do get done. But actually, if they don’t get done, the world’s not going to fall apart and everyone might be a little bit better off just letting those things go for a little while. We can always pick them up again later and probably will.

But just like you said, going outside and taking that walk for [a] half hour instead of continually banging our head against the table trying to get our kid to do this homework or this other thing, which they’re clearly not able to do [at] that moment. It just seems like this is, like you said, an invitation to really take a big step back, take a deep breath, and reset our expectations for this period of time.

Bonnie Harris:  Yeah. I just wrote an article about this and about the importance of scaffolding and setting a structure. And [for] everybody, it’s hard. Setting a structure is easy, easier for parents who are very structured themselves. But there are plenty of parents who would rather go by the seat of their pants, would rather just let things happen, be spontaneous, than set a structure. Some kids do all right with that, but some kids really, really don’t. So I wrote this article, [and] it’s going to be in my newsletter this Saturday, actually. So I’ll do a little plug here, if anybody would like to read it.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, we’ll send the link to it at the end.

Bonnie Harris:  You can go to my website and sign up for the newsletter, and you’ll get it this Saturday. But I think that it’s always important to involve your kids in what it is you’re trying to set up. You want to let them know that their opinion matters to you, that it counts. It doesn’t mean they’re going to make the decisions, but you really want to hear their opinions. You want to hear what works best for them, if there’s going to be, wherever there is leeway, they should have some choice, they should have some decision-making power within.

So the scaffolding or the structure is the parameter that you set, the structure of the day or the times that this has to be done. But within that scaffolding, it’s very important to let your child find their way and use that, how it’s best for them. Because they might need to stay on the bottom rung of the scaffold for quite a while. And it’s very important to let that happen because you don’t know what’s going on in their heads about doing a Zoom class or not seeing their friends. You hear, you see behavior, but you don’t know what’s really going on.

Chris Kresser:  Right. A lot of kids, and for that matter, adults, are not very good at articulating their inner landscape.

Bonnie Harris:  Exactly.

Chris Kresser:  And I will just say, too, that I think a lot of adults for that matter are not fully aware of the impact that the pandemic is having on their mental and behavioral health. And like, for example, I just saw a study that came out. You may have seen it, too. That rates of depression are three times higher than they typically are right now and that this is an even more significant increase than occurred after the 9/11 attacks.

Bonnie Harris:  Right, because you can’t get together with people and talk about it.

Chris Kresser:  Right, there’s really, like in nature, if you watch animals that are exposed to stress, they fight or flee, right? And we can do neither of those things. So that’s really one of the most stressful experiences for humans. And in my work with patients, we do all kinds of lab testing, and we’re noticing all the inflammatory markers are up and reactivated viral infections and all kinds of signs of stress that are manifesting in physical symptoms. And even when people are not subjectively reporting high levels of stress. So I think it’s insidious, and it’s not even something that adults are aware of. And so, for sure, kids are experiencing something similar.

Bonnie Harris:  Absolutely. And there’s just, there’s got to be added tension, no question. And when there is added tension, kids feel it. Kids feel tension. They’re like litmus paper. They’re so sensitive to it. And when we’re not open and honest and upfront about that tension, then kids can’t process it. And their imaginations go off in directions that we’re not even aware of, and could be far more frightening, than if we talk about how crazy this all is.

Chris Kresser:  Right, and this is a concept you talk a lot about in your work is what’s happening inside with kids often doesn’t get expressed in a kind of clear, rational way verbally. It gets expressed [in] this behavior, right?

Bonnie Harris:  That’s right.

Choosing How You Want to React

Chris Kresser:  And sometimes bad behavior, or it can be expressed as kids pushing our buttons to get us to, to get a response here in some way. So I want to return to that concept because I think it’s fundamental, and it’s also one that’s perhaps controversial, or maybe some people even have kind of a visceral negative reaction to at first, which is this idea that as parents, and of course, I would extend this to just as human beings in general, we are responsible for our own reactions.

Bonnie Harris:  Yes.

Chris Kresser:  Somebody may push our buttons, they may speak to us in a harmful way or do something that’s harmful. But we always have a choice about how we react. So let’s talk a little bit about this because I think it’s a pretty juicy and potentially transformative concept if we really can embrace it.

