Relationship-Focused Parenting And Teaching: What It Is, What It Isn't, How To Do It, And The Systems You Need To Have In Place To Make It Work

A few weeks ago I did a talk about staying close to your kids as they get older.

I realized right away that this is a topic that is often misunderstood.

And that has a lot of baggage associated with it. So I want to go into a lot of details about staying close with kids as they get older and more independent and what that really means and how I have made it work for me both in the classroom and at home.

Also, because my work is all about teaching kids about the online world in a positive way, I want to make sure that you see this.

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Every single thing in this post (and in my work) comes down to this:

I firmly believe in keeping our relationships with our kids and students at the forefront of our parenting and our teaching.

I've been building mine up with my kids and students for years now and try to remember to keep this goal at the forefront of all of my interactions with both my students and my own kids.

When it comes to the online world, I also fully understand this:

I know that when we are monitoring, disciplining, checking, and asking, it feels like the opposite of relationship forming. It doesn't have to be this way.

I talk about this a lot in FREE course. You can sign up for it right here:

There's something else that we need to unpack here.

The truth is that many people who talk about this topic haven't researched human development (I have a Bachelors of Science in this) or Educational Theory (I have a Masters of Arts in this) or been there-done that (I was a teacher for a decade and I have been a mom for longer than that).

This is so dangerous! Because these bloggers (and Facebook posters!) are passing off on-a-whim information that their readers are relying on.

So my promise to you is this:

This topic is so in my wheelhouse.

This is what I lay at night thinking about, what I'm excited to try new techniques for, and what I wake my husband, Jason, up to discuss.

I think that understanding the foundation of how and why relationship building with our kids and teaching them about the online world intersect is the most important and effective thing that parens and teachers can learn.

My focus today in this article is how to teach our kids about the online world in a positive and relationship boosting way.

Let's dig in.

PIN THIS!

The biggest misconception about this kind of teaching and parenting is that it's permissive. Here's the truth about that: 

This isn't permissive parenting or not doing anything when our kids make mistakes—it's being intentional about how we set up our relationship with our kids and our teaching conversations with them.

Keeping our relationship with our kids at the forefront of our parenting isn't about not parenting or "being the Yes Parent," it's about UTILIZING WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT OUR KIDS AND OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH THEM FOR MAXIMUM TEACHING ABOUT WHAT'S IMPORTANT.

So today we're going to talk about what keeping our relationship with our kids and students at the forefront of parenting and teaching is, what it ISN'T, and which parts of our parenting and teaching we can refocus to relationship building and solidifying.

We're also going to take a detailed look at my own relationship-focused parenting and teaching, or what is called parenting and teaching firmly within the human development research-based parameters of high love and high control. (I will explain what I mean by this in detail below.) This is especially important when focusing on keeping kids safe online, which can also be called raising digital kids.

This kind of parenting and teaching essentially makes open conversations, ongoing dialogue, teachable moments, consequences, and restitution (or the fixing of mistakes) just the way things are in your home or classroom.

In other words, it is absolutely vital in today's connected, modern world where our kids have so much access to the online world, and the online world has so much access to them.

It's all about creating, setting and maintaining systems that WORK FOR YOU—they do the heavy lifting and your job becomes keep your kids and students invested in this framework.

What is relationship-focused parenting and teaching?

  • Relationship-focused parenting and teaching is not tied to how many times you say "yes" to your kid.
  • It's EFFECTIVE because you can teach your kids more without more yelling or more permissiveness on your end.
  • It means understanding that you have an infinite depth of opportunities to connect and teach, and this more connectedness does not mean more permissiveness, but it does yield more effective teaching.
  • In my experience, it's actually the only way to keep your kids safe, learning, and still close to you.
  • Whether you say "yes" to your kids 5 or 500 times, you don't become the "Yes Parent" when you are focused on high love (the connection) and high control (the upholding of rules or parameters).
  • Relationship-focused parenting and teaching is all about front-loading. It requires you to do the work up front, define the guidelines, expectations, and systems at home or at school, and then continue to teach, connect, and grow closer, day after day, month after month, and year after year within these systems and this solid connection.
  • Relationship-focused parenting and teaching allows you to focus on the IMPORTANT THINGS—the long term, solid relationship and the actionable, great life skills things—because the little things are clearly defined. (You shouldn't be doling out consequences or taking away phones—that's what defining how your family and classroom work is for!)

What isn't relationship-focused parenting and teaching?

