Your kids are not the most important thing in your life.
Shocked? It’s a blasphemous concept amid today’s child-centered dogma of mommy martyrs, planned play dates and soccer marathons. But it’s a premise that is sweeping the country via Hal Runkel’s best-selling parenting manual, ScreamFree Parenting.
"It sounds counter-intuitive," says Mona Elgindy, 32, a Bolingbrook mom, law student and former high school social studies teacher who is a ScreamFree group facilitator.
That it does. What kids need most is a mom and dad who don’t need them, the ScreamFree doctrine dictates. What youngsters need more than structured activities are parents who can get past Junior’s issues by focusing more on growing themselves up and calming themselves down.
"The key to good parenting depends on you, because you are the one you can ultimately control," says Runkel, a parenting expert and family therapist who is making the media rounds with appearances on NBC’s "The Today Show," "iVillage Live" and Fox Network’s "Fox and Friends."
"If you make sure you behave—even when your kids misbehave—then you have a greater chance of positively impacting the situation, any situation," he says.
Runkel is out to "calm the world, one relationship at a time, beginning with your relationships with your kids," he says in the prologue to his book.
Some Chicago families are taking him at his word. The ScreamFree model is taking root in Chicago’s Islam communities. Local cultural leaders like Dr. Abdel Azim Elsiddig are looking to Runkel’s principles to transform not only bedtimes and chore charts, but entire cultures.
As director and founder of the Aqsa Family Life Center in Bridgeview, Azim began organizing and promoting ScreamFree training among the second-generation Arab Americans in the Chicago area.
"I had the conviction that ours was becoming a culture of screamers," says Azim, a teacher at the Islamic American University and father of four who lives in Palos Heights.
"I have found through ScreamFree that if we can learn to calm ourselves, we can learn to calm our family," Azim says.
Elgindy, who was born in the United States, got in touch with ScreamFree through Azim’s outreach efforts. She watched it working wonders in the back seat of her car as the family headed home from family Ramadan celebrations last fall. When her 3-year-old refused to stay in his car seat, Elgindy and her husband, a chiropractor, didn’t raise the stress level by kicking off a wrestling and yelling match like they once would have.
"In our culture, it was like screaming was the only way to raise kids," Elgindy says. "It was like you had to scream to be a good parent."
But this time, they put on peaceful faces. They lowered their voices. And they told the tantrumming tot that holiday presents would be available when they got home only if he could sit down and enjoy the ride. Then they gave him a few moments to think it over as they listened to his temper wane.
"It’s called letting the consequences do the screaming and it works on even very young children," Elgindy says.
All about you
Parenting is not about kids, it’s about parents, Runkel believes.
"The greatest thing we can do for our kids is learn to focus on ourselves," he says. "The only way to retain a position of influence with our children is to regain a position of control over ourselves."
The parent-first frame of mind makes mom and dad a guiding and calming authority in the household when they realize that no one—not even their kids—can make them feel or do anything.
"Your emotional responses are entirely up to you. You always have a choice—your child is not the keeper of your emotional remote control," Runkel says.
"For parents, our enemy is our own emotional reactivity," he says. "It always has a knack of creating the very outcomes, and relationships, we’re trying to avoid."
Being a good mom goes beyond wielding power, demanding obedience, compulsive scheduling or playmate picking. The shift is toward motivating kids to motivate themselves. Giving kids the freedom to experience the consequences of their own decisions is a big piece of that puzzle.
Runkel actually wants to see kids make some flub-ups that pack a lesson without hurting too much, such as a foolish splurge of allowance money or yelling at their parents only to find that their parents’ feelings can get hurt, too.
"These are experiences that penetrate their development and indelibly shape their future decisions," Runkel says.
When it comes to back-to-back ballet and tennis lessons, Runkel is not a fan. In a recent interview on "The Today Show," he blamed anxious parents for emerging stats showing today’s kids have about 12 fewer hours of unscheduled playtime every week.
The agenda starts when parents react to data showing the first few years of life are critical to lifelong development. That triggers Mozart in the womb, violin lessons at 3 and four sports by first grade.
"We think we’re giving them a leg up," he says on the show. "But what it’s really doing is—because we’re giving in to our anxiety—is we’re actually crippling their ability to think creatively, to develop imagination, to begin to think on their own."
Research shows children thrive on less structure before 10 because the brain develops through play. They benefit from more structure as they become teens. But parents are getting this backward, Runkel says. By the time kids come to their teens, they’re looking for structure in the wrong forms because they never learned how to shape it for themselves.
And don’t feel you have to patch up every slight discomfort or whim your child may experience, Runkel advises. Get a life by getting her one. When Joanie says "I’m bored," for example, don’t go dashing for the craft box. Try a tactic more like "That’s no fun. What are you going to do about it?"
Give tots a stick instead of a toy gun. Give neighborhood kids time to make up their own rules to their own games instead of committing them to Little League and preschool cheerleading squads, Runkel advises.
"As a result, you can reach the ultimate goal of every parent—to launch your child into adulthood where he or she is a self-directed, decisive and responsible person," he says.
• Parenting is not about kids. It’s about parents.
• If you’re not under control, then you cannot be in charge.
• Growing up is hard to do, especially for grown-ups.
• Begin with the end in mind, but let go of the final results.
• Kids need their room.
• Resistance is futile. Practice judo parenting.
• You are not a prophet (and neither is grandma).
• Parents set the table by setting the tone.
• Let the consequences do the screaming.
• Empty threats are really broken promises.
Robyn Monaghan is a freelance writer and mom living in Plainfield.