Bonnie Harris:  Really, yeah, it’s really interesting. I was working with a family this morning, [a] father and mother, and their 17-year-old. And the father was talking about how when they talk about something that the 17-year-old did wrong and needed correcting, she comes at it with this sarcastic attitude. And it’s just this attitude that he doesn’t like, and it pushes him to a tipping point. He stays quiet, and grunts or something, and then he gets to a tipping point, and then he explodes. And we started talking about it in terms of his button getting pushed, and I said, and I’m imagining that you’re assuming that it’s your daughter’s job to stop doing that pushing, right? And he said, yes.

Chris Kresser:  Good luck with that.

Bonnie Harris:  I said, she’s going to keep pushing until you understand that that’s yours, that those buttons are yours. And until you can defuse them, she’s going to keep doing that. So that’s the hard reality that you’re pointing to, Chris. It’s that responsibility that we don’t want to take. We want to blame it on somebody else. And I believe we are in such a blame culture on the whole.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Bonnie Harris:  But families are always wanting to blame children for not doing it right. You’ve got to do it this way. And it’s all with the best intention of thinking, if your children would only do it your way, they would be happier. Because that’s what we ultimately want. But we end up screwing it around because we’re telling them they’ve got to do it our way, and if they don’t, then we must be doing it all wrong. So we get down on ourselves or our child is doing it all wrong, and so we come down on them.

Chris Kresser:  So here’s a question that comes up I imagine a lot in your work and just in general with this framework or way of looking at things is, if we’re saying, owning our reactions as parents that we are responsible for our reactions, does that mean that we don’t establish boundaries or that our kids aren’t responsible for their own behavior in some way?

Bonnie Harris:  Not at all. They go completely together. Because if you are responsible for your feelings, your reactions, your thoughts and ideas, then you are responsible for you. No one else is. So then when your child says or does something that is not okay with you, that’s where you go, that’s not okay with me. I do not agree with that. I don’t like it when you do that. You’re coming from “I” all the time, which is what you do when you take responsibility for yourself. When you get into you can’t do that. Don’t you tell me. Don’t you do that. You’ve got to. It’s all blame. It’s all fed with blame. And nobody wants to hear that. And if you turned it around on yourself, you certainly wouldn’t want to hear somebody talk to you like that.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Bonnie Harris:  But when you can stay with “I,” then it’s absolutely clear and logical. I don’t like that. I don’t want you to do that. You want to do A, B, and C. I want to do X, Y, and Z. How do we figure this out so we both get what we want?

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Bonnie Harris:  That problem-solving. And that’s what you use instead of punishment or “consequences.” Because that does nothing more than skew the power hierarchy in your family. And it always breeds resentment.

Chris Kresser:  It’s a zero-sum game.

Bonnie Harris:  Yeah. And when children fear getting in trouble, see that’s what a lot of parents want. They want their children to be afraid of getting in trouble so they’ll behave appropriately. But when you really break that down, if your child is afraid of getting in trouble, then [they are] going to, as soon as they can, get sneaky, lie, cheat, find other sources of influence as they get into their teen years, do whatever they want, and disregard what you want.

Chris Kresser:  That sounds a lot like my childhood, Bonnie, that you’re describing and probably a lot of other people’s childhoods, too.

Bonnie Harris:  I was going to say I doubt if you’re alone in that, Chris.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, no, I mean, my parents were amazing. So that was not a commentary on their parenting style. But I think a lot of people can relate to what you were just saying is my point.

Bonnie Harris:  Yes. And when there is no trouble to be gotten into, then you just have problems to deal with and work out as a group, as a team in the family. And that’s what we’re not versed in. We don’t know how to do that. We sure know how to blame and we sure know how to punish. And so we just keep doing what we know. But to stop that and take responsibility for yourself is transformational. And transformation is really, really hard. And so when you’re coming from that new angle, your kids are going to grow up in that model, in that problem-solving world, in that place where there’s no trouble to be gotten into.

So that means they never fear talking to you or telling you what’s going on. And of course, for many parents, they don’t want to hear that. They don’t want to hear what their kids have to say. They don’t want to hear when their kids are angry with them or frustrated or not doing something they don’t want them to do. But boy, when you have that kind of trust, then you’re going to have a relationship with your children for the rest of your life.