Relationship-focused parenting and teaching is NOT permissive parenting—you still need to define and enforce what is important to your family or your classroom and get your kids into the conversations (which could mean asking questions, spending time together, or staying quiet and authentically listening to their stories, perceptions, and opinions.)

Relationship-focused parenting and teaching is NOT entirely discipline-free—and anyone who tells you that is lying to you.

It takes an incredible amount of control and love to build the kind of relationship with kids that allows you to earn and keep their respect and openness. And the people who have the commitment and determination to do this in the first place are not the types to, "just let everything go" once their kids become more independent.

This is just a reality check:

Relationship-focused parenting and teaching isn't always easy. Even when your relationship is set up, you still have the tricky conversations and focus on purposefully connecting to keep building on that relationship. And you still have to enforce rules and reinforce limits. Parenting and teaching are ongoing commitments.

Related: I wrote about my relationship-focused approach to talking to my kids about cyber bullying and their phone use right here.

Benefits of Relationship-Focused Parenting and Teaching:

I probably don't even need to tell you this, but:

The best thing about relationship-focused parenting and teaching is the CLOSENESS.

You can't put a price on that.

I love spending time with my kids and students, creating shared memories and inside jokes, and all of the fun and time spent together in-between. And being able to really KNOW your kids and students is an INCREDIBLE feeling.

Knowing that even if I have to say "no" to something that they really want, put the kabosh on a big plan, check their phone, take away an app, or even lose my cool in a heated moment or miss a big event, that our relationship is still solid and continually building, is just amazing.

A really important part of this for me is being able to STAY CLOSE during big LIFE CHANGES and NEW TERRAINS once the relationship is set up and defined.

I love knowing my kids as they are now and enjoying them in the moment, and defining the details and setting up the systems for how we will learn together in the close and far future allows me to focus on connecting which is what I really want to do!

This is also what allows me to keep my kids safe and wise.

What I mean by this is that if I can keep my relationship with my kids open and honest, then I can trust them enough to loosen the reins on what they know so they can continue to grow into independent people.

And I can keep teaching them new things as they come up to keep their independence, growth, wisdom, and safety accessible. It's what allows me to keep teaching my kids and keep increasing their independence without a lot of extra worrying or taking a toll on our relationship.

Both of these things are incredibly important to me and I don't think that they have to be at odds with each other.

Best Ways To Stay Relationship-Focused

There are two main ways to be a relationship-focused parent and teacher: 

Spend time teaching and spend time connecting.

These are two DIFFERENT kinds of time spent together.

TEACHING TIME usually has a start and an end time, includes lots of information traded back and forth in a short period of time, and then becomes an automatic part of your system later.

CONNECTING TIME is every single day, creating consistent ways of interacting, adding to the current and long-term quality of your relationship.

There are two types of relationship-focused times, the kind that are always ongoing and the kind that only happen intermittently and as needed.

Other relationship-focused times include watching our kids' activities, putting down our phones when they are talking, throwing a ball with them, cooking with them, going for a run together, and any other time that is spent being together. 

I spend time with my kids and students both to connect and to teach. I spend consistent time on these kinds of times every week working on them and maintaining them after the foundation is laid. They are a combination of relaxing time, outings, conversations, and asking questions, listening, sharing what I know, learning and respecting what they know, and looking up together to learn what we both don't know or aren't sure about. I love that I can spend time laying the foundation for how we do things once, then build on it again and again!

In this post, I will be focusing on teaching time that comes along with letting our kids be online.

Relationship-focused parenting and teaching is NOT discipline-free.

But you can "automate" your consequences within these systems.

One thing to remember is that although the discipline and consequences are automated, the parenting and teaching aren't! 

Since the depth of the connection itself has infinite possibilities, my job is to spend as much time with my kids as possible, time connecting, time teaching, and time building on that relationship.

With relationship-focused parenting and teaching, if I want to TEACH my kids and students, then I need to put in some focused time.

But if I want to take a break and just relax and focus on connecting (which I do!), and not teach at all, then everything just runs on autopilot and stays steady and my kids' knowledge stays the same.

I'm obsessed with implementing next-level teachings and learnings—remember, this is what I wake my husband up to discuss in the middle of the night!—and since I spend the bulk of my time on connecting, I spend my active and focused teaching time and energy on "leveling up" what my kids know.

This tends to ebb, or require more active time from me, when my kids are starting something new like getting a cell phone or using a new app, for example, and it tends to flow in between new things.

