The phrase “train your children” is a trigger phrase for many. It’s associated with a certain kind of authoritarian parenting, that leaves kids broken and relationships destroyed. But training your children doesn’t have to be harsh, top-down, or unfair. Training, as a parenting tool, can be one of the best things you can do for your kids, and for yourself.
What is training?
Training, literally, is just another word for teaching. But most people use it to mean teaching over time, as in, training for a sports event or certification of some kind. Training has specific goals of improving one’s capability, capacity, productivity and performance. And all of that requires two things: habit and discipline.
The old Latin word that turned into “training” meant a connected series of things. So when we train ourselves or our children in anything, we’re connecting a series of things together, usually to help make reaching a goal or doing a task easier, faster and better.
How to train your children
Knowing why we should be training our children is rooted in how we do it. And this is where the disconnect often comes from. Because training is seen as difficult and requires a lot of willpower and giving up of things we like, we tend to associate training with harshness and pain.
Before you can train your children, make sure you’ve taught them the skills they’ll need to accomplish whatever task, project or goal you’re training them in. Nothing is more unfair than trying to train before you’ve even learned what to do in the first place!
And while it’s true that training tends to mean discipline, it doesn’t mean we have to give up things we like — or force our kids to give up things they like.
What training really is about is this: putting off the easy in favor of the best.
When we teach our kids (and ourselves!) how to do what’s best for themselves before they do what feels good in the moment, we give them a life skill that will forever serve them.
So how do we train our kids?
First, start with setting up the environment for success.
Training is all about developing good habits and routines. So make it easy on yourself and your kids by using tools that are designed to help with training! Checklists, timers, charts and simple rewards make training easier on everyone.
Second, introduce the new training gently.
Again, method matters. For lasting results, training in a new habit or routine needs to happen slowly and gently. Connect the first steps in your new routine with something they already like to do, know how to do, and tend to do often.
For example, if your goal for training is to help them become more independent at bedtime, and to go to bed without complaining, your first new action might happen right after clean up and chores, and it might be “Let’s choose our story for tonight at bedtime.” This sets you up for success because now you’ve got the reward there. Then, “Go put on some pjs so you can be comfy for our story,” makes the next action just a natural extension. Then, “Clean up your toys so we don’t have to rush our story later,” motivates your kids to do the disliked thing quickly and without complaint.
Continue chaining together the actions of your new routines so that they flow together, and pretty soon, no one is complaining, and your new training is routine.
Third, slowly withdraw the need for the reminders.
One of the key ingredients of effective training in a routine or habit is that eventually, you shouldn’t need reminders of what to do next. While not everyone will be able to do without a physical reminder of the routines (ie a visual checklist), most neurotypical kids will be able to self-regulate and self-motivate after some time. And you shouldn’t need to verbally remind them about the next steps.
Fourth, let natural consequences help guide the training.
Training does not need to be harsh or have extra correction when things go off the rails. If you’ve set up your routines and goals to feel like they are natural extensions of each other, then the natural consequences of skipping a step, not starting, or rushing through it will help correct all on their own.
In our above example, training a young child in a new bedtime routine has a natural consequence reinforced throughout. If they don’t get their pajamas on in a timely fashion, there’s no time for the story. If the toys aren’t cleaned up quickly, there’s no time for the story. It naturally corrects the child, without the parent having to come up with “threats” or manipulate the situation.
Training can happen for every goal.
You can create a routine to train yourself and your kids for any and every goal you might think of. Whether its a physical goal of fitness or health, a social goal of relationship skills or etiquette, an academic goal for homework or studying, or whatever else you might have in mind, you can apply the same techniques.
Training requires only a few things: a goal, a tool to help you start, a reward — and someone to train you.
Training doesn’t work without accountability.
How to hold someone accountable, healthily
Accountability goes hand in hand with responsibility, but there’s a difference. Responsibility is about roles and tasks. Accountability is about results.
Holding someone responsible means that you assign the job to them. Holding someone accountable means you assign the credit — or blame — to them.
In practical terms, they are often used interchangeably. After all, if you’ve assigned a chore to one of your kids, they’re responsible for the chore. And you’ll hold them accountable for the chore’s completion, whether it was done well, done poorly, or done at all.
We can train our children to be responsible and accountable, without making it personal.
By focusing on the job and the results, and not the character of the person, we can hold our children accountable for their actions. And this gives them room to grow and become accountable and responsible — which is the whole point of training!
So instead of calling someone “bad” or “naughty”, I always ask my children about their choices. And I point out to them that they can and have made better choices.
Teaching and training is about choices.
When we deliberately teach our children, we’re teaching them that they have a choice, and how to make decisions.
When we decisively train our children, we’re helping them to consistently make good choices.
And that’s why you need to train your children. So they can make better choices every time.