Chris Kresser:  Right. And as you pointed out, when you’re talking about some of the potentially negative consequences of not parenting this way, losing, most parents want to be the primary influence in their kids’ lives and bemoan the loss of that influence over time as their kids get older and become more distant.

And what’s interesting to me about this is like when you develop that kind of trust, you almost certainly will have the influence that you thought you would have by punishing or giving consequences and doing all the things that paradoxically are almost guaranteed to erode that influence over time.

Bonnie Harris:  Exactly. And we do it when that is the last intention on our mind. We don’t realize how we’re sending our children down that road that we fear the very most.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Bonnie Harris:  But if your child starts to realize that they don’t trust you, they don’t feel heard, they don’t feel understood, they don’t feel gotten, then, and I’m sure a lot of the listeners [are] thinking of [their] own childhoods, you know what that feels like. It feels very, very alone. And you know you don’t have that source of comfort and safety in your parent[s] if you’re afraid of what they’re thinking of you.

If you have learned over time that you can’t really trust them with what’s going on with you, because they’re just going to tell you what to do. And so when you get into the teen years, you switch that source of authority from your parents to your peers. And that’s the last thing we want our children to do.

Remember: Your Child Wants to Be Successful

Chris Kresser:  So we could easily talk about each of these points that I want to touch on for the rest of this episode and several more because these are lifetime. Like you said, transformation is hard and it’s not something that happens overnight. It’s a lifetime practice, really. But I do want to touch on a few other concepts from your other book Confident Parents Remarkable Kids that I think also could be very helpful for people both now during the pandemic and just in general as a parent. And the first is my child wants to be successful.

And I think that’s one of the most game-changing principles from your books because I think a lot of parents, myself included, sometimes when we’re in the thick of the moment or the heat of the moment and we get really wrapped up in what’s going on, and especially if one of our, if our child is pushing our buttons in what seems to be an intentional way, or if they’re doing some kind of behavior, which from our outside perspective seems like why would they, they’re self-sabotaging. Why are they doing that?

Bonnie Harris:  Do you know how mad you’re making me?

Chris Kresser:  So it’s easy to lose sight of that might, our children do want to thrive and be successful. And that if they’re not acting in a way that reflects that, that doesn’t mean that that’s not true anymore. It means something else is going on. So why is that so important for parents to understand?

Bonnie Harris:  Well, when your child is doing what you were just saying, acting out, behaving in a way that seems totally wrong, and they know it, then it’s really, really hard to think my child wants to be successful. But if you can hold that principle in those tough times and say, what’s going on here? If this is true, my child always wants to be successful, always wants to please, then what’s going on? Then you start to dig deeper and realize that the acting out behavior is your signal that your child has an obstacle in her way of being successful.

So then you start looking at what that obstacle can be. And it can be anything under the sun. It can be something going on at school, it can be something going on with a friend, it can be the pandemic, it can be your anger that they fear every day when they wake up, a sense of being misunderstood. It can be something that just happened five minutes ago and suddenly they’re going to erupt in this behavior, or it could be a culmination of what they have learned to believe about themselves given the blame or the criticism that they get on a daily basis.

And so the only way they know how, their impetus is to get beyond that hurdle, their impetus is to be successful. So when that hurdle is too great, then they’re going to act out in order to, and they certainly don’t have this figured out, but it’s in order to signal you that something is wrong.

Chris Kresser:  Right. And I think another reminder here is that that’s not happening consciously for kids. It’s not like that a kid is sitting there having that whole thought process, “Well, I’m having a problem that is insurmountable. So I’m going to act out so that my mom or dad pay [attention],” no, that’s not what’s happening. They’re not aware of that. They’re just acting out. And the corollary is, I think as parents, we sometimes talk to our children as if they’re adults, and we say something like, what’s going on? Why are you acting that way?

Bonnie Harris:  I was just going to say that. What’s wrong? What’s the matter?

Chris Kresser:  And then they’re not going to be able to answer that. Yeah.

Bonnie Harris:  They don’t know.

Chris Kresser:  So what do we do instead in that situation where they’re not going to be able to answer us in a kind of rational way? So if we notice as parents that our child is acting out in some way, we maybe have the wherewithal to recognize, okay, they want to be successful, they’re acting out. So this means they’re having some kind of problem internally. And they’re not necessarily going to be able to articulate it in words. What do we do as parents in that situation?