Through the years, I have tried so many focused teaching activities and styles, but the ones that work the best in my experience (and lots of testing) are:

MINI-LESSONS

This is a big part of my teaching time and it is how you take your kids' knowledge from zero-to-whatever-you-decide while staying close at the same time. It's my favorite way to teach kids what I want them to know, by having short, direct, and specific conversations.

Sometimes teaching conversations feel big and hard to distill. This is my secret weapon to combat this and I've spent years honing the art and craft of using Mini Lessons to your advantage. If you're not taking advantage of these, you are missing out on teachable moments and are working too hard to get your point across! I have a free guide to mini-lessons about social media available right here.

Mini Lessons are a huge part of my teaching. They're the best way to expand your kids' learning and education without a lot of wasted time, worrying, or nagging. I should note, however, that knowing exactly what to say and teach during Mini Lessons can be a challenge. 

Anytime you are sharing important information that you really want your kids to learn you need to be extra aware of what you think and are okay with and not okay with (this can be called your Bottom Lines) and this can be more work than you anticipate.

Using Mini Lessons is more about teaching kids what they really need to know than it is about time saving.

But it can mean that you share really nitty-gritty, vital information without spending hours talking at your kids. I'm all about adding value quickly—as apposed to spending hours, days, or weeks hammering out the same topic, just tap into Mini Lessons that get to the heart of what kids really need to know.

REAL LIFE EXAMPLES AND PERSONAL STORIES

This part of my teaching time has a dual purpose: it is both closeness-building and information and lesson teaching. 

Real conversations with kids where you share your own experiences and ones that have come up in the media can help you establish trust, learn what your kids and students already know and think, and teach the important things you want them to know while they engage in the conversations. (Learn how to have these conversations about social media here.

Real life examples, personal stories, and examples from the media mention what we want our kids to know at strategic points throughout our talking time, sprinkling some lesson-filled words with the incredibly interesting, engaging, and relatable anecdote.

The end of the conversation is a hard-hitting point that you want to get across, where kids can clearly see the depth of what you want them to know. This explains the importance of your point because kids are engaged in your story, learning more about you, and understanding where you're coming from and the connection between the personal story or the one from the media, you, them, and the lesson.

TRIAL AND ERROR

Once we teach our kids something that we want them to know, it's really important to give them a chance to give it a try even if they fail, make mistakes, or it just doesn't go well.

Kids are most excited about what you have shown them and given them access to right after you show it to them. So you want to let them try it out right away. 

After they make mistakes is the absolute right time to revisit the Mini Lesson or personal story to further cement the lesson and knowledge. Then rinse-repeat as necessary, bookended with chances to trial-and-error.

ONGOING DIALOGUE

Ongoing Dialogue converts knowledge so much better than any other kind of teaching strategy.

With Ongoing Dialogue, you have a significantly better chance of reaching your kids and students and making sure that they have learned what they need to depending on your conversations, time spent, and the connection with your kids and students.

This means that if both you and your kids and students engage in the dialogue, and you guide the dialogue using the right strategy, your kids have a significantly greater chance of retaining what they need to know.

In the case of kids and social media, this means that they will be balanced, safe, wise, and kind and that they will learn how to be change-makers and leaders online.

The combination of repetition, engagement, high-value content, and the connection that is at the foundation of it all makes for a powerful teaching strategy. 

And once you have begun your Ongoing Dialogue, many of the learnings become the foundation of both your connection and the information that you want your kids and students to know.

Your Ongoing Dialogue even "houses" the opportunities for trial and error and your consequence systems.

Let's say you have begun an Ongoing Dialogue about what is okay to post online and what isn't.

At the end of one of your Mini Lessons or Shared Personal Stories, you decide with your kid or students that if they post something online that has the potential to be hurtful to someone else, they will have to take down the post, apologize to the person, post something that lifts, or take a break from the app that they were on.

You can set up a simple consequence + fix system that you've agreed upon, meaning that if they post something unkind, these consequences and fixes (some people call these restitution) are already pre-decided and in place.

So your kid or students get to continue engaging in an ongoing learning dialogue with you, have a really valuable and informative life lesson, try out what they're learning, and feel comfortable making mistakes, telling you about them, and learning from them—without much, if any, negative emotion or response from you, because you already have this system and agreement in place.

This is like an extended series of Mini Lessons and Real Life Examples.

This straight-to-the-point approach works like this:

Kids engage in dialogue, hear the heavy-hitting messages, trial-and-error their way through, and are re-engaged in dialogue about what didn't stick as needed.

