Picture this: you’re in a crowded, noisy airport, waiting for your flight to go to visit family. Your kids are bickering over a toy, the bickering turns into shouting, passengers in the terminal turn to stare, and your daughter scratches your son while grabbing the toy. He erupts into a howl. You’re stressed about the trip (are you going to get another lecture about your kids’ picky eating?), embarrassed by all the disapproving stares (seriously, people? Your kids never fight?) and regretting the trip in the first place (your pressure cooker job is more relaxing than this “vacation”).
You snatch the toy away, look fiercely into your older child’s eyes, and say “you apologize to your little brother right now, young lady.” She refuses, you threaten to take away screens, until finally she grumbles out an oh-so-sincere “sorry I took your stupid toy, stupid brother.”
Next time that happens, try this:
Say to your daughter, “Hey, I need some help with my bag. Can you come over here and watch it for me?” And when she does, tell her, “Look, I know that when you’re ready, you know the right thing to do.” And walk away. You will likely find your daughter, that same child who scratched her little brother over a toy, making it up to him by helping him with a game later in the day.
“I think most people agree, the only person you can control in life is yourself and the quickest way to change your child’s behavior is to control your own.” – Kirk Martin, founder, Celebrate Calm
That’s sage advice from Kirk Martin, founder of Celebrate Calm, an innovative parenting resource for strong-willed children. Kirk’s counterintuitive advice is that rather than standing over your child and demanding compliance, “step back, give your child space to reflect, and then lead her to make the decision herself rather than forcing her to do it.”
Kirk’s unique perspective is gained from his own family experience with his son Casey, with whom he used to engage in constant power struggles but is now his partner in giving almost a million parents and teachers in 19 countries very specific, practical strategies to stop the yelling, defiance, and power struggles with strong-willed kids. For over a decade, his family invited over 1,500 strong-willed kids into his home to equip them with these tools.
He starts his presentations saying, “I know that your kids’ outward behavior is often defined as disrespectful, but if I had one word to describe them, it’s frustrated. Whether that’s anxiety, whether it’s feeling different, whether it is struggling with focus, not fitting in, sensory overload, they’re frustrated. Out of fear, out of frustration, they act out and everybody just treats the outward behaviors. When we react to the outward behavior, and we end up punishing a child for failing instead of getting to the root of it and giving the child tools to succeed.”
His advice has helped my own family tremendously, and I sat down with him to learn more about his innovative approach to not only helping these kids control their behavior but celebrate them for their unique characteristics.
Can you tell us more about how you got started in this line of work?
MARTIN: When our son was struggling in school, I began taking my lunch break from my regular corporate job and volunteering at the school. What I noticed very quickly was the kids who were different, who didn’t quite fit in, felt very misunderstood. The teachers and parents were really misunderstanding them and their motivations. Just on a whim, I told my wife, “I’ve got this awesome idea. Why don’t we invite all these kids who are just like Casey, challenging, difficult, why don’t we just invite them into our home? We’ll have these camps. She was like, “That’s stupid.” I was like, “I know, which is why we should do it.”
The idea was these kids often go to traditional one-on-one therapy and it makes them feel like there’s something wrong with them. So, we called them LEGO Camps. The kids had no idea that it was therapeutic at all, but the idea would be, they would walk into a home, into a safe place. There’d be LEGOs all over the floor and they would see other kids who were just like them because these are kids who often don’t get along with peers that well. They’d be with like-minded peers. We would be able to help them in the moment when they were getting frustrated, when they were fighting with other kids, when they were disappointed with some decision.
That was the whole idea. Honestly, it wasn’t that well thought out. It was an idea I had one night in 2000, and I put a $6 ad in our local community newspaper and built a $9 website. It just said something like, “ADHD LEGO Camp, call this number.” It said “Kids are misunderstood. We’re going to get them together.” It was organic. It wasn’t a business idea. It was just kind of our passion for helping kids who felt misunderstood.
It grew from there by word of mouth. Parents would tell other parents: “Hey, there’s this family that invites kids into the home and our kids love it. They love going there and they come home and they’re calm and they’re learning how to control their emotions.” That’s how it started.
Parents of strong-willed children are often judged and can feel ashamed when their kids act out. The natural reaction can be to punish the child. Yet you take a completely different, and innovative approach: you encourage parents to embrace and celebrate these kids for who they are and stop judging them. You also help parents realize that they are the ones who need to change, not their kids. What brought you to this realization? Can you explain why you think this works?
MARTIN: These are kids who don’t fit in, they get judged according to arbitrary standards. But I see leaders, creative kids, risk-takers, they’re not followers, they’re curious, they question authority, they can hyper-focus, they’ve got these active brains and bodies. Instead of trying to fix that somehow, why don’t we use that to our advantage?
The part about controlling ourselves is, I had tried for almost 10 years to change my son. I’d yell at him, saying “You need to calm down.”
