Most of us were probably raised on timeouts if we were “naughty” or didn’t always “listen” to our parents. Talking to our parents about our feelings really wasn’t a thing. But Smart Love Family Services and The Natalie G. Heineman Smart Love Preschool is on a mission to support today’s parents with a better way that leaves kids feeling lovable and parents less frustrated.
The Smart Love philosophy, pioneered by top parenting and child psychology experts, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D., and the late Dr. William J. Pieper, helps parents really understand what’s happening in children’s minds as well as the meaning behind the behavior parents are seeing.
“The traditional models don’t take into consideration how the child’s mind is really working and how the child experiences the parent’s response and discipline,” says Smart Love’s Director of Clinical Services Dr. Carla Beatrici. “A lot of parents are focused on getting the behavior to change,” while missing out on understanding that the behavior usually is completely normal.
It’s not parents’ fault, though. “Parenting is incredibly challenging and parents don’t generally get a lot of help unless there’s a big problem,” Beatrici says. “Every parent deserves support from the get-go.”
That’s where Smart Love comes in. The nonprofit, with its clinic and preschool in Chicago and counseling center in Oak Park, is focused on the Piepers’ belief that a child’s most important need is to feel cherished by their parents and caregivers, to feel loved and loveable, she says. Meeting this need helps kids flourish and learn to take good care of themselves when we are no longer there to guide them.
Using a few common situations that can frustrate parents of toddlers, Beatrici demonstrates how the Smart Love way makes for happier, healthier children and families. It’s the help children attending The Natalie G. Heineman Smart Love Preschool and their parents get to experience daily.
1 Refusing to leave the park when it’s time to go.
If the whiny plea for 10 more minutes after you tell your child it’s time to go sounds too familiar, you aren’t alone. And you know how your frustration quickly ramps up when they absolutely refuse to listen or run away from you.
In a traditional sense, Beatrici knows that parents see this as their child being defiant and willful or they worry that something’s wrong with their child. In the Smart Love way, it’s developmentally normal for toddlers to be independent thinkers and want to explore their world while having fun, she says.
Smart Love uses loving regulation in such instances. “You are going to regulate the behavior, but you are going to do it in a way that preserves the child’s sense of self-worth and closeness in the relationship, the sense that my mom and dad still care about me even when I am having a hard time, even when my behavior has to be managed, as opposed to feeling ‘uh-oh, they are really upset with me,’” she says.
Don’t: Yell or drag them kicking or screaming from the park and be angry with them.
Do: Help them feel understood and cared about, she says. Tell them you understand they want to stay because it’s so fun. Then give them a choice, such as one more turn on the slide or the swing. They still may protest, but even if you have to pick them up to leave, do it as a hug and show you care about the loss they are feeling, she says. Offer an alternative as a way to help them with the transition such as play their favorite song in the car and sing along or promise a fun game after you get home.
It makes it a more positive approach, she says.
“If the parent is being more negative, the child ends up feeling a double loss: I can’t have what I want and they then feel like, ‘oh my parents are unhappy with me,’” she says. While negative discipline may fix the behavior in the moment there’s a consequence to that approach in that the child feels badly about themselves. But if we can regulate children’s behavior in a caring and understanding manner, parents will preserve their child’s sense of being loved and loveable.
2 Not sharing toys with others
If a child rips a toy out of another child’s hands, Beatrici says parents may worry they are raising a selfish child. In reality, toddlers aren’t capable yet of seeing things from another child’s perspective, she says. They just want what they want. This is normal and temporary.
Don’t: Instinctively force your child to give the toy back and make them apologize all while giving them a lecture on the importance of sharing. They don’t understand why they can’t have what they want and end up feeling upset you won’t let them have fun, she says. Plus it could end up making them feel badly about themselves, and that they are selfish when in reality they are being a normal toddler!
Do: Tell them you understand they want the toy, but they have to give it back. Instead, find something else that makes them happy. “You must intervene, but doing it in a way that is loving, understanding, caring. In the end, you are showing your child they can’t always have what they want but they can depend on the fact that you want to help them still be happy. They feel cared about which helps them make good choices over time.”
Children quickly learn you need to step in because you have to, not because you are trying to frustrate them, she says.
“We don’t have to force toddlers and young children to learn how to be good people. They watch us, they copy us,” she says. “The best way to help children learn how to treat themselves and others is how their parents treat them.”
In the preschool, she says, teachers step in when a child is acting out, but they don’t discipline or put the child in timeout. Instead, they talk about their feelings. When a child is acting out it is an opportunity to help a child understand their feelings and feel supported around them. We get to the source of why it feels hard at the moment. This is what promotes true change. If the acting out involves a health and safety risk, teachers stop the unsafe behavior immediately then they apply Smart Love principles. Traditional methods of discipline compound a child’s upset feelings and ensure they will not only repeat the challenging behaviors but will continue to feel badly about themselves and others in the process, she says.
3 Throwing terrible tantrums
There might be nothing more embarrassing for a parent than their toddler throwing a huge public tantrum.
Beatrici says she knows it’s anxiety inducing because parents think everyone is judging them. But every parent goes through it. “It’s not a reflection on the parent, it’s a reflection that you have a young child,” she says.
Don’t: Threaten your child with punishment if they don’t stop, though that’s a natural response, she says. “Dr. Pieper says (it’s as if) we get angry at children for being children.”
Do: Swoop them up and take them to the car to let them talk about their feelings, letting them know it’s OK to have upset and unhappy feelings. At Smart Love, “we help parents understand that if you can show your child that there is nothing wrong with their feelings, that they are not bad for having upset feelings … children don’t feel like they have to act out their feelings and behaviors (to get the attention.)”
At Smart Love, “We say to kids all of the time: All of your feelings are welcome,” she says.
4 Taming bad dreams
Dr. Heineman Pieper wrote a book, Mommy, Daddy, I had a Bad Dream, to help parents help their kids not feel so victimized by dreams. They believe “We’re the author of our dreams,” Beatrici says, adding that dreams are made up of residue from the day that wasn’t resolved before bed.
Don’t: Tell your child their dreams aren’t real and send them back to bed. While it feels like you are reassuring and soothing your child, the dreams do feel real to your child, she says.
Do: Offer a big hug and snuggle, then empower your child to make a connection to their dreams. Put them in the role of investigator to see what might be causing the dreams. Because dreams are connected to something that happened in their day, before bed, talk to kids about their day and any feelings they are having, she says.
Beatrici says Smart Love helps parents understand that they are the model for children. When parents are respectful and caring, the child learns to treat themselves and others the same way.
In the preschool, teachers model respectfulness, kindness, and understanding – all the things parents want for their children. She explains that when children are responded to in this manner coupled with a robust learning environment – their love of learning blossoms. Children feel confident to pursue their curiosity and interests, because not only is their learning supported but so too is their social and emotional development. This translates into a foundational belief that school is a positive place, which they carry with them beyond preschool.
It’s never too late for parents to embrace the philosophy and reach out for help, she says. Those who do find they enjoy parenting so much more.
“Not only is there no shame in getting help, it’s absolutely a sign of strength,” she says. “Every parent deserves support and there’s support out there.”
To find out more about the support offered by Smart Love Family Services visit smartlovefamily.org or the early childhood education at The Natalie G. Heineman Smart Love Preschool, visit smartlovepreschool.org. Smart Love Preschool offers monthly Virtual Open Houses, the next one is scheduled March 4, 2022.