Simple + Effective Formula To Raise Your Digital Kid™

There Are 3 Tools That You Need To Be A Relatonship-Focused Parent And Teacher With Kids About Their Online Use

  1. Ongoing Dialogue

  2. AN ADULT-CHILD Cell Phone Contract

  3. An Understood And easy to implement Consequence + Fix System

These three tools work together and are deeply interrelated. I'm going to explain why, how, and what to do with these once you have them below!

How to Set Up Relationship-Focused Ongoing Dialogue

When I first let one of my daughters get a phone and start using social media, I had no idea what I was doing, but I did have a great kid who was ready to learn the ins and outs of internet safety and internet etiquette. 

So every time I saw something that I wanted her to know, I had to randomly spout information and set rules at her.

Needless to say, this was not relationship-focused at all. Especially when I wasn't necessarily expecting any questions at all, and about 100 come hurling at me in the first 24 hours that she had a phone.

I want to make sure that you don't do what I did!

Choosing Your Bottom Lines/Phone Misuse Consequences

You need to be very clear about what you need from a parent-child or teacher-student cell phone contract before you implement one and think beyond who pays for what and when it's okay to use a phone and when it's not.

Aim high and plan for your kids and students to be the leaders and the change-makers.

You could easily miss so many important details and teachings with the wrong cell phone contract. (More info on this in Raising A Digital Kid™.)

Make sure to check for:

  • Details on what is okay to post versus what not to post (Both of these are important and require VERY different conversations and Mini Lessons.)
  • Things to consider and think about are included. (These open the door to Ongoing Dialogue. I use these a lot.)
  • Specific questions to ask kids and that they can ask themselves when they are using their phones without you. (The goal is to parent and teach yourself out of this role! Question-asking and pause-practicing to take the time to ask these questions is key in making this happen.)
  • A place to sign and a format that can be displayed and referred to often. (You want to make it hard to ignore the foundation you've laid.)

You need to be using a consequence + fix system that is simple to understand and implement automatically in EVERY stage of your kids' and students' cell phone and social media use.

I'll show you how I do it.

I use the Kindness Wins™ adult-child cell phone contract to clarify what is okay and not okay to post, keep the all-important pause and questions at the forefront, and to agree upon fair consequences if the contract is broken.

There are many ways to create a relationship-focused consequence system, such as discussing what mistakes look and sound like and agreeing in advance what the consequence + fix for a broken contract is. 

If it's a cut-and-dry rule that is broken like posting something unsafe or unkind, perhaps the phone gets taken away until you can discuss what happened and come up with a plan to fix and move forward (this is what we do at our house).

This is the simplest form of a relationship-focused consequence + fix system—the consequence is clarified, agreed upon, and implemented in advance, so when inevitable mistakes are made (because they're kids and are still learning), there isn't any anxiety about what will happen or what to do and there are no negotiations about this either, the system takes care of this so you can focus on what's important: continuing the ongoing conversations to revisit and reteach what needs to be.

Your kid or student can decide when they're ready to have access to their phone and social media again by simply engaging in an open conversation with you about what happened, how to fix it, and how to do better next time.

Now the system looks like this:

  • The Kindness Wins™ cell phone contract is introduced and read over.
  • The adults and the kids involved agree upon a consequence that will happen if something in the contract is "broken" as well as how to fix what's broken and clean the slate, so to speak, or begin again.
  • The contract is signed and displayed.
  • Mini Lessons and Real Life Examples are shared with kids for the specific things that we want them to know about their phone and online use (that are covered in the contract).
  • Kids are given a chance to practice what they are taught.
  • When kids make mistakes, they turn in their phones, for example, and decide when they are ready to discuss what happened with their adult as well as how they will fix their mistake and move forward from it.
  • When they are ready, the Ongoing Dialogue continues starting with revisiting the mistake, the consequence, the fix, the Mini Lesson, and the kid gets to trial and error again.
  • Rinse, repeat.

It is so important to have a full system set in place to maneuver this unchartered territory so everyone knows what to expect and what to do!

This is a great way to stay focused on what's important:

  • Raising great digital kids
  • Having the conversations that matter
  • Staying connected with our kids, and
  • Keeping the lines of communication open
  • Without getting bogged down in doling out consequences or losing our kids' trust so when they need to tell us something about their online use or someone else's, they can

Okay, there's a lot going on now! See, I told you that relationship-focused parenting and teaching isn't for those who don't hold their kids accountable to high standards!