Then one day, I realized, I can’t even calm down. I was yelling at him to control himself, yet I was a 35-year-old man who couldn’t control himself. I realized that what I was in essence saying to my son is, “I need you to behave because if you don’t behave and do exactly what I say, I’m not sure I can behave, and you do not want to see me angry.” I was dependent on him. I was letting him lead me.
I think most people agree, the only person you can control in life is yourself and the quickest way to change your child’s behavior is to control your own: your tone of voice, your body posture. In the corporate world, we do it every day. If you have someone who’s working for you and you barge into his or her cubicle and stand with your hands on your hips, it’s going to provoke a defensive response. In the same way, we have an enormous amount of power over how our child reacts by simply how we view and treat them.
One of the things you encourage parents and teachers of strong-willed children is acknowledge the benefit of the child’s behavior, for example, praising their enthusiasm when they call out in class, or privately recognizing that their determination will serve them well as future CEOs and leaders. What suggestions do you have for finding the silver lining in what some may see as failures or character flaws?
MARTIN: I’d say, first thing is control your own anxiety over your child’s future. Don’t project out what you think your child is doing at 7 and think they’ll still be doing that at 27. We tend to only focus on what they’re doing wrong. One of my favorite things is to list all the qualities necessary for success in school: things like sitting still, memorizing information for a test, walking in single file, playing with kids your own age.
Then list the qualities necessary for success in life in the corporate world as a CEO or as an entrepreneur. You get a different list of things like: we need someone creative, who’s not going to follow what everybody else says. We need someone who can hyper-focus, who can push through, who isn’t afraid to take risks. For me, one of the most powerful things at first was when we thought with Casey, “What do we really want in school?” The first list we had, we wanted a child to get all As and Bs, good behavior, and good grades. But that didn’t happen that well.
We started thinking, “What do we really want?” We defined it as we want a curious child who loves to learn. That takes you in a slightly different path. He’s not always doing his homework, but he may have been building a robot or taking something apart.
If I were a teacher, I would be sending notes home to the neurotypical compliant kids’ parents, saying, “I’m concerned about your child because he just sits still all day long, waiting for me to tell him what to do. He has no initiative; he never blurts out because he doesn’t have any interesting ideas. He colors within the lines because he’s got a fear of messing up. He just lines up single file.”
Then to the strong-willed kids’ parents, I’d say, “I love teaching your child because he’s always pushing the limits. He’s a leader, he questions everything I say. He can hyper-focus, he never colors within the lines. In fact, he doesn’t even color. He just flips the sheet over and draws something he wants to draw.” I can use that, he’s difficult to teach but those are great qualities for real-life success.
When I explain this at live workshops, you can see parents think, “Oh, yes, I’ve been focused all these years trying to change my one child, because he’s difficult and challenging, when it’s that compliant child who really needs to learn to be more creative, to be more assertive, to really go forward a little bit.” That analogy is nice for people to hear at times.
You recommend many techniques that are counterintuitive and novel. What are some of the most counterintuitive recommendations you make?
MARTIN: The counterintuitive is that the quickest way to change child’s behavior is just to control your own attitude. I do the opposite of what I would normally do. When I discipline, instead of marching into the room, lecturing, or saying, “how many times do I have to tell you,” I just sit down. When I want kids to move more quickly, instead of rushing them with “Come on, guys. Got to move, got to move, got to move,” I actually slow myself down because I want to lead kids.
What you would normally do usually doesn’t work and you get an opposite response. The more you lecture, the more kids resist, so I tend to ask more questions. The more I push, the more they shut down, so I tend to lead a little bit more. Instead of pointing out flaws all the time, I affirm what they’re already doing well without saying “Hey, nice job on that but…”
Step back so your kids can step up. When I see kids not living up to their potential, instead of getting on them, lecturing, and pressuring, I actually step back from doing those things to give them space to be responsible for themselves because every time I lecture and micromanage, I’m actually being responsible for my child’s behavior and success, instead of my child being responsible for himself.
Innovation requires flexibility, tolerance for failure, and time to pivot and respond to feedback. Similarly, you recommend that parents “examine the arbitrary rules and expectations you have created that cause many of these power struggles,” and “give your kids space and time to handle situations in a different way than you expected. And then affirm them for following through…even if you don’t like HOW they did it.” What similarities or differences do you see between innovation and parenting strong-willed children?
MARTIN: Strong-willed kids tend to be innovators. The difficulty in parenting strong-willed children is there’s no guidebook for it. No parent expects to have a child who is going to resist literally everything you say and do. You have to be in the moment, you have to look for a deeper understanding. You have to experiment with different ways of motivating them than is the typical way. You have to be curious about your kids.
Stop fighting them over everything and instead, look to see how that quality that they have could change you. Be willing to step out of your comfort zone to try something new. You’re not letting your child get away with things, you’re really just giving them space to have ownership over their choices and be responsible for themselves versus just following the traditional path.
Great innovators are curious and ask things like, “Could we do that?” We can say, “Hey, I’m curious because you’re doing things differently than I would. I’m curious why you are doing it that way because I really would like to learn from you.” It’s one of my favorite things to say to a strong-willed child, because it basically tells them, “I wish I was more like you.”