To Be a Better Parent, A Little Duct Tape

Elizabeth Bluemle -- October 11th, 2012

This woman is TED Talk gold; someone please get her booked. On Tuesday evening, we hosted Vicki Hoefle, author of Duct Tape Parenting: A Less Is More Approach to Raising Respectful, Responsible, & Resilient Kids, and wow, was she fantastic. This was one of our best-received events ever, and that is saying something.

Hoefle gives a very funny, very thoughtful and persuasive presentation on how to quiet down, step back, and let go of the kinds of control that hinder children instead of helping. The goal is to learn who your children are, so you can help them become self-sufficient and able to cope with frustrations, disappointments, and the myriad other challenges life will throw at them.

Hoefle admitted that when her three children were young, she was a tad, well, controlling. She liked to be organized, she dreaded potential chaos, and she wanted things to run smoothly. From the moment the alarm clock rang, she said, she realized she was doing a lot of talking to her children, constantly, all day long. “It’s exhausting for everybody. No wonder kids stop listening,” she said.

The parenting books she turned to then offered tips, timeouts, counting to three, and a lot of other parenting techniques that addressed the symptoms, but not the causes, of the power struggles and communication disjuncture between parents and kids. Finally, she said, “I came to realize that I wanted a life in relationship with my children, not a series of strategies to control their behavior so I could have my life.”

So she started to take stock. “If I really can’t direct every moment, what will happen?” She realized she didn’t have faith in her kids to figure out how to do things, how to cooperate with each other, how to handle situations that go awry.

Because she was such a talker, she literally duct-taped her mouth shut as a reminder to be quiet, to listen and observe from the background. What she found was fascinating. Some things went really well and some things fell apart. By removing herself from the situation, she was better able to assess what skills her children had, how resilient they were, who blamed whom when trouble broke out, how often they came to her to solve problems they could actually solve themselves, how they worked together.

She realized that by being in their business all the time, her message to them had been, “Hey, you guys don’t know how to navigate life. I do, so you are going to sit on the sidelines and watch while I do your life.”

She also realized that she had been something of a hypocrite, by wanting her young ones to achieve standards of behavior that she herself couldn’t live up to. “I’m allowed to say whatever I want to say in whatever tone I wish, to have bad days and be tired and not get things done. I had fewer expectations for myself than I did for them. As I became more quiet and more thoughtful, I realized that I needed to model human interactions. We are their blueprints.”

It isn’t easy to be a duct tape parent, especially if you are an organized, in-control person. “If you let me run your life, I will,” she said. “I need real tangible things to keep me honest. So I always had duct tape on the counter. I empowered the kids, telling them: when I go back to my old ways, go get the duct tape and put a piece on the counter as a reminder that I am overstepping my bounds. I stepped back and gave them a chance. And do you know what happened? I ended up raising five young adults as respectful as any five people I know, because they had an equitable relationship, and a respectful way to communicate.”

Hoefle has been leading parenting workshops for two decades. She says, those workshops usually start with parents asking, “How do I get my kids to…?” Instead, she suggests, the question we might want to ask is, “What will it take to raise a child who is willing to get up with the alarm clock, who doesn’t react to frustration by hitting their brother, who will invest in their own education?”

She talked about a generation of “helicopter-parented” kids, who, upon entering college, find themselves at a loss without adults doing things for them and telling them what to do. “The worst thing for a child is to feel like you need an adult in order to figure out what to do. Then the fear is always there.” Our job is to raise kids who think of themselves as competent, capable; kids who know that their parents believe in them.

One of the most wonderful, touching, and bittersweet parts of Hoefle’s talk was to trace the path of children’s attempts to become self-sufficient and how we unwittingly derail them. When babies learn something new, we applaud and cheer each achievement. And then pretty much the moment they learn to walk and have their hands free and start trying to use those little hands to help out, what’s the first thing we do? Start wailing, “Nooooooo!!! It’s too sharp! That’s too pointy! You’ll break it! You’re going to get hurt!” And so on. And we take over tasks for them. “We talk them out of it. ‘I’m an adult and I can do it faster, so I’ll do it.’ It mucks up a child’s growth and more importantly, it mucks up our relationship with our kids.”

The best thing about Hoefle’s approach is that it doesn’t depend on bribes, threats, or rewards. It’s about mutual respect and real communication. “Parents want to cultivate a relationship with their kids that will last forever. There are subtle shifts they can make in order to create the life they hoped for with their kids.”

It was a wonderful evening, and two parents attended just to raise their hands during the Q&A to thank Hoefle for her role in their lives. Hoefle is a Vermonter, and these women had each attended her workshops, years ago. Both said she had changed the course of their parenting styles, and each was positively tearful with gratitude. It was powerful.

This was one of the liveliest, most fun, and common-sense-filled discussions I’ve had the pleasure of hosting, and there are a LOT of parents into whose hands I wish to press this book.

My only quibble is an editorial one; I miss the hyphens that would seem to belong in the title and subtitle. Duct-Tape Parenting: A Less-Is-More Approach to Raising Respectful, Responsible, & Resilient Kids. Ahh, now everything is perfect.

7 thoughts on “To Be a Better Parent, A Little Duct Tape

  1. Char James

    Found this fascinating. Several years ago, my (childless) boss suggested using duct tape when a co-worker’s child insisted on taking off his diaper and flinging it away. We assumed she meant to wrap the duct tape around the diaper to make it harder to take off, but no…she meant to tape the child’s arms down at his sides! LOL

  2. Cindy Pierce

    The TED Talk people should really get Vicki Hoefle to bless that stage. Our culture needs this message launched in every direction. Our generation of parents can’t help ourselves from “doing for” our kids and removing healthy speed bumps. Cheers to her wisdom AND her ability to present it in such a wonderful way. She is funny, sharp and amazing.

  3. Jean Reidy

    Oh goodness. Where was this book when my kids were young? I wonder if I would have listened to these wise words at the time, or if it takes hindsight to say, “She’s absolutely right.” I’m definitely buying this book for all new parents I know. And when that TED talk is up, I’ll be spreading the word.

    1. SuzzyPC

      Elizabeth, I’m SO sorry I said Josie. I still think it’s a great blog piece & I did share. I hope you sell lots of copies of the book!

      1. Elizabeth Bluemle

        Suzzy, no worries! Josie writes more a lot blog posts than I do. : ) I’m glad you liked the piece and it really is a wonderful book.

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