I also told you that it isn't necessarily simple, but it is so very worth it. I bet you're starting to see why!

Because now you've got a teaching and consequence system in place that's all set up and ready to use. And you also have a cell phone contract and several Mini Lessons, all taught and reinforced via predetermined consequences + fixes.

How does all of this fit together?

I made a visual map so you could see!

 

  • Basically, kids and adults discuss and agree to a cell phone contract that covers how we act online as well as the consequence + fix system that will be in place when mistakes are made.
  • They begin engaging in the ongoing dialogue about cell phones and social media—meaning the Mini Lessons, Real Life Examples, and Examples From The Media that teach what kids need to know about being great digital citizens.
  • They are exposed to the concepts, ideas, and parameters in short, direct, and repeated conversations. They become familiar with your expectations and parameters and why these are important to your family or classroom.
  • Over time, they give phone use and social media a try via trial and error.
  • "If" ("When," assume "when". They're kids and are still learning!) they make a mistake, the consequence + fix system is immediately enforced, and the dialogue is re-entered.

A couple of things:

At our house, our kids have to come to us to reengage in the conversation.

This is the same system that I used in my classrooms when kids broke classroom rules. I decide whether we discuss what happened (Yes!) and they decide when we discuss what happened (When they feel ready!).

In the case of broken cell phone use or social media use rules, my kids "turn in their phones" when they break our contract, but they're in charge of or get to decide when they get it back.

All they have to do is reengage in the Ongoing Dialogue. High love (no yelling required, the consequence + fix system takes care of consequence enforcement) and high control (high expectations are set and upheld).

You can start this process at ANY TIME. So if your kids are already online and you never signed a cell phone contract (or signed the wrong one), begin today.

The cell phone contract that I use is right here. Get it today! >>

As your kid or students grow, so will your dialogue and your relationship. You might broaden your dialogue topics and go deeper into the information and discussion.

Doing this will not only keep your kid safe online and help her or him be a great digital citizen, but it will also keep your relationship close and your lines of communication open. This becomes so important as kids are exposed to and experience so much online. You want them to recognize when they need help and to feel comfortable coming to talk to you when they do!

This will help them feel less alone and more powerful which is very important with both this age group and whenever anyone is learning something new!

So when it comes to teaching time, I only focus on relationship-based parenting and teaching. I only engage in dialogue that can connect and teach.

Everything I do optimizes our time together for maximum teaching with minimal "talking at" my kids and students.

I don't offer random advice or engage in one-off worries, because it just doesn't make sense to do things that don't have a high (or any) return on investment. And it doesn't make sense to say things that I can't teach or reinforce.

I'm all about putting in the work to have the important conversations up front, and letting these be the strong foundation for years down the line. So everyday I am either connecting or teaching, not worrying or talking at my kids and students. These waste all of our time and energy.

Relationship-focused parenting and teaching has also changed the way I think about what I share with my kids about the online world and my own experiences in it.

It's a lot easier to imagine their change-making and leadership possibilities when the depth of your connection has infinite possibilities and you know that when they learn more and have more questions, it doesn't actually create more work for you, just more opportunities for Ongoing Dialogue and connection and more chances to really keep them safe online!

If you are ready to give this concept a try, sign up for my free email course about creating balanced screen time for school-age kids. I hope that you like it!

MORE RESOURCES:

I have an awesome guide to relationship-focused parenting and teaching about phone use and social media. It's called Kindness Wins™ — go get it!

My relationship-focused high love + high control cell phone contract for turning mini lessons into agreements is called the Kindness Wins™ Cell Phone Contract (because it's completely in line with the guide!)

Want to learn how to create your own ongoing dialogue with your kids and students from scratch and have your Ongoing Dialogue system in place in less than a 30 days? Of course you do! Get all the vital conversations, step by step instructions, guides, and resources in my foundations course Raise Your Digital Kid™.

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AUTHOR: GALIT BREEN

Hi, I'm Galit. Best selling author, TEDx speaker, parent educator, researcher, mom. I'm going to help you raise and teach your digital kids. I've been teaching and working in social media for 8+ years. If you are so over vague, surface level online safety advice and are ready to actually teach your kids and students what they need to know to make an impact + raise a leader, we're going to get along just fine. Learn more about me here.

Positive parenting solutions are so important to find! It is especially important to find ways to practice positive parenting in our modern, media-rich world. Click through to read this entire article about how to parent positively while embracing technology and download the free printables. They’re so helpful!