Bonnie Harris:  Well, let’s not skim over that first part that you just said, which is the importance of understanding that this behavior is your signal that your child is having a problem, not being a problem. And if you can make that switch, that’s a whole mindset shift for most parents to realize. For me, when my daughter was pushing my buttons like crazy when she was little, I thought she was out to get me. I thought, “She is doing this on purpose. She is bound and determined to ruin my day. She’s just out to get me.” And that’s where we go. We go into these crazy places. And then suddenly, one morning, I looked at the same miserable face, the same ornery, stubborn behavior, and I said to myself, wait a minute, she’s not out to get me. She’s miserable. And that was the game changer for me.

My head did [a] 180 degree spin, and I realized, I don’t know what it was that helped me. Of course, I’m teaching parent education trying to help parents better communicate with their children, and I’m home screaming at my child. So I was really focused on this. I knew I had to walk my talk. And so I was ready for it. But boy, was that a game changer for me. And from that moment on, I never got into another power struggle with her. Because I knew that it was my choice, whether the power struggle happened. Because when you’re in a power struggle with your child, you are bound and determined to win. And you’ve got to make that child see it your way and understand what you’re trying to say. So we’re expecting our child to say, “Oh, right, mom and dad, I get it. Now you just want me to do this. Thank you. I’m done.” And they’re out to win, to try to get their way. That’s what children are all about. They just want what they want when they want it. And that goes on through our whole lives.

And so, back to what we were saying, when you can understand that behavior and you know the difference between your child’s regular behavior, it may be annoying, but if it’s developmentally appropriate, if it’s temperamentally appropriate, you know your child is doing just fine and is moving along at whatever pace [they need] to. If your child is acting out, throwing things, screaming at you, hitting, punching, kicking, then that is your signal that your child is having a problem. And then you want to put on your detective hat and see if you can figure out what it is. So it’s, I use the image of the iceberg all the time. And 10 percent of the iceberg is what we see on the surface. And 90 percent of the iceberg lies beneath the surface. So the 10 percent is the behavior that you see. And what we do in our culture is only pay attention to that behavior. And if we like it, we reward it. And if we don’t like it, we punish it. And that doesn’t even work with dogs and horses. Why we think it should work with children, I do not know.

So then you’ve got to dig down underneath and get into [it]. I wonder what’s going on. Don’t ask the question, like we just said, because they’re not going to know. But all you need to know is that there is a problem. And you can just, if you have not a clue, you can just start with, “Wow, you’re having a hard time. Maybe we need to just take a break.” Or “I wonder if you need a hug.” Or “This is really not going right for you.” Or you could say something like, “I wonder if you feel misunderstood because of what I just said to you.” Or “You don’t like it that I just told you to turn off the computer. You’re furious with me.” Just to be able to get into the child’s reality, where your child is coming from. That’s how you connect. And that’s the starting point. You can’t do any kind of problem-solving with a child you can’t connect with.

Why Connection Is the Foundation for Your Relationship with Your Child

Chris Kresser:  I mean, that’s a great segue into another principle, which is good discipline requires connection.

Bonnie Harris:  Yeah.

Chris Kresser:  So we’ve kind of been working up to this throughout, I think, the whole conversation where connection is really the foundation or the framework for how we can create a more harmonious relationship, really. And so like where discipline and punishment, that’s maybe the end goal and those are tactics to get to that goal; this is a different way of getting to that goal. And you’re even arguing that you can’t really even have good discipline without having that connection. So say a little bit more about that.

Bonnie Harris:  Right. And let me point out that most of us hear the word “discipline” and we think “punishment.” And discipline does not in any way, shape, or form define as punishment. Discipline is about teaching. Discipline is following a guide, a leader, being a disciple. And so there is nowhere in that definition that punishment belongs. So we absolutely need to have good discipline for our children, and that entails taking responsibility for ourselves and having self-discipline. That’s where it begins.

So the connection leaves the child feeling gotten. It’s like your heart is open and is including your child’s heart, and your child feels that. So they know you’ve got their back absolutely no matter what. And so this doesn’t mean that when your child steals something from a store or school and comes home and gets caught, or steals money or something like that, you don’t say, “Oh, that’s just fine, honey. I know you just really wanted that.” That’s not what connection is about. Connection doesn’t, we all know what good connection feels like when everybody’s happy. You’re watching a movie together, you’re going on a bike ride together, you’re playing a game together, you’re laughing together. That’s all [a] wonderful connection. But how do you make [a] connection when things aren’t going well? That’s the test.

