by Anne-Geri’ Fann
January – April, 2006
Possibly the world’s most popular books are written about parenting from Dr. Phil to Dr. Joyce Brothers. But not until Hal Runkel’s “ScreamFree Parenting” has there been such a unique perspective concerning how to maintain personal sanity by making parenting “all about you.” “What?” you say? “All about ME? Isn’t parenting all about the kids? Runkel, a relationship expert, says no. In conversation with New Wineskins (NW) writer Anne-Geri’ Fann, he shares his thoughts on numerous topics about the task of parenting. He discusses, among other things, how to remain calm while your kids are losing it, the beauty of giving them choices, and above all “exposing the lie that I am the one responsible for my kids.”
NW: Some people might say, “I don’t scream at my children, so why would I need this book?”
HAL: Not everyone screams at their kids but all of us have a universal struggle that we get reactive and our kids make decisions we don’t want them to make, defy us, genuinely exhibit their own decision making and we don’t know what to do. The book should be called, “Emotional Reactivity,” but that doesn’t really flow off the tongue, does it? Plus, it includes screaming. A University of Main study I read said that 98% of children before the age of 5 experience an emotional outburst before the age of 5. ScreamFree Parenting is learning to calm ALL our different reactions whether it is screaming, disconnecting from the situation (making up for someone’s laid-backness), quietly seething, overcompensating, overcompensating – picking up after you kids, orbiting your life around your kids lives, doing stuff for them you said you would never do. These are all forms of screaming.
NW: In your book you basically say that parents need to focus on ourselves, grow ourselves up, and calm ourselves down. I’d like to ask you to address these three issues. First of all, tell me how a parent, who is already a grown up, can “grow up?”
HAL: Good question. Whenever I think I’ve grown up usually God puts a challenge in my life that tells me otherwise. This isn’t about my kids growing up, it is about me growing up as well and making it a lot easier for me to remain calm when my kids is making bad choices.
NW: How about the comment that parents need to focus on themselves – wouldn’t that statement would be somewhat controversial?
HAL: Yes, and I mean it to be. It is the first parenting book you’re going to read that says parenting is not about kids, but about parents. It is a basic truth that we’ve all experienced – the more I try to control my kids the more out of control they become. It is more productive of me to say, “How do I want to behave?” when I’m trying to “make” my child behave. I need my kids to treat me better than I treat myself. I’m going to have to need my children to obey so that I don’t have to deal with the struggle of them not obeying, the anxiety we feel when they don’t obey.
NW: Yes, we do often tell our kids to calm down. You, however, make the suggestion that it is actually the parent that needs to calm down. Can you explain that?
HAL: In a nutshell, we get upset at our kids because what we are really saying to them are these three words: “CALM ME DOWN. I can’t handle it that you’re not behaving – I need you to behave so I don’t have to. I need you to be more mature than me so that I don’t have to be.” That is where the growing up comes in again. Relationships test us so that we grow; God wants me to continue to grow. I am connected to people who are individuals in their own right with lives and minds of their own. Parenting is not about controlling the behavior of these lives, it is about influencing the decisions of theses lives. I cannot retain a position of influence over my children unless I regain a position of control over myself.
NW: I love how you say a parent should give their kids enough freedom to make mistakes, or even hate you. Would you say it is “good” thing when a parent feels “hated?”
HAL: Oh, I don’t necessarily know if it is good, but you can’t genuinely love something unless you can genuinely hate it too. You can’t say yes to something, unless you can say no to it. If I needed my children to love me or like me – or if I made them –whenever they said, “I love you,” I’m not even sure that they would really mean it because I am making them respond to my needs. As parents, our whole job is to set them free. When they are 18 we might say, “Hey, here’s your freedom” and they won’t know what to do with it because when they are young they beg us to give them their freedom and we’re reluctant to give it to them. I’m going to give them more freedom than they think they deserve before they are waiting for it and expecting it! I should be the architect of their freedom, giving it to them before they ask for it. With freedom comes responsibility, but also the consequences that they get from that freedom. I should not be the barrier to their independence.
NW: You have two young children. Since many people consider you now as the ScreamFree Parent, do you ever sense that people are watching you?
HAL: Like a hawk. My extended family, my neighbors, everybody – so I just pay them very, very well (laughs) – don’t write a parenting book if you don’t want your parenting to be on display. I am amoung the best parents I know of, and I better be! I say that not with arrogance, but with humility. If I’m NOT, then what am I doing for my kids (or to my kids) if I’m not actively working on being the best parent I know of? The best thing I can do for my kids is not to focus on them, but to me.
Jesus had a few things to say about this. With a relationship with God comes taking that as a priority before anything else, before family. Jesus realized that if he put his family first, then I am looking them to provide something only God can provide. And when those people can’t provide what I need them to provide, whether it be my spouse or my co-workers or my children … that is when I scream. Taking care of myself is the best thing I can do – “putting on m own oxygen mask first” as an example in ScreamFree Parenting says.
NW: Parents don’t often give children choices because we assume that we know better. You say that letting them make their own choices is important. Why is that?
HAL: The critical point of that is exposing the lie that I am responsible for my kids. Now, being responsible to them is okay, but I can’t say, “Well, I’d better make choices for them.” We can’t do that – as parents, in our experience, can provide options and outcomes, but they need to own their own choices.
It is as simple as a toddler deciding which outfit to wear … give that to them early on. If I let my children decide how they spend their allowance and being right there with them as they make choices on spending it frivolously, then I will “let the consequences to the screaming,” another big precept of this book. This simply means that I have to calm my anxiety while I watch them make the consequences for those choices. That is truly a ScreamFree parent.
Anne-Geri’ (“Angie”) and her extremely cool husband David love laughing with friends so hard that beverage comes out of their noses. Her mission experience extends from her birthplace of New Zealand to all over the world, but her primary work is in Honduras where she has co-directed youth camps and lead short-term mission teams for almost 20 years. She has written a book about short-term mission work to be published April 2006. She is a little bit of a hippie who enjoys her large organic garden and a good cup of hot tea after a hearty hike in the mountains. Her favourite animal is the donkey because when it brays it reminds her that even on her best day as a human being she sounds pretty ridiculous compared to her great God. Angie is a High School Spanish teacher and often teaches Religion courses on the university level. She is fluent in Spanish and dangerous in German, but her Klingon is hopeless.
She has written a book being published soon.
Follow her life journey at [www.annegeri.blogspot.com].