Sometimes when I speak with a potential client on the phone I can sense a disconnect between what I share and what seems to be understood. I can almost always tell when this happens because there is a question I can feel hanging in the air. I suspect it hangs for a bit because many feel it’s too direct or even impolite to put into words.
This moment comes after I explain that I collaborate with my clients and together we rely heavily on their expertise when it comes to their own families. (Some parents chuckle at the idea that they are experts at anything—certainly at parenting. They are, after all, calling a parent coach.) It comes after I emphasize that a significant part of my technique involves asking questions and identifying the parent’s own internal and external resources. It comes after I share that a parent coach is not a “Supernanny”—I don’t give advice or dictate methods because I believe strongly that the best people to make the decisions about the “what” and “how” of parenting are the parents themselves.
I can hear the wheels spinning as a curious caller figures out the best way to put their inquiry into words: “But what if I need help with the practical stuff? What if I don’t know the answer to how to get my kids to bed or how to discipline them when they disobey? Can you actually help me with that?”
And there we have it—the crux of the issue. Parents want help with practical matters. They want to know what to do when their child talks back, how to get their chaotic schedule under control, or how to get ahead of the feelings of overwhelm so they have time to think before they react.
And yes, parent coaching helps with all of that.
But what I am still learning to explain, even as I notice the way parents grapple to understand how it works, is that for me to help a parent truly grow in confidence, I need to give them room to answer their own questions—even the questions they have no idea how to address right away. In any journey toward increased competence there needs to be space for self-direction. If I come in with a list of bedtime techniques or discipline methods for a struggling parent, I may provide a temporary salve for the struggle of the day but I haven’t helped them strengthen their ownership over their own parenting choices. That’s not to say that I can’t give suggestions or brainstorm practical steps toward solutions. As much as I rely on a parent’s expertise and knowledge, it’s fair that they rely on mine when it comes to matters of child development, the change process, or practical resources that can inform a parent’s decisions. Parents have a right to know that, in a coach, they have a partner who will collaborate and create solutions alongside them as they walk through challenges. It’s not all up to them.
But the reality is, it’s more up to them than they probably feel capable of in the beginning. It’s my job to show them just how capable they are.
I think this matter of wedding practical steps with underlying support comes down to a matter of perspective. I have seen it time and again that when we address the underlying issues, the driving values, the deepest intentions of a parent’s heart, we inevitably see changes in the practical anyway. I don’t have to tell a parent what to do because when they begin to get in touch with their own sense of purpose, their behavior begins to align with that purpose automatically. This often comes out when a parent shares, “I’m not sure what’s different this week, but my kids seem to be listening better,” or “I barely did anything differently, but I don’t feel so overwhelmed this week.” As much as we cling to practical guidelines and superficial formulas for success (if I do x, my kids will do y), formulas don’t change people fundamentally. And short term behavioral changes almost never become long-term ones unless there is an underlying change in approach. Our perspective needs to change if our lives are going to look different. This gets at the heart of coaching.
Why is it that sometimes your child’s tantrums make your blood boil and other times you can laugh them off or exhibit all the patience in the world? Perspective. Between those two extremes there is a perspective shift that happens so that the same stimuli elicits a different response. Perspective is a powerful thing. A few mornings ago I went on a run. I planned to run a certain distance in a certain timeframe, but halfway through my knee flared up from an old bout of tendonitis. I knew it would be wise to walk to avoid exacerbating the injury, but I didn’t want to slow down. The clock was ticking; I didn’t have time to walk! Discipline won out though, and I did walk significant portions of my route as I made my way home.
As soon as I started walking—as soon as I made a commitment to prioritize minimizing injury over short-term speed goals—I took a moment to look around. It was a moment that nearly dropped my jaw. I had been running along a forested path, surrounded by stunning greenery and peaceful solitude. The weather was beautiful, the breeze just right. I was surrounded by beauty and my body literally took a breath and relaxed. It took me about four seconds to dismiss my concerns about having a lousy run time and adopt an attitude of appreciation. A few moments before my perspective was one of concern and frustration, even toying with thoughts of failure. Now I was in the exact same circumstances, yet my perspective led me to peace and appreciation, not only for my lovely surroundings but even for the injury that slowed me down enough to notice what I had not had eyes to see only moments before.
I went through a perspective shift.
Parent coaching is full of perspective shifts. It’s full of moments when we realize, almost by surprise, that the process is working even though we can’t quite pinpoint why. We notice that life feels more manageable or we suddenly appreciate the unique contribution of that “difficult” child because through coaching we have become better equipped to notice what works and to harness the power of our resources for the purpose of good ends.
Perspective is a powerful thing—so powerful that one little shift can change a family.