So when your child is having a really hard time and showing you with very difficult behavior, that’s the time for you to hear it, to take it in, to accept it rather than to reject it with blame, or a consequence. If you don’t change that, you’re not going to get to do blah, blah. That’s a threat. Nobody likes to be threatened and it doesn’t work. So you can certainly say, “As soon as you do this, I am really happy to do this with you.” That’s more motivating than threatening. But when blame comes so trippingly off the tongue and our child does or says something, you ask them to load the dishwasher or that’s their job and it doesn’t get done and it doesn’t get done and it doesn’t get done, and you keep saying, sometimes pleading with them, “Will you please get the dishwasher done?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah, mom, okay, I will later on,” or “When I’m ready,” or “I will, I will,” and it doesn’t get done, and then you end up blowing and saying you are not going to whatever. I keep coming up with pre-COVID[-19] scenarios. You don’t get to go to your basketball game. And [it’s] so much better is to say, “As soon as the dishwasher gets loaded, then I’m happy to take you to your friend’s [house],” or “Then you can go to the ballgame.” Or “This is important to me. I know you’re busy doing something else. Can you let me know when it will be done?”

And when that is your kind of common language, it’s going to get done, because your child doesn’t have your threats and consequences to fight against. So the connection there is understanding that you have an agenda. You want that dishwasher filled so you can get the kitchen cleaned up, whatever. Your child has an agenda. He’s playing a video game and he doesn’t want to be interrupted. It doesn’t mean that you say, “Oh, darling, you go ahead and stay on the computer as long as you want.” It means that there are two agendas here that are equally important to the individual people. So you want to make sure you keep in mind that your child’s agenda, whether it’s playing with LEGOs or whether it’s a video game or whether it’s talking to a friend or whether it’s sleeping, your child’s agenda is just as important to your child as yours is to you.

That way of thinking means that your child is just as an important member of the family as you are, as everybody is. Nobody is any more or less important. Nobody’s needs and rights are any more or less important than anyone else’s. That doesn’t mean they get to make the decisions. You have the authority, and we could get into a whole thing about authority.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah. That’s a whole other thing. But I think, I’m glad that you pointed that out because that’s often a protest that someone might raise when they hear this. So “Oh okay, so you’re just saying just let the kids run the show.”

Bonnie Harris:  Let the kids, whatever they want. Yeah, that is not at all what I’m getting at.

Chris Kresser:  Not at all what’s happening. It’s actually a more effective approach to both the parents and kids getting their needs met, which will be much more harmonious and also life-affirming and transformative over the long term.

Bonnie Harris:  Absolutely, absolutely. And you make sure that you set your boundaries. Now I use boundaries in a different form than limits. Both are important. But boundaries to me is that personal boundary that I have between myself and any other person. So it’s that place where I know and with my child, it’s essential. I know what my problems, what my issues, what my feelings and thoughts are. And I do not ask my child to take care of them. And we do that. We could get into that, too. That’s a whole other thing.

But that’s what we do all the time; we ask our children to take care of our problems. But the other side of that boundary is my child with his problems, with his issues, with his agendas, and they’re not my responsibility to fix. Which is another huge Pandora’s box. Because we want, we’re always fixing our children’s problems and not allowing them to learn how to fix their own. Not giving them the support they need from us in fixing their problems.

So instead of telling our children what to do, we want to say, “I get it. This is a problem. This is a problem. What this person has said to you doesn’t feel right. You don’t want to do such and such. What do you want to do about it? What do you think would work?” This is problem-solving, right? And it’s asking your child to think through the problem. It’s guiding your child with your questions, which you can’t do until you’ve made [a] connection and your child totally trusts you.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Bonnie Harris:  But when you can guide with questions, then you put your child in that space of thinking about what they can do. And I believe that sets off all those neurons and those neural pathways, and fires all of that, so that your child thinks about what they could do differently, which I think is going to help them develop that prefrontal cortex faster than kids who are just told what to do all the time.

Chris Kresser:  Absolutely.

Bonnie Harris:  And if you’ve got an eight-year-old or a 10-year-old, and you say to them for the first time, “What do you want to do about that?” You’re going to get, “I don’t know,” because those pathways haven’t been fired. They’re not used to thinking about what they can do or what opinions they have. Or they’re just not used to it because usually they’re told what to do, what to think, when to feel what. And that’s all, when we do that when we tell our children, it’s under the guise of trying to make them get it right. But what we’re actually asking them to do is satisfy us. And that’s a way of asking our children to take care of our problem. And that sets a very, very poor boundary.

Chris Kresser:  All of these skills that we’re cultivating or developing in our kids in this approach are not just better for family dynamics, they’re obviously setting up our children for a lot more success in life. Being able to problem-solve and to take responsibility for one’s own actions and behavior and to learn how to get my needs met while I can help you get your needs met, those are all traits of very successful people.

Bonnie Harris:  That’s exactly right. And it’s high emotional intelligence, which we know now is what is so important in the adult work world.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Bonnie Harris:  And yeah, I mean, it’s everything. And then you take that to your children, and the world would be such a better place.

Chris Kresser:  Yes.

Bonnie Harris:  If we all knew how to problem-solve.

Chris Kresser:  Well, thank you for putting this work out there and helping us work toward that place. Both of your books have been enormously helpful for me and for my wife, and I really appreciated your work. And I’d love to turn other people who are listening onto it. So where can people learn more about your work and your books and your courses?

Bonnie Harris:  Well, everything is on my website, which is BonnieHarris.com or ConnectiveParenting.com, either takes you to the same website. My books are there; the audios of the books are there. You can get them on Amazon. The audio is only from my website. You can also sign up for my newsletter on the homepage, and that gets you two newsletters a month, articles that I write, and I answer readers’ questions.

And my newest endeavor that I would really like to push is my new podcast, which is called Tell Me About Your Kids. And we have 10 episodes up so far, and it’s doing quite well. And it’s me in private sessions with clients. So with a parent. It’s you, as the listener, listen[ing] in to the session that I’m having with a parent or parents.

Chris Kresser:  That’s case-based learning, we call it in medicine. So that’s the best way to learn, for sure, I think, especially with something that’s so experiential, where it’s not just didactic. It’s not something you’re just thinking about. You actually have to practice. Hear it, see it, do it over and over before you can really learn.

Bonnie Harris:  And very often, listening, and some of the feedback I’ve gotten is when people listen to other parents sharing their problems and issues and hearing the feedback I give them to help the situation, they can so easily translate it into their own situation. So I think it is a great learning tool. So that’s Tell Me About Your Kids, wherever you find podcasts. Apple podcasts, Spotify, all the podcast channels like this.

Chris Kresser:  Yay. All right. Well, thank you so much, Bonnie, for coming on. I know this is going to be helpful for a lot of people. And I also know that parenting is a really controversial subject. We might as well have been talking about religion or politics here.

Bonnie Harris:  Yeah, exactly.

Chris Kresser:  And I’m sure I’ll get some heated emails about, what are you crazy?

Bonnie Harris:  Yes, right.

Chris Kresser:  And that’s fine. That’s fine. Different approaches work for different people. My only invitation would be to just keep an open mind. And part of growth and development in any endeavor is challenging our own assumptions and beliefs. Even when they’re our most cherished assumptions and beliefs or especially when, perhaps. So that’s just a gentle invitation I would offer any listeners that might have been ruffled by any of what was said here and just check it out and see, see if you can …

Bonnie Harris:  And also, if anyone would like to speak to me to do some coaching or anything privately, I offer a free half-hour consult to see if we’re a fit. And you can email me at [email protected].

Chris Kresser:  Okay, there you have it. Thanks again, Bonnie, for doing the work that you do. It’s even more important now in these crazy times that we’re living in. And good luck with your podcast.

Bonnie Harris:  Thank you.

Chris Kresser:  And maybe we’ll have to do a part two because there’s an endless number of things to talk about.

Bonnie Harris:  Yes. There certainly is. And thank you for having me on your podcast.

Chris Kresser:  Oh, it’s my pleasure. Take care.

Bonnie Harris:  Bye.

Chris Kresser:  Okay, everybody. Thanks for listening. Keep sending your questions in to ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion and we’ll talk to you next time.

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